This is Why We Must Get Rid of Theological Weeds

Many atheists have no need to keep arguing about God’s existence. We don’t believe any Gods exist, and we’ve moved beyond that conversation. But author James Lindsay believes that religious people have psychological and social needs that faith helps them meet. Unless atheists address those concerns, we won’t get anywhere. In other words, the way we talk about God right now isn’t working.

His new book expanding on this idea is called Everybody Is Wrong About God (Pitchstone Publishing, 2015):

In the excerpt below, Lindsay discusses why its imperative we help “uproot” people out of their faith:

Is It Wrong to Uproot Someone’s Faith?

Generally speaking, no, it is not wrong to uproot someone’s faith. To the contrary, if done in ways that respect the individual’s autonomy and dignity, helping someone to pull out their own faith by the roots does them an enormous favor. Every article of faith abandoned is one fewer unjustified premise that is believed for bad reasons, and it is thus one fewer opportunity to mislead oneself. There may be special cases, of course, but those are exceptions, not rules. For the vast majority of people, helping them to uproot their faith does them at least two major favors. First, it treats them as an intelligent adult capable of engaging in serious and critical thought. Second, it helps them be less wrong.

If “God” is truly a word that means something that is not accurately accounted for by the mythology we call theism, even if my arguments about what that might be go amiss, then beliefs about God are always wrong because they fail even to talk about the correct thing. A stopped clock, they say, is right twice a day, but a correctly functioning clock set to the wrong time is never right.

That said, “by any means necessary” is not a good way to approach uprooting faith. One obvious example of a means that has been tried and that has failed is to do so by forcing it, by the fiat of state decree. Such efforts are doomed to failure for good reasons, not least that they often attempt to replace faith with faith (going from faith in religion to faith in some crackpot state ideology). Even if some such attempt succeeded in avoiding this apparently certain pitfall, attempting to force people out of faith does nothing to help anyone improve the way in which they form beliefs, which is what uprooting faith-based thinking really comes down to. Faith must be left, not stamped out, and people need to learn to leave it by learning to reject certain bad ways of thinking.

Uprooting faith means helping people learn to develop and rely upon more effective ways of coming to knowledge — including the moral attitudes and communities that religion often serves as a shortcut method to developing. Fostering this kind of change, in the long run, is very likely to benefit both individuals and the societies they inhabit.

Is Uprooting Faith Possible?

Emphatically, yes. People lose their faiths every day. I lost my faith. Many of my friends and family members have lost their faiths. Many public figures have lost their faiths. Many readers of this book, perhaps even you, have lost their faith as well. There are compelling stories about religious figures losing their faiths, such as former evangelical ministers Dan Barker, now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and John W. Loftus, now a prolific author of many books hoping to help people abandon their faith, especially in Christianity.

Stories of lost faith are not uncommon. In fact, they’re very common. Millions of people worldwide have lost their faiths and in so doing taken a major step away from believing unjustified assertions. It happens all the time, and these stories are profound sources of hope. Faith can be abandoned, and anyone can do it given the right circumstances.

Not only can faith be abandoned, and not only do we see it being abandoned, we see it in exactly the kinds of situations where we might worry it is least likely to happen. Philosopher Peter Boghossian wrote a book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, detailing an effective method that will be discussed shortly. His method is based upon intervention work with prison inmates, and the literature he cites supporting that belief revision is possible via the right methods is substantial. Boghossian writes,

If we look at the vast body of literature about how people change their beliefs, especially the literature with prison inmates, we know that there are effective interventions. We know that it’s possible to change the beliefs and behavior of people who don’t want their beliefs and behavior changed. We can use identical tools to apply those to dislodging faith.

The questions, then, aren’t about whether or not faith can be uprooted; it’s about how we should go about doing it, and, particularly, how do we do it within faiths that are currently growing?The questions, then, aren’t about whether or not faith can be uprooted; it’s about how we should go about doing it, and, particularly, how do we do it within faiths that are currently growing?13 Sure, there are almost certainly some people who are, for whatever reasons, so locked into or dependent upon their faiths that they will not be willing to revise the beliefs held in them, but that says nothing about the vast majority. As psychologists of religion Ralph Hood, Peter Hill, and Bernard Spilka clearly indicated, “The evidence is that most people in most circumstances initially employ naturalistic explanations and attributions… [although] there is a good likelihood of shifting to religious attributions when naturalistic ones do not satisfactorily meet the needs for meaning, control and esteem.” Conversely to this observation, in many cases helping people find the space to question the faith holding their religious attributions in place may require little more than finding ways to satisfactorily meet their key psychosocial needs and then asking simple, honest questions.

If correct, what this suggests is that we can help people uproot their own faith by helping them to meet their psychosocial needs and then providing opportunities to question the beliefs they maintain in faith. The former of these matters is complicated and will be likely to depend upon social, political, and economic changes of the right kinds, and some of these will be discussed in later chapters. The latter is the project of the rest of this chapter.

Everybody Is Wrong About God is now available on Amazon.

Excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.