Everyone knows God is a myth—sorta

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.


  1. jeffreyfalick says

    Just curious because I’ve seen this on other blogs, too. Why capitalize the “H”? It seems unnecessary to me unless you mean it facetiously. And then it is hysterical.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      This question comes up occasionally. I capitalize it (a) out of habit, having spent literally decades as a believer, and (b) as a handy way to disabiguate the antecedant of the pronoun. Frequently, the pronoun is unambiguous anyway, but I find it useful often enough that I continue the habit deliberately. I also sometimes refer to God as “She”, “It” and “They,” in which case the capitalization can be very helpful in clarifying my intended meaning.

  2. johzek says

    Because only real persons can actually do things, especially in the sense of building things up, this imagined being instead is quite frequently cited as the responsible party for the exact opposite in natural and man made disasters. In the direction of death and destruction there doesn’t seem to be any line at all that can’t be crossed in a believer’s imagination.

  3. samgardner says

    I do wonder about believers’ beliefs at times. I was listening to a conservative religious radio show a year or so ago (I enjoy it, just because they say the most outlandish things at times), and a caller called in saying they thought their house might have a ghost or spirit.

    The pastor’s advised her to look for all possible natural causes first. Sounds like good advice, right? And it is — but it also implies that natural causes are more probable. Why? If they really believe in the supernatural, why not start with looking for justifications of supernatural causes?

  4. Ed says

    I think believers have to be very selective to maintain the illusion and to live more or less effective lives. Let’s say one loses their job, prays for a new one, fills out thousands of applications and finally gets accepted. Their prayer was “answered.”

    But this is only projecting a theistic explanation onto a completely natural set of events. Most people change careers a few times in their lives. They wouldn’t pray and then sit by the phone waiting for God to inspire an employer to call them.

    If they forgot whether or not they locked the door before going to bed, they’d go check instead of praying for God to keep thieves away or even lock it himself. But if there really was an all powerful being looking out for them, why would such requests in fact BE foolish? Everyone is a naturalist on some level.

    Take the often discussed example of religious people refusing medical care because they think they can be cured by prayer or exorcism. As much as we like using such people as examples of delusion, as much as they deserve it, and despite the fact that there are a frightening number of them, they are a small minority.

    I know fundamentalists who have the same mixture of laughter and horror over this situation that I have. The waiting room at a doctor’s office is probably no more a haven for atheists than a restaurant in the same community.

  5. says

    Every believer that claims to believe in an afterlife is shown to be a liar every time they get out of traffic, avoid a high-speed accident on the freeway, swallow their food properly, and otherwise try to stay alive. If someone truly believed that they had an eternity of bliss waiting for them, they wouldn’t bullshit around as intensely as they do with this life. It’s because our bodies know the truth.

  6. Thomas Hobbes says

    That’s why I felt a kind of respect for Harold Camping. At least he had the guts to make a concrete, verifiable claim about his God. He didn’t deconvert when it turned out to be false, but at least he made one. The religious hardly ever do that.

    • John Morales says

      You may have a kind of respect for true believers rather than believers of convenience, but I don’t.

      (Actually, I find your respect perverse)

    • says

      Even if I’d had a non-zero shred of respect for Camping, it would have evaporated shortly after the purported Rapture anyway, because he essentially said “Oh, erm, it totally happened anyway; you just didn’t see it.” As it happened, I had more pity for him than anything.

      I can’t just award respect because someone’s earnest or because they go to bat for their beliefs. William Lane Craig, for example, is earnest and bats hard, but I find him one of the most contemptible people I’ve ever heard talk. I’m sure we could think of countless true believers who put their money where their mouths are and are still bottom-feeding moral deficients.

  7. Owlmirror says

    The idea that “God helps those who help themselves” is so ingrained to modern religious sensibility that, IIRC, many people (wrongly) think that the phrase is from scripture.

    • pocoworee says

      The savvy “believers” apparently always understood this, else how could a band of greedy devout Catholics plunder a whole empire in the Andes 500 years ago, in the name of spreading “the good news” ?
      And, we should add, with the blessing of a very devout king and queen backing them. Such is the power of naïvity…and brainwash shampoo.
      “Oh, but we just followed orders, did our duty, didn’t have a choice, blablabla”.
      Yep, heard that before


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