Why Atheism May Be the Best Way to Understand God
Editor’s note: Religion is among the most volatile and divisive issues in the world today. Yet there’s little serious investigation into why people believe, or why some will kill and die for their faith. Larry Beinhart, in his new novel, Salvation Boulevard -- and this series of articles -- is hoping to start a conversation about these issues. This is the second in the series, the introduction can be read here.
Religion -- at least on the face of things -- is the primary source of violent conflict in the world today. It is also the point of division in much of the world's politics.
Obviously, there have been conflicts over ideology, class, race, between tribes and nations, for territory, property and plunder. However, at the moment, religion leads the pack. At least as a way to rally the troops.
It is, therefore, important to understand what religion is and why it is so vital.
As a rough, utilitarian generalization, there are four classes of religion: nontheistic, deism, polytheism and monotheism.
Nontheistic religions include some forms of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, animism, Wicca and the like.
They have ethical systems, support social and family networks, have spiritual practices, but do not claim, for the most part, divine revelations -- instructions from external entities who watch to see if they are carried out.
Classical deism believes in God, the Button Pusher, aka, the First Cause. He pushed the universe's "Go" button, then walked off, never to be heard from again.
Nowadays, it is common to hear things like "God is Energy," or the Universe, or Love, or That Which Quarks Come From (heard that one last night, with great conviction and certainty).
Such gods are essentially meaningless, at least in the moral and political sense. They do not, and in most cases cannot, dictate their memoirs, instructions and judgments to people. Whatever their concerns might be, they can go on their merry way without us.
Polytheism was the dominant religious form until the invention of monotheism with conversion, proselytizing and forced conversion. Although certain forms of nontheistic religions blend over into polytheism, and elements of polytheism can be found in some monotheistic sects, the last, remaining, significant polytheistic religion is Hinduism. Although it's different theologically, the political nature of Hinduism is similar to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the big three in monotheism.
The monotheistic religions claim there is one God. He has revealed himself to prophets, who spoke his words to various other people who wrote them down, perfectly, and that is the ultimate guide to how we should live our lives.
This a God who created us, cares about us, watches, communicates, interferes, cares, judges, rewards and punishes.
Therefore, to understand these religions, we have to ask about God.
Looking at God -- the Positions
We are speaking primarily of a meaningful, monotheistic, beneficent God. One who is aware of and cares about human beings, transmits messages to us, is capable of interfering with human existence and does so.
There are three basic positions from which to view God:
- Belief (the Missionary Position)
- Agnosticism (a No-Position Position)
- Atheism (Downward-Facing Dog)
Each position forces certain questions and does not permit others.
If we start with belief, this is the root question: Why won't God make himself clear?
I'm a writer. If I had divine powers, believe me, I would get it right the first time and never need a rewrite. So why is there an Old Testament and then a New? Why is there the Quran, the Book of Mormon, the Vedas, Guru Granth Sahib, Zhuan Falun, the Avesta, the Tattvartha Sutra?
As a writer, I worship clarity. If I need someone else to explain what I've written, I consider that a failure of the first order. God should surely do better. So why do the sacred texts of all religions always require someone to explain what they mean?
It is possible -- indeed, quite logical -- to say: "God is perfect, God gets it right every time. But, after all, he's talking to people, and you know how they screw things up. How often have you ordered a double cheeseburger with onions rings and ended up with fries? Human error, pilot error, mistakes happen."
Actually, that's a pretty good solution. If everyone said, "Yeah, we know God did his best, but look at what he had to work with, so my bible is just sort of an approximation, and yours must be, too, so let's not fight over it," then this would be an academic discussion, not worth writing or reading.
But they don't. They all say, "This is it. The revealed truth. The one and only. You can kill me, and I won't give that up. If you want to fight about it, I'll kill you."
OK, not all of them. But enough to make this conversation a matter of life and death.
Is there a way to pick the right truth? To determine which truth is The Truth?
Each tradition has produced millions of words that prove that theirs is the one that came direct from God and got it right. Such arguments are very convincing to people who already believe what's being argued for.
But imagine a panel of judges, made up of a Protestant, a Catholic, a Mormon and a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Sikh and a Buddhist, too. Could anyone make a presentation of his or her Truth as the One and Only Truth that could convince them all? Or even get a majority of such a court?
Even within religions -- everyone swearing by the same text -- there are disagreements, divisions and schisms. These, too -- Protestant versus Catholic, Shiite versus Sunni -- are volatile enough to lead to violence.
Believers like to argue that the word of God is absolute and unchanging. But in practice, that's absolutely not true.
The rule for marriage in the Old Testament -- based on examples and God's occasional command -- seems to have been, "One man and however many women suit the situation." The New Testament did not explicitly change that. Both St. Augustine and Martin Luther said there was no scriptural prohibition on polygamy. Yet today things have somehow morphed so that the Catholic Church and most Protestants will insist that it is God's law that "marriage is a union between one man and one woman."
Similar changes have taken place over slavery, divorce and the death penalty for adultery. God's law, as expressed by religious leaders, evolves quite as much as man's law.
If we start from the Missionary Position -- the position of faith -- that God exists, these are the kinds of question we need to ask to go forward:
- Why doesn't God make himself clear?
- Why does God give different rules to different people?
- Why is it that the culture someone is born into is, far and away, the most important determinant of which revelation they believe in?
- Is there a way to sort out The Truth?
- If a new prophet arrives tomorrow -- and they do arrive with great regularity -- how can we say that the new revelation is not the true revelation?
Here are the questions we have to ask from the atheist position.
- If God doesn't exist, why do so many people believe in him?
- If God doesn't exist, why are spiritual practices and religion among the human universals, things that exist in all human societies?
The exception is the Communist experiment, with state-ordered atheism. That can be regarded as an attempt to alter humanity's basic inclinations, like the various attempts to ban alcohol. It achieved some success, but at great expense. It required violence, a minority always resisted and the practice bounced back, in varying degrees, as soon as the ban was lifted.
Here's the great paradox, and the most interesting question: If God doesn't exist, belief is delusional. Delusion is, by definition, dysfunctional.
Clearsighted atheists should routinely be happier, healthier and wealthier than delusional believers. But they're not. According to most surveys, they don't even have a better sex life.
There have been atheist societies. During the second half of the 20th century, the Soviet Union, the countries of Eastern Europe, China and the Communist countries of Southeast Asia, almost a third of the world, were officially atheist. They did not generally out perform the United States, the countries of Western Europe, and many of the Asian countries allied with the West, all of which had freedom of religion, and some of which had state-supported churches as well.
If atheism is the The Truth, why isn't accepting the truth more helpful? If belief is a Lie, why isn't the lie more harmful?
Agnosticism sounds very reasonable, rational and even scientific.
The social sciences -- psychology, sociology, anthropology and the rest -- officially take the stance that the existence or nonexistence of God, the process of revelation, and what is known through revelation, are all outside the realm of science.
But how can you study the psychology of religious belief in a meaningful way unless you first determine if people are believing in something real or false? It's the difference between someone trying to climb a tree that's there and trying to climb one that's imaginary.
If the word of God is true, it makes a certain amount of sense that people will kill and die for it. Understanding that is pretty straightforward. But if people are killing and dying for a delusion, then there's some explaining to do.
That's actually an exciting question. Because it raises fundamental questions about human psychology.
Religion has an important place in all societies. Even in those where it is proscribed.
If the priests are, in fact, acting out the commands of God, they're like engineers or generals, trying to get certain things done, based on the data that's available to them.
If religions are made up, with most of their creators and practitioners sincerely unaware that they are creating institutions based on fictions, that's a very different type of phenomenon.
The economics of religion are quite mundane if God exists. It makes sense that billions of dollars are collected in his name. But if he is a widely held fantasy, then the resources devoted to the God business are a great and fascinating mystery.
If people are making up the God stories, it's not hard to figure out why they're different. But if God exists and they're actually coming from him, we have to wonder why he doesn't make himself clear. Or -- more likely -- assume that it's not his problem, since he's perfect. and then we would have to ask what's the matter with his prophets that they keep screwing it up during transmission, and figure out why that is. After that, we must wonder why people insist that the revealed word is accurate.
Agnosticism does not permit us to take either approach. Agnosticism can't ask the fundamental questions about God. Or man. It leads to triviality or incoherence.
The Way Forward
If we start as agnostics, we can't ask the fundamental questions.
We can look at what people do, but not understand why they do it. We can look at the forms that religion and spiritual practices take, but we can't understand why spiritual practices and religion exist, in all their various forms. We can find out a lot about the subject, but not really understand it or create a coherent theory that explains it.
If we start with belief, we're stuck.
We can't go up to God, drag him into the witness box, make him swear on himself, then cross examine him about what he's really like, what he really wants from us, and why he keeps sending different messages.
We can't get up close and examine him. We can't set up scientific tests to measure and evaluate him.
All we have are "revealed truths."
But we have too many. There's no way to sort out which is "truthier," short of killing each other in the hopes that only one side will be left standing. We've been doing that for over a thousand years, without making any progress.
We are at the same impasse today that we were at when Richard the Lionheart went off to Jerusalem to fight Saladin.
In the effort to understand religion and faith, belief -- even if it's correct -- is a dead end. If we start from there, we end there. There is no way forward.
If we start with atheism, we are asking questions about ourselves. That's something we can do.
We can examine ourselves, test ourselves, and see if our theories -- hypotheses -- about ourselves will stand up to examination. We can insist on consistency and coherence. If our ideas don't work, we can change them, and change them again, until they do.
We can even go in front of panel of judges of all the different faiths and say, "if you're willing to pretend for a moment that God doesn't exist, would this theory make sense?"
If we can't succeed, and there is no way to explain what's going on from a position of unbelief, then we have to eventually give it up and go at it from a different perspective.
Even if you, personally are a believer or an agnostic, and you are in search of some way to advance our understanding of faith and religion, to get past the impasse we've been at for millennia, there's only one way forward.
There are three doors. One leads us to confusion. One goes to a dead end.
Paradoxically, there's only one that offers the possibility of increasing our understanding of God, the one through unbelief.