Georges Rey: Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception

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.

15 thoughts on “Georges Rey: Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception

  1. Interesting.

    I’ve observed something like meta-atheism before, although not by that name. I’ve often thought most believers act as though deep down we don’t really believe it (and I have a suspicion that if we really did believe it on every level, we wouldn’t sin).

    Of course it doesn’t imply anything either way about whether it’s actually true or not (unless you use terminology like “know deep down” as opposed to “believe deep down”, which I admit people making the converse claim in your second section do tend to do).

    1. and I have a suspicion that if we really did believe it on every level, we wouldn’t sin

      I’m not sure of that one: sinning merely requires that, say, your desires outweigh your knowledge of what is good. This could happen even if you really believed something was good. OTOH I suppose if you really believed you were being watched all the time…

      Of course it doesn’t imply anything either way about whether it’s actually true or not (unless you use terminology like “know deep down” as opposed to “believe deep down”, which I admit people making the converse claim in your second section do tend to do).

      Yes: the Christian claim, in the hands of a Craig or a Plantinga, is that the non-Christian suppresses something which does count as knowledge (true belief not acquired by lucky chance). This works if you can know something without it being consciously present to you, even if you look, I suppose: otherwise it just tends to be laughed off, because I don’t have a conscious belief in God.

  2. An interesting thesis, although I thought the article veered a few times a bit too far in the direction of arguing against the truth of the actual claim rather than against people literally believing in it. Several of the arguments seemed to end up with “it would be obviously silly to believe this, therefore nobody does”. When precisely the point at issue is whether people believe it despite the fact that Rey thinks it’s obviously silly, that seems a bit of a leap.

    I noticed this most prominently in the arguments that compared religious claims to their analogues in normal life (the emotive story of your next-door neighbour saying he’s going to sacrifice his son, the idea that argument from pure authority is obviously bogus in science). Rey mentions that people espouse some sort of exception for religious beliefs which means they don’t have to hold to the same standards of “obviously wrong” that would be applied in the real-world analogous cases, and he obviously thinks this is silly, but it doesn’t seem to me that he convincingly argues that religious people actually do not believe that that exception applies. He leaves it at “look, this is utterly ludicrous, case closed”.

    1. There’s something to what you say, but I think this slightly caricatures the paper – it feels more like an argument that says “In order to maintain these beliefs, they have to be compartmentalized to such a breathtaking extent that it’s not clear that the word ‘belief’ applies to them in a straightforward way any more”

        1. There’s a folk psychology where thoughts are propositional sentences that occur to us, and beliefs are the ones we hold on to as true over time. But the way the phenomenon we call “belief” really works doesn’t seem much like that. This doesn’t just apply to religion: see The Mystery of the Haunted Rationalist.

          I suppose Rey’s point is that religious belief is, at least, not as straightforward as believers sometimes make it out to be.

    2. He doesn’t seem to have read any semi-detailed treatment of Aquinas, either, as opposed to, say, a Wikipedia page on the Five Ways.


    3. I suppose that a Christian could always respond to allegations of special pleading by saying that, if Christianity is true, God is, in fact, special, sui generis and whatnot, and they may in fact believe what they say, so that Rey’s arguments about analogous situations which don’t involve God would then fail. (Though you can’t help feeling there’s something uncomfortably self-insulating and bootstrapping about this sort of argument, a bit like Plantinga’s stuff on how, if Christianity is true, Christians can just know directly that there’s a God, so if you meet a Christian who knows that, you have to defeat the claims of Christianity rather than their claim to knowledge).

      The sui generis stuff gets Christians into trouble when arguing against atheist charges of special pleading because, taken too far, you end up with the parody of the sophisticated theologian: someone who says you can’t say anything comprehensible about God at all. But Christians usually do want to argue that God is, say, good.

      At the meta-atheism level, I suppose you’d need to demonstrate that believers don’t apply an exceptionalist belief consistently, which means you’d need to find cases which did involve God but where even the believer didn’t want to grant the exception.

  3. Of course, it would be just as silly for Hamlet to go looking for Shakespeare among the foundations of Elsinore; or to expect him to raise Ophelia then Claudius remains in his grave.


    1. Didn’t you steal that analogy from C.S. Lewis?

      In some sense, it can’t be silly for Hamlet to do anything: he’s a fictional character. I don’t think the analogy between gods and authors really holds: we don’t suppose that characters have any life beyond the written page.

      1. Only after Lewis stole it from Dorothy Sayers.

        You misunderstand this kind of analogy. This is an analogy where you say that X is to Y and A is to B. The important thing is the relationship, not the actual properties of Y and B. So God can be to us as Shakespeare is to Hamlet without that implying that we are in any other way like Hamlet.


        1. There are many ways that Shakespeare relates to Hamlet, but I’m still sure how we’d determine whether Sayers’ analogy works unless she specifies which one she has in mind: S is the author of a play about H (but God isn’t supposed by Christians to be the author of a play about us, I take it), S is in some sense H’s creator (which is something Christians would say about us, but doesn’t get you the clever stuff about looking in the foundations of Elsinore), S determines H’s every word and action (maybe if you’re a Calvinist), and so on.

          What I suspect Sayers means is that “S created H but stands at one remove from him, so that H could only find S if S revealed himself within H’s world”. Of course this is true, but the Christian claim is that S (or rather, G) has in fact done so, and it isn’t at all silly to investigate that by looking at our world: in fact, St Paul says such an investigation should have an obvious result.

          1. It is, however, silly to investigate it by looking at black holes. To even ask the question ‘how did God cause the big bang?’ betrays an inability to understand what it means for God to have created the universe; it is the same kind of question as ‘what stone did Shakespeare use to lay the foundations of Elsinore?’. Shakespeare created Elsinore, but not in that sense; he didn’t lay the bricks. If God is revealled in general revelation (which I assume is what you’re talking about) it will be in the way in which Shakespeare is revealled in ‘Hamlet’, not in the way in which a mechanic is revealled by the marks his screwdriver has left on the screw-head.

            So if you’re going to investigate God’s creative act, it helps if you investigate in the right way and don’t go doing silly things like looking for the toolmarks on black holes!


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