Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reality Answers: Against the Argument from Psychology

Atheists: Like the Fonz, we're real. We're not rebels.
One common statement religious believers make about Atheists takes the form of what I will explain as an Argument from Psychology: An atheistic viewpoint, the religious say, is an expression of that person's desire not to feel accountable to God. Here is one example that is fairly typical, in my experience:
So, what is at the core of the atheist's concern?

As sinful humans, we have an amazing tendency to try to justify our actions. This is something that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. We do something stupid and try to invent plausible reasons why we did it. Sometimes this is to fool others; sometimes it is to convince ourselves that we are not as stupid as our actions indicate.

Sometimes people who have taken a strong point of view on something that is wrong think it is their duty to get others on side, because there is safety in numbers. This is how cults form, and how dictators get away with murder.

If atheists know in their hearts that there really is a God, but they don't want to be accountable to God for their actions, then it starts to make sense why they try so hard to convince others that God doesn't exist.
I said this was a rather typical example, but let's pause over some of its particular statements:

a. The writer's focus is on the mindset of "the atheist," not on making a statement or a formulation of an argument. The writer presumes to have direct and complete understanding of the essence of any atheist. Although I would like not to editorialize here, the intellectual arrogance of the writer's approach is breathtaking.

b. Humans--we're speaking of all humans and all humanity--are "sinful." First, can you think of any realm of human endeavor that dares to claim authority about the default moral standing of every single human being ever? It make no more sense to say "As humans born to goodness" than it does to say "As sinful humans." Again, I feel I must editorialize here and suggest that it's quite repulsive to imagine that humans just are sinful or are born to goodness. I see no reason to condemn or exalt a person as a condition of personhood.

c. Why the grand gesture of separating "human" from "animal"? We people are sinful, but we're better than the animals because we justify our actions. Huh? In any case, one of the great tropes of religious-based writing (to be fair: not only the religious use it) is the move to separate people from animals conceptually. It's a rhetorical gesture that appears both intellectual and commonsensical. But what's wrong with animals? Why would we want to deny that we are a kind of animal?

d. "This is how cults form." No kidding, right? The irony of a cultist trying to imply that Atheists are cult-driven is beautiful. Unfortunately, Atheism--even "militant" or "new" Atheism--fails to meet any standard of definition for the word "cult."

The Argument from Psychology, then, imagines that the Atheist  takes a Machiavellian approach to justifying her or his desires--desires (a) to act in a certain way and (b) to feel in control or in charge. To illustrate: I desire to act in ways that that God has prohibited or not to act in ways that he has commanded. I resent having my will thwarted and having to participate in events that don't make perfect sense to me. By rejecting the idea of God and by swooning over virtually any argument in favor of Atheism, I get to live my life my way and I get to answer to no one else but myself for my personal conduct. I decide for myself which actions are prohibited and which are obligatory. As far as my life is concerned, in effect I am God.

At any rate, this is my formulation of what the Argument from Psychology says. I call it this name--rather than, for instance, the "Argument from Power" or the "Argument from Will"--because the core of the argument is the idea that people undergo a psychological conflict over personal desire (what I want or want to do) and extra-personal rules (that which is prohibited and obligated according to everything that is not me). The word "psychology" also works because it carries the idea that the conflict over desire and rules remains unresolved or incorrectly resolved in Atheists. Thus, while the believer has solved the problem and moved on, the Atheist persists in a state of immaturity or abnormality.

What I see in the Argument from Psychology, then, is an overt rhetorical effort to elevate the idea of the believer against the degraded idea of the Atheist. The believer is wise and centered while the Atheist is foolish and unbalanced. The believer holds the capital-t truth, while the Atheist works "so hard" to convince others of something that is, if not a lie, only little-t truth.

I am not a psychologist and have no psychological training, so please forgive me if my vague model of human subjectivity above is hopelessly naive or even incorrect. But I think I have accurately captured the first and second-level claims in the Argument from Psychology. With this understanding, I want to make my response in the form of different notes and observations:
  1. To believers, the central problem of the Atheist seems to be one of humility or pride. We Atheists are unable or unwilling to humble ourselves before God and God's prescriptions.
  2. Evidently, believers nevertheless admire the initial skeptical impulse of the Atheist. They fully agree that we should question faith--up until the point that we get the very reasonable explanation from the preacher or the theologian. Every question after that point, such as "does that explanation really make sense?", gets into the realm of Atheistic hubris.
  3. The Argument from Psychology de-emphasizes the intellectual questions of God's existence, of the fairness and relevance of ancient moral prescriptions, and of the claims of authority made by various churches and sects. The argument implies that disbelief is a personal problem--it's your fault--and not a problem of evidence, reason, or reality.
  4. The argument clearly defines disbelief as a negative value, as something "foolish." The argument counts on people's insecurities about being wrong. 
  5. The Argument from Psychology seems to suggest that Atheists should be more "sinful" than theists. I suppose it must be true in one sense, but the specifics of sin have changed over time and from sect to sect. I once remarked about sin, in the context of its sibling, purity:
    And that's the thing about a concept such as purity: it represents an ideal or a theoretical construct. It's a term for setting context, not a term of practical reality. It thus sets the context for other concepts. Sin, for example, amounts to a transgression or violation; its meaning relies on and relates to the meaning of purity. Whereas purity sets a line between the ideal and the real, sin crosses that line and even breaks it. The sin is the rejection of the natural, of established order, of differentiation. Sin explodes purity.

    Sin is a profoundly evil idea, then. But more than this it is taught with evil intent. The teaching that says "you are a sinner" instructs people to know themselves as out of sync with the universe, as divided against one's family and community, and as polluting the world. Some teachings suggest that sin can be redeemed, purchased or managed--by the teachers, of course, and for a price. Always for a price.
    Atheists can and do have moral impulses, no less than any other religion or any other group of people.
  6. The Argument from Psychology questions the priorities of the Atheist. It seems to ask, "If your priorities are not 'God, country, family,' then what are they?"
  7. I'm amused by the reasoning that there is some "God position" into which Atheists insert the "self." One of the hardest ideas for an Atheist to communicate to a believer is that there is no "God position." For instance, I cannot exalt myself as the ultimate authority, even for my own behavior, because there is no ultimate authority. I cannot do whatever I want whenever I want. Why? Because my actions have real consequences for myself and others. I don't answer to God--in fact, no one does--I answer to reality.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.