Normal Belief

I pride myself on meeting theists on any field of conflict. Not that I ever initiate anything – being an atheist I don’t suffer from the poor taste which leads people to force, by whichever method, others to believe what I do. But since many of them will not leave well enough alone, and that even others who may use the same term for themselves as I do are cowed or deluded into thinking religion has some privileged position, someone has to.

It is not a battle I expect to win. So often the conflict, at least for me, is played out among the philosophical arguments, or the deep psychology which is part pan-human critique and part mocking narrative. Regarding that first theatre, the arguments only exist for philosophers and theologians to beat each other with, with ever larger and subtler clubs until they have moved far, far beyond anywhere that typical believers or non-believers would recognise. Wherever they are, and whatever they are doing, it is not what provides the background radiation of belief.

No child ever knelt and abandoned reason because in their crayon daubings they came to realise that god must exist because he is perfect, and non-existence is a lesser property than existence (which, of course, it isn’t, and so much for the ontological argument). No, they do so because their parents, their community, their civilisation abused them with indoctrination. With or without intent and awareness, of course. And only as part of the general run of indoctrination – the word having a neutral use close to education (though I feel free to use it otherwise). Good, bad, useful, maladaptive. Children soak everything up, they are pre-programmed to do so. And though most leave behind santa claus and goblins, because most adults quiet early on cease to act as though they have any reality, adults continue to behave in extreme, bizarre and yet certain ways regarding religion. Most children have no chance.

The literature is extremely varied on what may prove more effective than showing all arguments for theistic belief to be empty and baseless. The more positive ones tend to focus on the social needs that religion meets, and which in general can easily be met in humanist/atheist ways. That is not empty, though given my dim view of the sorts of needs religion allows humans to cater for there is more a case for more radical change than this implies. Much less hopeful is the consideration that our mental architecture is simply hardwired to be predisposed to theistic modes of thinking. Whether this is because we have parts of the brain where generally termed ‘religious experiences’ occur, or where we hear things we take to be from god, or simply that we evolved in a manner that positively selected those who attributed agency to almost everything. The former consideration there is dire. How tragic to imagine that everything I hold to be enlightened comes from a malfunctioning part of my own brain. That I am simply missing my inner mental god. And worse, to imagine that short of universal surgery or drastic gene therapy we’re almost all doomed never to get beyond the mistaken and infantile commitment to the supernatural.

The latter consideration is less doleful. Of course it makes sense in the evolutionary setting to attribute agency to everything. When you’re dealing with people, for want of a better word there is essentially ‘agency’ in everything. And though thinking that a rock looks malevolent, in the evolutionary setting, in shape or colour, and so avoiding it is not likely to lead to instant death, failing to imagine that this log-like thing floating down the river might actually be a massive predator intending to drag me underwater and flense me to the bone may well do.

But that at least can be worked against. It can be worked against independent of whether all of our strident social needs are met, whether we feel worthwhile or part of anything, whether we acknowledge any source of authority other than ourselves. In fact doing so forms the larger part of the entire creative project and area of philosophical literature which deals with the variety of atheism I espouse. Far from meekly worrying what may be lost in rejecting the old conventions there is a genuine commitment to what for more elegant, consistent, realistic, affirming worlds may built.  They can be. But most will not do this. And this, more than the strength of any argument, is why I believe my position will ultimately fail.


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