… continuing from Part 3. (If you haven’t read that, please go back and do so. SR)
Also, excerpts are in italics, my comments in Roman type.
Human needs are very complicated, particularly when it comes to understanding complicated elements of reality like the working of the universe, the phenomenon of life, the human mind, experience, culture and society, and, literally, all manner of things. “God” was invented, bit by bit, to provide explanations for everything, meeting our needs for attribution (explanations), giving us a feeling of control over our circumstances, and allowing us to make sense of ourselves and each other in the cultures in which we live. “God” is the ultimate ad hoc concept, filling every gap exactly as it needs to be filled specifically because it needs to be filled. Still, we must realize that when people say “God,” not only do they mean something that refers to things that are real, those things are very important to them. They are talking about their core values. They are talking about how they make sense of and see the world— often the only way they know and have ever known to do this. They are talking about how they resist feelings of powerlessness. They are talking about how they understand themselves and the communities they live in. For believers, whatever mythology may lay on top of these very important somethings, these are at the heart of what they mean by the word “God.” For these reasons, when nonbelievers say, “there is no God,” which we have every reason to believe is true as they mean it, they are saying something utterly unintelligible to believers. Believers believe there is a God because they know there is a “God”— a set of ideas that speak to and help them make sense of their core needs and values. What they don’t realize is that they are making a mistake by accepting theism. By accepting theism, they mistake a myth for reality.
Religion simplifies morality by providing the heuristic of making it the desire of a deity. Attributing moral salience to “God” makes morality seem real, which makes it more concrete and thus acceptable, and it also makes morality absolute and final, which is to say simpler. These are very attractive notions when it comes to dealing with an inherently complicated subject like morality.
For many religious believers, it is simply impossible for them to conceive of “right” and “wrong” without anchoring them against the divine, meaning that they’ve turned their unquestionability knob way, way up.
So, when one of us says we do not “believe in God,” we might as well say we do not believe in morality. This is a case in which the shorthand substitutes for the longer version because the longer version is inaccessible to most. Most Christians could not carry on a five minute discussion of morality because most humans cannot. We know we want it but we can’t talk about it.
Also, the “unquestionable knob” on our intellectual sound boards shouldn’t exist but it does.
“And we pretend that our duty, in deference to all this pretense, is to honor,
worship, glorify, and, in stunning blindness to the irony,
humiliate ourselves before the abstract idealization of meaningfulness.”
We all make mistakes— a point that religious evangelists are often quick to point out in an effort to try convince people that they are making sense when they accuse everyone of being sinners. And this is the sinner’s lament, a haunting melody of needless self-indictment and guilt sung in oughts, shoulds, and if onlys. That the chords are often sinister, rigid, and composed by institutionalized authority, however well-meaning, only makes the song the sadder. All that is required to release the grip of this wight is to realize that moral perfection is a scam. We make mistakes, and this does not imply that we break laws of divine importance. To fall short of an idealized take on the moral values held by an imaginary idealized self is not only normal, it is inevitable.
Since religions are systems of control, including control of theist’s thinking, taking an ordinary fact of life and turning it into something that needs forgiveness for, and then charging for that forgiveness should be seen as diabolical.
The Purpose of Life
“God” as a sense of universal purpose is, perhaps, more pitiable than most other aspects of the abstraction that goes by that name. This is because our purposes in life are hardly mysterious or inscrutable; they’re just small and local: caring for ourselves and each other, raising our children, doing our jobs well, being good citizens, trying to make a difference for other people present and future, searching for and hopefully obtaining happiness, and helping those we love to do the same. Somehow purpose becomes a critical part of “God” because we seem unable to accept our smallness, our locality, our relative powerlessness, and our lack of importance outside of the speck that we share for mere eye blinks of time.
Behind much of this is the puffery included, such as we are made in God’s image when it is God which was made in ours; the universe was made for us, we are here, on Earth, which is the center of the universe, you already have an immortal soul, even though no one can find it, etc.
We pretend a great deal in service to this need too. We pretend that the universe was brought into existence for life, by which we mean intelligent life, by which we mean human beings, even if we throw in a nod otherwise (say, to our beloved pets). We pretend this is the purpose— the telos— of the universe. We go on to pretend, in consequence, that the human vanity is the fruit of all existence and, particularly, of the tree of life. And we pretend that our duty, in deference to all this pretense, is to honor, worship, glorify, and, in stunning blindness to the irony, humiliate ourselves before the abstract idealization of meaningfulness.
Read that last sentence over slowly. I continue to find Christian conservative politicians doing everything they can to diminish life and especially women, the creators of new human life.
We need to understand ourselves. Not only do we need to understand ourselves, but we also need to understand ourselves in relation to our society. Indeed, these needs are interrelated. Our sense of self, and the self-esteem that follows from it, is largely defined in terms of how we understand ourselves in the context of the (moral) communities in which we identify ourselves. Our culture, our community, and our sense of family, actual kin and fictive, all provide the necessary references for who we see ourselves to be, and developing a healthy sense of self-esteem in this regard is a basic human need at the psychological and social levels. Because religion provides an extremely effective framework for succeeding at this goal, “God” plays a significant role in grounding the meaningfulness of the whole affair.
When we do not take care of one another, hucksters step in the claim they’ll do it for us.
So intense and concrete is this sense that many of the (so-called best) arguments for theism— for the existence of God— are simply arguments that these complicated phenomena cannot be explained without appealing to some deity to explain them. Every cosmological argument, every argument to the “fine-tuning of the universe,” every appeal to “intelligent design,” and many to the unique nature of mental phenomena fall into this category, and they all say the same thing. All these people are saying is that they lack an explanation for these admittedly complex and mysterious phenomena and don’t like the resulting feeling of psychological discomfort enough to pretend they have one in a myth they call “God.”
Admittedly, these are worse than bad answers; they’re nonanswers that frequently stand directly in the way of getting to real answers, but they seem to fill the hole left by the believer’s ignorance.
Isn’t it reassuring to people to know that the answer book accompanying the Textbook of Life lists “God did it” as the answer to all questions. You will pass the test!
Because of the importance of the religious belief structure, believers like these reduce their feeling of cognitive dissonance by rejecting the less important of the two paradigms in conflict, and in these cases, it is science and thereby the threatening facts it has established. Such is the power of an attributional schema that speaks not only to needs to understand, feel in control, and promote sociality, but that also effectively allows believers to deny the reality of mortality.
Belief in antiscientific nonsense, then, isn’t necessarily ignorance. Instead, we can see it as a statement that every educated person who believes in “God” has psychosocial needs that they do not otherwise know how to meet and that at some level are more strongly cherished than holding true beliefs about the world.
And we can see already what the belief in scientific nonsense is getting us. Today the NYT carried a piece on how the rising ocean levels are causing local flooding, even when the sun is shining. But climate change is a myth.
I am sorry this is so long, but I think there are important points to be made and I wish to over- rather than under-make them. More is coming.