There’s a fascinating behavioral pattern I’ve noticed among antitheists, which amounts to a reactionary response to widespread religious intellectual laziness. From someone who has had to roll her eyes one too many times at this phenomenon, the line of thinking behind it seems to go something like this:
“Religion and theism are such stupid things that I can say literally anything I want to in order to counteract their stupidity, and I will be doing everyone a favor by doing so. I will not have to worry about being intellectually lazy because anything I say is going to heighten the intellectual tone of the conversation simply by being antitheistic or anti-religious.”
No, I don’t believe that all antitheists actually think in those exact terms, and yes I’m aware of the ironic nature of countering reactionary responses with my own reactionary response. Still, laziness is laziness, and in response I figure I’m entitled to plainly state my personal reaction where personal reactions already abound.
Now, rather than looking at a general pattern I want to look at an instance of such intellectual laziness, which is probably not perceived as laziness by most atheists. I don’t think that AronRa’s commentary in the video below is inspired by the thought that he can say anything he wants to, so long as it is atheistic, and still heighten the intellectual discourse. I honestly don’t believe that thought crosses his mind, but in attempting to debunk a theist’s perspective he creates his own caricature of theism which, I hope, would drop the jaws of a few sociologists and anthropologists. Just watch up to the 30 second mark. I transcribe AronRa’s caricature below in case you don’t catch all of it.
Here is his caricature, word for word:
Given that a god is a magical anthropomorphic immortal evidently imagined out of nothing by superstitious primitives who didn’t understand anything in the natural world around them…*record scratch*
(Record scratch added by my brain, the first time I listened.)
I stopped the video right there, knowing that I would not be learning anything if I kept watching, and also knowing that I would likely end up repeatedly frustrated by both sides in this video.
Let’s look at the problems with the above caricature. First, let’s start with the definition of a god, a “magical anthropomorphic immortal”. These are all common features of gods across cultures. Nonetheless, secular theists like me don’t insist that gods are objectively magical, or in other words, supernatural; some gods are more anthropomorphized than others; and, not all gods are deemed immortal by the individuals, cultures, and religions which profess them. Rote definitions of gods in atheist circles are derived mostly from the monotheistic cultures that they’re actively opposing, and it’s important to understand that there exists a large variety of gods which do not neatly comply with such definitions.
Moving on to the next point: gods are “evidently imagined out of nothing”. Evidently. He has evidence that gods are imagined out of nothing? Perhaps this is simply a matter of lazy wording, but nonetheless here’s where I have to raise my loudest gripe. No; wrong; there is so, so much more to the picture here.
Here’s where anyone who knows anything about likely mechanisms of god perception is going to talk about theory of mind, which is the capability of people to speculate at length about what is going on in the minds of other people, the minds of animals, the minds of fictional characters, or the minds of numinous entities or gods. People are inclined to sense numinous entities in the natural world, and are also inclined to get a sense of just what these entities are thinking. What’s fascinating is that, across cultures, such entities are usually perceived as being fixated on the moral aspects of existence. In fact, there are many discernible patterns to such perceptions which place them in the realm of the sciences, particularly anthropology and sociology.
For example, there’s another mysterious side to god perception which complements theory of mind, and that is the ability to sense whether someone or something possesses god-like or sacred qualities. Sometimes it’s the sense of the sacred, or the air of godliness, which causes a person to acknowledge something or someone as a god, and to subsequently heed their perceptions of the god’s desire or will. Such perceptions have never been proven to point to any objective qualities or attributes in physical things or in the natural world; still, they’re certainly persistent aspects which incorporate into people’s personal values, personal gnosis, and drives.
It may be that scientific exploration will never definitively answer the question of whether gods exist in the natural world, but we can still be certain that gods are, at the very least, perceptions which follow predictable patterns and which have predictable effects on the people who experience them and profess them. This is a far cry from being “imagined out of nothing”. Just like sexual orientation is not “imagined out of nothing”, just like gender identity is not “imagined out of nothing”, there is a lot of evidence in favor of god perceptions being the products of consistent tendencies.
In light of this, let’s move on to the last bit of the caricature that started this whole commentary: “[B]y superstitious primitives who didn’t understand anything in the natural world around them.” This phrasing is plainly, obviously reactionary, so I’m going to suggest an alternative phrasing: “By people who followed natural inclinations to their inevitable ends, unaware of the possibility that they might benefit from questioning such inclinations because they lacked any source for such knowledge.”
Every group of people on this planet has run afoul of this tendency, and has done so often. The drive to systematize everything, to see symmetry and perfect order in everything, led to awful creations like the gender binary. Not that long ago, faith in the science of the times upheld notions of non-white and feminine inferiority. Yes, even the drives toward that which may appear high minded are not immune from causing harm. Following *any* natural tendency to its ends without skeptical inquiry has always led people to abuse one another.
So when antitheists demonize theism and religion, and offer blunt, lazy caricatures of what these phenomena amount to, I want to make it clear that they’re fighting intellectually lazy fire with the same substance, and they’re neglecting to give much needed consideration to a crucial part of what makes us, us. One can look at the prevalence of theistic art through the ages and attribute it to ignorance in this age of reactionary antitheism, or they can posit that it hints at something central to our existence on an individual and collective level. Sadly, the former interpretation seems to dominate prominent rational and skeptical discourse today.
People today, people confused by why they are who they are, people drawn to figures with a sacred air, who might feel a real presence in a story or a place that they just can’t shake— these people will pay for this ignorance, perhaps because they may never understand themselves; perhaps because someone, surely someone with their best interests at heart, will assure them that they know what is up with all of this god stuff.
Perhaps because an antitheist once knowingly, confidently assured them that nothing was up with all of this god stuff in the first place.