In general atheists only actively disbelieve in the existence of deities that are purported to have influence in the material world or that are presumed to have opinions and preferences about the way human beings conduct their affairs. As a result we are often accused of having an overly simplistic concept of God; merely attacking an old bearded strawman in the sky rather than dealing with Anselm’s unmoved mover or the Ground of Being that Thomas Aquinas and later “sophisticated” theologians like Paul Tillich, Alvin Plantinga and my latest buddy David Bentley Hart envisage. But there are reasons why most atheists ignore or are agnostic about abstract concepts of God not least because they really are un-falsifiable from a scientific point of view so having a strong opinion one way or the other would be irrational but more importantly the believer in the street is not concerned with abstract gods and neither, I suggest, is organised religion.
The gods that most religions present to their faithful are not abstract but quasi-human. They have opinions on dress, diet, sexuality and morality. They expect to be worshipped in specific ways on specific days with special words and rituals or prayed to while facing a particular direction. Some of them publish verbose and internally contradictory manuals with a limited first run distribution around a small area of the middle-east that make historical and factual claims we now know to be false and moral claims many now find abhorrent.
To me it is self-evident that these gods don’t exist in external reality nevertheless they do exist in the minds of many people and the ontological presumptions of many cultures. That is where my real beef with religion really starts.
American philosopher Peter Boghossian likes to define faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know”. Religion makes truth claims about God’s desires on the basis of very flimsy evidence yet these claims are frequently put into the service of enforcing cultural norms that have very real detrimental effects on people. They have been used to defend slavery, they are used to perpetuate misogyny and the subjugation of women, and they are used to justify the hanging of homosexuals, the stoning of rape victims and apostates. They are used to restrict access to contraception and abortion and to deny proper medical care to women hospitalised due to miscarriages.
“People pretending to know things they don’t know” are preventing the education of women, opposing the teaching of science, trying to deny same sex couples access to the civil institution of marriage and stop them from adopting children.
People pretending to know things they don’t know want the rest of us to pretend we know these things too.
Now if you’re a believer you may be saying to yourself “I don’t recognise the god this atheist is complaining about, my god doesn’t advocate stoning women or discrimination on the basis of gender or sexuality. My god is a loving inclusive nurturing sort of god”. Well if so congratulations on choosing a better behaved god and pretending to know nicer things about yours than some other people pretend to know about theirs but all believers, wittingly or not, are involved in the same conspiracy to pretend to know something they don’t know.
Liberal belief in a beneficent deity is, I concede, the source of much good in society. Apart from the comfort if gives to individuals, a selective reading of scripture encourages some religious communities to charity and social welfare, education programs and the like. Churches, Mosques and Synagogues offer sanctuary and community and for some that may be a necessary social lifeline. Yes, some religion in some aspects for some people is a good thing for some of the time.
But, one would have to be blind not to notice that much harm is being done in religion’s name and this is not, I believe, just because the extremists are doing it wrong. The bible that inspires the affable Rev Colin Still is the same bible that motivated Fred Phelps and the Southern Baptists. The Qur’an of “the religion of peace” is also the handbook for Boko Haram. The Jihadists and the moderates, the bigots and the liberals are just pretending to know different things about the nature of God and there is no objective way to prove who if anyone is ‘correct’ since God is unavailable for comment.
Liberal belief is not benign: it is the foundation for extremism. It renders truth claims about the nature of God socially and intellectually respectable despite having no objective measure of their worth. Even liberal belief protects itself against criticism by insisting ridicule of religion is at best impolite and at worst blasphemous giving cover to extremists who will kill over religious satire. The very premise that there exists a God that has attitudes, rules, regulations, likes and dislikes is the root of much more suffering and injustice than can be justified by the good it sometimes engenders and besides as humanists have proved again and again God really is unnecessary for human flourishing.
If theists only believed in the apophatic, un-moved mover god of sophisticated theologians I doubt I would even bother to write this blog. I have no problem with that sort of belief since; for one thing, they may be right but more to the point no-one ever got killed by arguing over the foibles of a Ground of Being.
"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"