Thursday, November 16, 2017

Is Theism or Atheism a Delusion?

Is the belief that there’s a personal creator of the universe a delusion? Is atheism a delusion? And just what is a delusion anyway? Should our overriding goal be to understand and accept reality? One amusing way into these questions is to consider the confusions in a YouTube video from a Christian apologetics website, innocuously called “Inspiring Philosophy.” Presumably, that website is meant to pretend to be neutral in its quest for philosophical truth, and the website just so happens to confirm something as anachronistic as Christianity. This rhetorical technique might be borrowed from American conservative politicians who call their Machiavellian schemes Office of Special Plans or Patriot Act, to fool gullible individuals who don’t look under the surface of things.

To that extent, these politicians and devious Christian evangelicals are comparable also to the folks at Goldman Sachs who likely agree with their CEO Lloyd Blankfein when he said, shortly after the American banking collapse of 2008, that his bank was “doing God’s work.” His stated reason why he believes that is just that he’s a banker and banks help companies grow by helping them raise capital, which creates wealth and jobs and leads to a virtuous cycle. That, of course, is balderdash, since the wall came down between commercial and investment banks in the US with the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999, which allowed banks like Goldman Sachs to engage in massive fraud, along with much of the rest of America’s financial industry. The insider reading of Blankfein’s comment, then, must be that he’s doing God’s work by being the superior fraudster, which enables his bank to defraud the inferior fraudsters. His is a social Darwinian view of merit: the weak perish in a struggle for survival, which is God’s will, assuming God is the most terrifying beast in the animal kingdom. That is conceivably a neo-Jewish theology, based on synthesizing the tribal bloody-mindedness of most of the Old Testament with modern science-centered naturalism.

In any case, the point of that digression is that we must beware when entering the swamp of evangelical Christian discourse. The author of those videos, whom I’ll call Inspiring Philosopher or IP, proclaims that there’s a “mountain of data” and “overwhelming evidence” demonstrating the truth of theism and of Christianity in particular, and IP refers the interested viewer to cases he’s made such as his video on Plantinga’s ontological argument. IP’s defense of that argument is misleading, mind you, since he says the only controversial premise in the argument is the statement that God’s existence is possible; the rest, he says, “follows modal logic and is uncontroversial” (6:48). Apparently, IP is unaware of the problems of using the much-too-strong reduction rules of the S5 system, which led Plantinga himself to disavow the claim that his argument proves anything. Elsewhere, I explain those problems and some other flaws of the presumptuous ontological argument. If IP thinks this modal argument is part of a mountain of evidence for theism, we should expect the mountain is in fact a molehill.

IP’s discussion of delusions in the other video is full of confusion but it does invite us to reflect on the issue of delusions in this context. IP argues that science shows theistic belief is “natural” and that atheism, on the contrary, is unnatural, since atheism requires “hard cognitive work” to sustain. The human brain is wired to believe in God from a young age, he says, and atheism “overrides our intuitions.” Moreover, atheists are angry at God, according to a study cited by IP which shows no such thing. But this suggests to IP that disbelief in God is only a coping mechanism and itself a delusion. Before I turn to the reason why IP would cobble together such confusion and nonsense, let’s go ahead and demolish his claims.

In a follow-up video, IP sighs and shakes his head at the strawmen trashed by atheistic opponents who say IP’s point about delusions is meant to demonstrate the truth of theism. IP points to a dictionary definition of “delusion,” which says a delusion is either a false belief in general or one caused by a mental disorder. Thus, IP wasn’t trying to prove theism in that video, but was only showing that theism isn’t a delusion since it’s natural rather than mentally disordered, and that if anything, it’s atheism that’s delusional because atheism is unnatural and twisted. Likewise, says IP, he isn’t guilty of the naturalistic fallacy since he doesn’t assume that the naturalness of theism shows that theism is true or even more likely true than atheism. His condescending smokescreens notwithstanding, what IP does is confuse unnaturalness with delusion, since his video on atheism as a delusion asks inclusively whether science indicates religious belief is “unnatural or a delusion” (1:40), as if they went hand in hand, and he means to respond to atheists “who claim religion is an unnatural delusion” (5:38). IP seems to think that since the kind of delusion he’s talking about is due to mental illness, theism can’t be delusional in that sense if theism is natural and intuitive. We’ll see in a moment that this contradicts the author’s more biblical interpretation of atheism.

Here, though, is the truth of the matter. Atheists should expect that religious belief is natural in the sense of being based on common and indeed intuitive or instinctive modes of reasoning and feeling. This is why religions are so universal around the world and throughout history. It does indeed require “hard cognitive work” to override theistic intuitions. Similarly, it took hard cognitive work for early modern scientists to overcome the inertia of dogmatic Church traditions. Atheism is skepticism applied to belief in gods and other supernatural entities, and skepticism in general conflicts with most people’s gullibility and preference to follow leaders. As children we’re gullible because we need to learn quickly from our guardians, since we’re not born prepared to survive independently in the wild. We evolved the knack for learning efficiently by trusting in the authority and good intentions of our guardians. That trait persists in adulthood although it morphs into something less degrading, to preserve our professed dignity as mature moral agents. Most people prefer to follow than to lead, so we trust conventional wisdom as opposed to seeking to subvert our culture’s guiding myths and principles.

Skepticism is thus countercultural. Even when skepticism was in vogue in Europe during the Enlightenment, a liberal secular humanistic culture promptly formed to celebrate science’s achievements, the result of which was a cooptation of skeptical and philosophical values by the modern mass culture which had to preserve the individualistic norms that safeguard the new, capitalistic and democratic centers of power. As the historian Thomas Kuhn showed, even in science normality overtakes the insubordinate asking of paradigm-shifting questions. Businesses still need to research and innovate to grow, but capitalists presume the utility of selfishness and of infinite economic growth. Environmentalist skeptics ask tough questions about the sustainability of modern civilization and are often ostracized just like atheists in the United States, where atheism is still (obscenely) taboo. The upshot is that too much individualism is chaotic, but personal independence, checked by the civic religion of secular humanism, holds together godless society.

So atheists merely extend the science-centered methods of rigorous objectivity and skepticism, from questions about how the world works to the philosophical issue of whether our religious beliefs are true. IP says theism is supported by overwhelming evidence, but that would be strangely superfluous, given what he calls religion’s intuitive appeal. IP says our natural sense that there’s a God was given to us by our Creator (10:50). But if God programmed us to be theists, why would God also supply us with mountains of data to satisfy rational, objective, deprogrammed individuals? Was God anticipating that his theistic programs would break down, so that as a backup he ensured reason would likewise take us only towards theism, leaving the atheist with no excuse on Judgment Day? More on that in a moment, but let’s continue with the assumption that theism is natural and intuitive, since a philosophical naturalist should expect that scientific finding.

Does the naturalness of theism mean theism isn’t a delusion? IP says in his follow-up video that theism could still be deluded in the more general sense of being a false belief, but his concern was only the question of a delusion based on mental illness. As to what a delusion really is, according to the various definitions and explanations at, it’s “a belief that, though false, has been surrendered to and accepted by the whole mind as a truth.” This distinguishes delusion from illusion, since the latter is “an impression that, though false, is entertained provisionally on the recommendation of the senses or the imagination, but awaits full acceptance and may not influence action.” Medically speaking, a delusion is “A false belief strongly held in spite of invalidating evidence, especially as a symptom of mental illness.” In psychiatry, delusion is “a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact.” The word comes from the Latin ludere, which means “to play falsely,” as found also in “ludicrous.” So the general idea is that delusion is a misleading of the whole mind, whether by mental illness or some trick, as in a con or fraud, so that the mind doesn’t see matters clearly and adheres to the false belief despite strong contrary evidence.

The fact that theism is natural doesn’t mean that theism isn’t a delusion in the essential sense of that word. On the contrary, many fallacies and vices are likewise natural to the human brain. This is because the brain evolved as a weapon in our struggle to survive in the midst of wild animals. We didn’t evolve to understand natural reality, so we relied on intuitions to maintain our confidence in ourselves and our tribe; otherwise, objective reason would have burdened us with anxiety prior to our having accumulated the wealth and power of civilization which enables us to indulge in such a luxury. Sexism and racism may likewise be natural. Logicians and cognitive scientists have uncovered many fallacies and biases that are natural to the human mind. Science and objectivity, skepticism and philosophy are artificial, as is the litany of human cultural achievements. We distinguish ourselves as a species to the extent that we act against our nature, beginning with the process of each child’s enculturation. So to say that God gifts us with one intuition (the naturalness of theistic belief), whereas he prohibits all others—since according to Genesis we alone are made in God’s image and are meant to be lords over all other creatures, which requires the artificiality of reason and culture—is to engage in special pleading.

As to whether theism counts as a mental illness, the atheistic point would be that even though theism is based on common, natural fallacies and biases, theism is still disordered relative to our higher nature. This higher nature is the enlightened human mind, the product of much artificiality, such as cultural training and objective reasoning. Our higher nature is that which distinguishes humankind from all other animal species, that which makes us godlike and unnatural, that which has produced the Anthropocene, the Age of Humankind. If we take our artificial, virtually supernatural traits for granted as being essential to our higher selves, it’s the vulgar mindset which is content with mere biological programming and biases that becomes disordered. This disorder is regression to an animal way of life, shirking our existential responsibility to swear allegiance to our higher calling of being noble, awakened persons who understand and wisely respond to the truth. Our higher self has no use for lame, old-fashioned theism, precisely because those religious beliefs are so common. Their commonality and intuitiveness tip us off to the fallacies and biases which generate those beliefs, and to the tribal, animalistic practices which sustain them. Whether theism is due to a particular neurological disorder is neither here nor there, since psychiatrists change their mind about what counts as a disorder every time they write a new edition of the DSM. Moreover, the psychiatric concept of mental disorders presupposes social convention as the source of mental functionality and thus of the normativity of mental health. As long as religions are common and socially useful, scientistic psychiatrists won’t consider them disordered, since they need popular opinion to underwrite their appeal to normativity. In short, mental health is a matter of fitting into society, of being able to fulfill your social functions. Religions help bind society together, so there might not be social functions without religions or without a similarly irrational source of self-esteem to replace them.

Again, this has no bearing on whether theism is essentially delusional and disordered in the existential sense. The average, exoteric theist is delusional in the Age of Reason. For example, IP thinks Plantinga’s ontological argument is part of a mountain of evidence proving theism, even though Plantinga himself says his argument shows at best that theistic belief is rational (and Plantinga is badly wrong about that too, as I show in my article on that argument). IP glides over the problems with the modal argument to maintain the pretense that the evidence is overwhelmingly in theism’s favour. Is IP trying to mislead others? Possibly, because the name of his website is certainly misleading, as I said. Maybe IP doesn’t understand the modal argument even though he pompously claims to be able to explain it to atheists whom he thinks fail to grasp it, which is allegedly why they don’t accept that God can be defined into existence. In any case, the evidence gathered from objective examination of the natural universe points far away from ancient, anthropocentric theism. The theist’s greater delusion is to be content with our lower, more genetically-programmed self in spite of the manifest availability of our higher, more authentic personhood. The evidence of that higher self consists of the array of artificialities of human culture, beginning with our earliest instances of rising above the animal kingdom, in the Stone Age, and including the creation of human language and mental models which allow us to escape the past and the present, into hypotheses about possible futures. Science, skepticism, and atheism itself are further evidence of that godlike self which transcends what our genes had in mind for us, which learns the error and inhumanity of many of our conventional ways, of many of our intuitions and instincts and cognitive biases.

Are atheists angry at God, as IP claims? Of course not. At 9:06 into the video, IP displays the lengthy, detailed abstract of an article, called “Anger toward God: Social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer.” As you can tell from the title, the article isn’t primarily about atheism, but about the link between sadness about some illness and anger towards God. The abstract makes numerous claims about “anger towards God” until it gets to its single point about atheists, which is that “Some atheists and agnostics reported anger involving God, particularly on measures emphasizing past experiences (Study 2) and images of a hypothetical God (Study 3)” (my emphases). The abstract concludes that “Taken together, these studies suggest that anger toward God is an important dimension of religious and spiritual experience” (my emphases), which links anger toward God only with religious experience. Atheists might have anger involving God in that they’re angry at religions and at theists who themselves believe in God. Certainly, this article on anger towards God in the general context of bereavement doesn’t show that atheists secretly or unconsciously believe there’s a God so that they can be angry towards God even though they declare there’s no divine person at whom to be angry.

So why would a Christian “philosopher” want to show that atheism is unnatural even though that’s far from a failing, that atheism is a delusion even though atheists are also supposed to be angry at God (the delusion in question would be due to an involuntary mental disorder), and all while insisting that theism is backed up by overwhelming evidence even though part of that evidence is the dubious modal ontological argument? What is driving this particular assortment of theistic follies? The clues are dispersed throughout IP’s video—atheism requires hard cognitive effort, atheism is unnatural, atheists are angry at God, and the quaint biblical references—but IP reveals his true agenda towards the video’s end, at the eleventh minute and afterward, when he says that the reason atheists continue to reject IP’s case for theism, even though theism should be easy to accept because of its naturalness, is because atheists have “an underlying emotional desire to reject God,” whether that desire be “anger” or “the desire to be their own God.” IP then reaffirms his conviction that that “the point remains there is no good reason to reject the existence of God, especially when we have a mountain of data to support our arguments.”

Whereas his website purports to be focused on philosophy, IP is, of course, primarily concerned with defending a literalistic reading of the Bible. Specifically, IP needs to feel good about the Christian doctrine that nonbelievers will all burn forever in hellfire. IP’s references to scientific studies and philosophical arguments are so many jumbled rationalizations to deal with the cognitive dissonance of maintaining, passive-aggressively, that atheism is a sin that will be punished by God on Judgment Day. You see, only if atheism were a voluntary, effortful desire to oppose God would the atheist as such be deserving of punishment. This is why IP thinks he’s scored a point by showing that atheism is unnatural, since “unnatural” is ambiguous and can mean “lacking human qualities or sympathies; monstrous; inhuman.” At any rate, his goal is to show that atheism is a wicked deviation from the norm, where normality—namely the natural (primitive and obsolete) intuition that theism is correct—is established by God. That way, the Christian can feel comfortable with the New Testament’s blanket condemnation of unbelievers. Whether theism is rational is irrelevant for the evangelical Christian, because this Christian is pledged to all manner of absurd beliefs such as that God wrote a book or that Jesus rose from the dead and flew into outer space (Luke 24:51, Acts 1:9-10), so that this Christian’s view of what counts as rational is warped and unreliable. That which contributes to the “mountain of data” will be any lame argument or irrelevant study which superficially lends credence to the simpleminded Christian worldview that flies in the face of the Age of Reason and its upshot, which is philosophical naturalism.

IP leaves the viewer with a quotation from the Oxford mathematician and Christian apologist John Lennox, that “Atheism is a fairy tale for people afraid of the light.” In case Lennox hadn’t noticed, the universe is mostly dark, not light, and if dark energy continues to exert its influence, the universe will continue to fly apart until no star is visible around Earth and every star will flame out. If fairy tales are needed to overcome our existential fear, perhaps we should turn our attention to theism which says, despite all appearances, that reality is fundamentally light, not darkness, that what’s most real is Mind and Goodness, as embodied by a Sky Father, not the strange living death of a self-creating and evolving, impersonal but naturally-ordered cosmos.

The author and narrator of “Inspiring Philosophy” sounds like a young person whose voice is still cracking from puberty; certainly, the research and thinking that go into his videos are sophomoric. But it’s important to understand that neither theists nor atheists should get hung up about which side is “deluded.” Childish theism is obviously a delusion, but all that’s best about human nature is unnatural in that our terrifying strength is to transcend the animal kingdom and rise up from an anomalous foothold from which we can indeed view and act in the universe as godlike beings. No other animal on earth has come close to guessing the size of the universe, to sending out satellites to measure the vast reaches of outer space. That is a fantastically-unnatural achievement, as is the invention of the higher, cultured self in the first place which is capable of such daring feats of imagination and engineering. John Lennox’s math derives not from platonic heaven, but from our ability to evoke games into being, complete with rules that legislate the rigid properties of the moves that will be codified as legitimate in such useful fictions. Theistic religion is likewise immensely useful, not for understanding impersonal reality, as with mathematics, but for its reassuring myths which historically have allowed psychopaths to rule the mob by professing that their authority derived from an unquestionable sky tyrant. Religions were instrumental in the solidification of empires which were in turn crucial to the development of civilization and to the proliferation of culture. And this development may have gone too far, since the ecosystems threatened by our narrow-minded progress can reestablish natural equilibrium by eliminating us godlike animals. Thus, liberal secular humanism may prove to be a form of madness, too, a tragically-heroic delusion of abandoning the stable sort of existence of bacteria or of blundering dinosaurs, to reach for the stars and to awaken to the inhuman truth by doubting the veracity of all the instincts, intuitions, and biases that make us happy at the expense of our higher selves.  

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