I was listening to Mike Resnick’s excellent story called “Article of Faith.” It’s a story about a robot employee working for a minister in a church. The minister uses the robot to help improve his sermons and the robot comes to believe he has a soul and needs to worship God. But the minister can’t allow the robot to worship with his congregation for two reasons. First, no one believes robots have souls. Second, his congregation is prejudice against robots who keep stealing their jobs. We eventually learn that the second is the real reason.
The story is well done, if predictable. As the story on Escape Pod came to an end, the ‘host’ came on with some final thoughts. He says that he’s an atheist, but he’s certain that if there was a God that God would never be in favor of being in any way exclusive in their worship. (Hint hint) How could anyone believe that some old book written ages ago is completely accurate about what God is like? It’s like trying to stare at the Grand Canyon where you just can’t possibly take it all in with a photograph.
This really is a fascinating phenomenon, and one that I’ve noticed many many times. People are territorial about their beliefs about God even if they are atheists!
I even had a recent conversation online with a self identifying atheist that wanted to argue that God shouldn’t be comprehensible. (This was in response to one of my pet “theories” that God is comprehensible. See my post here.) Now he was only playing devil’s-advocate, but this is still an act in need of an explanation. What difference does it make if a non-existent being is or isn’t comprehensible? Wouldn’t the atheist point of view more naturally lend itself to just letting people believe what they want about this fictional being because by definition the imaginer is always right about what they imagined? Can there really ever be a definitive answer to the age old question of whether or not Luke Skywalker can beat up Spider-man? (Luke all the way if post Return of the Jedi. Otherwise Spider-man.)
So how can we explain why it’s common for atheists to be dogmatic about the nature of God? It’s not like those that don’t believe in invisible pink unicorns feel any need to correct those that do about what the non-existent creatures are really like. (“No! They really do have purple polka dots! How can you be so stupid!”) This is all reminiscent of the old SNL William Shatner skit where he finally tells the Trekkies that it’s all just a TV show so it doesn’t matter which level he went to on the ship because there isn’t actually a ship. Are atheists the equivalent to Trekkies?
Likewise, one of the things that really seems to make atheist the maddest about Mormon beliefs is that we used to practice polygamy and had a priesthood ban that we claimed at the time came from God. Since we don’t do have either of these today, this is hardly a problem in any conventional sense. But we’ve all met atheists that paint living Mormons with a broad dark brush because their long dead ancestors believed such things. Why? Is it because we won’t apologize and admit that God never said such a thing to begin with?
At least when an Evangelical Christian is mad about this, it makes some sort of strange logical sense. (Though I’m generally curious why they support equivalent and worse actions in the Bible.) But why is this also true for atheists? Why do they care so much about a (in their opinion) past bad behavior based on a (in their opinion) false belief about God?
And in the case of polygamy at least, could we ever morally justify persecution of the living over supporting their ancestors past beliefs when those that were “wronged” by it are already long dead? Yet this is precisely what happens. Why? Why not live and let live, especially if the practice is long gone?
When I notice strange seeming contradictions like this I see it as a phenomenon in need of an explanation. So how does one explain the fact that atheists often have such strong opinions about what God is like? I have started to formulate a hypothesis on this subject, but I’m curious what other people think.
I would challenge people to not just use this as an opportunity to say something negative about atheists. Atheist are generally good people that are well meaning, just like theists. So I will personally reject any ‘easy answer’ that boils down atheists being bad people or the like. I think the empirical evidence has already come down against such a simpleton theory. Try to stretch your mind further and see if you can come up with a plausible explanation for why atheists often believe they know what God is like. I’m seeking a serious psychological explanation for this phenomenon that will teach us something about human nature, not an opportunity to bash on others.