And so his comments, unlike those of many others, often stick with me. One in particular has been floating around in my mind, and it took me a while to understand why. The reason this comment troubled me is because I think it reveals much about the way the sophisticated believer thinks. Here's what he said:I know I will be laughed at, and I don't care. I have spoken to god on many occasions, during Y2K, during the bombings in London (close to my hometown) and also during Harold Camping's predictions (Which are not far off by the way. Wait another 2 years, he was close but not right on the nose.)You people make me sick. Do you believe in science because it frees you from the responsibility of loving a higher power? I don't understand, all you do is look for the flaws in everything. God has no flaws, everything that you find that is wrong is merely a manifestation of your own fears in God's existence.I don't agree with people wanting to hurt or kill you, God will do that himself when it is your time as he will to everyone else. There is nothing saying that science is right and there is nothing saying that the universe wasn't created by god. Evolution is the biggest lie that there is to date, how do you know that some scientists aren't just covering up evidence of god? You don't. You are a hive-mind of lonely individuals that have to resort to destroying the beliefs of others in order to feel happy and feel loved by everyone else that is lonely and destroyers of belief.For all of the posts on this site about mothers who stand up for their athiest daughters or sons... shame on you! You need to grow up and see that love comes from God as did everything else.R/Atheism - You are an abomination to society and all that this great, God created world has to offer. Please get rid of this sub-reddit. Thank you.
[T]he reality is that you are just as religious as I am. Your god is knowledge and you put your faith in the reason of man. Your hope is that man can deliver himself from his own evil, rise above his own failures on his own strength.Now, part of what this entails is a difference of opinion on what religion is. I don't agree with the statement; I don't think that I am a religious person, because the word has too much baggage to accurately reflect my beliefs. Religion involves a unique armoring against criticism that only a supernatural authority can provide. But from certain sociological perspectives, even if I don't ascribe to them, one could consider me religious; of course, from those same perspectives, many sports fans are religious with regards to their favorite teams, and so are the people of North Korea with regards to their Dear Leader.
But as I considered the comment, I began to think about how my beliefs and his were similar. And that led to a realization that I'd like to focus on here. The sophisticated Christian, and the sophisticated theist in general, is just as much of an atheist as I am. There are several dimensions to this that I'd like to explore. I'll also point out that, again, this doesn't apply to the vast majority of believers. They would never make such a comment, thinking that I am as religious as they are, unless they were trying to insult me with accusations of scientism or "worship" of prominent atheists. This comment shows that the sophisticated believer has thought about what religion means, and that is a very key point.
The simplest and most obvious way in which the sophisticated theist is very much an atheist has a classic formulation. It comes from Stephen Roberts:
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.This is, of course, true of all believers, or at least almost all. A Christian in theory believes in the same god as a Jew or a Muslim, as they believe in his god, but none of the three follow the same religion; there are quite a few doctrines that separate them. And none of them believe in the same god as followers of the Bahá'í faith, or the gods of the Hindu pantheon. They certainly don't believe in Thor or Odin, in Zeus or Athena, in Ra or Isis, or in Xenu or Cthulhu. The sophisticated believer takes this a step further, because presumably he has at least been exposed to the study of comparative religion. He not only doesn't believe in these gods, he knows why he doesn't believe in them; he sees the flaws in the religions, he knows that Jainism, for example, hasn't really existed forever but rather has a distinct history, he can see how all of these other gods were created by men and not the other way around. This of course paves the way to applying the same analysis to his own faith, whether he follows that path or not.
Still, there is a deeper dimension to the sophisticated believer's unbelief. Very few people who I would consider to be sophisticated, well-educated persons are fundamentalists. They don't take their holy books literally; they tend to be moderates, and thus end up as "metaphorizers". This in itself doesn't show their lack of belief. No, that comes in the very selective decisions of what commands to follow in the holy books. Again, let us take the Christian example; its what I'm most familiar with. Many Christians already discard the majority of the divine commands in the Old Testament, although they keep those that suit them, most typically the Ten Commandments. I don't think there are many people who think that Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is particularly important, for example:
11 If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, 12 you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.But the sophisticated theist, and indeed most believers, also refuse to follow some important commands given by Jesus. A key point of Jesus' teachings appears in Matthew 6:34 - "Take no thought for the morrow." Don't make plans, don't make investments, don't worry about anything else, just follow me right now. Obviously, this is not a path taken by most believers In Matthew 19:21-24, and again in Luke 14:33, Jesus makes it clear that one must sell all of his possessions in order to truly be a follower of Christ. Yet the vast majority of believers, and certainly the sophisticated ones, do not do this. More interesting still, if we look back to Luke 14:26-33, Jesus commands that his followers hate their family, their friends, and their own life. The only thing that matters is following him; the only way to do so is to abandon and hate everything else. The same sentiment appears in Matthew 19:28-29. Yet most of the Christians I know, and certainly the ones who are thoughtful and intelligent, do care about their families and their own lives. A more gruesome command comes in Matthew 5:27-30; Jesus commands self-mutilation.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.Not only can people be condemned for thoughtcrime, but it is preferable to go without a hand, if that hand led you to sin, than to be stuck with a body part that will condemn you to hell. As I'm sure many Christians have used various body parts to commit sins, and I don't see them walking around with significant amputations, this command is not really being followed consistently.
So why do sophisticated believers, and indeed most believers in this case, not follow the clear commands of Jesus? Because those commands are insane, and a rational person would not follow them. The sophisticated Christian will no doubt have numerous rationalizations for why they don't follow these commands, but note the word "rationalization". I'm sure that most of them think that Jesus meant something other than what he actually said, but does that make sense when he was speaking to simple, illiterate peasants? Why wouldn't he be more clear, if nothing else to prevent his followers from being composed solely of destitute, hate-filled cripples? The point here is that intelligent, thinking people don't follow these commands, which are undoubtedly part of the doctrine of the religion, being found in the holy book and being the commands of Jesus. 1 John 2:3-4 makes it clear that following the commands of Jesus is of critical importance, and yet sophisticated Christians simply don't do these things.
There is, however, a deeper level still on which the sophisticated believer is very much an atheist. It is revealed in the statement itself, that I, an atheist, am religious. And it is this particular view of what it means to be religious that separates the sophisticated theist from the rest of the group. In studying his religion, the educated believer has come to see his faith as something other than merely belief in the words in the books, more than the pronouncements of the holy men. He sees religion as a practice, not a belief. If I, as an atheist, can have a religion that rejects the idea of god, rejects the idea of the supernatural, rejects anything that does not spring from the natural world, then religion isn't about god.
I suspect that very few sophisticated believers actually think about this; its a transformation in their thought processes that occurs stealthily, unconsciously. They still may think that god exists, but their religion isn't about that any more. Like most things, I think this is the product of education. Any credulous fool can engage in the practice of theology, but to study it, to have anyone else in the academic community give any credence to the letters behind his name, the advanced theologian must be trained in the methods of reason, of critical thinking. This is the basis behind apologetics; while nothing new has come out of the field in a long time, it stems from a desire to reconcile the claims made in the holy books, supposedly the word of god, with the inescapable results of actually thinking about those claims in a rational manner. What the sophisticated believer is left with, once the thinking has been done, are two simple things on which he bases his religion: faith and practice. And he knows, because he understands how reality works, that his faith consists of no better justification than "I just believe it". It is fragile, and cannot support much weight, although it may be similar to a pillow in that however hard you punch it, it just goes back to its original shape. So his religion must stand upon the practice, and does not in any way require the blessing, or even the existence of a god. This allows him, in all seriousness, to consider the pursuit of knowledge, skeptical inquiry of the universe, rejection of anything supernatural, and a belief merely that the universe acts in a consistent manner, to be just as much of a religion as his own. He simply fails to look at the other side of that coin: that his beliefs are just as much atheism as mine.
This, by the way supports Dan Dennett's proposition that comparative religion be added to the required curriculum in all schools. The more people know about religion, the less likely they are to be taken in by the stories and actually follow a religion. It is an odd thing, but I think that the institutions of higher learning that offer advanced degrees in theology may be some of the greatest allies of atheism. The graduates of such programs seem to be either atheists themselves, or else so close to atheists as to hardly make a difference.