James A. Lindsay is author of Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly which is a book I edited and released on Onus Books. He has recently written a book due for imminent publishing called Everybody Is Wrong About God. I was lucky enough to see a draft version of the manuscript which I worked on with James. It’s great. Let me tell you a little about it, because I think you should get it (preorder or when it comes out). Here is the book’s description:
With every argument for theism long since discredited, the result is that atheism has become little more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. Thus, engaging in interminable debate with religious believers about the existence of God has become exactly the wrong way for nonbelievers to try to deal with misguided—and often dangerous—belief in a higher power. The key, author James Lindsay argues, is to stop that particular conversation. He demonstrates that whenever people say they believe in “God,” they are really telling us that they have certain psychological and social needs that they do not know how to meet. Lindsay then provides more productive avenues of discussion and action. Once nonbelievers understand this simple point, and drop the very label of atheist, will they be able to change the way we all think about, talk about, and act upon the troublesome notion called “God.”
The book claims that “God” exists, which is rather odd for an atheist, right? It starts, even, with the premise that philosophical arguments for the existence of God have had their day. Well, “God” (as opposed to God) does indeed exist, claims Lindsay, in whatever function that “God” provides. And this is psychological, social, societal, moral and political. We have these needs, as humanity; these needs are real and need fulfilling. Lindsay’s book, then, is a useful introduction to the psychology of religion. Rather than trawl through some (albeit very good) psychology of religion textbooks, Lindsay’s book does a good job of laying out some of the main theories and aspects of religion in the context of psychology.
To me, one of the most important intersections of religion, psychology and society is the idea of death. As Lindsay states (and this text might well have been edited in the final book):
We now should pause and consider atheism in this new light, which I will combine with a short summary of what has just been covered. When nonbelievers want to insist that we are atheists, on some level, many theistic believers who have conflated a mythological God with the “God” they say and mean, will hear a rejection of many of their core values. Further, they will hear a rejection of the grounding for how they understand themselves, other people, their culture, the broader world, and the contextual interrelationships between each of those facets of their experience. If people want to push “atheism,” in the form of “atheism movements” and an “atheist community,” they must do so in recognition of these facts. A better approach would be advocated.
When we realize that when people say “God” that they mean some combination of concepts developed and employed to meet a variety of their core psychosocial needs, it becomes very odd to describe ourselves as “atheists.” Philosophically speaking, it isn’t, but in terms of what that word has always symbolized and, really, what it means—that “God,” conflated with God, doesn’t exist—it is a problem. When we describe ourselves as atheists, then, we unintentionally take on a lot of baggage, some of which is outright nonsense. This will prove to be a perennial problem for atheism.
If atheism continues to become more and more identifiable as a “thing,” as a kind of worldview and a philosophy, it become easier for the religious to conceptualize it in terms they reject. On those terms, as something like a competing religion (a set of moral communities, to be precise), they will find it easy to dig in their heels in their beliefs. Nonbelief is not another kind of belief, and we should shun anything that gives people the excuse to get that fact wrong.
An excellent way to avoid all of these issues is simply to move beyond atheism and to go post-theistic, and a proper understanding of what “God” means can help that goal. What it entails is a shift in thinking that positions us as disinterested in theism because it talks about its central object in entirely the wrong way. The rest of this book is dedicated to outlining some preliminary suggestions about how to shift to a post-theistic world that is no longer concerned with theism or atheism.
In this sense, we need to accept what “God” means and does for us in order to think about ways in which we can provide for those needs in a secular, alternative way.
I have written previously on religion and Terror Management Theory, and how religion offers a very big bribe as a reward of heaven, and threat as eternity in hell, to believers and potential non-believers, and how they then evaluate evidence which might threaten these ideals. If you are dealing with psychosocial dimensions of belief, and “God”, then you have to deal with death. As Lindsay states (again, this could have been edited since this early draft version):
The intent of this book, and particularly this section, is not to develop the complicated and intense interrelationship between religion, “God,” and death, but rather to impress upon the reader that a core part of what “God” means to those who believe in it—perhaps the most important core, possibly outstripping even needs for morality, purpose, and control—is the fantasy of denying death.
The reasons are at the bottom, it seems, both of what it means to be alive and what it means to be human, with so much of our psychology so intimately dependent upon our social environment. We must recognize that for many believers, the assurance of eternal life, which is the denial of death, lives at the core of what they mean when they say “God.” This recognition should lead us to treat the matter differently, hopefully better.
There’s a second and deeper matter involved here as well. If death is one of the hard facts of living a human life, the ultimate extinction of humankind (and all of our endeavors) is a harder fact. This fact directly challenges any sense of ultimate purpose that we can possibly hold because, as the first chapter of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes proclaims, “everything is vanity” (also translated, “meaningless”).
This woeful statement is true in the sense that within some number of years—hopefully relatively large by our standards—humanity will meet its final end, and the machinations of the universe will grind everything we’ve ever done to dust. This observation, which eventually haunts many of us, provides a poignant sense of existential dread. Perhaps because of the preoccupation with eternity, it seems frequently missed that this dread may best be characterized by an outright lack of perspective on the (admittedly local but still significant) importance our lives have to the people with whom we’re interconnected.
Lindsay does a great job in setting out those psychosocial aspects of “God”, after which is introduces ideas and ways of fulfilling those needs in secular ways.
Is it time we shelved “atheism”, in order to get past “theism”?
I look forward to the book coming out. Get yourself a copy!