Nothing To See
One cannot help but feel a little sorry for Richard Dawkins. He has spent much of his life attempting to elucidate some of the principles of rational atheism, and this has led him to spend many fruitless hours conversing with religious people — always with the same outcome. There is something intrinsic in such conversations that leads perpetually to incomprehension on the part of the religious person. As this same phenomenon repeats itself wherever and whenever a thoughtful rational person attempts to converse with a religious person, it is worth exploring why the impasse exists and is hardly ever circumvented.
For the thoughtful person it is immediately obvious that the thousands (or perhaps millions) of gods, ghouls, and goblins we humans have invented over the years are all fundamentally the same and all fundamentally the results of an imaginative projection of our own characteristics. There has never been a god, ghoul, or goblin that is not fundamentally human and it’s a cliché to note that we always invent gods in our own image. That’s why religious beliefs are always banal, predictable, and most often squalid. Yet religious people are cut off from this basic observation. For them, their particular god, ghoul, or goblin is the only possible one and despite perhaps knowing abstractly that (a) their particular deity is a relatively recent invention, and (b) most of the human race has worshipped other invisible magical creatures instead, the religious person is trapped within a narrow worldview in which their arbitrary belief is the One True Truth and all other beliefs are necessarily false.
This narrow worldview depends entirely on a failure of intellect or, at best, on a series of mental contortions that attempt to reconcile the existence of thousands of other invisible magical creatures by claiming that “really” they are all manifestations of the particular deity the speaker happens to favor. What’s curious about this latter position is that the believer will nevertheless regard all the other deities as somehow inferior to the preferred deity. Whatever the various dogmas attached to these other deities, they likewise will be spurned in favor of the dogma that has accreted around the believer’s preferred god, ghoul, or goblin. Going further, when religious people are fortunate enough to live in moderately affluent and moderately stable societies, if they have much awareness of the dogma they have embraced they will carefully cherry-pick the aspects of their dogma so as to exclude the various repellent elements. They also contort the cherry-picked aspects so as to make them seem (vaguely) applicable to their environment.
Most religious people, however, know little about the religion they adhere to and are thus spared the effort of cherry-picking and contorting.
If a religious person has any awareness of the wider world, they carry a great deal of psychic tension in consequence of the contradictions between their emotional bias and known facts. As noted, for most people such awareness is however largely or entirely absent and so a great many religious people are blithely unaware that they inhabit a tiny island in a sea of equally tiny islands stretching back in time to prehistory and beyond. They imagine their tiny conceptual island to be the only one, and the ground they stand on to be the only ground. For such people, life is easy. Knowing only the details of their own god, ghoul, or goblin they are, like Hamlet’s wish, content to be bounded in a nutshell.
It is thus inevitable that any discussion which introduces the obvious fact that any one particular deity is nothing more than an arbitrary projection of human thoughts and feelings will cause emotional discomfort in the breast of the believer. Our brains are not adapted to do much thinking and they are incapable of handling much in the way of complexity. Most of us think in strict oppositional terms: black/white, good/bad, up/down, light/dark. Attempting to grapple with subtlety is not an enterprise in which many will succeed. When we feel uncomfortable our immediate recourse is to reject reality and to seek refuge in our beliefs, whatever they happen to be. This is the appeal of cults, populist movements, the industrial religions of Marxism, nationalism, and psychotherapy, and of course of the more traditional religions. We hide under the blanket of pre-packaged responses and simple ideas because they spare us the pain of attempting to engage with complex reality.
It’s obviously a challenge to attempt to converse with someone who’s hiding under a metaphorical blanket. But the problem is deeper than that.
The problem is that we evolved in relatively simple conditions and consequently our brains are adapted to work in relatively simple ways. We’re evolved to work with pointed sticks and bits of rock, to worry about predators and remember the locations of food and water sources. Most of our mental hardwiring focuses on our interactions with members of our tribe: who we need to watch out for, who we can trust, who we can trick, and so forth. There is very little acreage in the human brain for anything remotely resembling attempts to reason. Instead, the human brain is adapted to believe whatever information is imparted by purported authority figures. If the witchdoctor tells us that dying our hair with ochre will enable us to conceive a boy when having sex, we don’t question the statement. It must be true because the witchdoctor said so.
When our parents tell us that Achelous is the god of freshwater or that Thor is the god of thunder, we believe them without hesitation and ever afterward we hold these things to be self-evident and true. Very few people ever question the precepts they were given as small children and so, even as the years pass and we age toward the grave, most people retain the beliefs imparted in childhood. It is simply impossible for the religious person to conceive of the notion that their beliefs could be mistaken. The centrality of their gods, ghouls, and goblins is inviolable.
We know from many clinical studies that we humans have one reliable mechanism to utilize whenever reality contradicts our cherished beliefs: we studiously ignore reality and double-down on our beliefs instead. This saves us the psychic trauma of (a) recognizing that our beliefs were mistaken, and (b) attempting to reorganize our scant intellectual furniture to accommodate a new arrangement.
This phenomenon reliably emerges whenever a rational person converses with a religious person on the topic of belief. The religious person imagines that the rational person is “denying” their one true god, ghoul, or goblin. The religious person feels that the rational person is turning away from their deity; meanwhile the logic of the rational person is entirely missed, going over the head of the religious person just as a commercial jet aircraft flies high above the hills and valleys below.
The rational person will attempt to use coherent logical arguments to demonstrate that not only is there no evidence whatsoever for any of the thousands of deities conjured up by people over history but also that there is no need for any such deities. The rational person correctly states that inventing one or more deities to explain the existence of the world solves no problem because it is merely introducing a pointless regression. It is no use whatsoever to say, “where did the world come from, if not created by my particular little god?” Because then one must ask, “where did my god, ghoul, or goblin come from?” If the answer is, “my deity was always there!” then we can skip the pointless regression by saying “the world was always there.”
As we know, the last century and a half have seen scientific investigation flourish and we now know quite a lot about the universe in which we inhabit. All of our knowledge is based on empirical evidence. Conversely religion of whatever kind has no evidence whatsoever to support any claim. This is why a few centuries of exploration have yielded so much in the way of knowledge and understanding, while thousands of years of religionism have yielded only horrors.
But to the religious person, none of this is evident.
To the religious person, the atheist is “denying” their deity, their truth, and the rational arguments proposed fly high above the religious person’s head. The religionist is trapped profoundly in a tiny mental nutshell and cannot process the words of the atheist. There is simply no neural circuitry available for the task. When an atheist points out that there is no shortage of arbitrary beliefs a person can hold, and that it’s not the task of the unbeliever to point out the lack of evidence but rather it’s the task of the person proposing an idea to provide supporting evidence, the religious person simply cannot understand the proposition.
Truzzi rightfully said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Were this not the case we could all believe in anything at all and scream loudly that everyone else should genuflect to our idiosyncratic beliefs. The result would be chaos, or at the very least yet another one of the many religion-induced wars our species has suffered from since the invention of monotheism back in the Axial Age. Intelligent people understand that no claim should be believed until it is supported by ample evidence that can be gathered repeatedly and which remains consistent. Religious people imagine that claims are validated by the supposed authority of the person making the claim.
The religious perspective is entirely consistent with the hardwiring of the human brain. Almost everyone, at every time and in every place throughout our evolutionary history, has felt the same way. This is why we habitually defer to those who wield symbols of authority. Whether it’s the feather necklace worn by the witchdoctor or the garb worn by a priest or the white coat & stethoscope ported by the doctor, we default to believing whatever they tell us. And once we have absorbed our beliefs we cling to them tenaciously regardless of all the evidence that indicates our beliefs have no basis in reality.
It’s tempting for rational people to feel superior to religious people, because the thought processes of religious people are so self-evidently flawed and limited. But we should bear in mind that even very clever people fall prey to the same neural hardwiring. Although Einstein’s own equations of General Relativity showed that the universe cannot be static but must either be expanding or contracting, Einstein “knew” the universe to be static and so he introduced the mathematical fudge of the Cosmological Constant. It was only later, when evidence of an expanding universe was irrefutable, that he acknowledged his mistake. Meanwhile Fred Hoyle, an almost equally brilliant theoretician, clung to the steady-state notion to the end of his days simply because he was unable to let go of the beliefs he’d acquired earlier in life.
While intelligent people may on occasion reason themselves out of the beliefs imparted to them when they were small children, most people have neither the intellectual ability nor the desire to make the attempt. Furthermore, in most parts of the world religion is the default. Only people fortunate enough to grow up in one of the small number of countries with adequate systems of education and generally humanist-oriented cultures can escape the net of religious belief. A typical person growing up in one of the northern European countries is unlikely to be religious these days, but a typical person growing up in the USA or in any of the nations in which religionism holds sway is very likely to be religious. This is no different from the fact that a person growing up in northern Europe is likely to be in favor of gender equality while a person growing up in a traditional religious society is likely to be in favor of gender-based roles and privileges. We rarely question the norms of the culture in which we are born and raised.
This means that we cannot expect debates between atheists and religious people to be fruitful. The latter lacks the cognitive structures necessary to comprehend what the former is saying, and the former has no means whereby to engender understanding in the latter. It is a dialog in which one side remains forever entirely deaf.
As such, for all of Dawkins’ evident desire to explain atheism by means of debating with religious people, nothing changes. The religious person continues to imagine that the atheist is “denying” their particular god, ghoul, or goblin and the atheist is powerless to change this perception. Nothing of substance is occurring, and so there is nothing to see.