Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Theism and Thumb-sucking

Steve Hays of Triablogue is fond of trying to turn secular criticisms of religion back on themselves. In the case of poorly considered criticisms, this can certainly be effective against the criticisms in question, or some questionable premise upon which they may rest. Of course, to suppose further that this somehow implies that any particular secular worldview is therefore invalid or untrue, or that religion is beyond criticism, is simply wishful thinking masquerading as a lofty conclusion. It is also amusing when such efforts backfire (e.g., see here).

In an entry posted in late November this year titled Outgrowing God, Hays tackles the view that theistic beliefs are a childish indulgence and therefore should be abandoned as one matures along with other childish occupations, such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, sulking when one does not get his way, pretending that Middle Earth really exists, etc.
Longtime readers of my blog (what few there may be!) will note that my views on this are nothing novel, as I have in previous entries noted, for example, the indistinguishability between theistic belief in belief in imaginary friends as well as the proclivity noticeable in believers to continue in a faith that obviously started as childish fantasies (as I point out in my blog With Minds of Children). Additionally, in my blog The Role of Imagination in Christian God-Belief I raised the example of Christian philosopher Cornelius Van Til, from his autobiographical sketch Why I Believe in God, in which he explains how he embraced Christianity in his childhood essentially in response to fears which he stoked in his own imagination. For those too lazy to look it up for themselves, I am posting this instructive passage by Van Til again here:
I can recall playing as a child in a sandbox built into a corner of the hay-barn. From the hay-barn I would go through the cow-barn to the house. Built into the hay- barn too, but with doors opening into the cow-barn, was a bed for the working-man. How badly I wanted permission to sleep in that bed for a night! Permission was finally given. Freud was still utterly unknown to me, but I had heard about ghosts and "forerunners of death." That night I heard the cows jingle their chains. I knew there were cows and that they did a lot of jingling with their chains, but after a while I was not quite certain that it was only the cows that made all the noises I heard. Wasn't there someone walking down the aisle back of the cows, and wasn't he approaching my bed? Already I had been taught to say my evening prayers. Some of the words of that prayer were to this effect: "Lord, convert me, that I may be converted." Unmindful of the paradox, I prayed that prayer that night as I had never prayed before.
In fact, Van Til makes the following announcement in the very introduction of this paper:
My whole point [is] that there is perfect harmony between my belief as a child and my belief as a man… My unity is that of a child who walks with its father through the woods.
To which I ask: Why be ‘born again’ when you can just grow up?

So for believers eager to defend the Christian worldview from the charge that it harkens to childish tendencies, there’s quite a bit to overcome here.

In his blog entry Hays writes:
One atheist trope is that Christian faith is childish. We have a duty to wean ourselves from immature belief a celestial father-figure.
There are many immature habits that people take into adulthood, and it seems dubious that one would need to assemble some extended case arguing why we should be careful to correct these. Among those habits I would include belief in invisible magic beings. But in response to Hays’ characterization, I would caution that the importance of overcoming the childish habits is not a question of “duty,” but of rational self-interest: clinging to mistaken views of the world that take foothold in childhood (e.g., the primacy of consciousness, belief in magic, retreating to the imaginary when confronted with uncomfortable facts, etc.) can only cripple a thinker intellectually, and this can impede his ability to live a successful life, achieve genuine happiness, maintain healthy relationships with others, etc. A psychology built on an emotional life invested in fantasies rather than confidence to deal with reality without faking it and the gratification possible only as a result of achieving actual values in life, will only ensure more adult-aged snowflakes in our society.

Suppose you take a new job that you’re excited about, and after a few weeks on the job you discover that your immediate boss thinks that Star Wars stories are true, that Santa Claus is real, that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Austin Powers are actual people. You might wonder how that individual rose to a management level. What confidence could you have in the expectations your boss sets for your job performance? How would you go about resolving conflicts between yourself and your co-workers? How could you trust any decision or judgment your boss makes?

Given the breadth of these general concerns, why should belief in Christian lore have the privilege of claiming itself as an exception? Probably because of reasons which are themselves childish (e.g., “my pastor told me so,” “it calms my fears,” or, as Mike Licona puts it, “I want it to be true,” etc.).

Hays continues:
To that many things could be said, but for now I'd point out that the very atheists who say this often adopt a paternalistic tone of disapproval.
I’m curious how much of this is actual fact (i.e., how true is it that “the very atheists who say this often adopt a paternalistic tone of disapproval”) or merely psychological projection on Hays’ part? I don’t see that Hays has compiled any kind of survey on the matter to support his contention. On the other hand, however, like many religions Christianity is an inherently authoritarian worldview – it holds that everything in the universe is a product of authoritarian acts of will, that everything that happens within the universe is a result of divine planning, that man has a “duty” to obey commandments alleged to have been issued by the Christian god, etc. This is due in large part to the very nature of faith as such. As Ayn Rand pointed out, “Faith in the supernatural begins as faith in the superiority of others” (For the New Intellectual, p. 128). And “faith in the superiority of others” is something that typically begins in childhood, and it can be very hard to correct if carried into adulthood.

This fundamental feature of religious devotion subliminally inclines the believer to evaluating everything in terms of competing personal authorities. For the more confessionally invested believer, the view that “My God said X, so anyone who says non-X must be wrong” goes without saying. All recognitions, no matter how fundamental and regardless of their basis, are characterized as originating in pure fiat. Of course, such a view is a double-edged sword which quickly decapitates its own self.

So it should come as no surprise when defenders of Christianity assume that criticisms of their religious views must have comparable footing in the primacy of consciousness metaphysics: since the primacy of consciousness is taken entirely for granted in the Christian worldview, its adherents are naturally predisposed to assuming that all worldviews must share this fundamental premise (awareness of the objective alternative being debilitated), and in any contest between man’s will and the Christian god’s will, man is always the loser. So any “atheist worldview,” presumably resting its criticisms of religion on human subjectivism, can be no match for the Christian worldview, resting its bulwarks on divine subjectivism.

On such premises, any criticism of any position can be received as striking a tone of disapproval for what is being criticized (and that disapproval may very well be justified!), and any expression of disapproval can be characterized as “paternalistic” in nature. (I’m reminded of how professors I knew back in college seemed to believe that any entrepreneurial venture is a form of “imperialism,” all the while aloof to their own misuse of public trust).

Given these points, I submit that the very tendency to interpret criticism of religion in terms of paternalistic authoritarianism is itself rather childish, and adults would only benefit if they correct such habits.

Hays puts his projection on display when he writes:
They themselves assume the role of father-figures. If you refuse to heed their fatherly advice, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, Coyne, Stenger et al. will be disappointed in you. Don't you wish to make them proud of you?
Of course, if one casts himself in the role of a perpetual child, as Christianity requires, the personalities Hays specifies may very well loom in his mind as father-figures of sorts. Thus I suspect that such evaluations must have more than a fleeting ring of truth in the minds of those who view the world through a prism of authoritarianism. Speaking for myself, I’ve never thought of Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris, or any other critic of religion, as a father-figure. I never had faith in them as superiors. Perhaps I’m unusual here, but I certainly hope not!

As for disappointment, or even disapproval, neither of these has ever motivated my rejection of theism. On the contrary, both disappointment and disapproval were weaponized tactics of the churchmen I knew back when I was a Christian. Simply asking one too many questions was met with a signaling scowl of disapproval, and while such gestures might succeed in bringing an uncomfortable conversation to an end, it certainly never resolved anything, and I couldn’t help but sense this. A mere scowl never answered a perplexing question about one’s faith! Rather, one unstated premise in the environment of mutual worship amounts to: “Don’t provoke the elders’ disapproval!” If the elders disapprove of something, how much more must the creator of the universe disapprove of it?

So again, it appears that Hays is simply projecting here. After all, I couldn’t care less if Richard Dawkins disapproves of my positions. Indeed, I quite expect that he would! And I seriously doubt that any adult thinker who identifies as an atheist does so because he thinks it will make Dawkins or anyone else “proud” of him. But maybe I’m wrong. After all, I’ve noted before that many secularists and the worldviews they’ve assembled are to one degree or another influenced by religion. Take the cult of Joseph Stalin for example. Now there’s an example of having faith in the superiority of a person that a Reverend Jim Jones or David Koresh could only hope to cultivate in their followers.

Hays continues:
Essentially, then, they become substitute father gods. They play on the very psychology they impute to Christian believers.
Do they really? I would probably not have suspected this without Hays’ projective input, inventive as it is. And now that I have the benefit of Hays’ take on the matter, it matters not: I still don’t believe in invisible magic beings, regardless of who disapproves.

Now Steve Hays might disapprove of my rejection of theism, but his disapproval is irrelevant. In fact, could it be that Steve Hays is himself peddling the same fear of disapproval that he accuses non-believers of fostering? Should we fear his disapproval for failing to believe in the god he enshrines in his imagination?

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

Thanks for another one! With the month drawing to a close, I was getting worried that we might not see another entry from you before year's end. Good thing I kept the 'faith'!

I look forward to reading it.


Jason mc said...

It's a Christmas miracle!

I'd be concerned if Hitchens was disappointed in me. Because he's dead.

To be honest I was never a huge fan of any those famous atheist 'fathers'. Dennett would be my favourite. Never heard of Coyne. Maybe I would if I was still involved in the online atheist 'community' as I was a few years ago... I could say I outgrew that (or they might say it outgrew me. It's changed a hell of a lot in years since then!) Doesn't mean I adopted any sort of theism.

Have a rational new year, Dawson and commenters and all readers!


Francois Tremblay said...

Seeing how heavily atheists have been criticizing Dawkins in recent years... I'd say that's bullshit. Many other "leading figures" have been accused of misconducts. Does Hays really not know this? Or is he just lying to gain converts, like the Bible enjoins him to do?