Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Unimportance of God (or, Why I'm an Atheist)

Of all the charges I usually see leveled at atheists who publicly profess their addition of the Abrahamic god to all the other gods we Westerners don't believe in, the one that tickles my fancy the most is that we "hate" God. It took me a while to appreciate the subtlety of the charge. And what I mean by "a while" is, I just figured it out a few hours before composing this.

Hatred is, to the Western mind, completely irrational. It is emotional, incoherent, undesirable, the province of a childish mind. We associate hatred with bigotry or loss of control. It is the latter part that holds the most power. Picture a young child in a tantrum, disappointed by a parent's decision. "I hate you!" the child screams, face turning red. This is the image conveyed when we are accused of "hating" God. The charge brilliantly marginalizes and infantilizes the atheist in question.

The very illogic of being accused of hating something one doesn't believe exists is part of the brilliance of the charge. Again, it's like that child: "I don't love you anymore!" we can picture the tantrum concluding. Oh, the intemperance and irrationality of a child, sighs the parent. So, too, sighs the theist. It's an attack both subtle and completely spurious; hatred of God might lead to denial of worship, but why a denial of belief?

When I hear of "hatred of God," I think of my wife. She has an absolute and unwavering faith in God and Jesus Christ as His Son. She also hates God with a passion she usually reserves for myself or the children she works with. There is a real depth of feeling to her hatred: She thinks He is an asshole, a bastard, a complete waste of her time and devotion. She is absolutely convinced He exists, of the veracity of the Christian Scripture she was taught as a young Seventh Day Adventist. She is convinced that she is going to Hell for marrying an unbeliever, for having sex outside of marriage, and for eating freaking shellfish, among other various and sundry ridiculous sins. But she doesn't care. She's pissed at His ass, and so He can kiss hers.

I love my wife with a devotion that makes the sun seem a cold and puny thing.

I don't hate God. I find the iteration of the Abrahamic god offensive in the extreme. Any way you cut it, the Torah is a story of hatred, bigotry, genocide, and blind submission to authority, all of which I abhor as an empathetic being. But I don't hate God, because I don't think the Torah was dictated to man by it; it is a human conceptualization of phenomenon man required an explanation for.

I am not one of those evangelizing atheists; not because I believe in accommodating the beliefs of others for pragmatic purposes, but because I don't hold my atheism stridently. Ultimately, the truth of my atheism isn't something I can "know." By the time I would have my answer, if I'm right, then I won't exist to receive it. And if I'm wrong, there's nothing I can do about it at that point (especially if any of the Abrahamic conceptions are correct). That doesn't make Pascal's Wager attractive, though: As Colin McGinn has said, you can't make yourself believe anything you aren't predisposed to.

Since I like to consider myself an honest and intellectually curious person, I remain open to the possibility of the phenomenological experience of God. "Revelation" is the argument for God that has the only real chance of "proving" its existence to me. But that cuts both ways: If I haven't experienced revelation, what makes my lack of experience less valid than someone's positive experience?

It's like trying to explain the beauty of a sunset to a blind person trapped on the dark side of the moon. With nothing to compare it to, no shared point of reference, how could I impugn their skepticism and doubt? It's an imperfect analogy, I know, but it's damned close. This is why the theist has to use arguments like the atheist "hating" God or "turning a blind eye." It has to be willful or personally motivated because they can't fathom that someone can find simplistic beauty in nature or look at the vastness and complexity of the world and not see the divine.

Since I haven't experienced "revelation" or a dispositive moment, I retain a form of personal intellectual agnosticism towards the existence of God. No, I can't say for sure that it doesn't exist; but, barring revelation, I may never. And without that moment of revelation, with so many rational -- that is to say, historical, cultural, social, and psychological -- explanations for religion, belief in iterations of God, and morality, so many opportunities for community and companionship, I simply see no need for God.

This is why I'm not a strident atheist on the matter of the existence or not of God. I really, really don't care. Its existence doesn't matter to my life. I have a wife I love. I'll have kids some day. I have family and friends, a job that, while not as financially rewarding as I'd like, fills me with a sense of purpose and contributes positively to the lives of others in my community. I am ethical, giving, compassionate, and intelligent. I have a world to explore, things to do, books to read, thoughts to have, actions and feelings to experience. Who has time to worry about God, about the afterlife, or about questions that are ultimately unanswerable with so much around them? Who needs Abrahamic teleology when one's neighbors and children and grandchildren will inherit the consequences of one's actions and the world they build? I pity those people who need a God to get them through life, to give that life meaning. I don't think they're actually living much at all. I pity the people who need any more authority to govern their actions than their empathy for their fellow man and their own reason.

I do believe in rare, genetic evil. I believe, even more so, in the evil that self-interested, fearful man can do to its fellows, especially when enabled by false authority. Such evil should be confronted and excised, through the violence of decisive action or the violence of subversive, deconstructive reason. This is why, when I am a strident atheist, I am in strident opposition to the human construction of religion, to its inherent, logically inescapable dogmatism, and its adherents. Dogmatism is my enemy, be it secular or theistic. Actions have consequences. I tolerate the quiet, "moderate" believer because their actions demonstrate that they have positive regard for others, and there's not enough of that to go around.

[This post originally appeared at Often Right, Rarely Correct.]


  1. I'm moved by your wife's attitude towards God. It's just about the only ethical position I can admire of anyone convinced of the existence of the Abrahamic God.

    I would challenge the basis of your desire not to self identify as a "strident" or "evangelizing" atheist on the basis of your agnosticism.

    I think this sort of self-identification is a political issue, not a philosophical or epistemic issue. When you have infinite time and infinite resource, I might challenge your ethics, but until then it seems entirely uncontroversial to grant you the right to pick your battles, and I certainly do not fault the battles you do choose to fight.

    I think, though, your epistemic grounds are weak. Granted, we cannot know about the existence of a God with absolute certainty. But we cannot know anything with absolute certainty outside of our direct experience—to insist on absolute certainty before admitting knowledge is to insist on epistemic nihilism: We cannot know anything; we cannot even make the simplest generalization from our own experience.

    I submit that if you think you know anything, then you know that God does not exist. What you choose to do politically with that knowledge is your own choice.

    I also submit that you have had "revelatory" experiences, or, rather, you have had the same sorts of experiences from which believers (at least those not experiencing extreme temporal lobe lability) conclude the existence of God. I base this conclusion on:

    1. The general principle that it is plausible that people with similar brains have similar sorts of experiences,

    2. The demonstrated existence of Hypnagogic hallucinations,

    3. The descriptions of believers of the details of the actual experiences, as opposed to the conclusions,

    4. Reports from religious people who have deconverted to atheism.

    Compare and contranst, for instance, James Huber's (of Kissing Hank's Ass fame), experiences of Mystic Atheism and Materialistic Enlightenment. I think the whole "religious experience" game is a big con, where prosaic experiences are wrapped in so much mystical mumbo jumbo that they seem impressively mysterious.

    Last, I think we should reserve the word "violence" for harmful physical force. The phrase "violence of subversive, deconstructive reason" is, in my opinion, unwarranted, and "violence" should at least appear in scare quotes or, better, omitted entirely.

  2. Ah, I was very angry at Allah, and hated him very much before I stopped believing in him. I was convinced that Islam was the truth, because of 'Koranic science' but did not like the Islamic religion or the nature of Allah. But I believed it was true, because there seemed to be proof.

    When I found out it wasn't, in fact, true, I was so relieved. I was very eager to not believe in it because it offended my reason and was destructive in its pure negativity. Hatred is a huge burden to carry. I was glad to let go of it, to know that there was nothing there to hate. So although I understand your wife's hatred of God, I don't understand why she wouldn't take the only way out of that troubling state of mind (it can't be fun to *know* you're going to hell).

    I love your analysis of the whole "You hate God" issue -- spot on, very perceptive.

  3. I also submit that you have had "revelatory" experiences

    Don't you think it is plausible that there is genetic variation in human propensity to have revelatory experiences, and also (probably separately) to be drawn to spiritual explanations? See here, not because I think it's a particularly well-written exposition, but because I can't be bothered to compose and type a long comment just now.

    None of your 1-4 really support the postulate that everyone has had a 'revelatory' experience. I'm pretty sure I haven't.

  4. It's tough to talk about "genetic" propensity in something as complex as belief formation. Anything's possible, but I don't know that we have enough information yet to make conjectures specific enough to be plausible. Of course genetics has something to do with belief formation, since our brains are constructed by our genes, but that's not saying much at all, nor does it say anything about the kinds of experiences we have as opposed to the kinds of conclusions we draw from those experiences.

    My points above are more to the position that most ordinary atheists have had the same sorts of experiences that most ordinary believers interpret as being about "God": feelings of wonder and beauty, imagination, connection to other people, mystery, that sorts of thing.

    I don't know, frankly if even outright schizophrenics have different kinds of experiences, or if they have the same sorts of experiences but so randomized that they're unable to form any beliefs that correspond to—if you'll excuse the laxity of the term—reality.

    Get a few beers in me, and I'll venture to speculate that no small few mental illnesses are due to an simple inability to distinguish between perception, memory, and imagination; the ease in which false memories can be inculcated in most ordinary people seems quite suggestive in that regard.

  5. I don't know that we have enough information yet to make conjectures specific enough to be plausible

    Well, I find them plausible! but I don't know whether that's because I have read more evolutionary psychology than you or because we have judged the plausibility differently. "Breaking the Spell" is a pretty good summary, don't know if you have read that? Also some very short-hand stuff linked from my post. And tthis book looks as though it's giong to be good, although I haven't finished it yet.

    Myself, I think it's plausible that ordinary believers have had more, and/or stronger experiences of the sort you instance, on average, than have ordinary atheists. Also, indeed that they may place different constructions on them, but that this in turn might be because they have stronger genetic tendencies to some of the traits hypothesised to contribute to the "spandrel" of religiosity; agent-detection, for example.

  6. You could be right. I still have Chris (God is not Great) and Ayaan (Infidel) to finish before I get to Dan.

    When I talk about "conjectures specific enough to be plausible," I'm talking some sort of scientific hypothesis and experimental data to which I can actually calculate a p-Value, or an hypothesis sufficiently well-formed that we could at least in principle set up such an experiment. Even a survey study collecting descriptions of religious experience in a rigorous way would be a good start. If such a survey exists, I'd love to read it.

    What I have read of EvoPsych does not as yet seem fully scientific. There are lot of "just so stories", but little experimental data differentiating between alternative hypotheses. This is not a terribly bad thing—all good science starts with speculation—but I'm waiting for the next "data-filtered" step.

  7. You'll definitely find Dan interesting when you get to him. I agree that evpsych is only in its infancy as a scientific research programme, and indeed that's one of the points of Breaking the Spell; that there should be a scientific research programme in relation to the evolution of "religion". But the enterprise (I mean scientific testing of evpsych hypotheses in general) has already progressed further than you may be aware. See for instance this in Nature. Unconscious kin detection mechanisms are necessary for quite a few evpsych proposed explanations; the study is adducing evidence that they actually exist. (This is just a fairly random example because I remembered reading it in Nature recently).

    This is another excellent book which is relevant, if your reading pile isn't too high already.

    Yes, I read the Edge article and thought it was fascinating. (I'd actually like to read the underlying Science paper too). I could give you a list of interesting psychology books too!

  8. Sure, lay the list on me. I can't promise I'll get to it soon, though.

  9. I don't know, frankly if even outright schizophrenics have different kinds of experiences, or if they have the same sorts of experiences but so randomized that they're unable to form any beliefs that correspond to—if you'll excuse the laxity of the term—reality.

    This almost gets it right. One of the hallmarks of schizophrenia is not that they experience "different" things from us, unless one is experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations, but rather that many schizophrenics interpret those same events differently. It's the causality of the event that is perceived differently: The breeze through the trees isn't a miracle of god or the result of airflow, but rather the trees exhaling poison at passerby.

    I'm telling you, Jaynes was on to something. There's a reason religious revelation and schizophrenia have a lot in common.

  10. I've had auditory hallucinations as well as hypnagogic paranoid ideation. I suspect that visual hallucinations are not a different kind of experience, they're just the same sort of visual experiences we all have, just with a different causal mechanism.

    Feynman describes a number of his isolation tank-induced hallucinatory experiences and altered ideation.


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