I have a severe issue with what appears to be the overriding principle of Atheism as I’ve often heard it stated. My issue is that, given what people say God is, they profess that people who believe in their own characterization are wrong to believe that there’s an object of which they speak, and that’s the end of it. It’s primarily that the arguments of atheism tend to rely on a straw God that I take issue with, because if atheists had spent any amount of time respecting the people with whom they disagree, they would immediately see that there’s a far more vital problem with arguments “for” the existence of God: no one agrees wholly on what God is. This is often the case even among adherents of the same faith, within the same church, and even within the same family. They may all agree on ‘who’ God is (Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, etc), and there are certainly overlaps in some of the roles God plays in their understanding of how the world fits together, but the powers, preferences, and essential character of God is perpetually under dispute.
In spite of this overwhelming problem with common understanding, most adherents manage to gloss over their differences in respect of their neighbors and in the pursuit of peace (within bounds). Yet proponents of atheism struggle to break that gloss and shake their neighbors into understanding the truth that their convictions hold dear, first the explicit proposition that there is no God, but more importantly to the cause of atheism, the second implicit claim that to perpetuate a false belief is immoral. For the former, atheism fails in its arguments precisely because it cannot hope to identify what doesn’t exist, if the catchword “God” for each person is different. This isn’t the same sort of argument as “you cannot prove Abraham Lincoln didn’t exist” or similar formulae that get easily tossed into the shouting matches that appear to typify the fights between adherents and atheists. I am instead raising that point that one cannot capture in one sense of “God” everything that people claim the word refers to, and summarily reject them all. One can only try to identify the sorts of powers or characters which people ascribe to one or more conceptions of God and treat those accordingly. Omniscience, Omnipotence, and similar characteristics which people commonly hold belong to God are perhaps themselves targets for refutation, but then one would still have to answer those adherents who cling to universal immanence, or forms of strict determinism.
For the latter claim, that to perpetuate false beliefs is inherently immoral, is implicitly expressed in the other sort of argument that I often hear repeated in the vain hope that it will sway adherents based on the sort of reasoning that defeats the first proposition. Namely, that as any given adherent may not believe in Thor, or Zeus, or Horus, or Ba’al any more than they would believe in Santa, then an atheist can easily extend this logic to apply to Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or Vishnu. The substantive reason to point to for atheists in this argument is that as an adherent would view belief in any former deity as false and presumably immoral, then the atheist has avoided committing the same sin by choosing to reject belief in God as well. Yet, if this is the point which an atheist chooses to pursue, she will find it self-defeating. No one agrees on the conception of God, therefore there remains the possibility that one characterization can be correct where others are not, and if this is the case, then perpetuating the potentially false belief of atheism is on par with a belief in the incorrect deity — and so the atheist commits the same sin they implicate believers in.
This is, of course, on the whole both unsatisfying and uncharitable. I for one refuse to believe that well-meaning people who are committed to understanding the truth about the nature of ourselves, the world, and the relations that hold between them could be misled by a trivial untruth, and whether or not any such tremendously wide collection of claims could be judged equal by all is trivially -obviously- untrue. Instead, I believe that there must be some mistake which people can easily make, and as result often do, which leads not to a mistaken belief in God per se, but instead leads to a set of mistaken set of beliefs in general. Furthermore, I’m of the opinion that this mistake is what leads to the more outrageous sorts of claims regarding the character of God which atheists react to, and which many (but not all) commit themselves in summarily rejecting all religious adherence as vicious or immoral.
The mistake I speak of is one that any one of us can fall into without correction: that we ourselves may act as a valid authority on all knowledge- or more perniciously, that it is even the case that when we speak internally, as in when attempting to remember even the simplest of objects. It comes down to the way you think, when you recall facts. We all have an internal voice. It may be the one which you’re reading these words with. The pernicious mistake one can make lies in which pronoun one uses when speaking internally to oneself.
“Where did I leave my car keys this morning?”
“Where did you leave your car keys this morning?”
When using an internal voice, both are valid, but they carry with them severely distinct frames of mind. Are you speaking of yourself? Or to yourself? Or as yourself? Is it even possible that all the many thoughts which occur in your brain have you as their source? What frame of mind does each engender? Which frame of mind links agency to cognition?
My proposition is simple: there are some people who confuse the use of the pronoun you in their internal speech of this nature, with the object that it may refer to and its source, and think of the latter indiscriminately as a source of authority. Some may feel the authority is God. Others may simply take themselves as the authority, but then presume that the object of their pronoun is separate from themselves. Others practiced in prayer may, perhaps always assume that when they speak internally in the second-person frame of mind, that the outwards cast of the phrase you are means that they are addressing God, and so imperative statements held internally or any shift in mood or thought are a form of answer.
In all cases of adherence, what is being implicitly assumed is that to believe in God is to believe that there is another which shares in or is spectator of one’s own consciousness. Thanks to modern neuroscience, we know that this is a far from a trivially true or untrue fact. This I hope also reveals to some extent what the real stakes are for atheists who wish to persist in claiming on behalf of adherents that God does not exist: they are naming and denying that which each person lives with most vitally and leans on to direct themselves. Atheists are denying not the agency of adherents, but the reins by which adherents lead it. Moreover, atheists deny without realization that there is value and meaning to the belief that one is not alone in one’s own skull. Even the limited extent of modern neuroscience tells us clearly that this cannot be true. To interpret our understanding of consciousness to deny that our minds can be a veritable parliament of actors must allow the apparent unity of consciousness to be irreducible to its parts, and that view is well mapped, and called dualism.