Tuesday, July 28, 2020

A Cautionary Tale

This morning Amazon, like the Hand of Providence, threw into my path a book by James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Pitchstone Publishing, 2015).  Everyone except for James A. Lindsay, I figured, and I was right.  According to the accompanying blurb the book is:
A call to action to address people's psychological and social motives for a belief in God, rather than debate the existence of God  With every argument for theism long since discredited, the result is that atheism has become little more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. Thus, engaging in interminable debate with religious believers about the existence of God has become exactly the wrong way for nonbelievers to try to deal with misguided—and often dangerous—belief in a higher power. The key, author James Lindsay argues, is to stop that particular conversation. He demonstrates that whenever people say they believe in "God," they are really telling us that they have certain psychological and social needs that they do not know how to meet. Lindsay then provides more productive avenues of discussion and action. Once nonbelievers understand this simple point, and drop the very label of atheist, will they be able to change the way we all think about, talk about, and act upon the troublesome notion called "God."
I'm sympathetic with Lindsay's approach here.  I've benefited from reading the literature debating the existence of gods, but I was already an atheist when I began reading it.  I became an atheist quite young, at around the age of ten.  I was fascinated by Greek and Biblical mythology, and one day my father told me that I should know that some people don't believe in God.  "Why not?" I asked. "Well," he replied, "they don't feel any need to."  I took my time absorbing this information, and I don't know exactly when I realized that I was one of those people, but I did.  After all, I didn't have much of an idea of what God was before; he was sort of like Santa Claus, of whose existence I'd been disabused some years earlier, or the Greek gods.  Learning what it meant to be an atheist took a lot more time and thought.  I'm still learning, but debating whether gods exist doesn't interest me any more than debating whether homosexuality is okay.

The trouble with Lindsay's stance is that it cuts both ways; we atheists, when we say we don't believe in "God," are really telling theists that we have certain psychological and social needs that we don't know how to meet.  Everyone does.  Human beings aren't rational creatures at heart; we can learn to use reason, but our needs and drives are pre- or sub-rational.  Does Lindsay realize that he's echoing, almost parodying, a popular Christian missionary line here?  I don't think so.  But it's also reminiscent of Almost-New Atheist Sam Harris's conviction that people who criticize American foreign policy are "masochistic," and need to have our eyes opened to the healing light he brings, that we may have life more abundantly (and Muslims have it less).

And -- surprise, surprise -- I downloaded the Kindle sample of Everybody Is Wrong About God, and found that Harris is for Lindsay one of "the most prominent atheist writers of the beginning of this century, among them Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, the late Victor Stenger, and Jerry Coyne."  "Prominent" seems to be damning this pan-atheon with faint praise, I must admit, but Lindsay thinks that they have definitively brought theism low.  He says he will work with a "clarified position on the term atheism, one that speaks back to the meaning originally put forward" by Harris et al.  This is also odd: did they -- does Lindsay -- believe that there was no atheism before the twenty-first century?  From what I've read of their work, which I admit isn't enough, they were just following in the footsteps of much smarter writers.  David Hume, for one.  And far from what you might call post-theists, which is what Lindsay seems to be aiming for, they are very noisily anti-theist.

Lindsay also says that "we need to understand myth.  Myth doesn't just mean a misinterpretation of a phenomenon."  (Actually, it doesn't mean that at all.  I'll return to that point shortly.)
At the core of myth is a blend of misinterpretation, obscuring ignorance, and yet clear apprehension, but what is most relevant about mythology is none of these.  True, myths are built out of ignorance, often due in part to the complexity of the subject matter at their cores, and, true, myths are a kind of misinterpretation of that subject matter.  On the other hand, and importantly, also true is that myths encapsulate some degree of understanding of what they represent -- otherwise they'd be far less compelling than they are.  What is most relevant about myths, however, is exactly what makes them most compelling: myths are culturally relevant narratives that simplify complex or unclear phenomena and that speak to people at the level of their psychological needs.  Narratives of this kind, though, are exactly what religions provide for people, and it is therefore precisely this observation that illustrates why God, at the center of so many religious beliefs, is a mythological construct.
This isn't far from the view of a theistic apologist like Karen Armstrong.  The main difference is that Armstrong allows more understanding and knowledge to mythology.  But they're both wrong.  There's a lot of scholarly debate about just what myth is, and at best Lindsay is addressing only a subset of the material.  It's not even sure how much the ancients believed their myths.  Some scholars argue that at least some myths encode not ignorance, but knowledge about the world, perhaps to keep it esoteric.  But it ill becomes Lindsay to dismiss ignorance, since everyone is ignorant of more than they know, including Lindsay.  Indeed, "ignorance" and "superstition" are both religious concepts.  Especially going by the mythos of Modern Science, everyone today is an ignorant savage compared to those who will follow us in centuries to come.  He has, as far as I can tell from what I've read of the book so far, a rather backward conception of religion, as a bunch of silly stories invented to keep the rabble happy and controlled.  It appears that he hopes to fill the shoes of the elites who developed religion for that purpose in the first place.

Take the last sentence I quoted, which has the form of a logical conclusion but isn't one.  First, mythology is only part of any religion, and it's likely that ritual predates mythology.  People create narratives for their own sake, and only rationalize them afterward.  Mythology is a part of epics like the Gilgamesh cycle, the Homeric epics, and the Torah, but only part; and I wouldn't care to pontificate as to their purposes.  In Greek drama, which originated as part of religious festivals, the gods are used as part of the stories, just like the human characters, who are also mythological though not divine.  Myth is part of the backdrop of any human society.

Second, because human beings think narratively, mythic narratives aren't specific to religion.  It's a cliche that nations have their own mythologies, and the United States is no exception: Columbus, who defied superstitious belief in a flat earth to discover America; the Pilgrim Fathers, who fled persecution to build a haven for religious freedom in the New World; the Founding Fathers, who in their wisdom created a new nation devoted to freedom for all men; and so on.  (I know that these are ahistorical; that's the point.)  So does science, not just with heroic tales about the Patriarchs -- all male, naturally -- who defied superstition to bring Man the light of knowledge, of Thomas Huxley totally destroying Bishop Samuel Wilberforce over Evolution in 1860, of Watson and Crick cracking the DNA code by themselves, down to bold cowboy geeks inventing the computer in their garages without a penny of government money -- but with a mythology of the Scientific Method, which bears little or no resemblance to what scientists actually do.  But scientists believe in it, because it speaks to their psychological needs.  The myth of evolution as a linear ascent from lower to higher, dumber to smarter, is also popular among those with Faith in Science.  You might be able to get rid of religion, narrowly and tendentiously defined, but mythology won't be eliminated easily, if at all.

Unwittingly supporting my position, Lindsay declares a little later, "We saw the idea of racism collapse long before the culture started really catching on, a process lamentably still continuing today." This, lamentably, isn't true.  The idea of the oneness of humanity is actually much older and is found in some universalizing religions, but in the late 1800s the "idea of racism" moved from "the culture" to science, where it's comfortably entrenched to this day, along with the "idea of sexism."  Lindsay has degrees in physics and mathematics, but he doesn't know much about history.

If the price of Everybody Is Wrong About God is marked down, I might try reading the whole thing, but so far it isn't promising.  As numerous people have said, including me: the trouble isn't that people are ignorant, it's that they know so much that isn't so.