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Activism, Atheism, philosophy

Belief: Smoke and Mirrors

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.



5 thoughts on “Belief: Smoke and Mirrors

  1. Dear “DareDevil” Author,
    Enjoying your clear writing, but still my head spins like
    the character Regan in The Exorcist- trying to grasp & hold on to such slippery (for me)
    philosophical concepts.
    I’ve jumped out of my atheist hidey hole, but still concocting a voice I can use to enlighten the fleeced
    flock-ters I encounter- with matted wool pulled over their eyes & entire bodies!!! So exhausting trying to shear them
    of their cozy protective layers! hahah

    Chinese Proberb: Too soon old, too late wise.

    …as for me: “Not dead yet!”

    Posted by Susan Anne Wilson | March 22, 2010, 4:05 pm
  2. 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!?)

    Actually, I don’t think this is as screwy and complicated as you imply, although it is a bit tricky to explain. What we have here is another distinction much like the one between genuine epistemological doubt and emotional “doubt” (i.e. emotions inspired by/connected to epistemological doubt) which popped out of discussions you and I had in the comments in your blog (and prior thoughts/discussions I had elsewhere and brought here) – all of which can be found in the posts and accompanying comments linked below:

    Actual believing involves holding some claim about the world to be true. (In technical parlance, believing is a “propositional attitude.” The ‘proposition’ part is the actual claim, and the ‘attitude’ part is thinking that the claim is true or false, or possibly true, or whatever.) Believing a claim doesn’t make the claim is true, of course – but it does mean that some claim about the world is at stake in anything that can be properly called a “belief.” A claim about the world can be clearly defined and delineated (a particular conception of God) or very loosely defined and delineated (a whole cluster of conceptions of God that overlap in some respects and differ in others) – but in order to be a claim it must be a claim about something, so it must have some definition or delineation. Lacking about-ness means lacking belief.

    When someone like Karen Armstrong trots out airy-fairy gibberish about God not “being” or “existing,” she can no longer be talking about “belief” because there is no claim about the world at stake. And she admits this, to her credit: That is, she says that “believing in God” is not really what religion is about. (She should say that “believing in God” isn’t what religion is about for her, but instead she falsely claims that it isn’t “really” what religion is about for anyone and it never has been, and blatantly twists and cherry picks the history of religious thought to rationalize this position – which amounts to yet another No True Scotsman fallacy, writ large. But I digress.) Of course, having admitted that she doesn’t “believe” in the “existence” of “God,” and having explicitly said at great length that she not only cannot but will not try to define or delineate what the term “God” means or encompasses or indicates – making the word “God” literally meaningless – Armstrong somehow feels justified in continuing to use the word just like it means something, for book after book after interminable book. Since she is literally saying nothing meaningful when she says “God,” what is she prattling on about? She claims to be writing about something profound, and she likes to make it seem deep and important by using fancy Greek-derived terms like apophatic theology, but all she’s really doing is emoting.

    Like people of faith who think they have doubts about the existence or nature of God when in reality they are just experiencing emotions (fear, anxiety) about the possibility (and only occasionally the actuality) of having real epistemological doubts about the existence or nature of God, sometimes people of faith confuse beliefs about God with emotions about God. Whether you’re talking about explicitly “sophisticated” theologians like Armstrong or just the sort of flaky people who say hand-waving things like “I just thing there’s something more than this, ya know” or “I think there’s some sort of ‘higher power,’ but I don’t claim to know what it is,” what all the hand-waving boils down to is that such a person does not have an actual belief attached to the word/concept “God” because their thinking is so vague and detached and undefined that there is no claim about the world at stake. (In other words, without some definition there can be no proposition, and therefore no propositional attitude: no belief, no disbelief, no doubt, etc.)

    Nevertheless, people keep using the word “God,” and they have feelings about the word. How can they have feelings about “God” when they don’t actually believe anything about God? Because they have positive feelings about God concepts they could possibly believe but do not actually believe, exactly like people who have negative feelings about the possibility of doubting God’s existence when they are not actually doubting God’s existence. (Here, I am defining “doubt” as “withholding assent from beliefs which lack sufficient support by evidence and reasoning,” which allows me to distinguish between actual epistemological doubt and the sort of “wrestling with doubt” that the faithful often discuss, which is really all about emotions. Hambydammit knows what I’m talking about, but others should read the links above for details.) As the mere contemplation of doubt about God’s existence can inspire emotions of fear and anxiety in fervent believers even if they don’t actually at any point withhold assent from their belief in God’s existence, so can the mere contemplation of belief in the existence of God can inspire warm fuzzy feelings in some woolly-minded religious people (especially those who self-describe as “spiritual, not religious”) even if they don’t actually at any point formulate a conception of God clear enough to be the subject of a claim that is capable of being believed.

    Or, to put it yet another way, there can’t be propositional attitudes (like belief or disbelief) in the absence of any concept defined and delineated well enough to call a proposition, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be other sorts of attitudes. A person doesn’t have to have a clear conception of God to have feelings in response to the word “God,” even if that word is literally meaningless when that person uses it because he or she doesn’t have any concept in particular attached to the word. The trick is, there’s no way to tell whether people actually have a sufficiently well-defined conception of “God” or lack one (unless, like Karen Armstrong, they explicitly say that the word “God” is undefined as they use it, or claim the word is inherently undefinable). But whether someone actually has positive beliefs about God or merely has positive feelings in response to beliefs about God that they do not themselves actually hold, I think it’s pretty safe to call them “theists” either way. It’s a distinction without a practical difference.

    Posted by G Felis | March 23, 2010, 3:31 am
  3. Good stuff – as usual Hamby.. Sorry about my late response!
    “…some of the most prominent atheist activists don’t have a firm grasp on it all” Did you see Shermer on Nightline – he had his speech all prepared for the pearly gates! He said it with sort of a smirk. Sam Harris simple had, a “No” when it came to the topic everyone has a desire to know their “purpose” as proposed by Deepak Chopra.
    “We need a new category of believer.” I call them Universists. They say “higher power whom i choose to call god” as it were one word…ie (G.F.)”- making the word “God” literally meaningless.” When asked to explain they titter on in different rationalizations and usually come around to “universal power”. But they are not discussing the expansion of the universe or the big bang…but an essence, but an entity. (and I love to ask if their god has genitals – I am cruel).

    “Furthermore, are church social groups quantitatively better than secular social groups?” My local atheist groups gets together frequently and we are unfettered in our preference for each other by the notion I felt when i was a christian in a social environment – that notion “I know you are not a good christian/person outside these doors.” It is only a matter of whether we play disc golf and bowl or like the food and chat atmosphere. We are under no false pretenses to “love” each other yet we remain civil and tolerant, perhaps forming smaller groups to the side. Not much different from the church social except that we have more of a choice to do what we want or be with who we choose. BUT…”They don’t believe they have any good social alternatives.” I like your emphasis on believe. Too true. Deep deep down the believe that religion/community is what hold society together. I imagine their belief is that atheists are lonely, angry morbid people. I have found atheists to be MORE tolerant and kind. My local group donates food to the food pantry, cleans a section of the highway and other volunteer things. It has been suggested that we get T-shirts for these functions so we are more visible as a group to the larger audience. It hasn’t happened yet.

    It truly is like herding cats, but we honor our individuality and the individuality of others. IF the churches completely disappeared, the tolerant would muddle through.

    Posted by PaigeB | March 24, 2010, 2:42 am
  4. One hope I had when I discovered the Brights was that by defining themselves only by a naturalistic worldview, many Christians would sign up. I don’t see any evidence that that has happened. I think you’re right that those non-believers who participate in churches generally don’t realize that they are non-believers.

    On the subject of non-religious social groups, I have not been successful in finding any that provide anything like the sense of community that churches gave me. Members of clubs share only one or two aspects of their lives. Members of churches often spend much more time together, and share many different types of activities. That kind of community is what I miss most about not being in a church.

    Posted by Joel Justiss | March 27, 2010, 10:40 am


  1. Pingback: Religious Experience and Attribution « Life Without a Net - March 23, 2010

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