PZ Myers has a few words to say about Christians like Kevin Sorbo who blithely insist that all atheists secretly believe in God.
So when these loons make all this effort to tell me what I really believe, I wonder how they’d respond if I declared that they were all secretly atheists themselves, that in their hearts they were positive that this god they declaim never was, that Jesus was a deluded fanatic, that prayer is a complete waste of time. It’s a rather dishonest argument, don’t you think? I’m right, but everyone who disagrees is lying about their true opinion, therefore my support is unanimous?
He’s right, that would indeed be a dishonest argument. There’s one fascinating difference though. There’s a bright, clear line between the things an imaginary person can be given credit for, and the things you must be a real person to do. And with few exceptions, every believer knows where that line is, and knows that God will never cross it in real life. He can cross the line in stories and legends and hearsay, of course, but never in real life. In fact, Christians will be offended if you dare to suggest that He should. They will never admit, even to themselves, that they know God is a mythical being. But that line is always there, and they’re very protective about keeping God inside it.
There are exceptions, of course, but those few believers who do push their faith beyond the boundaries of mythology soon find that the limits are there, whether you believe in them or not. For example, not too long ago the Navy had to rescue a family who felt led by God to abandon godless America and set sail for some promised land He was going to lead them to, despite their complete lack of the nautical skills needed for such a trans-Pacific voyage. The family learned the hard way that God has to stay within the boundaries of a myth. You can believe in Him as a being of infinite knowledge and wisdom, but He can’t tell you anything you don’t already know, and He definitely can’t teach you how to sail after you’ve already lost sight of the mainland.
But what’s most interesting about this story is that they were somewhat ridiculed for their foolishness, not just by skeptics, but by more “mature” Christians. Experienced believers know that it’s a big mistake to put yourself in a position where your well-being depends on God actually existing outside of the imagination. Wise believers do God’s work for Him first, and then give Him the credit for having done it. That’s something that fits within the boundaries, you see. And mature believers know that the boundary is there, and that it’s silly to think God ever could or would cross it. That’s why they have all those taboos, both scriptural and unscriptural, against asking for anything a mythical deity couldn’t be given credit for.
So PZ is right: it is a dishonest argument to claim that all believers know their gods are a myth. But they all do know where God’s limits are, and the smart ones are very careful not to step over them. And the ones that aren’t so careful find out the hard way. Believe in Him all you want, be as sincere as you want, but there’s a line beyond which only real persons can actually do things. And that’s a line God can never cross.