Today I lingered for a moment on a syndicated Christian radio program as the host interviewed her guest. I listened as they reached their consensus that the explanation for atheism was the deep hurt of a father who “wasn’t there” in the atheist’s youth. They used (my beloved) Christopher Hitchen’s pronouncement that any tales of his deathbed conversion (he only recently died of cancer) should not be believed. The man on the other side of the radio interview said these words made him want to “crawl under my desk — for man is designed to be with God”. To these two Christians, then, the only explanation for not believing in God was the disappointment of a disappointing “earthly” father, not reason, not evidence, none of that nonsense.
This isn’t the first time I’ve run across this idea. If I tell an evangelical Christian that I don’t believe in God, they will almost invariably become instantly sympathetic, moved, even, as they struggle to imagine the magnitude of hurt I must have experienced that “drove me away” from God. (It’s of little consequence to them that the entire construct of that question presupposes the existence of an actual God that I could be hurt by, or disappointed in. But that is another matter).
Having considered and studied the nature of belief for some time, it now seems to me that belief in God is a natural part of being human. True, belief is not quite universal among our species, but the majority of humans do believe in some power “greater than themselves” (and by this they don’t mean the powerful forces of nature). It’s been an interesting experiment to be among the minority in this regard (and in the minority of even that minority of unbelievers by virtue of identifying myself an atheist, as opposed to agnostic).
One part of this “non-spiritual” adventure of mine is experiencing the social aspect of being in this non-religious minority within a broadly religious majority culture. But another aspect of the adventure is the challenge of being one of those humans who — unlike some of my atheist brethren — found belief to be fairly easy to go along with until it was no longer a tenable conceptual framework. In other words, I seemed to be quite able and willing to believe…right up to the moment I realized that God didn’t actually exist.
But that has put me in a challenging cognitive spot: between a rock and hard place, as it were. For it would appear that I have an evolved brain that is (like the brains of the believing majority) actually wired to believe (to conjure meaningful patterns from random events by selective emphasis) and yet I am currently not actively engaging that part of my brain. So you could say that I am, in a sense, at odds with my own biology!
But I also have what could be classified as a “critical” brain. And I don’t mean that in a completely negative sense. I think it is precisely my critical capacity — combined with a curiosity (perhaps bequeathed to me by my own earthly father) — that has made me the artist and writer that I am. After all, to progress at all in any art or profession, one must develop the capacity to evaluate one’s own performance, which in my case meant finding a balance between developing a cold eye for searching out mistakes or weaknesses in my work, and a genuine appreciation for the products of my own particular talent. But it may well be that a brain like mine — so well tuned for creating art — is not the best brain for living in a world of belief. In other words, having the brain that I have, perhaps my declension from belief was as inevitable as my acquisition of it in the first place!
When my Christianity came to an end, I felt like a hard-rock miner who had been manning a clattering drill for fifteen years who had suddenly broken through a rock wall that, instead of leading to an open chamber, was actually the last bit of crust on the other side of the earth, and so I found myself suddenly tumbling off into the vast void of God-less space. In time I began to look in wonder at Christians who had believed in God all of their lives (and would likely believe until they died). How could they do it? Was it simply a function of my determined personality that turned the seemingly virtuous trait of getting-to-the-bottom-of-things into a boring-a-hole-right-through-an-entire-belief-system character flaw?
But getting back to the sympathetically vapid stance of our two radio people, I can honestly tell tell them that I have no beef with God. (But, based on my experience with such discussions, I don’t think they would be quite able to grasp what that really means). Like when a young friend recently asked me what my chief complaint was with God. Well, I would have to answer that I have no “complaint” with God, because, well, God does not exist as a real thing that I could have a real complaint with or about. The question itself is built upon the same presuppositions as the “bad-daddy” atheism cause I described above.
And this is where I must make a diversion into an area where things get really tricky.
So far, we’ve tended (historically) to see things in one of two ways: 1) God exists, and we were created by Him to know Him, and it is an act of sinful “will” to ignore or deny this reality; or 2) There is no god (never was), and we just made him up anyway (and so it logically follows that we can unmake him up just as easily). But I’m coming to see that it’s more complicated than that. For religious belief is based on a particular approach to interpreting naturally-occuring phenomenon, that is itself built on the natural cognitive structure of our evolved pattern-seeking (and highly social) brains. This means that what we are really talking about is a difference in the interpretation of actual phenomenon, not in the existence (or validity) of that phenomenon. So that when we say that God doesn’t exist, the believer thinks we mean that the phenomenon that a believer uses to support his or her belief doesn’t exist, (and they simply KNOW that this is bullshit). And I suspect that a lot of atheists make that subtle, but critical, mistake in their argument. But as I’ve come to say: “I believe in the phenomenon, I just don’t believe in the religious interpretation of it”.
And so when I listen to folks like those on the radio today, I hear people creating an entire argument in an imaginary space that never has to make contact with reality, only with a certain shared perception of it. And the theories and questions and challenges that emerge from that cloud end up being of no practical use to someone like me. There is no point of useful engagement with such notions. Threats of divine judgement are not ignored by the non-believer out of some injured-child defiance, but because they are hollow threats. There is nothing to back them up and, therefore, nothing to get riled about.
There are multiple levels to human behavior, and they are woven together in an way that makes their untangling a tricky thing. But this shouldn’t be surprising, for isn’t that the way of all of nature? Ecosystems and animals live in a highly interdependent dance such that any slight change in any part of that system can trigger a cascade of unforeseen consequences. And so it is with us humans when belief is removed from the cognitive equation. It may just turn out to be that unbelief is an unnatural state to some of us! This could be part of the explanation for why there aren’t more non-believers than there are: on some instinctual level folks understand the risk of leaving the security of the group think. But then we are also curious, reasoning animals, and I am certainly not the first (or only) human to come to the conclusion that he’s been believing a bunch of silliness with no basis in fact or evidence.
But then this, to me, makes the argument against God even more compelling. For even here there is a natural explanation that is consonant with other observable realities. Belief in God then is not merely a delusion, but a particular kind of illusion that is custom-fit to our mode of thinking and feeling. This, too, points to the natural evolutionary origins of belief far more than it points to an actual God. But to understand such ideas, someone in the embrace of active religious belief would have to take several significant steps back before gaining any kind of useful perspective. And this is an action that few, it seems, are willing to take.
So the atheist recognizes the reality of the world offered by science, but must then persevere through the discomforts of living a godless life with a brain “built” for belief, whereas the believer indulges in the easy comforts of a fantastical (yet custom-tailored) mindscape of that belief. Two different yet related modes of human existence as we navigate our way through the remarkable fact of our existence on this planet.