Sunday, April 11, 2010

Liars

In his book, Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett makes an important distinction.  When we inquire whether someone believes in God, the answer we get often doesn’t distinguish between people who believe in God and people who believe in believing in God.  That is, many people who say "yes" to the question may only be acknowledging that they think that believing is a good thing.  They maybe just be stating their intention to believe, or expressing their general approval for believing.  Or they could simply be answering the way that they know is most highly approved of and they may feel the social, economic, and familial pressures towards believing.  There is not a comparable set of influences inflating the numbers of people who will report that they do not believe.  So the result is that polls that tell the percentages of the population who believe in God on the basis of these self-reports will give much higher numbers of believers than there really are. 

Testing for and distinguishing between belief versus belief in belief is very tricky business however.  Now Dennett and Linda LaScola, a clinical social worker, have done something quite remarkable on the topic, and possibly for the first time in  Preachers Who Are Not Believers

Through private channels they have found a number of practicing clergy in American Christian churches who do not believe in God.  And they have compiled several extensive interviews with them about the curious lives they are living.  These are preachers and ministers who give sermons,sing God's praises,  lead prayers, counsel, and advice all within the Christian community, but they are, for all intents and purposes, atheists.  

Dennett and LaScola have gotten then to talk openly about how they came to doubt their convictions, what their lives are like, what their futures hold, their relationships with their families and other believers, and what it’s like to be “in the closet.” 

The stories are just amazing.  And the revelations are telling.  All of them have found ways to deal with the cognitive dissonance. 

“Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don’t believe what I’m saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that’s what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that’s what I’m doing.” 

It is also evident that the comfort and security of an ecumenical job has a lot to do with their staying with the church. 

"So maybe there’ll be a divorce between myself and the Presbyterian Church. I need to feel fulfilled, and I need to provide for myself and my family. I can go back and get new education and training, but I’ve got to do something."

“I’m where I am because I need the job still. If I had an alternative, a comfortable paying job, something I was interested in doing, and a move that wouldn’t destroy my family, that’s where I’d go. Because I do feel kind of hypocritical.

“If somebody said, ‘Here’s $200,000,’ I’d be turning my notice in this week, saying, ‘A month from now is my last Sunday.’ Because then I can pay off everything.”

And all of them cite the difficulties with reconciling what the Bible really says with what they learned in Sunday school.  Actually sitting down and reading the Bible carefully and looking at the textual criticism literature generated a crisis of faith for all of them.  You can't actually believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans, or that a guy lived in the belly of a whale, or that Jesus was born from a virgin.  They also acknowledge the profound problems with literal interpretations or putting too much stock in anything in the Bible states given its convoluted history. 

“Well, I think most Christians have to be in a state of denial to read the Bible and believe it. Because there are so many contradicting stories. You’re encouraged to be violent on one page, and you’re encouraged to give sacrificial love on another page. You’re encouraged to bash a baby’s head on one page, and there’s other pages that say, you know, give your brother your fair share of everything you have if they ask for it.”

All of the respondents report that doubts like their own are widespread among others in their trade.  But there is an unwritten code of silence, a secret that each one acquires individually, and each one knows that the others know it, but no one dare acknowledge it publicly. 

The confessions here give us some new insights into some of the most mystifying behaviors of the clergy that unbelievers have observed with incredulity.  We can’t fathom how smart, educated, thoughtful people can possibly believe the things that they seem to earnestly  report believing.  We grow frustrated with the endless convoluted rationalizations, evasions, and logical gymnastics.  And we shake our heads because we just can’t see how they can really mean what they are saying.  The simple answer is that they don’t.    What several of the subjects acknowledge is the legitimacy and seriousness of the challenges and arguments that atheists have been raising against the received views within their sects.  For some of them, the atheistic arguments worked to change their views about God.  Scientific claims cannot be reconciled with religious doctrine;  God cannot be an anthropomorphic, personal being.  We don’t have sufficient evidence to prove a virgin birth or a resurrection.  Pointless suffering cannot be reconciled with a loving creator.  God doesn't fulfill some necessary explanatory function in the world, and so on. 

They are, as many non-believers have long suspected, systematic and pathological liars.  Admittedly, they think that they can continue to preach, sing, pray, and counsel towards some greater, positive, humanitarian goals.  But the simple fact is that in order to continue doing what they see as good work, they must flatly lie to people who trust them, and who do not have the benefit of their education to know better.  They exploit the ignorance and fears of the masses.  And they leverage their extensive training in apologetics, and psychology to manipulate their congregations into believing things that they acknowledge are false. 

Even worse, they continue to implant outrageous and false stories into the heads of children where they will take hold and create a new lifelong struggle to reconcile deep-seated and emotional convictions from childhood with reality they discover as adults.  Ironically, despite the staggering conflict and anguish in their own minds, they persist in propagating the delusions that will duplicate them in the minds of thousands of others.  They hide their struggles in order to infect others with it. 

If they weren't responsible for such a harmful misrepresentation, their stories would be more heartbreaking.  They have been trapped in a prison where they cannot say any of this publicly.  They will lose their jobs, their support networks, and their families.  And they have been made to suffer tremendous psychological tensions in order to keep up appearances while sealing off their doubts. 

What their examples should make us reflect on is how to change the culture so that the clergy who are the primary broadcasters of  the mythology can be liberated from it more easily if and when they put 2 and 2 together.  We can only hope that this groundbreaking study by Dennett and LaScola opens the door a bit for more of the clergy to come out of the closet.  


These examples also suggest several specific ways we can help them.   Many of us in the non-believer community (myself included) are naively inclined to take believers at their word when they offer arguments for God's existence or justifications for believing.  But these examples should remind us that many of so-called believers, even the important among them actually don't even buy all the nonsense themselves.  They say what they are supposed to say, but it would appear that they are trying to convince themselves as much or more than they are trying to convince us.  We must remember that the best response to the broken arguments may be, "I don't think you actually believe that.  And I know that you've felt the force of the doubts against God that I am raising."  What they need to see is that it would be worse to sustain the lie than to come out and clear their minds and conscience of the bad faith their peculiar situation has created. 
“I didn’t plan to become an atheist. I didn’t even want to become an atheist. It’s just that I had no choice. If I’m being honest with myself. . . .  I want to understand Christianity, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. And I’ve wanted to be a Christian. I’ve tried to be a Christian, and all the ways they say to do it. It just didn’t add up.”
“The love stuff is good. And you can still believe in that, and live a life like that. But the whole grand scheme of Christianity, for me, is just a bunch of bunk.”

21 comments:

Tristan D. Vick said...

Well stated.

Matthew Howery said...

That is a really heartbreaking study to read. Especially in the context of the having nowhere else to go, or feeling "stuck" in their given vocation.

Do you think this will encourage more clergy to "come out" as it were? I'm really skeptical of that because of the financial implications, and the potential social ostracization. It seems to me that the people in this article had to have some serious encouragement to do so.

Were there any numbers that went with the study? Perhaps an anonymously poll of the clergy in this country?

The implications of a person purposely teaching bad information are huge. I'm having a hard time with the idea that they're purposely lying. It's certainly not malicious. Ethical? I don't think so. Moral? I don't know. I can't imagine their struggle within. That seems to be the darkest aspect of this whole thing. I suppose the best thing to do is to encourage people to be honest with themselves. Change can be very frigntening, but they need to know there are people out there just like them.

(I resisted the urge to type in all capitals, -'cause then I'd be right and you'd be wrong and there'd be no discussion)
;)

Matt McCormick said...

I'm pretty convinced that the way to break the cycle and hence the grip on consciousness that the religious delusion has, is to do what we can to cut off the inordinate influence it has on kids. I think giving kids a broad based education about the fundamentals of all world religions, like Dennett advocates, is the best way to inoculate them. That will help them see through the efforts by preachers to establish their doctrines as the exclusive picture of reality. If they know about all the other religions, they'll take mom and dad's less seriously.

The way to lessen the hold that religion has on our minds suggested by this set of interviews is to help the clergy liberate themselves from a social institution that has trapped them. Religion thrives on ignorance. Educate everyone and it withers.

MM

MH said...

Along that same line, teaching some sort of "critical thinking" well before the college level could seriously help. The idea of a child growing up not learning early how do weigh information and ideas is pretty sickening.

I don't ever recall in elementary school or high school being taught "how" to think. Unfortunately, by the time someone reaches 18, 19, or 20 years of age, it's far too late in some cases.

I wonder how elementary/HS teachers would feel about that.

Anonymous said...

Yes, lets have Daniel Dennet decide what is best for our children. He is such a beacon of moral virtue....

In the debate between him and Plantinga Dennet acted like a total asshole. This comes even from his supporters at that lecture.

But hey why not? Atheism is a great moral philosophy. Just like at the church of Satan who claim themselves to be atheists/ Good stuff!




"LaVeyan Satanism is a religion founded in 1966 by Anton Szandor LaVey. Its teachings are based on individualism, self-indulgence, and "eye for an eye" morality. Unlike Theistic Satanists, LaVeyan Satanists are atheists and agnostics who regard Satan as a symbol of man's inherent nature"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satanism#Atheistic.2FDeistic_Satanism

mikespeir said...

On the other hand, I guess we could have the Catholic church show us what's best for our children. Or has Dennett been molesting kids below the radar?

Anonymous said...

Yeah great response EVERY person in the catholic church molested kids! Yeah for atheists logic!

BTW, Mr. LaVey and his atheists pals think child molestation via role playing (fantasy environments) is perfectly ok.

mikespeir said...

My logic's as good as yours, I think. Aren't you the one equating all atheists with Anton LaVey? Come on. Show me where Dennett's moral philosophy follows LaVey's. You accuse him of acting like a "total asshole" and you come here doing the same thing!

MH said...

I think it's a common response when people's beliefs are challenged and they have no response.

When confronted with contrary evidence, the rational person will change his/her mind. The irrational person will respond with insults.

C'est la vie...

Matt McCormick said...

I don't suppose it will induce any more constructive comments from our angry anonymous friend, but Satan is yet another supernatural being that I don't see any compelling existence for.

Anon, personal attacks and angry non-sequiturs are easy. The difficult response is to try understand the argument being made and actually offer some reasons for doubting the reasoning behind it. Can you do that? Or maybe there's an adult home with you who we could talk to?

MM

Anonymous said...

No mikey not all athiest are satanist but all LaVey satanist are atheists. Better reading next time.

Matt mcormick,

You never respond to anybodys post honestly except your own groupies.

DM has a point, anon 1, 2, 3 ad infinitum have a point. But NOOO you just attack them for not understanding the issue, which seems to be what someone would do if they are in a jam and cannot rebuttal...

Fair enough this is your house but maybe just maybe you should try and understand Paul or fred or any other person that disagrees with you.

You just never know who you are talking to on the other end...

Anonymous said...

Daniel dennet is trying to make an argument that is derived from ridicule. That is that theist lie to themselves because they struggle to defend themselves...

ALERT ALERT this is a RED HERRING as a person who is uncomfortable with themselves can still be right! And this psychological state has NOTHING to do with theist beign right or that God exists!!!

Yeah so Mr. Dennet is just mad because Santa Claus is more real than him and has more friends...

Anonymous said...

Dennet thinks he is a psychologist even though he has never formally studied psychology.

Just another philosopher that has over stepped the bounds of their field of study - Green cheeze behind chalk boards or counting real verse imaginary sheep.

Thus Mr. dennet has no credibility whatsoever to make a clinical assessment of theist's emotional states.

Matt McCormick said...

Despite his scattered non sequiturs, anon. has a point that didn't come out in the post. Finding a bunch of priests and preachers who confess to not believing in God doesn't show that there is no God, of course. I wasn't pretending otherwise, nor is Dennett. They are what they are: some preachers who have come to doubt what they preach. It may turn out that they are all proven wrong in the end and that God exists, and is really pissed with them, I suppose.

What I thought was so compelling and fascinating about the study is the candid and intimate view into the minds of some people who will consistent report in public that they believe in God. From the outside, you'd never know that they don't believe. They give all the common arguments, they say they believe, they act like they believe, they give all the right responses that a believer would give. The surprise is that they don't believe.

And these examples make a strong suggestion about how many more of them are out there. For every one like this that Dennett and La Scola found, there must be a hundred or a thousand more who would not confess their real feelings. And that means that when we are having these discussions, it is a real possibility that the person who is pressing the case for God actually doesn't believe at all.

So how about you, anon? Do you actually believe what you say you believe, or do you just believe in belief? One easy, and cheap psychological shot would be for me to say that all of these raging tantrums, the name calling, and the erratic accusations suggest that this posting actually struck a nerve and all your protesting is a better indicator that you actually have your doubts about God and you can't face having that exposed.

MM

Steven Carr said...

Of course, there are many preachers who do believe in God.

The Pope , for example, believes God spends his time watching priests rape boys.

God sees everything. He has a Divine Remote Control where he can flick from one channel to the next.

And on the Catholic Channel, he can watch priests sodomise altar boys.

If people believe their god exists, why do they masturbate in front of their god, but not in front of their parents?

mikespeir said...

One last time, Anon, and then I won't waste any more with you.

This is what you wrote:

"Atheism is a great moral philosophy. Just like at the church of Satan who claim themselves to be atheists/ Good stuff!"

This is your latest response:

"No mikey not all athiest are satanist but all LaVey satanist are atheists. Better reading next time."

But this is a distinct change of direction. You equated atheists with LaVey satanists. Now you'd have me think that, no, all along you meant only that LaVey satanists are atheists. (Which, would be interesting, but hardly germane.) You did not. You did not because your goal was to paint the morality of Dennett with the same brush as that of LaVey; to suggest that because both are "atheists," that somehow magically puts them both in the same moral boat. And yet, in ignoring my challenge to demonstrate that Dennet's morality agrees with LaVey's you as much as concede you can't do it. So, why the slander?

No, I read you right. If you want to be read differently, say something different.

yashwata said...

"We can’t fathom how smart, educated, thoughtful people can possibly believe the things that they seem to earnestly report believing. … The simple answer is that they don’t."

Exactly. I hope you don't mind me reminding your readers that there is a whole book on that topic.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong. I don't believe in Jesus any more than I believe in Joseph Smith or Haile Selassie. But if we resent being told that we really do believe in god, why should they not resent being told they really don't believe in God? For some statistical percentage this will be true, but using it indiscriminately is stooping to their level of argument.

Anonymous said...

Oh Mikey you dont read well. If you followed the discussion you would know that LaVey satanist are atheist. So "LaVey and his pals" refers to the atheist satanist. Reading from this that ALL satanist are atheist i have no idea had you did this.

I am not partial to generalizations or people who infer them incorrectly from poor reading

Anonymous said...

Hi MM I certainly believe in beliefs so I can have them. I am sure you do too so you can drink merry with your star trek pals and tell them why your belief in non god is special and perhaps….SEXY

But I am sure there are atheist that struggle to defend their position. Some of your disciples here are poorly trained in philosophy and first order logic and don’t know the difference between an implicit and explicit contradiction or derive generalizations from a post meant to ridicule.

And yes I like to play wit da atheist who cannot back his position juts you like you do with the church going numb nut who never considered that green cheese may be behind their chalk board. Sure MM you are hardcore at defining the atheist position but your follows not so much. Their easy prey and if I was a man that looked like Santa Claus I may make a ridicule argument that their poor defense of non god shows that that their position is weak. But then again I may not do this.

Good luck wit your debate. Maybe easier than debating Professor Plum?

Derrida said...

Re: Anonymous

"Yes, lets have Daniel Dennet decide what is best for our children. He is such a beacon of moral virtue.... "

Erm, it wasn't suggested that we should let Daniel Dennett decide what is best for our children, but that we should educate our children about world religions, as Dennett advocates.

"In the debate between him and Plantinga Dennet acted like a total asshole. This comes even from his supporters at that lecture."

Does the fact that Dennett was at some point rude mean that we shouldn't listen to his suggestions on education? And besides, if Dennett did act like an asshole (A slight overreaction perhaps?), does that preclude Dennett being a moral beacon forever, let alone a fallible human being that can nonetheless have some good suggestions?

"But hey why not? Atheism is a great moral philosophy. Just like at the church of Satan who claim themselves to be atheists/ Good stuff!"

I don't think that anyone is saying we should teach children the values of Satanism. Of course, we could well teach children about Satanism, along with all other religious points of view. The point of education is to learn, not to be moralized to. Children should be able to make up their own minds about morality, just as they should with regards to religion.

"Daniel dennet is trying to make an argument that is derived from ridicule. That is that theist lie to themselves because they struggle to defend themselves...

ALERT ALERT this is a RED HERRING as a person who is uncomfortable with themselves can still be right! And this psychological state has NOTHING to do with theist beign right or that God exists!!!"

I don't think that Dennett argues that theism or religious belief can be explained psychologically, therefore theism is false (Though if I am incorrect, feel free to show me just where he gives this argument). Rather, Dennett is arguing that if God doesn't exist, belief in God can nonetheless be explained, and so belief in God isn't positive evidence for God's existence.

"Yeah so Mr. Dennet is just mad because Santa Claus is more real than him and has more friends..."

Perhaps, but that doesn't make his denial of Santa Claus false :)

"Dennet thinks he is a psychologist even though he has never formally studied psychology.

Just another philosopher that has over stepped the bounds of their field of study - Green cheeze behind chalk boards or counting real verse imaginary sheep.

Thus Mr. dennet has no credibility whatsoever to make a clinical assessment of theist's emotional states."

Again, can you give an example where Dennett actually reports the belief that he is a psychologist? Probably not, since he admits that he is an "autodidact" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Dennett#Career_in_academia).

Nonetheless, Dennett is a co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts. But this is beside the point: criticize the arguments, rather than the man. If you don't think that Dennett makes bad arguments for his views, or is incorrect about something, go ahead and say what.

"Don't get me wrong. I don't believe in Jesus any more than I believe in Joseph Smith or Haile Selassie. But if we resent being told that we really do believe in god, why should they not resent being told they really don't believe in God? For some statistical percentage this will be true, but using it indiscriminately is stooping to their level of argument."

The fact that theists resent being told that they don't really believe doesn't make it false. The same is true of atheism. We should follow the evidence, rather than worry about upsetting people: what's the evidence that atheists aren't really atheists, or that theists aren't really theists?

If the evidence shows that either atheists or theists don't implicitly accept their explicit convictions, then so be it.