Summary Notes for Everybody Is Wrong About God
Part 1 – Chapter 1: Exposing Theism
James A. Lindsay -- @goddoesnt
[Author's note, for context: The concept of "post-theism" as described in my 2015 book Everybody Is Wrong About God has become controversial. In light of the renewed interest in the book, it has occurred to me (thanks to some consulting) that making something like easily digestible summary notes of my primary points would be helpful. 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.]
Bullet-Point Summary of Chapter 1: Exposing Theism
-Theism is a kind of mythology and therefore shouldn't be treated like a kind of philosophy.
-The term "God" means something important to people that can't be ignored or assumed (usually we assume the language of theism for this, which is how everybody is wrong about God).
-We only talk about "God" in terms of theism, so we talk past each other and perpetuate a contentious, needless conversation.
-"God" is a term that is ultimately psychological, and understanding this fact enables different (hopefully better) conversations about belief in God.
-All religions seem to speak to the same things because all religions have the same thing in common: human beings, or, if you'd rather, human psychology.
-Theology is worthless for figuring anything out. This is the hallmark of starting from your conclusion.
-The idea of "God" allows people to meet, pretend to meet, or ignore salient psychological and social needs (especially needs for understanding, control, and social identity).
-"God" is technically what we could call an attributional framework, a set of connected ideas and assumptions use to make sense of the world (or to try to make sense of it).
-"God" is an idea people use to manage their social milieu.
-"God" is more economically explained by psychology than by theism. That is, my model of "God," presented in EIWAG, is a more mature model than theism can provide.
-Because "God" has a meaning that obviously describes much in the human experience, it feels natural and reasonable to believe in God.
-Believers are wrong, but they aren't wrong in the way atheists tend to accuse them of being wrong.
-The goal of EIWAG is to provide a non-theistic account for the term "God."
More Detailed Summary
One: About Theism
To clarify the term, theism means belief in God or gods, but it means a lot more than that in practice. It usually entails belief in a personal God who was and is also responsible for a great many things, not least the creation of the universe and maintenance of moral law. Because of this status, theologians and the clergy have done an excellent job throughout history of maintaining a state in which theism enjoys a certain undeserved status of being philosophically technical and interesting. "The central contention of this book," I wrote on p. 34, "is that theism, being a kind of mythology, isn't technical or interesting; it's the wrong model for making sense of the myriad ideas caught up in the word 'God.'"
Still, that term, "God" means something important. Very important. But theism misses it. Since we only ever talk about "God" in terms of theism, we continually talk past each other. This miscommunication (and little more than this) perpetuates the conversation about "God." As this conversation is divisive and ultimately misguided, we should do better. The question is how we can achieve better conversations.
As human minds exist, psychology is obviously better than theism or theology for talking about "God." There are many reasons that this is the case, but maybe most significant among them is the obvious cultural dependency of religious beliefs – we tend to believe the same religion as our parents, adopt the religion of our partners, or otherwise take up some faith that is dominant in our culture (unless we're "spiritual seekers," in which case we're often choosing according to a resonant counter-culture).
The cultural dependence of religious beliefs means they're ultimately psychological phenomena. As social and moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it, "A dictum of cultural psychology is that 'culture and psyche make each other up.'" (The Righteous Mind, p. 115, the inner quotation is borrowed from Richard Shweder).
Two: Common Threads
"The seemingly timeless and absolute grains of truth hiding within religious beliefs speak only to the fact that all of our cultures and religions have something in common: human beings." (p. 36)
That is, religion is a human thing, and the notion we call "divine" is a human thing too (as will be developed in later chapters, it is an explicitly moral psychological human thing). We needn't look to metaphysics (theology) to explain what is readily at hand. Religions evolved within human cultures to meet human needs. (Specifically, they did so before we evolved functional systems of governance that do the job far, far better - and this statement isn't a poor analogy because the links between theology and theocracy are almost unbreakable. Religions, as moral communities, are in many ways effectively forms of governance for cultures.)
Three: Failure of Theology
Theology is the "philosophical" engine of theism. (It isn't philosophical; it's sophistry.) It's uniquely unreliable for figuring out much of anything. This is the hallmark and downfall of starting from your conclusion.
This statement isn't as controversial as it used to be, but no theologian would accept it. To elaborate, then….
It's probable that given any statement that can be formulated in the language of theism, there exists at least one theology that defends it (and probably another that sees it as a heresy). More importantly, theology lacks any grown-up means for resolving its disputes. There is no God to look at, and so the arguments are all as hopeless as they are circular. The beliefs are mostly held in service to human psychological and social needs, and so even the arguments are pointless except as armchair social psychology. The epistemology of theology is nothing more than intuitive speculation about social and psychological phenomena. Its method is doctrine held failingly and grudgingly against the sway of public mood and social progress.
Four: Introducing "God"
"God" is an abstraction, an idea (or set of ideas – this gets complicated). The idea of "God" allows people to meet, pretend to meet, or ignore salient psychological and social needs (especially understanding, control, and social identity).
Although it comes off a bit heavy on the jargon, "God" is technically what we could call an attributional framework, a set of connected ideas and assumptions used to make sense of the world (or to try to make sense of it). This includes the physical universe and its mysteries (see the "God of the Gaps"), and it includes our social and cultural universes.
The social (hence moral) element of "God" is paramount. Core to the idea of "God" is usually the Platonic ideal of Goodness, which Abrahamic faiths express as God's alleged moral perfection. Ultimately, "God" is an idea people use to manage their social milieu, and so it is extremely invested in moral behavior. This follows because God is the mythological figurehead of a moral tribe.
Five: Model Superiority
"God" is more economically explained by psychology than by theism, whether we can obtain philosophical certainty against theism or not. That is, my model of "God," presented in EIWAG, is a more mature model for the deity than theism can provide. That's because my model is based in the psychology of religion and so carries with it all of the descriptive power of that field of scientific study (and whatever predictive power it holds as well). Theology lacks the (epistemological) tools to supersede any science, including psychology.
Six: Natural Theology
Because "God" has a meaning that obviously describes much in the human experience, it feels natural and reasonable to believe in God. This explains why believers feel so certain and confident in their beliefs. Belief in the ideas the word "God" represents is perfectly reasonable. Again, this is a hallmark of mythological thinking. There is some phenomenon that really is occurring, and the theistic model attempts to describe it. To say it's a bad model is to mean it's an immature model because it is bad in that way specifically. In other ways, it has evolved and adapted to the task so effectively and thoroughly that it feels seamless (as evolution often manages to accomplish).
The gravity of this point cannot be overstated. Believers aren't wrong in the way atheists tend to accuse them of being wrong. Understanding this point changes everything in how you approach religious beliefs. Believers are merely operating with an immature model of the universe (but one otherwise reasonably effective for the needs of primitive human civilizations). Where theism really goes wrong as a model is that it happens to commit the tragic and unfortunately intolerable error of claiming infallible morals and absolute authority over human experience.
Seven: The Goal of Everybody Is Wrong About God
In light of these statements, I can now give a clear statement of my goal in EIWAG. It is to provide a non-theistic account for the term "God." The rest of the book is about what must be recognized and done if we embrace a non-theistic account of "God." I aim to do this by claiming both that God is a myth and to go further by explaining what it is God mythologizes.
The first of three consequences of this change in mindset is that it ruins theism, which needs no elaboration. It literally steals theism's object from it and renders theism useless.
The second is that it ruins atheism, insofar as atheism can be construed as "atheism versus theism." Theism doesn't make sense in its own terms, and atheism, as atheism versus theism, therefore doesn't either. ("Atheism" only makes sense as a de facto state, if we must decide to use it as a word to describe people who lack belief in God or gods, which should be increasingly irrelevant. One can happen to be an atheist, but one cannot sensibly actively be an atheist, although one could be an atheism activist or other such things.)
The third is that it ruins theology and, more broadly, the philosophy of religion. There's no point in talking about a psychological and social object via theology or even philosophy as it is practiced in the philosophy of religion (which argues over theistic claims). Theology and the philosophy of religion should be seen as generally useless as a result and left behind as unserious ways to think about the world.