Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Unbelieving Theist

A little while back, I was having a discussion with a friend of mine who I would consider a "sophisticated believer".  This separates him quite widely from the kinds of people I often have to deal with when talking about religion with Christians; he has moved beyond this kind of thing:
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.
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:
[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.


  1. This is a well-written post. It certainly brings to light a thought pattern that was lurking in my own mind that I could not identify. My thanks, sir.

  2. Matthew, my friend, there are so many things to address in this posting with so little time to do it. I’m not going to address your wooden literalism of the Hebrew and Christian texts (a literalism that would surely make a fundamentalist proud). All I will say is that hyperbole and metaphor are powerful tools and ones Jesus used to great effect. You will inevitably see this as a “rationalization” rather than the contextualization it is.

    Against your claim that I am a “metaphorizer”, let me just point out that all language is metaphor. As mentioned in a previous discussion of ours, words inherently have no meaning. Words are simply buckets we fill with meaning in specific contexts. All language in essence is an attempt to communicate truth through symbolic representation. The hermeneutical challenge is determining how metaphorical a statement is by context. Your handling of these texts in light of their context is sloppy at best and misleading at worst.

    Finally, let me address your central contention that your “sophisticated theist” is in fact an atheist by addressing your climactic statement:

    “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.”

    You almost have it. Religion isn’t about God, necessarily. Instead, it is about what one worships. I, as a theist, worship the One who I believe is a God. You do not. This I content doesn’t mean that you don’t worship something, for you surely do. As I said previously, you worship knowledge and reason as the ultimate source of authority in this world. Everyone worships something. For some it may be money, sports teams, political leaders, or gods. So, in this sense, everyone is religious.

    The difference is that I think God exists and this matters deeply to me. It is about both believe and action, faith and practice. I believe because I’ve seen, heard, and experienced the realities testified in these ancient scrolls. This belief is what compels me to action.

  3. I'll have a couple comments here, due to length. Perhaps one of the most common criticisms that atheists receive is that we are ignoring context, or taking things too literally; the books don't really mean the things they say, you have to interpret the language. This, I think, stems from a couple of sources. The first is simply a knowledge that the Bible doesn't make sense. Its obvious that, if taken at face value, one comes to the conclusion that the people who wrote the Bible were saying insane things. And so the believer determines that the parts of the Bible that don't bother him, such as "love your neighbor" or the accounts of miracles such as the resurrection, actually mean what they say, but the parts that are troublesome must mean something else and require interpretation. But to the non-believer, and indeed to the average person encountering the Bible for the first time, or to a child, there is no discernible difference between the passages. So how do you know which is which? Its certainly not coming from the Bible; you're interpreting based on your secular moral biases.

    Secondly, it stems from the ancient practice of restricting the scriptures to only the learned priests. Most people weren't supposed to read the Bible, probably because it is so ridiculous to anyone who approaches it neutrally. The only way to "truly understand" what the scriptures say is to have their "real meaning" told to you by an authority figure. This is, again, not surprising; religion is committed to promoting submission to authority, to hierarchical systems that place certain special people above others. These holy men are of necessity one of two types; either they are credulous people who simply parrot what they were told by their teachers, and don't actually understand what's being presented, or they have an interest in holding the power that being an authority grants them, and fall into the category of the sophisticated quasi-believer that I've outlined.

  4. By presenting language in the way you do, you are turning every statement into incomprehensible mush. As Thomas Jefferson noted, "Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them". The religious tend to reject this kind of specificity of meaning; it is a common characteristic of religious arguments that all words can be twisted and redefined until they mean exactly what the religious want them to mean. So again, we see that when Jesus says "hate your family", he doesn't really mean what he says, but when he says "no one comes to the Father save through me", that he means. Or when the Bible says he rose from the dead, that really means what it says, but when it says that the end of the world is coming within a single generation, well, clearly it doesn't actually mean that. So yes, this is rationalization of obvious flaws and twisting of meaning to meet your preconceived notions.

    The discussion of "context" always gets to me. Lets look at the larger picture; you're assuming that a book written about 2000 years ago, speaking to various audiences but largely to illiterate peasants, authored by the followers of an apocalyptic death cult and relating the supposed teachings of an itinerant rabbi who thought the world was about to come to an end, is still able to give relevant information to people today. Aren't you taking these words way out of their historical, geographical, and audience-specific context? I can certainly still find inspiration in writings from ancient days, including the Bible on many occasions, but just because I agree with Lucretius that there is no god, or with Democritus that matter is made up of atoms, I don't have to accept everything they wrote as true; all ideas are up for debate.

    And this is where we come to the argument from personal experience. It is a problematic one, because while it is deeply convincing to the believer, it is completely useless when employed to convince the non-believer. Clearly, I haven't had your experiences, and I've had numinous experiences of my own that I recognize were completely non-religious, entirely natural. This is one of the last arguments employed by theists, and rightfully so, because its a really bad argument. I suggest checking out these two videos, as they address the issue quite well.

  5. Matt,

    First, lets talk about interpretation. I hate to pull this card, but how many foreign languages have you mastered? How much time have you spent wrestling with genitive, dative, accusative cases? How familiar are you with tenses like the aorist, perfect, and imperfect? You are out of your league when you make the claim that "you are turning every statement into incomprehensible mush" and "words can be twisted and redefined until they mean exactly what the religious want them to mean." You do realize that words between languages don't have a 1 to 1 correspondence, right?

    Words are mush. How many times have you said something to your wife yet she has heard something different? Words are very imprecise and this is doubly so when we are talking about ancient languages no longer in use. Let me simply point to the different definitions of "religious" that you and I utilize. To me you're very religious, proselytizing everyone who will listen in an attempt to convert them to your belief structure. The reason why you've received so much flack from people, including your wife, about your recent atheistic evangelizing is your approach isn't much different from fundamental bible-thumpers and angry street preachers.

    You asked the question "Aren't you taking these words way out of their historical, geographical, and audience-specific context?" The goal of biblical studies is to not do this hence why years are spent engaging in historical, cultural, and language study to bridge the gap between then and now as best we can. I am attempting to be as faithful to the original language and original meaning as possible. You on the other hand are prooftexting and looking for things, when taken out of context of the larger narrative, prove your point.

    The biblical authors meant to communicate something very clearly. If Jesus is telling people to cut their hands off and gouge out their eyes, yet this isn't happening within the text, Jesus is obviously using hyperbole (a figure of exaggerated speech to make a point) to make his point. Do you think we created rhetorical styles like hyperbole and satire in the last couple hundred years? An adept translator needs to look for signposts within the text that signal for these various methods of communication. This is where years of practice and familiarity with ancient texts, Christian and non-Christian, come into the equation.

    You may believe that personal experience is a bad argument and, if I was trying to use it to empirically convince you, I would be right. But I'm not. I understand that your epistemological worldview doesn't allow for personal experience to carry any weight--which, let me add that is infinitely hilarious given your penchant for citing negative personal experiences with Christians as support for your belief structure.

  6. Let me now briefly comment on your critique of the authority of priests. The reality isn't that most people "weren't supposed to read the Bible" but rather most people were unable to. As I've pointed out, it takes years of specialized training to be a good interpreter. That said, you are right to acknowledge that there have been eras where the Church has attempted to keep the Bible out of the hands of laity. Ironically, it was this very behavior that was at the center of Martin Luther's complaints that launched the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

    I neither parrot my teachers nor seek to hold on to power. In fact, I feel called to teach and empower others so that they may properly engage these hermeneutical challenges. Which, interestingly enough, is one reason why I'm here talking to you at all. I have as much interest in helping you develop these skills as I do any other person. This isn't about power but empowerment.

    Let me finally point out that when you recycle the arguments of your atheistic influences and point me to other people making arguments, you are yourself appealing to "greater authorities."

  7. Your critique that I am not an expert on ancient languages and original (or as close as possible) religious texts is indeed a valid one. But I would like to not a few things. You are not a Muslim; is this because you've studied Arabic and spent significant time poring over, and subsequently rejecting, the Qur'an and Hadith? You're also not a Hindu, and I presume that this does not stem from years of study of the Vedic texts in their original Sanskrit. In essence, you're saying that I'm not qualified to dismiss the existence of fairies, or point out flaws in the stories about them, without first becoming a "fairyologist" and understanding the Proto-Celtic roots of the tales.

    How many believers have done what you've done? How much of the 85%+ of the US population really understand what Jesus was really trying to say? I seriously doubt that all 2.2 billion Christians in the world have the same understanding of the intricacies of ancient languages that you claim is vital to accurate interpretation of the texts. And yet, they seem to think that their imperfect understanding of a heavily-edited, often-translated text is sufficient to convince them that there is a god, and the Jesus is the savior of mankind. In a very real way, I am going no farther than the vast majority of Christians in exploring the meanings of the texts; indeed, I've probably gone farther, and intend to continue my education on the subject. The Bible, in its entirety, is on my reading list, as are things like A History of God by Karen Armstrong and Who Wrote the New Testament by Burton Mack.

    This is, of course, why I value these discussions. Like you, I feel that it is part of my responsibility as a human being to both come to better understand the cosmos, which includes humans and thus includes religion, and to help increase the knowledge of others. I have indeed become more active in promoting atheism and secularism, and I know that this is distressing for many people. But I do it because, I've discovered, it matters to me. My life, from what I can tell, is not part of some "grand plan", and thus has only the meaning that I give it. I have the freedom to set my own goals. I want to leave the world a better place when I'm gone, I want to be remembered fondly by those I leave behind. And what I've found is that it is very fulfilling to share my thoughts, and to fight in my small way against what I see as a danger to human society. I can't do everything, of course; when I cite others who share my views, I'm not appealing to authority, but merely taking to heart an axiom I learned as a computer programmer, "don't reinvent the wheel." I'm not claiming they're right simply because they're authorities; I'm happy to refer to arguments from luminaries such as Thomas Jefferson as readily as anonymous people on YouTube. What matters is what is being said, not so much who said it.

    As an aside, I think your knowledge would be quite appreciated at r/DebateAChristian, and several other subreddits. Your arguments tend to be much better than those typically presented, and that includes the arguments made by some atheists. Fair warning, though: Reddit can be addictive. :)