Dishonesty in Theism

by Quinn O'Neill

6a01156f4da159970b019b00ec78f7970b-300wiIt's a typical Thanksgiving. An elegant dining table is decked with Autumn decor, a large turkey, and all the trimmings. Family and friends have gathered round and bow their heads in prayer. Invariably someone will thank God for this lovely meal and I'll bristle like a cat that's been pet the wrong way.

On the surface, the expression of gratitude seems gracious, but it strikes me as logically incoherent and very obviously so. It's as if someone had expressed thanks for the elephant we're about to feast upon. “I think it's actually a turkey,” I might suggest in bewilderment. “I mean, it looks like a turkey, it's definitely a bird, and I'm quite sure it's not an elephant.” Of course no one mistakes the turkey for an elephant, but it seems just as strange to me, given the annual starvation deaths of millions of children around the world, to suppose that a fair and loving God could be to thank for our lavish feast. Are we to believe that God is responsible for the distribution of food in general or just in those communities where people have enough to eat?

Theism means different things to different people, but as I understand it, it is a conception of God as a supernatural agent who's involved in the governance and direction of worldly affairs. The theist God intervenes in earthly events, answers prayers, and blesses us with holiday feasts.

Theism is the norm both worldwide and in North America, and it spawns regular spectacles of absurdity. “Everyone pray that we'll have nice weather for our picnic this weekend!” a friend might suggest, as if a god who presides over the entire universe, with all of our planet's ruinous typhoons and tsunamis, would tweak the weather systems just to dapple our picnic blanket with sunshine.

When it comes to matters of life and death, appeals for divine intervention are common and the motivation understandable. Loved ones may call for prayers for the safe return of a missing child or for the recovery of a gravely ill relative. But why not pray that no child will ever go missing again or for an end to illness entirely? Would this be any less reasonable?

The logic that underlies theistic ideation bears resemblance to flawed mathematics. Some may find refuge for their alternative realities in postmodernism or political correctness, but in matters of logic and math, the truth of an assertion is independent of our acceptance and understanding of it. It is false that 2 plus 2 is 5, just as it is false that 3/7 times the cube root of 345.7 is 5. People may not know how to investigate the veracity of the latter statement or may not care to, but it is no less false. Even if you feel in your heart that it is personally true for you, it will still be false.

We can easily recognize the logical error in the statement “If God is omnipotent, then he must be tall”. It's clear that this is a non sequitur, at least it should be clear. Here's another: “God is fair and willing to intervene and he will allow innocent men, women, and children to perish in natural disasters.” I hesitate to suggest that it's trickier to spot the problem with this one, lest I seem condescending, but many people fail to see it. Despite the occurrence of natural disasters which cause the indiscriminate deaths and suffering of people and animals, many still believe in a fair and loving God who will intervene even for relatively petty causes – to sway the outcome of a football game, even.

The error in such views is readily apparent to anyone willing to examine them objectively. So apparent is the error, I believe, that such thinking is not just wrong but dishonest. To embrace a position that crumbles with cursory examination requires ultimately that we lie to ourselves. Either we tell ourselves that a belief makes sense to us when it doesn't or we refuse any contemplation of the matter. In the latter case, the dishonesty may be less obvious, but the behavior is telling. If we're confident that our beliefs will withstand critical examination, there is no need to shield them from it. To refuse to examine our beliefs is to know better.

Despite the dishonesty of professing belief in the patently illogical, it's atheists who are often viewed with distrust. In a 2011 study, Canadian and American adults were presented with a hypothetical scenario in which a driver damages a parked car and leaves the scene, then finds a wallet and takes the money. When asked whether the driver was most likely to be a teacher, an atheist teacher, or a rapist teacher, atheist teacher was the most common choice. A Gallup poll conducted last year found that 43% of Americans surveyed would be unwilling to vote for a qualified presidential candidate who happened to be an atheist.

Distrust of atheists may be rooted in the idea that moral values are derived from religion, such that rejection of religion would leave us either amoral or immoral. But the moral sense is largely innate, and often our moral values shape the way we interpret religion rather than being dictated by it. Some time ago, I found myself entwined in conversation with a Jehovah's Witness. When I asked how she felt about parts of Leviticus that seem to condone slavery, she explained that the practice was very different from what we understand by slavery today. It was, in her words, “a kind and loving sort of slavery”. Slaves were well treated and actually free to leave if they chose. This may be a dubious interpretation, but it's not uncommon for religious adherents to embrace a nonliteral interpretation of scripture in order to adapt archaic teachings to more modern values.

Being largely innate, our moral sense is unscathed by the rejection of religion. Acknowledging the incoherence of beliefs that never made sense to us won't change what's important to us, how we feel about other people, or our tendency to empathize or feel compassion for others. If you aren't an aspiring serial killer or sadist today, accepting the improbability of an interventionist God isn't going to make you one.

In some cases, it may actually be adherence to moral values that necessitates the rejection of religious tenets. Once it's become clear that certain beliefs make little sense, continuing to embrace them as truths may feel dishonest. Eric Fromm, the student body president at Northwestern Christian University, recently “came out” as an atheist. In an article for the school's newspaper, he wrote, “I couldn't force myself to believe in God.”

Sometimes there's a fine line between saying we believe and actually believing. As a child indoctrinated into Roman Catholicism, I was required to believe a lot of confusing things. The Holy Trinity was at the same time three people and one. The communion wafer was the body and blood of Christ despite its striking similarity in every respect to a small bread disk. Did I believe it? I said I did.

Saying we believe things that don't make any sense to us is like saying we believe that 2 plus 2 is 5. Whether we're willing to critically examine our beliefs or not, we know better; admitting it doesn't make us less moral, it makes us more honest.