Summary Notes for Everybody Is Wrong About God
Part 0: The Introduction
James A. Lindsay -- @goddoesnt
The concept of "post-theism" as described in my 2015 book Everybody Is Wrong About God has become something of a point of discussion lately. If that book has a flaw (which, it's fair to say, it does), it is somewhat academically dense and difficult to read, and the points it presents are highly nuanced. Much of the current discussion seems to involve misinterpretations of what I've written or said, somewhat (un?)surprisingly largely from people who have not read the book but take offense to the notion of "post-theism" and who like "their atheism" just as it is, thank you very much. Maybe it should be said that there's a certain depressing quality to feeling a need to re-read and comment upon your own work that arises wholly from the fact that people really are keen to criticize that which they haven't read and don't like the sound of anyway.
Incidentally, almost all of the negative response to EIWAG has been from disgruntled movement-type atheists, not those religious people who have read it and shared their thoughts with me.
In light of the renewed interest in the book and this difficulty with it, it has occurred to me (thanks to some consulting) that making something like easily digestible summary notes of my primary points would be helpful. Originally, I had intended to end each chapter with such a summary (and Chapter 4 retains an edited version of its summary at the end), but I ultimately decided it was unnecessary. I'm amending that decision now. These summaries will be more substantive than what I would have put into the book, but they also start with a bullet-point list of key ideas.
I will publish these notes by chapter, as I have time, and you can think of them like a summary of the ideas presented in EIWAG updated with a little over a year's chance to reflect upon them and their impact in practice. They will be kept relatively brief and (hopefully) easily understandable with the aim of getting my main points across in brief. Development of these ideas is available in the book itself, and I encourage those interested to examine them.
Introduction: The Next Rational Move
-We should try to see "God" without relying upon theism to do so, and psychology will let us do that.
-Doing so allows us to "get rid of God for good," that is, to place "the entire theistic enterprise beneath serious consideration."
-To get over theism completely, we have to get over atheism too, which naturally exists in a point-counterpoint relationship with theism.
-Theism lost the bid for intellectual credibility, though it is still a potent cultural force. We shouldn't fight the intellectual fight anymore (because it's over) and shouldn't fight a cultural fight intellectually (because it's the wrong way to do it).
-"God" is better accounted for by psychology (and some sociology) than by theism or theology.
-The atheism movement has run its course and needs a new direction and new tools. It must recognize what "God" and religion really represent, and it should probably stop describing itself as "atheist" in nature. That term is loaded and has overplayed its hand for the present.
-Changing our mindset in this way (to what I've called "post-theistic," meaning after the relevance of theism and its terms) delegitimizes religion more effectively than atheism while respecting it more without accommodating it.
-Tribalism is bad, even when done by atheists for atheists.
A More-Detailed Summary
One: "The next rational move: Considering the entire theistic enterprise beneath serious consideration." –A combined quote that arose from my friend Peter Boghossian (who also wrote the foreword to EIWAG) and I
This idea is the goal of the book: to put "the entire theistic enterprise" behind us, eventually, and to facilitate that effort.
Theism means belief in God, and the "entire theistic enterprise" refers to all of the trappings related to belief in God or gods, and by some extension, religious belief. This is a long-range goal by any reckoning, but it's also specific. The goal is to make theism seem little more than quaint and irrelevant in public life. It's to reach a state in which, however many people still believe in any old gods, in the public spheres where it matters, we take belief no more seriously than we do astrology.
That goal is obvious, however, to many who identify as atheists. The question is how we should do it; whether or not we should continue what we're doing or try something different. I say it's (past) time for a change.
We will leave God behind, I contend, not by rejecting theism so much as rejecting the very terms that theism is written in. That is, I advocate that we start treating belief in God exactly like we treat every other myth, giving it no special treatment due to its popularity. We don't do it by fighting; we do it by walking away and inviting religious claims to catch up or be left behind. This book is geared toward showing us how to do that by stealing "God" from theism entirely.
Leaving theism behind is the last step in getting rid of God for good. It can only happen after we ditch theism. We ditch theism by rejecting its terms as blatantly mythological, not philosophical. We shouldn't even treat theism in "spiritual" terms (this poisoned s-word being a term I want to retain while slowly jettisoning the mystical trappings around it, which are known as spiritualism, not spirituality).
Leaving theism behind, however, also requires us to leave atheism behind. The issue is that atheism, to any degree we might pretend it is a thing at all, is never more than a mere counterpoint to theism. That means to maintain atheism is to maintain theism by negation. Doing atheism, whatever is meant by that, props up theism by its unavoidable point-counterpoint relationship with theism. This unfortunate fact stands because without theism to give it meaning, atheism has no meaning at all.
Worse, to make atheism into a movement is to imbue it with social identity, an occurrence common to its out-groups as well, and so theistic religions become entrenched by resisting any movement on behalf of atheism. This point has to be made cautiously, however, because two apparently contradictory things happen at once. Movement atheism makes progress with a population we might call A, while it emboldens and strengthens another population we might call R (while giving them practice at resisting movement atheism, like when infectious bacteria become antibiotic-resistant).
Right now, R is a lot bigger than A (and growing more rapidly globally), and it has a lot more to lose, so it would be prudent to realize that R can only be pushed so hard before they rebel and do something crazy, like elect Donald Trump (with 81% support from Evangelical Christians, no less), in part to shut up the yammering people in A. (Whether or not these people are yammering because of yammering people in R isn't precisely relevant because somebody has to break toxic cycles, and they usually win the moral high ground by doing so.)
Two: Atheism Victorious
Theism has already lost the bid for intellectual credibility (possibly more than a century ago). In that way, atheism, as something like a counter-philosophy to theism has emerged victorious in the war of ideas, even as theism continues to be popular and to grow. (NB: Neither satisfactorily counts as a philosophy at all for reasons detailed in EIWAG.)
This is difficult to understand, but it has an almost perfect analogue: racism. The idea of racism is done, both intellectually and morally, and barring an unforeseeable reset in human understanding (no, Trump's election isn't nearly that), it isn't going to regain intellectual or moral credibility, even if it is still commonplace or even momentarily ascendant. This victory against racism, while not necessarily final and certainly not complete, is similar to the victory of naturalistic thought over mythological notions that include supernatural elements, including theism. In this way "atheism" is victorious over theism.
Why should we believe this claim? We now understand that "God" is often given as an answer but that it answers no questions at all. Theism - belief in God - represents an immature model of the universe that uses magic as a placeholder for explanatory or predictive power. The battle of ideas turned decisively when Laplace allegedly remarked that he had no need for "that hypothesis," meaning God, in his model of the universe.
So far as theism representing a workable model for the universe goes, God's ultimate irrelevance has gradually proved fatal. As I put it in EIWAG, "To say 'God created the universe' tells us exactly nothing at all about how it happened. … This is the hallmark of mythology." (p. 19). It hasn't come back, and unless we beat ourselves into an earlier age of human civilization, it won't. We expect more out of mature models than theism has to offer, though its purveyors are welcome to try.
Further, it isn't even clear what questions like "does God exist?" are asking. There are two options here: to use theism to assume you know what is meant by the word "God" in that question, or to abandon theism completely and recognize that, in all honesty, you have no idea what that word must really mean. Again, this is the hallmark of mythology. Put another way, it reveals "God" to be the figurehead of an immature model of reality.
All that's left to account for, then, is the raging popularity of theism despite its glaring failures, and much of the rest of EIWAG (the titular theme, in fact) is dedicated to providing a detailed explanation. I'll give you a hint: it isn't that the ideas are convincing nearly so much as it is that they're comforting, in a completely deep and core way. EIWAG hopes to reach to this reality by kidnapping "God" from theism and delivering it into psychology. It invites those lacking belief in God to dump (active) atheism and to take this more informed approach.
My thoughts about "atheism" then include that it should see theism as intellectually bankrupt and stop pretending it isn't "for the sake of argument." EIWAG points out that there is a better way. It shows us how to understand "God" without theism. It argues very effectively that what is meant by "God" is not best accounted for by theism or theology of any kind. (Psychology, in fact, does far better.)
Pretending theism is worth talking about on its own terms, even for the sake of argument, has lost its shine and should be abandoned. This happened, I argue, as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion "became a part of our cultural furniture" by ceasing to be controversial, which happened around roughly 2010.
Three: The Goal All Along
The goal all along, so long as there has been resistance to theistic religious belief, has been to normalize nonbelief (even to the point where the term "atheist" is completely irrelevant). This is to be distinguished from normalizing atheism. "Atheism," as it is practiced - and yes, it is definitely practiced - is a momentary anomaly while nonbelief fights directly against religious supremacy. There's more to say about this, but I'll cover it a little further down.
Four: Why Now?
The Atheism Movement, as it has been done, has done most of what it can do, so it needs a change, a new direction befitting its current circumstances. Proceeding requires new objectives and new tools. It is time to change focus to working to secure and spread secularism while holding off religious supremacy and theocracy instead of mainly attempting to diminish religious belief and free closeted nonbelievers. Particularly, now that the door to normalized nonbelief has been beaten down (even if we haven't fully walked through it), more nuance is needed, and that will require a clear understanding of the factors that cause and entrench religious belief. It will not do to wage a war of ideas when the fight is now moral and, where pragmatic matters are salient, legal.
We also do not need more tribalism (like atheism versus religion). This attitude has worked to win some victories, but it is losing steam and generating an effective opposition, even from within. I have a lot of conversations with people, believers and not, and the general assessment is increasingly that the word "atheist" is increasingly connotatively associated with people who want to argue about religion in a wholly negative way. Those who are technically atheists who feel this way are rejecting the label as divisive and unnecessary. Those who aren't, in my experience, increasingly use it as a marker not to engage in conversations about religion with "atheists."
More importantly, those who don't actively identify as atheists seem more and more to act like atheism is like a competing religious position (at least at the moral level, and thus more broadly, at the psychosocial level). The results of this are clear: "atheism" will be largely ignored by religionists for peddling a competing "theology" (in this case, they see "atheist theology" essentially as science, and widespread public distrust in a "atheistic religion of science" is an ideological catastrophe in our modern world), and atheists will be convenient scapegoats for religious supremacy movements. A nontribal approach to our conversation makes all the difference, then.
Five: Why This?
Giving up on atheism and treating theism merely as an immature model of the universe (and religion as a social and moral object in thrall to that model for deep-seated reasons) delegitimizes belief in God and adherence to religion in a way that fighting directly cannot. It does so while respecting religion and yet in no way being accommodationist. It merely treats religious models as immature and offers them the chance to improve and then prove their stuff against models that left them behind centuries ago (knowing they can't, but that's their problem).
Changing our mindset in this way also allows "atheism" to mature out of what is clearly a rebellious phase. It enables people who don't believe in God to have more honest conversations that are more likely to get to the underlying beliefs and concerns and less likely to come off like two competitors trading business cards at a conference. We want to avoid backlash and tribal fights that entrench people, so we need this new tool (which will get more explanation in Chapter 3: Post-Theism).
Changing our mindset in this way also allows us to see religion more clearly for what it is, which allows us to address its supremacy movements more effectively. We can see religions as moral tribes, which are cultural objects that offer benefits and invite problems, and this changes how we will communicate with their members in ways that should benefit us all. It also allows us to refocus our priorities toward working for secularism while holding off theocracy instead of fighting with people's core personal beliefs (and losing sight of the end-game in the process: having them embrace secular values, like freedom of and from religion, even if they maintain their own beliefs in the process, as many of them surely will).