In anticipation of the American Atheists Conference, I’ve been focusing on what I believe are some of the biggest issues facing atheists and theists in America’s social climate. Today, I’d like to highlight a part of Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola’s new paper, “Preachers Who Are Not Believers.” It’s a qualitative look at several case studies of clergy who are secretly non-believers.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I believe there’s a significant portion of the Christian community who does not believe. How significant it is, I don’t know and hesitate to speculate. But I feel nearly certain that it’s larger than a lot of people would guess. Over the next week or so, I hope to discuss individual case studies in depth, but today, I want to talk about one of the mechanisms that facilitates non-belief within the flock.
A Problem of Definition
It’s probably no surprise to my regular readers, but I believe there’s a fundamental problem with the definition of “belief.” This is one of those really tricky philosophical problems for which faith is the perfect mechanism for avoiding the question entirely.
A spectrum of available conceptions of God can be put in rough order, with frank anthropomorphism at one extreme—a God existing in time and space with eyes and hands and love and anger—through deism, a somehow still personal God who cares but is nevertheless outside time and space and does not intervene, and the still more abstract Ground of all Being, from which (almost?) all anthropomorphic features have been removed, all the way to frank atheism: nothing at all is aptly called God. To some people, deism is already atheism in disguise, but others are more flexible. Karen Armstrong, for instance, in her most recent book, The Case for God, dismisses both the anthropomorphic visions (“idolatry”) and the various brands of atheism, while claiming, as she recently put it while speaking with Terri Gross on Fresh Air, that “God is not a being at all.” Assuming that she meant what she said, she claims, by simple logical transposition, that no being at all is God. That would seem to be about as clear a statement of atheism as one could ask for, but not in her eyes.
Put simply, when we talk about “belief in God,” we are not always talking about the literal philosophical and epistemological position that “there is an existing, conscious being that exists in actual reality, and has the properties of ‘God'”. To be sure, if we pick a fundamentalist evangelical church for a survey, we’ll find a very high percentage of people whose belief fits this definition. But there are a lot of Christians in America who aren’t fundamentalist. Lutherans, Episcopals, and other “liberal” denominations allow for a great degree of latitude in what constitutes belief in God.
God is many different things to different people, and since we can’t know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all. This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked whether they believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don’t know what they are being asked.
This kind of thinking is not agnosticism. It precedes agnosticism, which is an answer to the question of god belief. This is questioning the question itself. To a purely logical critical thinker, acknowledging this line of thought would negate the possibility of God-belief until and unless a concrete definition could be found. But for the average liberal believer, it functions as a convenient hedge bet, allowing them to remain part of the flock without believing in the way others appear to believe.
Is it possible that there are entire congregations who have convinced themselves of the reality of the Emperor’s New Clothes? I imagine that there are. In a way, it’s kind of comical. A hundred, maybe two hundred people, all dutifully professing belief in something they can’t even articulate, all harboring secret doubts or even blatant non-belief — and if they all wore lie detectors for an afternoon, the truth would come out. It is all smoke and mirrors, and they’re all really atheists.
I shouldn’t make too light of this. The kind of philosophical thinking necessary to articulate the intricacies of belief and definition are rather esoteric, and even some of the most prominent atheist activists don’t have a firm grasp on it all. It’s unfair to ask people who have been raised in an environment of faith (or postmodernism) to understand it or to force their own beliefs into conformity. I’m not trying to blame liberal theist/atheists for their lack of clarity.
We need a new category of believer. We need a term for a theist who doesn’t believe in God, but believes he believes in God. (How screwy is that!?) I’m familiar with this kind of belief. I had it for a while during my transition from theism to atheism. I knew that the Biblical God was so absurd that it just couldn’t be true, but I didn’t have the mental tools to get from there to the absurdity of any god-concept. So I professed belief in God, even though I couldn’t have come up with even a vague definition of what I believed in.
In truth, I didn’t believe in anything. I was already an atheist, but I didn’t know it. But how do you even articulate something so convoluted? I believed in something. But it isn’t proper to say that I believed in belief. That’s a concrete position — that belief in God is a good thing. I suppose that if asked, I would have said I believed in belief. After all, I believed that there was… something… and if there was something, then believing in it would make sense, since it exists… probably…
It’s pretty easy for the brain to boggle at this point. This isn’t armchair epistemology anymore. It would be difficult for some advanced philosophers to articulate the kind of mental constructs involved in the belief that something exists which is only defined well enough to articulate ignorance. But that seems to be what is happening in some Christian circles.
On the one hand, this should be encouraging for us atheists. This is fertile ground for presenting the alternative to pseudo-belief. How many of these believers would be just as happy in an “out” atheist community? It might be that many or most of them would be just as happy (or happier) to ditch all the church mumbo-jumbo and keep the softball league and pot luck dinners. But we probably won’t know until and unless we have a visible enough atheist community to offer a reasonable option.
This brings up an interesting question: In today’s culture, would people get together in large groups twice a week if they didn’t feel an obligation to their own conception of God? Furthermore, are church social groups quantitatively better than secular social groups?
I suspect that people would still get together. I doubt that secular groups would be identical in membership to the church rolls, but if we could wave a magic wand and make churches completely disappear, I can’t imagine that social anarchy would result. In my humble little college town, there are bowling leagues, dart leagues, book clubs, dance clubs, philosophy clubs, beer clubs, and an informal group of chefs who cook avante garde menus once a week. There are political action committees, councils on various social challenges, teachers unions, fantasy role playing groups, philanthropic organizations, and literally dozens of other social groups, each of which has their own schedule and agenda.
So I don’t think that we need to reinvent the wheel. There is no lack of social groups for anyone who cares to look. There is, however, a dearth of open atheists. I don’t blame pseudo-theists for sticking with their churches, even if they don’t really buy into it. They don’t believe they have any good social alternatives. This, my atheist friends, is our problem. Not theirs.