Untangling the God Debate

There are two questions that often get mixed up with one another: One is, is there a God? (to which the answer can be yes, no, or I don’t know), and the other, is religion a good thing, eg because it’s true or because it’s socially beneficial? (to which the answer can be a more or less emphatic affirmative or negative, but which practically doesn’t really allow us to opt out of choosing an answer).

There’s very good reason why these two often get tangled together, but the fact is, they are almost entirely separable, and so mixing them up can lead to real confusion. “Do you believe in God?” is a question that can very quickly lead to just such confusion.

I think there’s in fact a spectrum of positions, and it goes something like this: antireligious atheist, antireligious skeptic, religious atheist, religious skeptic, religious theist, antireligious theist.

We’re most familiar, certainly at this moment in history, with the antireligious atheist, and the religious theist (of one stripe or another). We naturally assume that these things go together. If you believe in God or gods, then you must be religious, and if not then not. If you are in favour of religion then you must be a theist, and if not then you won’t be.

We have some faint memory of something that was once called deism, which we think of as the clockmaker God who walks away from creation and never looks back, and most of us basically just lump that option in with the irreligious atheist. It’s just an atheist in disguise, and atheists don’t need to disguise themselves anymore so no wonder you don’t run into many deists anymore!

It feels so obvious to us that the binary views of the world that we know are the only two reasonable option that we never even pause to consider that maybe there are more possibilities than we’ve allowed, or that by oversimplifying as we have we may have misunderstood something fundamental.

We tend to think that if you convince an atheist that religion is necessary, then you will have made a new theist. That’s not necessarily true. We tend to think that if you convince a theist that religion is false or harmful, you will have made a new atheist. That likewise doesn’t have to be true. There are several mistakes like these which we habitually make. We can’t even begin to think clearly about the question, as long as such basic distinctions are beyond our reach.

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