The following is polemic. Congruence with your stripe of atheism is unlikely. This is intended for an atheist audience. Theists will be offended and should avert their eyes now.
The Useful God of Fiction
There aren’t many churches which can deal with atheists with equanimity. The Unitarian Universalists, at least in North America, are among them, and it is there, as an atheist, where I repair when in need of spiritual sustenance. Nobody there thinks I’m going to hell or that I’m automatically a bad person for not having a relationship with Allah or Odin. I’ve delivered many a homily there, including one about atheism.
It is fashionable, these days, if you are an atheist, to ride the horse of stubbornness, and use it as a platform for the trumpet of stridency. All hail the new millennium of reason; out with the irrational, hated religion in all its forms; down with its tyranny and horrible record across the ages!
So it has always been among those who wish to challenge the constructions and idiocies of power without justice. From slave to free; from ignorant injun to subtle jurist; from non person female to equal; from abused workman to union organizer; from perverse queer to full citizen; from immigrant to representative of the state; over lifetimes of travail and anguish and suffering and legal squabbling and attacks in the press, through lynchings and rapes and seizure of children and property and ancestral land, of suppression of religion and language, those with less in the way of civil rights have fought their way to a place where justice, equality and inclusion in the civil family are at least possible, if at times grudging.
And now the atheists are doing the same. First they poke the religious folks in the eye, by merely breathing, by merely announcing their existence, by putting signs on buses. Atheists don’t have full civil rights, and the reason for that is not far to seek.; we’re hip deep in theists who either want us dead — literally — or think reading the Bible will fix us. We are fighting for our civil rights, because we must, against an outworn set of folkways, that may have worked when our ancestors lived in tents and didn’t know about germs, but lose both dignity and usefulness when we can scan our own brains and show where the special madness that is religious sentiment arises. Most atheists try to live their lives without being too concerned by the idiocies of religion. Some cannot, and will not, now or ever. As is always the case in oppression, a small, vocal, minority, in this case, of atheists, proclaims its desire to destroy its civil enemy, in this case religion, entirely.
Please believe that when I say, “Good luck with that” I’m both exasperated and sarcastic. In the end, I am merely tired. For if we are made by nature to have religious feelings, religious feelings would creep back into daily life even if the more radical atheists achieved their dream of stamping out religion entirely. Somebody would reinvent the notion of God, and ten minutes later there would be tree worshippers and Rush Limbaugh worshippers and people who worship their iPhones. Human beings are hierarchical, imaginative, social and inclined to in-group altruism. Push us into a river, and some of us will pop up praising buoyancy, and the rest will find a God to thank as they splutter to the surface. Modern atheists are like King Canute. They rail against the multiple stupidities of religion, and by God, there are too many to count, but rationality by itself — pure thought – cannot alter the nature of reality, and the sea comes in anyway. It is action, not prayer or hope, that makes the world either better or worse.
I would like to put my own relationship with God in front of other atheists because I think I have something useful to say on the subject, and because I’m tired of the hair-pulling, name-calling and assorted nonsense and bushwah that surrounds the current culture war between religion and reason. God is my thought experiment in imaginary friends.
When I was writing a homily on the truth, my son, whom we raised atheist, then in his early twenties, said something very profound. “How far,” said he, “Are you willing to go in the pursuit of truth? Are you willing to abandon fiction?”
And the answer, of course, is “Good God, no!”
My brother — another atheist — we were raised atheist — remarked recently that we had to find replacements for the God language we use when annoyed, astonished or thankful. “Jesus Christ!” we yell when annoyed. “Thank God!” we murmur when a friend escapes death in an accident. We joked about saying Praise Darwin or Thank Murphy instead.
As a writer, I find such constructions awkward and as an atheist, defensive. If we acknowledge God’s grandeur as fiction, we may use Him as we see fit. It’s not that God doesn’t exist; He does. He’s just no more real than Moby Dick or Frankenstein’s monster or Aragorn or Grendel or Anna Karenina or Shiduri. One is much less likely to come to blows over an interpretation of Anna Karenina or Moby Dick than of Job or Jesus, but nobody would deny that it’s easy to imagine two graduate students getting into a dust up over Grendel, especially if there’s alcohol involved. People fight over imaginary things every day, from the supposed merits of a football team to the right of their children to go unpunished for their transgressions.
Even atheists fight over imaginary things. Why should we be angry at our fellow human beings, for being so quick to defend their favourite actor (Jesus, and his unctuous, mealy-mouthed minions), in their favourite soap opera (daily life)? Well, we are angry at them, because it isn’t an actor, it isn’t a soap opera, and theists are trying to tell us what to think, research, write, fight for, teach our children and most of all say in public, and most atheists consider this ongoing, selfish and unreasoning denial of the essential rights of human beings to be at the very best unjust, and at worst not in the long term best interests of themselves, their children, and the very planet we depend on for the grace of life itself.
I hope I have hinted that atheists are only slightly more rational than theists, whatever their rights and history of injuries as an oppressed minority. If it’s by right of rationality that we announce our superiority to theists, we’re leaning on a feeble reed. I have yet to meet a living soul who didn’t behave irrationally. If, however, we consider atheism as a world view that allows us to put what rationality we can muster in the service of all humankind, regardless of the crap theists lay out on us, then we are at least keeping our irrational hatred of theists in check long enough to acknowledge our common humanity. That’s all I’m expecting my imaginary God to ask of me. What we need, by God, is an atheist Martin Luther King Jr. Somebody who can argue our case with grand enough language that the essential cruelty and mean-spiritedness and ignorance of the average theist towards atheists may be put into a societal context that nobody can ignore.
Until such a paragon arises, let me put it thus: God is a useful fiction, and to deny Him his due in this regard is foolish, in my view.
God has four principal fictional uses for an atheist.
They are: God the Parent; God the Creator; God the Witness; God the Judge.
I’ll start with God the Judge. I find it amusing in the extreme that virtually every time atheists I know get together to discuss religion, one of them will eventually remark that the worst thing about being an atheist is giving up a hell for one’s enemies to be boiling in for all eternity. Or they will refer not to a personal enemy, but to a really evil, nasty person, like a mass murderer, or that cow who talks on her cell phone in the theater.
God the Judge is SUCH a useful fiction. He allows one to go to sleep at night thinking, “He’ll get his,” when thinking about another human being who richly deserves punishment for some crime, and is not likely to get one in this life. Strangely, one never thinks about how God the Judge might render His awful judgement on YOU personally, although when I consider it, I rapidly experience relief that I’m no theist.
For someone with a depressive frame of mind or personality, God the Judge is a terrifying shadow across all of human life. But, as anybody who’s watched an atheist friend kill him or herself, it isn’t just the concept of God’s judgement which drives people around the bend. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We all have our cognitive cross to bear.
Atheists choose not to make God the tent pole which holds their ideas up, but there are plenty of other things one can get wrong over the course of one’s life. The God of Judgement is a comforting fairy tale, like Santa Claus or the check is in the mail. Provided atheists can understand the difference between the psychological desire shared by all humans for justice and the notion that somebody with lightning in his pockets is gonna fix all our scrapes and bruises, not to mention let us view bad people as they poach in a lake of brimstone, it’s all good. I have always liked the idea that “Judgement belongs to God” because I can only view what people do, through my own particular lens, and externalizing Judgement forces me to think that whatever people may do, I simply can’t understand what the hell is going on in their heads, and it’s a comforting fiction to think that somebody does. Judging what people do, that’s easier. That, at least, is based in physical reality, and is less subject to dispute.
God the Witness is not the same thing. I’m very partial to God the witness. Isn’t it a great idea, to think that somebody knows everything? When you’ve been trying very hard, when you have to keep a secret, when you’re forced to do things you really don’t want to do for some greater good, and would love to announce it to the world, but you can’t because you have to keep a promise…. Ah, then it would be so nice to think that some intelligence has got a grip on the good you’ve done. And the bad other people have done.
Once again, it’s interesting for an atheist to do all these thought experiments, because then the lunacy of religion, sometimes buffed down to smoothness by frequent repetition, leaps out in detail. Human beings long for God because they want SOMEBODY to fix us, settle disputes, smooth conflicts, comfort the mournful. In one short breath, we go from wanting a Lord of Hosts to smite our enemies to actually inventing him and then trying to figure out what our imaginary friend would like to have in the way of altar cloths.
God is fiction run amok; there are so few people willing to ask the kids to put their fairy tales away, even among atheists. I can’t even remember the last time I went toe to toe with a theist; it’s bloody pointless most of the time. And what can ya do? It makes family reunions very uncomfortable. Just ask my mother, an unapologetic atheist, who has to keep her cakehole shut when her hordes of Mennonite relatives tell her that they are praying for her, and who react with outraged horror on the few occasions she makes her views known.
Yet my mother (sure, I am biased, but so what?) is one of few people I’ve ever known who came anywhere close to living essential Christian principles, without ever leaning on that old rugged cross, or taking it to the Lord in prayer, or testifying to his loving care or to the power in his blood (yecch). Like all atheists, I know that you don’t have to be religious to have meaning, honour, compassion and awe in your life. I am fortunate in that I learned this at my mother’s knee, and didn’t have to fight my way out of a straight jacket of dogma to win this precious knowledge.
So when I tease my mother, and tell her that God alone knows her trials, we are acknowledging in our bleak joke that it would be simply grand if there was a witness who could really understand her forbearance and kindness. As it is, she’ll have to accept my thanks for not emotionally demolishing her cousins with the intransigent rationality which so often characterizes contemporary atheism. She comes from an older generation of atheists… those who believe that matters of conscience are essentially private, and do not belong in the thoroughfares, where they reduce the effectiveness of honest work by calling into question the beliefs of those who perform it.
Having said that, God knows we need atheists who fight for their rights. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a crass old she-goat, but she got prayer out of the schools. I’m not saying we need her now to roll back the tide of capitalist Christianity which has overwhelmed North American theism in the last 40 years, but it would be nice if somebody with her energy and organizational skills, & without her sociopathic tendencies, provided a rallying point for the current civil rights issues atheists face.
Atheists shouldn’t be surprised her son ran off to be a preacher. Let that be a lesson to all atheists; your belief system, no matter what it is, can never afford you carte blanche to be a jerk, a thief and a lousy parent. Even as bad as she was, her son said she didn’t deserve to die that way, tortured and chopped up into little pieces; but all atheists know that there is a substantial fraction of theists who are as pleased as punch that not only did she die under brutal circumstances, she’s now servicing Satan’s buddies in hell, that being all part of God’s plan. I’m just glad that she will never feel pain again. So much for hell.
O, how humans long for a loving parent to pick them up and hold them sometimes! God the parent is such a beautiful fiction for those of us who had less than ideal families. Somebody to tuck you in, to repel monsters, stand down bullies, find our lost cats, bring the perfect gift, and get supper on the table, night after thankless night. Yup, we could all use a loving parent. An idealized parent. A parent we never fight with, who never beats us or loses us or abandons us or belittles us; a parent who never drinks or dopes or drops trou. What an unimaginable comfort it is, for those who truly believe. As a fiction it’s well nigh irresistible. Once you think about God as your parent, once He occupies that part of your mind, of course he’s going to get you in trouble with those pesky rational atheists. The first time somebody criticized your mom and you were old enough to protest, did you? If you were fortunate enough to have a mother you loved? Of course you did.
God the parent is a very important fiction for atheists to emotionally understand, so that we may more effectively develop compassion rather than contempt for theists. When you criticize a person’s religion, you are kicking their Dad in the goolies, and that, frankly, is never going to win you friends. Even people who hate their church, and every pasty-faced hypocrite in it, will get snarly if you criticize it, because you’re asking them to question Dad, to defy Dad, maybe even to hate and murder him. How can your feelings about your own father ever be rational? If somebody asked me to criticize and defy my own father, I’d feel sick, and then angry. Not murderously so, but I’d be pretty mad. Less sophisticated theists literally can’t tell the difference, emotionally, between a real dad and a Sky Dad. Remember that when you’re making your points.
The last fictional God is the God of Creation; the grand Author of all we see.
As an atheist, I believe, based on what I understand of science, that the physical Universe arose subsequent to the big bang. But that’s just descriptive. What was here before? Does it ebb and flow over multibillions of years, compressing and exploding over and over? Did it only happen once? How many Universes are there, and how are they related? There are times when I long for there to be a God, so that I could meet and ask him about his creation. Was it a story that got out of hand? Did he get bored? Was he lonely? Did he invent all these characters, these elements, these weak and strong forces, knowing they would eventually swirl together and make life? How can humans be the only story?
But as an atheist, I have to sigh over my longing to meet him at a bookstore, so I can get him to autograph his latest work, and ask him some pesky questions about causality and the math that seems to hold the world together.
As an atheist, my ability to see the fictional God for what he is, one possible and entirely natural outgrowth of the way our minds work, which, like all inherited things, physical, genetic and cultural, doesn’t present the same way for all people, is an ongoing trial. It’s not that I want to believe; I don’t believe and I don’t want to. There isn’t an ache in my heart or a hole in my life that only God can fill. There’s probably no God, and I act as if I know or believe that he doesn’t exist. There’s nobody except my fellow human beings to have a relationship with. When I talk about God, it’s like I’m talking about Lafayette, a character in the current TV show True Blood. I can get really wound up about the subject, and talk about his past and his plans and his feelings as if he was not a scripted character on a phosphor dot screen. For a minute, overhearing me, you might think I was talking about a real person. Unlike theists…. I can tell the difference.
God is a fiction, needed by some more than others. You don’t whack a kid for still believing in Santa Claus, or show him contempt. Sometimes you get on the floor and tell the story as if it were really true. Don’t hate theists because their version of “once upon a time” is such a bad story, with so many repellent ‘morals’. It’s best, for your own peace of mind, if you try not to hate theists at all.
Try to tell a more compelling story. And when you realize just how difficult and arduous and challenging that is, perhaps you will then realize why atheism will always be the blessed privilege of a small minority. Those of us who are prepared to live outside the story in order to grasp the truth of the world we inhabit will always be outnumbered by those who wish to gather round the campfire of human memory and tell tall tales.
It’s time atheists gave up on the notion of ever being in the majority. Once upon a time will always trump the truth. In the meantime, we have to get off our asses and defend our rights as members of a minority, and leave the fictions to their fans. The theists, dear friends, we will always have with us.