My schedule has not allowed me time to watch CNN’s special, God’s Warriors until recently. In watching it, there are two things that I have noticed.
Before I describe those two things, I want to give a caveat. All of us are prone to filter whatever we see through a lens of existing beliefs. Our habit is to see things that confirm our beliefs and mark them as significant, and to see things that conflict with our beliefs and mark them as aberrations or exceptions. My filter has been through the lens of desire utilitarianism, and this may well have distorted what I saw.
The two things that I noticed in this presentation are (1) that between ‘a belief in God’, and ‘a desire to serve God’, the latter has the greater influence and is the greatest threat, and (2) God’s warriors tend to speak in terms of group responsibility rather than individual responsibility.
Today, I wish to deal with the first of these issues.
Belief vs. Desire
Many people who challenge religion spend a great deal of time speaking about belief in God. They speak about the absurdities of holding that the proposition, “God exists,” to be true given the total lack of evidence, the contradictions, the fact that so many people have faith in so many different views about God that almost all of them have to be wrong, and that they offer no criteria for determining which beliefs are mistaken and which are not.
All of these are, indeed, serious problems when it comes to belief in God.
However, this brings up an important question – why are so many people blind to these considerations?
In watching God’s Warriors my mind turned repeatedly to the passion of those who believe in God – who believe in different gods. People of different religions speak about their devotion to different Gods and different scriptures, stating, “Anybody who is not living their life according to this book is wasting their life – their life has no meaning, and no purpose.” Yet, they refer to different books.
This should invite people to consider the following: “Well, if they say that no life can have meaning without devotion to their book, and I say that no life can have meaning without devotion to my book, then one of us is wrong. One of us must be living under the mere illusion of a meaningful life.”
To the degree that people consider this question, they almost universally come to the conclusion, “Their life is a life that only has the illusion of meaning and purpose. My life obviously does have meaning and purpose.”
How can they reach that conclusion?
It is because they can feel the meaning and purpose in their own life. And it is because they feel the emptiness of living a life without those elements in it. These feelings are extremely strong – overpowering.
These feelings have a narcotic like property of overriding rational thought, making total absurdities appear reasonable. The idea of living in a universe that does not have the qualities that one desires in it is so painful, so depressing, so agonizing, that one must come to believe that those properties are present in order to avoid this pain, depression, and agony. Any argument . . . any argument at all (including the claim that one does not need arguments but can accept a conclusion based on faith alone) is accepted, because of the tremendous emotional pain that comes from not accepting it.
Good and Bad Passion
The next question to ask is, “Is this passion a bad thing?”
Well, it depends. Does it cause a person to suffer such a break with reality that they cannot function as well as they otherwise could in the real world? Does it cause people to refuse life-saving medical procedures? Does it cause them to stand in the way of medical and scientific advances that have the promise to save lives – thus causing them to sacrifice the lives and health of others to their own good feelings? Does it cause them to want to kill or otherwise harm anybody who threatens their distorted view of reality? Does it cause them to devote their lives to pursuing legislation and other social parties harmful to others because doing so is the only way of avoiding the pain and agony associated with realizing that the world is not put together the way one wants it to be put together?
To the degree that one is passionate about such things, then that passion is not such a good thing. In fact, it is evil. It is harmful and destructive not only to those who suffer from it, but it makes those people a threat to others, and that is not a good thing.
One point that I want to stress here is that passion feeds the beliefs. Any attempt to deal with the beliefs that does not deal with the passion is doomed to fail. Accepting your arguments, no matter how rational or how well supported, is simply too painful for such people. They will become persuaded by reason and argument only to the degree that their passions will allow them to do so.
This suggests that atheists will be well advised to spend a little less time discussing the arguments for or against the existence of God or contradictions in scripture or the evidence against the truth of some interpretation of some holy book, and more time dealing directly with the passions that block people’s acceptance to reason.
This means tackling the “meaning of life” and “no morality without God” issues.
The Issue of Meaning
On the meaning of life issue, I have argued that living a religious life is like being hooked up to an experience machine – or living a life in a Star Trek style holodeck, where one is fed images of a life that one does not actually have. The person hooked up to such a machine may be made to believe that she is living in Africa devoting her life to fighting disease and saving the people who live there. Only, the people she is saving are merely ‘toons’ in an elaborate computer simulation. They are not accomplishing anything real. They are merely wasting away, accomplishing nothing.
Or, worse, they are actually doing harm while the experience machine feeds them lies about doing good. I described this scenario earlier, about being hooked up to an experience machine where, each time the person thinks he has helped others, the machine causes others great pain and suffering. Those who are advocating legislation harmful to the interests of others live in an experience machine that is feeding them the delusion that they are doing great things, when in fact they are causing unjustified harm and suffering to others with each ‘good thing’ that they accomplish.
“Do you want to live in the real world, helping real people with real problems, or do you want to live in a fantasy world where you are merely presented with the illusion of doing good while you actually do great harm?” This is an important question to ask to those people who think that their life can only have meaning within the context of one of these religious myths.
Addressing the Desire to Believe
Of course, this question will not likely penetrate the thoughts of those who are so locked into the experience machine of religion that they cannot be safely disconnected from it. Anybody who has watched much science fiction is familiar with this scenario. Some character or other has been hooked up to some machine to such an extent, “If we remove him, he will die.” In the case of religion, the heartbreak of being disconnected from the machine and discovering the real world may cause him to wish he were dead.
The question will likely be more meaningful for people who have not been hooked up to the machine for so long that they can no longer tolerate being without it, or who have not been hooked up to it but could serve to be warned of its dangers.
There is one chance for a meaningful life, and that is to spend it in the real world dealing with real-world issues, not in an imaginary playground filled with mythical heroes and monsters.
I would like those who read this blog and who have a habit of arguing that the proposition, “God does not exist” is not true, or pointing out the moral failings of some who do not believe in God, to spend some effort pointing out how a religious life is wasted. Ultimately, this may be the most effective starting point for addressing these other two concerns.