From the perspective of an oppressed and suppressed American atheist, I admit that I have a strong negative reaction to pretty much any apologetic attempt to explain away atheism within a theistic worldview. There are several prevalent versions of this meme. The most obnoxious and insulting is the claim that there is no such thing as an atheist. Atheists know that there is a god, and they are willfully rebellious against his existence, preferring to live in the instant gratification of sin and debauchery.
Like most of the extreme theist claims, this one fails on many levels. To begin with, it’s unfalsifiable. No matter how hard an atheist protests that he really, truly doesn’t believe in God, a theist can disbelieve him. We can’t open an atheist brain and find an empty box where god would be if there was real belief. As long as it suits a theist to claim it, they can claim it, and there’s nothing an atheist can do to to prove otherwise.
We can also demonstrate the absurdity of the claim by assuming it’s true. If there is one true God, what can we say about history? Why have their been tens of thousands of gods, and more importantly, why do they disagree with each other so vehemently? If all humans are innately aware of the One True God™, then we should expect some consistency of perception.
Many theists will claim that sin explains the discrepancies. When someone is being true to their innate knowledge of God, they find the True God. When they are willfully rebellious against the inner knowledge, they become blinded and unable to see the real nature of God.
But this is a catch-22. Presumably, knowledge of God includes knowledge of what it wants. After all, as far as humans are concerned, God’s identity is synonymous with what it wants us to do or not do. In other words, if we are to willfully sin, we need to know what constitutes a sin. That being the case, we ought to see a distinct and empirically falsifiable difference between True Believers™ and heretics. In fact, we ought to see two distinct phenomena:
- Among children and adolescents, we should see a marked difference between religions as cognitive ability develops and children become mentally able to choose to rebel against the One True God’s One True Imprint Upon the Heart of True Believers.™ All religious belief save one should lead to some sort of significant decrease in morality.
- Among adults, we ought to see a marked difference even within the cultures with the One True Religion. The believers ought to display significantly different moral behaviors.
We know that reality is not this way. For the most part, humans in all cultures have essentially the same moral instincts. Denominational religious belief and adherence is not consistent with any broad measures of human happiness, fulfillment, morality, or any other significant measure of life quality.
When presented with this information, theists can retreat to to the unfathomable human mind. Even within the One True Religion, they will say, there are believers and non-believers. The sin of the nonbelievers is significant enough to make any data too noisy to be meaningful.
We should be able to dismiss this claim outright, since it’s just moving the goalposts. It’s the No True Scotsman, which is a well established logical fallacy. But it’s worth looking at a little more closely. Remember that God’s identity is synonymous with what it wants humans to do. Morality, in every religion, is somehow tied to actions. Even when it is a function of internal existence, morality manifests in the external world. “Those who know the good, do the good.” So said Socrates, and so say virtually all religious texts.
Modern Christianity has tried to weasel out of this trap by tying eternal salvation to a state of unfalsifiable belief. They would have us believe that there is no discernible difference between a True Believer and a heretic, since all that really matters to God is the state of belief. Does a person believe in Jesus as the One True Savior of the World? If so, then eternal salvation awaits. If not, the pit of fire.
Unfortunately, this rationalization doesn’t hold up. If there was one Christian denomination which said absolutely nothing about morality, then it would be one thing. But “Christian Church” is virtually always synonymous with a list of dos and don’ts. Many Christians are trying to have things both ways. Morality isn’t about actions, but it is. It’s all about belief, but you can’t have belief without action.
Then there’s the problem of moral inconsistency on the part of God. Supposing that it’s true — that God doesn’t care what humans do, so long as they believe the story of the risen savior — what does that say about God’s moral character? Instinctively, we know that this makes God an immoral (or at least amoral) being. If we remove god from the equation and present the same scenario to people of all cultures, we’ll come up with a consistent judgment. Punishing someone for not believing a fantastic story is morally wrong.
The pretzel continues to twist. Non-believers the world over understand the basic moral premise: It is unreasonable and unfair to punish or reward people for nothing more than an internal state of belief. How we act towards our neighbors is what makes us moral or immoral. For example, does belief that theft is wrong excuse the thief from his actions? Should we let any criminal go free, so long as they believe their actions are bad?
But in order to believe in this particular Christian meme, we must do away with our instinctive morality. We must do what feels unnatural to us, and literally throw morality out the window, while still somehow functioning within the real world. In short, it’s an impossible task.
The Liberal Bias
There is a more liberal version of the same meme. Rather than trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole, this meme equates human innate morality with the word of god upon human hearts. There is a place for science to examine our conscience, for in doing so, we are really illuminating the True Nature of God more clearly. One need only be true to his “Godly inner-self” and he will be honoring God, even if his culture doesn’t believe it’s worshiping the same God as other cultures.
On the surface, such a belief seems pretty benign. And to be fair, I imagine there are theists who truly believe it, and who would never disagree with scientists when push came to shove. In fact, if that line of thinking is paired with a kind of “theist naturalism,” it leads to an essentially impotent deism. God is scrutable only insofar as the human mind is scrutable. When scientific discoveries contradict sacred texts, the sacred texts must be wrong (or wrongly interpreted.)
We can argue about whether or not there are enough of these theists in the world to make a difference. Personally, I don’t think so, but I’m willing to be proven wrong. (Hint: Stop sitting idly by while your judgmental brethren are assholes towards us atheists!) But I don’t want to be accused of painting all theists with a single broad stroke, so there it is.
The Underlying Meaning
Color me hypersensitive, but I’m just not happy with any version of the meme. Obviously, I take umbrage at being labeled a deviant malcontent bent on destroying society. But I also feel slighted when someone tells me that even though I’m too naive or spiritually insensitive to recognize God upon my heart, he’s there anyway.
Why bother telling me that? If there’s no difference between you and me, then what does your highly evolved sense of spirituality gain for you? What do I gain from knowing that you have a better grasp on ultimate reality than I do? For that matter, what do you gain from it?
Like it or not, this is still a way of degrading atheism. And believe it or not, it suffers from exactly the same problems as the dogmatic version. There are only two choices — either there’s absolutely no difference whatsoever between atheists and theists, or there is a difference. If there is no difference at all, then there is nothing at all to be gained by believing in spirituality or God or anything else supernatural. If there’s a difference, then these well-meaning liberal theists are still asserting that they’re better than me.
In a way, I actually feel more compassion for the dogmatic theists on this one. As wrong-headed as their thinking is, at least they know what they believe. They believe that abortion, hoomosexuality, alcohol, drugs, premarital sex, and a host of other things are wrong. They believe that I really want to do those things, and reject god so that I can do them.
The liberals? What exactly do they believe about me? If you press them on any one subject, they’ll probably back down. Being an atheist doesn’t mean that I’m less moral. For that matter, it doesn’t mean that I do or don’t do anything in particular. But… it’s better if I believe in God. I mean… it doesn’t matter, because it’s a personal choice, and no self-respecting liberal theists would impose their beliefs on me.
And see, that’s where I have the problem. The dot dot dot at the end of every conversation. Sure, it’s fine that I’m an atheist. I have every right to be. Science is wonderful. But…
The unspoken end to that sentence is that I would somehow be better off if I was a theist. There’s still bias.
In the interest of objectivity, I can obviously turn this around. When I chat with liberal theists, I’m generally vaguely aware of the feeling that they’d be better off if they just ditched the whole theist thing and admitted that they’re atheists. I don’t know if it’s possible for humans to avoid this kind of subtle us-them dichotomy. In reality, I could probably spend a year with the most liberal theists and never have any controversy. I seriously doubt that the most liberal theists spend a lot of time thinking about how atheists would be better off as theists. It’s really not that big of a deal.
But the bias is still there, and unfortunately, we’re both in the minority, at least in America. We both feel like we’re under-represented and under-appreciated. Liberal theists feel like atheists get the wrong impression of them because of all the conservative wackos. We atheists feel like all theists are judging us as somehow… less… something.
I wonder if there’s space for a truce. Is there a way that both the liberal theist and the atheist can agree to act morally towards each other even if there’s a subtle feeling of bias? Speaking in terms of political power, I’d much rather have the liberals on my side. Many (perhaps most) of them agree with me on most of my hotbutton issues. They want separation of church and state. They want legal abortion and an end to discrimination against gays. We agree that science is important, and that dogma should never trump science.
If there’s an over-arching point to all of this, I think it is this: We as thoughtful, scientifically aware atheists have the ability to recognize the philosophically unbridgeable gap between theism and atheism — and still act in the most politically and culturally expedient way, even when it means choosing the lesser of two evils and putting up with some deist woo in exchange for a more unified cultural front against theist wackos who would do us real harm.
On a practical level, I’d really like to know how many truly benign theists there are. It might be that it’s less than 1% of all theists. The whole discussion may be moot. Or maybe there’s a significant silent minority still in hiding. Maybe they’re more afraid of coming out than us atheists. After all, they’re heretics within their own religion. Inter-faith accusations of heresy are typically fierce. It is worse in the eyes of many Christians to be “luke warm” than to be an atheist.
We know the “No True Atheist” argument is a fallacy. But what about “No True Liberal”? I honestly don’t know, but I’d like to learn.