No other debate seems to generate as much antipathy and levels of mutual condescension than that concerned with belief in a god. History is soaked in the martyrdom of groups of believers, often even when the groups are merely variations on a larger one. A very real fear surrounds political rhetoric concerning crusades or some other declaration pitting one religious group against another. Certainly many wars have been fought within that dynamic, but it’s fair to say that those are eclipsed in number by conflicts of sects within larger groups. The conflagration that is the Middle World, for instance, is not between Christianity and Islam but that of the sects of Islam. With that in mind it is certainly a blessing that the modern vocal debate between atheism and theism does not follow the same trend.
Still, while violence does not typically follow this debate, similar levels of ignorance and condescension do. Much is said about how tribalism has a hand in this, pitting one group against another as we fulfill the human social propensity to separate ourselves into disparate groups. The difficulty here is tribalism doesn’t necessitate conflict or certainly not conflict of any particular kind. We can no more stop identifying with groups than we can stop forming pictures from disparate data points, like seeing Jesus on a piece of toast or animals in cloud formations. What we can shift is what we then do after such automatic tendencies, the “second-step” so to speak along a particular path. The first step doesn’t necessitate a conclusion, only a trajectory. What we do after will far more determine where we find ourselves ending up.
Determining an end goal in any debate is an important variable in what behavior manifests along the way. If the goal is a collapse of the other person’s position, then total war is often inevitable. Words such as “decimate” start getting bandied about. Unfortunately for those cheering on one side, the other side will often use the same descriptive terms for the same debate. This is an indication of where the war metaphor loses its legitimacy. In a physical war, “decimation” is possible, there are physical objects that move from one state to another, from completion to destruction. This is difficult to determine when it comes to ideological debates because the fortresses of a person’s individual mind are not so clearly constructed. At the surface level of speech, a person’s position can appear to varying degrees stable and monolithic. Beneath that surface each belief is an amalgamation of various other beliefs, often predicated on a structure of viewing the world that is little acknowledged.
Keeping within the topic at hand, we can look at the belief in a god. Note first that it’s stated as belief in “a god,” not “God.” It is egoistic hubris that leads many believers to think that their particular version is the only one. When they ask “Do you believe in God?” it is almost always about belief in their god, not a general inquiry, meaning the parameters of potential answers have already been pre-determined by them. What is being ignored in such questions is a host of other beliefs. I’ll point out merely two, though there are many others, with these two being beliefs everyone holds whenever engaged in dialogue. One, each person must tacitly accept that their sensory capacities are functioning in such a way that they can trust that what is said by one is heard exactly or nearly so by the other. Two, both tacitly must believe that these words serve as a means of truly describing, or true enough, a shared reality. Clearly such beliefs are so seemingly obvious that pointing them out seems absurd and yet precisely because they are so “obvious” is why further beliefs develop which are anything but helpful.
Let’s take the belief that words describe a shared reality. As any experience of miscommunication that involves some iteration of “that’s not what I meant” can attest, words may point to a shared reality but the potential object or meaning is far broader than any single one of us may have in mind. Imagine a chair and then ask someone to do the same, write down a brief description and then compare. Odds are the descriptions will hold some general similarities, but that’s all. If such is the case for seemingly simple things like chairs, imagine what it may mean for far more complex notions like justice, equality, forgiveness and a god. However, if the tacit belief that words describe a shared reality is blindly and simplistically accepted, the result can and often is a further belief that when one says something it must only mean exactly one thing, whether that be from the perspective of the speaker or listener.
There are few more contentious examples of this belief in monolithic meaning than that concerning “god.” The fact is that the term has no intrinsic meaning, not even that of a general kind like the previous chair example. With a chair and other physical objects there’s an extra layer of data being accessed beyond that of the mental space known as imagination, namely a potential or actual shared experience of interacting with a chair. With “god” all that exists is the mental space, there is no potential or actual shared experience because there’s no commonality outside of an internal construct. There’s no way to externally verify between two or more people that what one is thinking is the same as another. All that is possible in this scenario is the sharing of yet further words/concepts and the approval or disapproval of their appropriation for “god.”
The result is “god” as an empty vessel, a hollowed-out term capable of being filled with anything a person desires. Unsurprisingly the substance of the term is filled in by the character qualities, desires, hopes, dreams and socio-historical assumptions of each person. This is why when confronted by a theist-believer, the question of “what god do you believe in?” should always be followed up by “how do you consider your fellow human being should be treated?” or other such question concerning ethics. To stop at the first question is to fall victim to the assumption of monolithic meaning. On the contrary, there is simply no “true” believer if such is understood as being a singularly accurate representation of adhering to a particular god.
What is being fought over between and within theistic ideological systems is empty space. The conflict here is not over who’s god is better, but who gets to fill in the space with their desires, aspirations, demands, etc. It is a war over emptiness, an absence that is as tiny as the supposed human soul and as large as the cosmos. This is no less true than when the atheist enters the party. There is nothing being added when this is done except yet another person’s notion of what to fill that emptiness with. The only distinction between a theist and an atheist is the possible substance accrued to the term, with the theist removing all other potential substances than their own and the atheist removing the last of them.
Combine “god” being able to be filled with nearly anything a person desires with the human tendency to view contrary opinion-holders as somehow deficient in intellectual or moral character, the result ends up being the very collection of ignorance and contempt that so often describes the dialogue between competing groups. To avoid this, first acknowledge the emptiness of what is being fought over, then accept that a person’s concept of “god” may be different than what was assumed, and then move on to what truly matters in the practice of living: how we treat one another and the world in which we find ourselves. Forgoing this, we’ll simply continue circling the emptiness being fought over only to eventually fall into that dark morass.
© David Teachout