Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What's the point of believing in God, anyway?

Atheism word pictureImage via WikipediaGod.

Other than being an interesting philosophical riddle or serving as a justification for way of life (for example, ethics, social justice, gender/class roles, etc), what is the point of spending any time reflecting on God?

And why should any of that reflection actually involve belief in God? Or disbelief for that matter?

The general sketch of belief and disbelief is widely familiar.

A now almost cliched refrain for many who identify as atheists is that they "lack belief in God", which is at times strenuously contrasted with disbelief. What follows is usually a distinction between strong atheism, which outright denies the existence of God, and weak atheism, which asserts that God may exist but that the individual professing weak atheism hasn't found what she feels is a compelling reason to accept that God exists. This in turn leaves many scratching their heads and asking, "Isn't that agnosticism?"

Similarly, among those who assert the existence of God, there are claims that the universe itself is evidence for their belief. The elegant patterns in processes and forms and their intricate interactions on micro and macro levels are said to imply intelligence. The "hard problem" of consciousness and qualia, and similar phenomena such as mystical experiences, are used to compliment or as an alternative to the evidence of an ordered universe.

So why do humans care so much about this? Does it really matter?

Let us examine this topic from the perspective of those who deny, reject or withhold belief in God.

For nonbelievers, if it matters at all beyond an academic exercise, the question of God is important because God is associated with religion and theology, and in turn religion is associated with social control; that is, deciding who or what is deviant, influencing informal reactions to deviance, and endorsing or carrying out formal sanctions against deviants.

Thus, religion (and by proxy God) matters because through religion, or what we would call the religious elements woven into small-scale societies that do not distinguish "religious" versus "secular", groups or activities are singled out, shamed, or punished for offending values or violating rules that are embedded in religious myth and ritual. The authority to make such distinctions and mete out such punishment is also couched in religious language and piety.

And among those who are more often than not singled out for ridicule or harassment are those whose views and values (referred to here as beliefs) or behaviors are too different from the prevailing standards of orthodoxy and orthopraxy to be tolerated.  Including, of course, the non-believers.

This pattern exists at all levels, from small-scale societies to widespread civilizations. While even someone cynical toward religion may be persuaded that we will always have culturally derived notions of deviance and mechanisms for social control, this pattern and its affiliation with religion has had a particularly volatile and controversial history in Western societies. For all the good such a system may have done in protecting or nurturing individuals or communities, the shadow side is what we remember the most.

This is in no small measure due to our species' fixation with tragedy and drama as well as the fact that a combination of religious concepts and imagery, political structure, and heavy-handed authoritarianism held sway over Europe for centuries. The millions of humble and devout laypeople, priests, and monks who practiced their faith in the service and love of others cannot compete with wars, witch hunts, and inquisitions.

The role that organized religion played in harming and harassing individuals, groups of people and ideas as deviant because they threatened the status quo, in particular the power that came from such arrangements, is rightly criticized and condemned.

The nonbeliever then, by identifying as a nonbeliever, may feel as if she is making a statement. I know I certainly did. A statement of solidarity with those unjustly persecuted with the seal of approval from religious organizations and authorities past and present. To identify otherwise could be seen as an implicit endorsement of such persecution, although this gets at one of many dividing lines among nonbelievers, that is, whether one has to be actively anti-religious or whether one adopts a live and let live attitude toward those who are religious.

A further fallout from associating religion (and God) with unjust forms of deviance and social control is the sense that religion is based on outdated norms and conceptions of the world.

To this end, religion has been explained as a primitive forerunner to philosophy, an early form of group psychotherapy, and an antiquated form of pre-scientific explanations of the natural world. There is no doubt that like social control and deviance, these human concerns and needs were framed in religious terminology, imagery and rituals. And like social control and deviance, they persist with or without what we recognize as formal religion.

Can religion then be reduced to any one of these things? Or some collection of them? Some nonbelievers feel that it can be. With such a perspective, these early forms of philosophical inquiry, artistic/humanistic expression, social identity, group history, social control, etc, may have once been useful and beneficial to their respective societies. To some extent they may still be. Yet in some respects they would be seen as having become obsolete or even maladaptive as their conservative nature is unable to keep up with rapid changes in society, including its organization, its makeup and its understanding of how the world works.

To be a nonbeliever with such a take on God and religion would place one on the side of progress, specifically, modern Western notions of progress, such as redefining gender roles based on equality of sameness, liberating sexuality from archaic binary divisions, and advancing science and technology for increased material comfort and prosperity.

More importantly, if religion is a collection of outdated beliefs, attitudes and practices, then the only reasons to continue to promote or participate in them would be negative qualities such as fear of change, idiocy, ignorance, gullibility, immaturity, greed, or irrationality. It is little wonder that those who take the actively anti-religious position talk about religion as a malicious and pernicious meme or mind virus while promoting education, a sense of dignity and self worth, emotional maturity, a skeptical attitude and the cultivation of reason as the highest virtue as inoculations against or treatments for those infected by religion.

In this case, identifying as a nonbeliever is identifying as someone who is bold, intelligent, knowledgeable, shrewd, mature, ethical and rational.

Clearly nonbelievers of all stripes have some reason to care about the God question, as for many of them it is tied up in the larger issues surrounding religion. There is little point in arguing with someone who is convinced of the immanent danger posed by religion and belief in God, but what about those who are in the live and let live camp? Those who emphasize their weak atheism/agnosticism and who do not see religion or belief in God as dangerously delusional? Beyond the effects that the choices and influence of believers have on their lives, isn't it more or less irrelevant? What's the point of believing in God, anyway?

This essay has been divided into smaller parts owing to its length. Links to these additional portions of the essay will be added here as they become available.

Part Two: A lack of compelling evidence for belief in God?
Part Three: How exactly does God fit into all of this?

Part Four: God, Bad and Ugly

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  1. Sure it matters. No one comes to belief in God just because of arguments. Arguments just clear away the clutter or provide a theological basis for those who need it. real belief is a matter of coming to understand one's place in being.

  2. I refrain from writing about the joys of knowing God becuase atheists reduce all of that to "getting happy," which is bad because they are so out of touch with feelings.

    Belief in God is just a necessary precursor to knowing God. Those can come at the same time. Belief is not so important as the personal experience of God's reality.

    Knowing God is worth everything. It's the most important thing in life. It's not a matter of escaping hell. It's a matter of fulfilling what we are created for.


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