Atheists Who Know God

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.

11 thoughts on “Atheists Who Know God

  1. My interactions like this are based on atheist belief that if there is a god at all then it would “logically” be like what they say. In other words, its a way for them to challenge your beliefs and not hold up any of their own lack. They often state if there were a god that is at all any different than what they propose, then they would consider them evil and not worthy of worship. When push comes to shove, they admit their views of any kind of god are based on growing up around Christian society, and therefore are basing their arguments around that. They are arguing against a particular religious viewpoint and not necessarily supporting for their own.

  2. I can only speak for myself, but any assertions I make about the attributes or character of God is not based on any belief I have about what God is like. Rather, these assertions are based on taking the beliefs of my interlocutor at face value and extrapolating from those beliefs. In regards to your example, I think an atheist saying that “if there was a God that God would never be in favor of being in any way exclusive in their worship” is sloppy, but not incoherent. I just read it as shorthand for “if God exists as you believe and has the attributes that you believe he does, it is unlikely that he would approve of exclusivity in worship.” I would interpret the example of the atheist advocating for an incomprehensible god in much the same manner. This is more of an exercise in logic and reasoning than a statement of sincere belief.

  3. I don’t think many claimed atheists are particularly sincere about their atheism. I think it is more conditional agnosticism.

    Namely (paraphrasing), I don’t know if there is a Supreme Being, but if there is one, I won’t recognize him as God unless he has the following characteristics, but rather recognize him as some superpower that I can neither worship nor respect.

    I am sympathetic with that position, because the alternative is to suggest that God should be worshipped simply because he is powerful, not because he is good.

  4. I suppose for many it is similar to expounding on what good literature or good art ought to be. Books, paintings, theologies are what people make them, and many have opinions about what makes the various executions good or bad.

  5. Bruce, I think this issue gets back to the whole subject of “rejectionism.” As a former ardent secularist, I can tell you that most of my many, many “atheist” friends were really just “I reject your version of God” friends. They don’t like Jerry Falwell, so they reject evangelicals. They don’t like Muslims extremists, so they reject Islam. They don’t like the Pope’s stand on abortion and birth control, so they reject Catholicism. They don’t like conservative Jews, so they reject Judaism.

    It is really more about what they don’t like than what they do like. If you start looking at what atheism has accomplished, you need to start looking at Stalin, Castro, Mao and Pol Pot, and that road certainly isn’t very pleasant.

    The most surprising thing for me, being a secularist, was to discover that God — or my personal perception of God — is not anything like what I thought He would be like once I received a confirmation that He really was there and listening. There is no way you could reject the God I discovered — He is too perfect and too wonderful.

  6. Wow, excellent and well thought out responses.

    I personally doubt there is any one reason for this. I suspect that everyone said something that is (at least for some) true.

    There is one thing I wanted to add though.

    Nate W,

    I think you are probably right much of the time that an atheist that is convinced they know what “God must be like” is really just taking a Theists own assertions and reflecting them back and following them to their logical conclusions (at least as they see it.)

    But this can’t really, on it’s own anyhow, explain the robot story example. The host is certainly not talking to a specific person and reflecting back a certain religion’s point of view and following it to it’s logical conclusions. Further he is not even stating what point of view he is speaking from, nor declaring his assumptions he feels Theists hold. Further, it seems unlikely that his logic (that God is so incomprehensible that you can’t capture His teaching in an old book) is even valid under any set of assumptions. (Edit: what I mean here is that an argument like that logically can never establish something is ‘wrong’ only ‘in doubt.’ In other words, it’s logically an insufficient argument on it’s own and needs more. )

    Instead, I think we need to also accept that there is a tacit assumption in his speech that morality is a non-subjective thing and that therefore he and everyone he could possibly imagine talking to must agree with his objective moral worldview. Therefore he has no need to explain it or declare assumptions.

    If I take this as one of my assumptions, then the rest of your explanation makes sense. Given that the host believes morality is non-subjective, and given the assumption that God is supposed to be “good” it then makes a great deal of sense that something he feels is evil must not be from God. (If such a being actually existed.)

    But now doesn’t he owe us an explanation of why he believes in non-subjective morality so deeply that he doesn’t even need to state his assumptions about it? And is that consistent with atheism if we follow it to it’s logical conclusions? So there is still a bit of a mystery here.

  7. Nate W, I didn’t know you were an atheist. Still wondering what an atheist is doing hanging around a Mormon site, but as I have said before you make some great comments, and I personally appreciate you.

    You say you have beliefs: can you describe them in what you believe in, not in what you don’t believe in? Now, be honest: when discussing your beliefs, do you spend most of your time like Christopher Hitchens making your arguments based on how horrible religions are, or do you spend most of your time talking about how true your personal beliefs are (whatever they may be). Having spent most of my life around atheists, rejectionism seems to be the basis of most of their “beliefs.”

  8. Bruce:

    I agree with you about the tacit assumption in the atheist’s speech. I think a lot of what atheists (and most people) project onto God is their conception of the Good–which, given that most people’s conception of God as benevolent, seems like a good starting point. Further, the story is like most science fiction–taking conventional morals and stories and simply changing the place and time to give the reader distance to examine the moral issues. Is it good storytelling? I don’t know, but it’s certainly a familiar method.

    I don’t think that an atheist owes an explanation of why he believes in a non-subjective morality any more than anyone else would. While philosophers have been explicitly wrestling with non-subjective ethics for centuries, I think that we can agree to the broad outlines: Humans have worth; causing sentient beings pain is bad; You should interact with other people in good faith; etc. Of course, sometimes values conflict, and we have to make choices. Different people will disagree, and it may be that the right choice in a given situation, if it exists at all, is hard to discern. I’m not arguing that there is an objective applied morality. Rather, there are principles that, while not objective in the sense that they exist independent of humanity, are shared so widely that they are part of what makes us human. We apply those values and principles to the facts of the situation based on reason and experience, and through communicating with other people, we can refine our skills of applying these moral principles.

    Geoff:

    I appreciate the compliment. I frequent Mormon sites because 1) Mormon thought interests me as an intellectual enterprise, and 2) you are my people–I could no more quit being a Mormon than quit having blue eyes.

    I do have beliefs: I believe in the power of humans to make a better society and world; I believe that humans are entitled to dignity, freedom and equality; I believe that we can know things based on experience and reason; I believe that the measure of what makes a good person are his or her acts (to name just a few beliefs). I almost never talk about how horrible religions are, and I believe that religions are groups of humans and as such, may be a power for good or bad.

    I do worry that there is a propensity among some to shield religious ideas from scrutiny–to the extent that this is done, I object. When religions do things or advocate things that are bad, I will react. However, I believe that people who engage in pure critique are muddleheaded and would always advocate alternatives.

    However, that has nothing to do with whether I believe in God. I do not believe in God because there is no phenomenon that exists that is not more parsimoniously explained without God. That is, while I do not discount the theoretical possibility of a god, there is no compelling evidence of his existence. I also do not believe in the traditional “Triple-O” God because such a being is self-refuting from a logical standpoint. I would be more open to believing in a God that has been described occasionally in Mormonism–a being that is only omniscient because of his ability to predict based on his knowledge of physical processes and human personalities, a being that is has great power but is not omnipotent, and a being who was once as we are. That is a bit more logically coherent, but there is still no evidence for it.

    As far as rejectionism goes, I think that your baseline might be a little skewed. It is somewhat akin to say that a gay person who talks about his or her partner or displays a picture of them at work is being “in your face” about their homosexuality. Theism is ubiquitous and “normal,” and criticism of religion is not viewed as acceptable as criticizing political or other ideas. These two factors will naturally turn up the volume on any atheistic statement. I’m not saying that there are not rejectionist atheists out there, but I would urge you to attempt to distinguish between those who are rejectionist and those who simply treat religion as they would any other idea.

  9. I think that militant atheists are generally rejectionists. I think most atheists probably aren’t militant. The problem is that there is a heuristics problem. You only ever hear from the militant ones.

    On the other hand, I do believe ‘atheism’ is a somewhat abstract and difficult to define concept. It tends to have strong traces of what I personally would call Theism. There was even a recent survey that found that like 20% of self identifying atheists prayed, or something like that. So the word ‘atheist’ covers a lot of ground.

    Nate, I think you are right that there is some level of shared morality amongst humans (probably quite a bit) and I think you are right that people don’t think much of it or how it got there or what it means but instead assume it’s just a given. I’m glad to see you has given this some real thought yourself.

    I think what you are saying is correct: that God = Good to us. So even an atheist, who by very nature believes in the existence of at least a certain level of objective morality, feels comfortable describing what God (Good) is like. I don’t think this alone explains it, but I think this is a significant piece.

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