At some point in recent Western history, the God idea became ‘simply incredible’ on the face of it for many educated people.
Sociologists, psychologists and religious scholars have pondered, pondered and pondered the reasons why so many modern Westerners abandoned belief in God. But there’s one reason academics did not espy. The God idea is itself a cause of incredulity among the educated classes: the anthropomorphic, emotion-laden, easily irritated, biased, male God, who is satisfied with a high degree of human and animal suffering, lost believability.
When I speak with atheists nowadays, I sometimes ask them to compose a short 200-word essay explaining why they disbelieve. (That would be about three paragraphs in this piece you are reading—not long.) But these atheists refuse to write 200 words and tell me they would just as soon write 200 words on why they don’t believe in the Phoenix as write 200 words explaining why they disbelieve in God. To them, the notion of God is as fabulous as the Phoenix. Why waste time composing 200 words justifying incredulity about the Phoenix?
This is a phenomenon particular to our time because, for two hundred years prior, skeptics would have been eager to make their case against God. In the nineteenth century alone, freethinkers wrote hundreds of books, and scores of popular skeptical magazines sold in the millions in the UK and Australia, New Zealand, and in America. Dozens of skeptical organizations and secular societies emerged, and crowds of thousands gathered in buildings and in open-air forums to hear skeptical speakers—gifted with oratorical brilliance—critique God and offer godless alternatives to religion.
Skeptics of those bygone generations would have sat down on the spot to write me that 200-word essay. Or they would have done it on their feet, smoothing a sheet over my back and using my back as their desk. But not today. And why not today? Why is God ‘simply incredible’ to today’s educated atheists?
The answer is that religion in those earlier eras was hardy, and skeptics felt they had to challenge religion as an irrepressible opponent. But by degrees religion started to unravel—like a mohair sweater that modern skeptics and modern events tugged at, loosening the threads, until the sweater was in tatters. And the sweater was in tatters by the end of the sixth decade of the twentieth century. By then it was an unmendable sweater, even for the most talented theological seamstress. A generation of intellectuals was lost to God. The ‘new’ atheists who tossed books up the best-seller lists in the early twenty-first century did not create their skeptical readership: those people already existed.
And now, in the twenty-first century, the very latest version of unbelief is total indifference to God owing to the complete implausibility of the God idea for these people. Such individuals do not rise to the level and label of ‘atheist’ because an atheist is really still in the theological game. An atheist is actually another theologian (and usually a better theologian than a believing theologian).
There’s no need for releasing The Searchers to find out the cause for current incredulity about God. Look back to Norse religion as an example. At some point in Norse history the God Thor became incredible at first glance and ceased to provoke a second glance. The reason Thor became ‘simply incredible’ was not traceable to any psychological injury in the doubters. The Thor idea was itself the cause of the doubt.
To win the Indifferentists (as we may call today’s atheists), theologians would have to thoroughly renovate the idea of God, something that most theologians lack the nerve to try. But it might make things interesting if they were to try. Is there an idea of God that is not unbelievable on the face of it—an idea of God that is not ‘simply incredible’?
Featured image ‘Walking by the Phoenix’ by Kenny Louie via Flickr commons