March 11, 2010

Georges Rey‘s Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception ties together a lot of things I’ve been thinking about on this blog. Rey writes that:

I find myself taking seriously the following hypothesis, which (for lack of a better name) I call meta-atheism: Despite appearances, many Western adults who’ve been exposed to standard science and sincerely claim to believe in God are self-deceived; at some level they believe the claim is false.

How wude

This looks like an atheist version of a Christian argument (which originated with St Paul): the Christian claims it’s obvious that God exists, deep down everyone knows it, and if you claim not to, you’re deceiving yourself because you don’t want to admit to your own sinfulness and God’s moral authority. If you sign up to a scheme like this, and you view your opponent’s arguments as mere evidence of their self-deception, you’re engaging in logical rudeness.

That said, there are some differences between Rey’s version and the Christian one, which boil down the way Rey is less insufferable about it all (Rey says that meta-atheism doesn’t entail atheism, he does engage with Christian apologists in his paper, he admits he might be wrong, he doesn’t think believers are evil or stupid, and so on). So, assuming we’re mollified a bit by some counterbalancing logical politeness, what’s the argument for meta-atheism? Rey has 11 points which he thinks count as evidence. A couple seemed particularly relevant to my interests, so I’ll concentrate on those.

That’s just too silly

One was what Rey calls “detail resistance”: the way believers find it odd or even silly to investigate the mechanics of God’s supposed actions. As I’ve mentioned previously, one of the final straws for me, before I stopped going to church, was an argument I was involved in on uk.religion.christian, on the details of how God acts today (yet another rehearsal of the argument that caused me to write this essay, as it happened). During the argument, I realised that I somehow found the discussion itself silly. I started to wonder what was going on in my head, and things unravelled from there.

Likewise, Christians who think God caused the Big Bang would find it silly to look for details of God’s involvement in black holes. This feeling of silliness is a clue: Rey observes that “this resistance to detail is strikingly similar to the same resistance one encounters in dealing with fiction. It seems as silly to ask the kind of detailed questions about God as it does for someone to ask for details about fictional characters, e.g.: What did Hamlet have for breakfast?”

Invisible dragons

Rey also mentions “betrayal by reactions and behaviour”. Christians would respond that of course, they’re not perfect, but what Rey has in mind is not moral failings. Rather, it’s the sort of thing Hume refers to: though people make protestations of faith, “nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience”.

We’ve been here before: Rey is thinking about how someone who anticipated-as-if a religion was true would behave, and comparing that with how most believers actually behave. Previously, we’ve mentioned that it’s odd that believers already know the ways in which tests for God will fail: if you’re a Christian, you’ve got an idea of which prayers are realistic, a strange proposition, when you think about it. And if you’re an atheist and feel like stumping a Christian, ask them what sin is committed by parents who pray for healing rather than taking their dying kid to a doctor.