Why We Don’t Believe


New Statesman asked a number of prominent heathens why they don’t believe in God, including our own PZ Myers, and got some very interesting answers. I like Daniel Dennett’s answer:

The concept of God has gradually retreated from the concept of an anthropomorphic creator figure, judge and overseer to a mystery-shrouded Wonderful Something-or-Other utterly beyond human ken. It is impossible for me to believe in any of the anthropomorphic gods, because they are simply ridiculous, and so obviously the fantasy-projections of scientifically ignorant minds trying to understand the world. It is impossible for me to believe in the laundered versions, because they are systematically incomprehensible. It would be like trying to believe in the existence of wodgifoop – what’s that? Don’t ask; it’s beyond saying.


Wodgifoop is SO gonna punish him for that.

Probably the most fascinating answer came from Iranian human rights advocate Maryam Namazie.

I don’t remember exactly when I stopped believing in God. Having been raised in a fairly open-minded family in Iran, I had no encounter with Islam that mattered until the Islamic movement took power on the back of a defeated revolution in Iran. I was 12 at the time.

I suppose people can go through an entire lifetime without questioning God and a religion that they were born into (out of no choice of their own), especially if it doesn’t have much of a say in their lives. If you live in France or Britain, there may never be a need to renounce God actively or come out as an atheist.

But when the state sends a “Hezbollah” (the generic term for Islamist) to your school to ensure that you don’t mix with your friends who are boys, stops you from swimming, forces you to be veiled, deems males and females separate and unequal, prescribes different books for you and your girlfriends from those read by boys, denies certain fields of study to you because you are female, and starts killing in­discriminately, then you have no choice but to question, discredit and confront it – all of it. And that is what I did.

I think this may also help explain why so many Americans are nominally Christian without ever really giving it much thought and without ever having their religion affect their lives aside from participating in social rituals like going to church — sometimes — and getting married in a church. For most Americans, the church is just the social center of their own little communities of people. That’s the only reason they really attend. The actual beliefs have little to do with their actual lives.

I’m quite thankful to have been raised in a situation where that wasn’t possible, with one parent an atheist and the other a Pentecostal Christian. I didn’t have a default belief to fall back on, I actually had to think about the issue and reach my own conclusions.

Comments

  1. doolittle says

    I think the only reason I care about atheism and atheist activism today is my fundamentalist Southern Baptist upbringing. Had I been raised in some milquetoast Episcopalian or Lutheran tradition, I’m not sure that I would care about questions of the supernatural.

  2. Sastra says

    Daniel Dennett also observes that we really don’t even have any moral obligation to try to believe in God. I think that pointing out that there is no value in straining to rescue a dead and dying hypothesis is possibly the best refutation of the fuzzy-wuzzy, obscure, ill-defined handwaving of the theologically liberal versions of God which are almost too vague to be wrong. But they’re trying. Shouldn’t they get credit?

    No.

    Truth is that even the forms of God which pretend to be “non-anthropomorphic” always seem to sneak in some mind-like element or aspect — a tendency towards love, a principle of creativity, a force of goodness — anything that would distinguishs God from something mindless that literally has no human attributes at all, gives us humans no special place in the cosmos, and thus would be unworthy of “worship.”

  3. Sastra says

    doolittle said:

    Had I been raised in some milquetoast Episcopalian or Lutheran tradition, I’m not sure that I would care about questions of the supernatural.

    But I was raised without religion and in an ecumenical milquetoastian atmosphere of a diverse suburb — and I cared and still care very much about questions of the supernatural. Even the “spiritual but not religious” crowd believe that it is very, very important that one be “spiritual” and accept some form of the supernatural. Doesn’t matter what, really. Even in religion, among many ‘enlightened’ believers it’s not supposed to make much difference what you believe God is — as long as you have a God so that they can continue to insist that we all “know” deep down. You also apparently need to believe lest you become shallow, incoherent, and unhappy. Condescension can be just as frustrating and annoying as condemnation.

    Faith in faith: a combination of smugness, good intentions, and lamentably fuzzy thinking.

    Faith is killed by the 3 C’s: curiosity, clarity, and consistency. I think that absent aggressive fundamentalism we would still care about the supernatural for the same reasons we care about anything that is supposed to be real, true, and “central” to the lives of intelligent or sensitive people.

  4. doolittle says

    @Sastra

    I agree 100% that, absent fundamentalism, we should still care about what is and is not true. I was speaking, maybe poorly, for myself in saying that, since I have a finite amount of time in which to immerse myself in topics that interest me, I might devote less time to thinking about religious matters had I not had my life dominated by aggressive, fire and brimstone fundamentalism through my teenage years. Had I grown up in a household that practiced alternative medicine, maybe I would spend a bigger chunk of time following Ben Goldacre or Orac.

    Again, I’m just speculating that maybe the intensity of the religiosity of my childhood was a main cause for the intensity of my interest in atheism and religious debate in my adulthood.

  5. says

    I think the only reason I care about atheism and atheist activism today is my fundamentalist Southern Baptist upbringing. Had I been raised in some milquetoast Episcopalian or Lutheran tradition, I’m not sure that I would care about questions of the supernatural.

    I’m very much the same way. I was raised in a really strict and repressive fundamentalist family, and that’s a big part of why atheism is so important to me. Atheism actually feels liberating to me in a way that it might not have if I’d been raised in a more religiously neutral environment.

  6. pHred says

    When I was a child I was dragged around by my aunt as she shopped for a religion. I think now, perhaps, what she really needed was some kind of support to tell her that she was okay – which she, for reasons I will not relate – would be virtually certain not to find in any church. Anyhow the whole deal put me off religion relatively young – intelligent children are not cherished by the church.

    My fight now is to keep the churchies from messing with my children. I have to explain to my 8 year old that “some people believe …” while trying to hold off on the stuff is not equip to handle yet with respect to his school community.

    Have explained often to in-laws that I am not Catholic etc.etc. And keep getting this “well Jesus is in everything”. Their brains just won’t go there.

  7. MikeMa says

    Wes,
    How did you do it? Pretty please?

    My initial turn away from my family’s religion at age 11 or 12 was a mixture of contrariness and logic. My parent’s made no bones about the social nature of their religious belief and that inconsistency with what was expected by the ‘elders’ was all I needed to open the door and run through screaming. Never looked back. Faith is fine as long as you recognize it as a substitute for reason.

  8. John Hinkle says

    Mine was a slow process to atheism. The more I learned, the more questionable Catholicism became, until I just labeled all sects of Xianity ridiculous and moved on. Was an easy step to dismiss all other religions since I was already an atheist on those.

    Even though I was an altar boy, that was something I wanted to try and, in retrospect, probably for all the trappings and ritual. The magic never worked, but the swinging globe incense holders, telescoping candle lighters, bejeweled shiny brass chalices and Eucharist catchers, electronic altar vault doors (operated by a key so elaborate it could probably pick the Ark), crystal wine and water carafes, fanciful wood carvings and marble, intricate stained glass, special costumes… what kid wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Pity they didn’t let girls play too, bastards.

    Sure, there was some weirdness, like the time the priest showed me his special Mickey Mouse sheets. Ok, it was more than once.

  9. Abby Normal says

    Wes, glad I could help. If anyone else is interested, you can set your avatar by signing up for a Gravatar account. If you register with the same email address you used to register for FTB they should link up automatically.

    Sastra said:

    Faith in faith: a combination of smugness, good intentions, and lamentably fuzzy thinking.

    While I don’t disagree, I do think that’s a bit simplistic. In my experience, for many people faith is a reminder that the world is bigger and more complex than they comprehend, that the bounds of what’s possible are therefore greater than what their rational mind envisions. In this way faith inspires them to reach for more than they think is possible. If a person believed a particular end was unachievable, it would be irrational to pursue it. But by allowing good intentions and fuzzy thinking (and perhaps a bit of smugness) to override reason, they’re free to reach for the impossible, often with extraordinary results.

  10. tacitus says

    I grew up in a liberal Methodist household in the UK. I attended church fairly regularly in my twenties, though I always thought that there was something missing — that there should be more to being a Christian than attending dull hymn-sandwich church services and doing good things.

    Sounds like I was primed for a born-again experience, doesn’t it?

    Well, I spent about a year in the States off and on in my late twenties, and moved here in my thirtieth year, and discovered what that “more” was that I was missing — and decided fairly quickly that “Bible-based” Christianity made no sense at all, and that the higher octane version of Christianity practiced by so many over here was based on little more than myths and fairy tales.

    There was one last period of a few months when I seriously tried to find a rational basis for being a Christian, but failed. The main sticking point was quite simple really. The doctrines of Hell and Salvation are beyond immoral in their viciousness and capriciousness, and I just could not believe that any deity worthy of worship would invent such a nasty little scheme.

    As for why bad things happen to good people, I have long since decided that “shit happens” is a much more reasonable (and far less tortuous) explanation than any amount of theodicy can achieve.

    It is interesting that it took me so long to finally come around to this conclusion. I wasn’t heavily indoctrinated as a child, and was always a skeptic when it came to things other than Christianity. I never believed in ghosts, spirits and UFOs — not many British Christians do, in contrast to many American Christians — but my religious faith was always kept walled off in a separate category. So until I broke down that wall of separation, it didn’t occur to me to question my religious beliefs very much.

  11. hackerguitar says

    I was brought up Lutheran. For those who think them mild by comparison with Southern Baptists, this was Missouri Synod, which is every bit as hateful and judgmental, just a bit less crudely expressed.

    I never believed – it never made sense. From the time I was a small child, I heard the meme that “dead people go to heaven.” A friend and I tried to figure out how souls got up to heaven – if they were real, they had to have weight, and so how did they get to heaven? Airplanes? It’s funny now, but my friend and I – at six or seven years old – was convinced that there was something very wrong with people believing in things that didn’t go the way the observable world worked. Yeah, it was naive materialism, but even so…I was seven years old, and already I could see a disconnect. It helped that my mother was crazy-religious, so I saw how religion got used as a means of propping up power structures which had no inherent legitimacy, though I was in university before I could have articulated it that well.

    In terms of being public about it….at fifteen, I finally told my mother – who was, as noted, crazy-religious – that I didn’t believe and had better uses for Sunday morning than listening to a fool talk about magic. To her credit, she heard me out, but she made a tactical error based on the common Xtian logical fallacy “my characteristics are universal…” Counting on the fact that she was fairly reserved (and knew I was) she basically said I had to tell the whole church that I was leaving & why. She was counting on me being shy and hence not being willing to speak out publicly.

    But (to her surprise and deep shame) I did, and deliberately did so as gracelessly as possible; it made me persona non grata in the church, which was very much part of the goal. The particular event involved a service where I was supposed to be reading a selection of the liturgy. Instead, I used it as a forum for the citation of specific well-known but politely non-discussed issues, including the pastor’s relationship with someone not his wife, and a few of the deacons who had a penchant for a few behaviors not on the approved list. Followed it up with a declaration that the belief structure didn’t provide anything more than social cover for normal behaviors which were only sinful in the eyes of deeply authoritarian and repressed people.

    It worked…;-) It was a hostile crowd, but they shut up when I walked out. That was worth the rest of it.

    The only times I’ve been in any sort of religious edifice since have been for weddings, funerals and (in the far east) sightseeing – a lot of the best views are from the tops of the hills where the monasteries are.

    I refuse to bow for prayers and don’t engage in faux-religious polite niceties when attending for social reasons – it’s quite fun to unnerve clergy by starting at them in a nice hostile fashion while they prey pray. And when people call me on it – which happens from time to time – I let them know I don’t believe, consider their belief foolish and unwarranted, and don’t back down.

    People call me a militant atheist. I call people who say that credulous fools for believing things which allow other people to manipulate them. I don’t promulgate my thinking but I won’t accept idiotic theistic behavior from others.

  12. modusoperandi says

    “I’m quite thankful to have been raised in a situation where that wasn’t possible, with one parent an atheist and the other a Pentecostal Christian.”

    Mathematically, that makes you 2 and a half costal. You can speak in tongues, but not on an idiomatic level. True story.

    My story is a long and complicated one:
    I was always an atheist.

    Sorry for being so verbose.

  13. Reginald Selkirk says

    In a video that is making the rounds recently, 50 renowned academics speaking about God, the person interviewing Dennett suggests that God is not scientifically provable/disprovable. Dennett points out, correctly I think, that God has evolved to this state. Gods in all the early religions were easily amenable to scientific investigation, if it had existed at the time. It is only as our scientific tools have advanced that God has moved further and further away from every day verification.

  14. TonyC says

    My story is probably quite normal, for ex-catholics.

    I was raised Roman Catholic in a gritty urban shipbuilding town on the west coast of Scotland.

    Catholics (Tims) did not associate with Protestants (Proddies) – except when we did… as kids at home.

    I was interested in answers – and was a complete pain in the ass. I read the bible a couple of times before I was 10, and as a good RC boy, had read and memorized the catechism by then, too. I was the kid who kept asking the priests and nuns strange questions. I could never resolve the the fact that my Mom (a good Catholic lady, and a truly kind-hearted woman) felt sorry for my protestant friends (our neighbors) who would be going straight to hell (not baptised, you see)!

    I started to truly question faith and religion as I grew, and as I approached Confirmation. Despite giving the reading at the Confirmation mass, I renounced religion a few weeks later. Catholic guilt being what it was, it took me another few years to actually admit the same to my Mom and the rest of my family.

    At sixteen I was formally agnostic to anyone who cared to ask (catholic guilt keeping me in a questioning frame of mind…. what if being a major part of my mental state). At seventeen, when I went to university, I was atheist – and proudly so.

  15. Wowbagger, Madman of Insleyfarne says

    Reginald Selkirk wrote:

    Dennett points out, correctly I think, that God has evolved to this state.

    Yep. This whole ‘oh, you silly scientists, always banging on about your little proofs why God doesn’t exist; everyone knows he’s outside of the reach of science’ is the epitome of goalpost-shifting.

    Evidence for God was considered ‘obvious’, not ‘non-existent’ – the difference is significant – and let’s not forget that Christians have the whole first half of their holy book chock-full of examples of evidence for their god’s existence. Are they claiming that none of those things happened?

    As science has progressed and gone on to find godless explanations for so many things it’s become necessary to make up excuses for why that is. But it’s the classic bait-and-switch; argue for an outside-of-science god when debating atheists, but happily endorse an interventionist, prayer-answering, baby-in-car-crash-saving, appearing-in-tacos-in-Guadalupe when amongst other theists.

  16. says

    Abby Normal –

    In my experience, for many people faith is a reminder that the world is bigger and more complex than they comprehend, that the bounds of what’s possible are therefore greater than what their rational mind envisions.

    I suppose it can work like that for many. But it’s entirely possible to accept the unknown without prostrating oneself to the unknowable, the ‘wodgifoop’ in Dennett’s terms.

    The problem with the ‘unknowable’ is that it’s the intellectual equivalent of dividing by zero. Once you go there, all bets are off. You can’t have certainty – even degrees of certainty – about anything.

    The question I ask believers, when it comes up is, “What if God is exactly like a shepherd… down to the shearing and slaughter, too?”

    If you try to claim that you have evidence that a God is trustworthy and benevolent, then you are by that very fact denying that such a God is incomprehensible. Evidence only applies to comprehensible things. If you say something’s incomprehensible, you’re unavoidably saying that no amount of evidence can prove anything about it. You don’t get to pick and choose. If the evidence for unnecessary suffering and evil means nothing, then the evidence for good that theists want to claim also means nothing.

  17. Abby Normal says

    Sorceror, I agree with all that. My point is simply that faith, particularly the fuzzy “faith in faith” brand Sastra was talking about, is one method of accepting uncertainty, thereby allowing people to pursue their goals with confidence.

    There are of course people of faith who use it to avoid uncertainty, rather than accept it. For those people, faith drives them to hide from evidence that might shake it. That kind of blind faith I often find problematic.

    Either way, faith is a path to personal power that people can use for good or for ill.

  18. modusoperandi says

    sorceror “The problem with the ‘unknowable’ is that it’s the intellectual equivalent of dividing by zero. Once you go there, all bets are off. You can’t have certainty – even degrees of certainty – about anything.”
    You sound awfully certain about that.

  19. says

    I was so fortunate. I was raised by 2 academics, one a historian. Even though my dad (the historian) has some vestigial religion, it was pretty obvious to him that the whole thing is nonsense, so all of my early encounters with faith were from a historical context. Dad always felt we should study the classics, so I was introduced to Greek philosophy and skepticism at an early age. Raised that way, I am just completely baffled that anyone would believe something so silly as the idea that there’s a god.

  20. says

    For those who think them mild by comparison with Southern Baptists, this was Missouri Synod, which is every bit as hateful and judgmental, just a bit less crudely expressed.

    Cue inevitable reference to Emo Philips wonderful religion joke. :)

  21. says

    oops! I had no idea that it would parse the link I posted as a full-blown video inclusion. That was completely unintended and I apologize.

    I mean, it’s cool that we can do that, but – ugh. Potential for spam/malware/badness is high.

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