Class Warfare Blog

September 3, 2016

The Case: Theists v. Atheists, Part 3

I am starting to get feedback and, in the interest in high quality communication, I must address some of that feedback so as not to mislead. One reader read what I posted as a call to atheists to offer solutions to theists and their “issues.” If you got that impression, then I have indeed mislead you. I will make no such suggestion. What I have done so far, in my own mind, is to suggest why the dialogue between atheists and theists is both ineffective and almost nonexistent.

When I pointed out the solace provided to members of church communities when a loved one died, I asked: “And, as atheists, what do we offer as a substitute? Some kind of intellectual purity and a feeling of being all grown up because we no longer believe in fairly tales?” Possibly this could have been better written as “What does atheism offer as a substitute?” I certainly didn’t mean to imply that atheists felt any kind of obligation to “fix” theists.

I will suggest, though, that it is in our best interest that theists be “fixed” as they are becoming more and more politically active, pursuing things such as blasphemy laws, declarations of the U.S. being a “Christian Nation,” and such that cannot really coexist with a liberal democracy. But I am a believer in the old trope the “the best revenge is living well.” By just coming out of the closet, atheists now have friends who know them and can’t imagine them, say, eating babies or corrupting youths as some theists claim. This strategy has helped to bring down walls in race and gender relationships.

Joining some movement is not required. An attitude shift may prove desirable, though.

Getting to the Core Arguments

I am going to quote extensively from a book: “Everybody is Wrong About God” by James A. Lindsay (Pitchstone Publishing. Kindle Edition). I encourage you to read this book if you find value in the quotes listed below. Be aware though, that these are excerpts from that book and some of the excerpts contain quotes from other sources. I found the task of keeping those references clean daunting so I am warning you: these are just excerpts from the book and may contain material from other sources. The book itself is loaded with references, linked to original sources (in the Kindle Edition these are hot links).

All of the excerpts will be in italics. Any comments I add will be in “Roman” or normal text. SR

Getting Started

By dwelling on atheism, we dwell on the debate, and by dwelling on the debate, we perpetuate its counterpoint, theism, as something debate-worthy instead of something that already lost.

This is an argument made over and over. The author argues that theism is bankrupt and making a-theistic arguments simply supports theism as a topic worth debating. This is akin to the recommendation that evolutionists should not debate creationists as it gives them too much credibility.

We shouldn’t continue to conflate the debate over the idea of theism, which is over, with the needed cultural shift away from it, which is not.

“God” is not an element of this world or any other, and it is not a living, breathing entity that has something to do with creation and the fate of the universe or the judgment, reward, punishments, and concerns of people. “God” is an abstraction utilized to pretend something exists that does those things because that pretense allows people to meet or ignore certain important psychosocial needs.

Here is another core idea: people have psychological and social needs that religion and beliefs meet and when those come into conflict with reality, reality is more often than not going to lose. Basically, even with all of the proselytizing, religion would die out if it weren’t working on some level.

But God is a mythological object and thus emphatically not best treated philosophically because philosophy takes the idea too seriously in the wrong way.

People use their “God” attributional frameworks to meet or ignore certain psychosocial needs. These needs are common, it seems, to all human beings as part of our evolutionary heritage, and “God” is one way we’ve tried to help ourselves deal with them.

Every time someone says that he believes in God, he’s saying that he has psychological or social needs that he doesn’t know how to meet.

… religion is a powerful factor in meeting human needs for meaning making, control, and sociality.” Meaning making can be summarized under the term “attribution,” which means “the process by which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events.” Sociality often has at its base at the individual level a core need for esteem, which Hood, Hill, and Spilka define as “a personal sense of capability and adequacy, which is a central part of sociality and is reflected in our relationships with others.” These needs are at once psychological and social, and so they will be referred to as human psychosocial needs throughout.

Here is the list of the primary psychosocial needs being met by religion:
1. meaning making (attributing causes to effects that create meaning)
2. control (having a feeling of control when really there is none)
3. sociality (feeling that one is a responsible and capable part of a social community)

I note that the presentation here and in the next chapter, by necessity, oversimplifies by being too narrowly reductive. That shouldn’t be a problem in communicating the basic ideas, however, and the reader is trusted with being able to realize many more connections between these elements than are documented.

This comment and similar ones get made frequently. The author is very careful not to overstate his case and to point out that a certain amount of oversimplification occurs, sometimes because it is unavoidable and other times when it is useful.

So long as we feel powerless— and in many regards we always will be— we’ll turn to whatever we can to seize a sense of control if we become desperate enough. Poignantly, Hood, Hill, and Spilka note, “Though the ideal in life is actual control, the need to perceive personal mastery is often so great that the illusion of control will suffice.”  At the phrase “illusion of control,” “God” conspicuously enters.

Religion connects individuals to each other and their groups; it socializes members into a community, and concurrently suppresses deviant behavior. As Lumsden and Wilson put it, religion is a “powerful device by which people are absorbed into a tribe and psychically strengthened.”

As will be pointed out later, stating that you are a God believer identifies you as a trustworthy member of a social community. The irony in Christianity being the existence of tens of thousands of different sects, all calling the others “wrong.” So, your beliefs are wrong … but I can trust you to be a moral person who means me no harm.

I also wish to impress upon the reader again that the forthcoming analysis rests firmly on two observations: (1) very many perfectly sane people, some very intelligent and some very educated, have believed in, still believe in, and must mean something by whatever they call “God,” and (2) whatever that something is, theism— the belief that it is a deity that actually exists— does not capture it. The claim then is that “God” exists, and God doesn’t exist. “God” is an idea, an abstraction, that people use to attempt to make sense of the world. The primary application of this abstract idea is to meet various psychological and social needs, to fulfill them by imaginary proxy, or to pretend that those needs do not need to be met. In broad summary, the psychosocial needs that people use “God” to satisfy or ignore fall into three categories: attribution (making sense of the world and what happens in it), control (overcoming a sense of powerlessness), and sociality (community building and finding context for self and others within that community). God, which does not exist, is a mythological construct representing the combination of ideas that get called “God.”

Is this starting to make sense?

(… to be continued …)



  1. I’d add at least a 4th point to the list of the primary psychosocial needs being met by religion: Cosmic justice. It helps people cope with the injustices in this life.

    Comment by john zande — September 3, 2016 @ 1:43 pm | Reply

    • Tell that to Job!


      PS The author states over and over that he is trying to generate a discussion, not to answer all of the questions that can be asked.

      On Sat, Sep 3, 2016 at 1:43 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Comment by Steve Ruis — September 3, 2016 @ 9:17 pm | Reply

  2. Seems like a pretty good perspective. My inclination is to agree with much of this author. It matches my own observations.

    I believe though that fear should be part of the discussion as well. Fear of the volcano. Fear of dying. Fear of shunning if you stray from the cult. Fear of the sky falling. Fear. Fear. Fear. Religion is the crutch used to keep feeble minded people from hiding under the bed. And…because it is a tribal social circle, fear is both accepted by the layman and encouraged by the clergy. “If you do or don’t do “X” you will burn in hell!”

    I guess fear falls under the control and social categories.

    Comment by shelldigger — September 4, 2016 @ 5:52 am | Reply

    • Yep, including fear of death. What I find fascinating, unless I have had a near death experience, I don’t think about death at all and when I do it seems rather peaceful. Like Woody Allen, I don’t look forward to dying with much appreciation with its concomitant pain, discomfort, and indignity.

      On Sun, Sep 4, 2016 at 5:52 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Comment by Steve Ruis — September 4, 2016 @ 7:51 am | Reply

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