The Infidel’s Guide to Theism
Some regard religion to be a joke: I was walking across a bridge one day and I saw a man standing on the edge about to jump off. So I ran over and said, "Stop! Don't do it, there's so much to live for!” "Like what?” he said. "Well,” I said, “are you religious or atheist?” "Religious,” he said. "Me too! Are you Monotheist or Polytheist?” “Monotheist,” he said. “Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?” He said, "Christian.” "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?” "Protestant,” he said. “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?” He said, "Baptist!” "Wow!” I said, "Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?” He said, “Baptist Church of God!” "Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?” He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God!” "Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?” He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!” "Die, heretic scum!” I cried, and pushed him off.
Since this infidel offers a Guide to Islam, why not guides to Judaism and Christianity as well? Seen from within, minute doctrinal differences appear as immense as they are insuperable, but seen from without, they are hardly worth noting. With over 30,000 Protestant sects so far—about 300 new denominations each year—even Protestants cannot keep track of the doctrinal differences that divide the brethren. To the non-Protestant, the differences between even the major groups are mind-numbingly obscure. How many non-Muslims could explain the theological differences between the two major branches of Islam, Shi’a and Sunni? Similarly, to the infidel outside of theism, the differences between Monotheists and Polytheists seem slight, and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic flavor of theism can be spoken of in a single breath.
The question, then, is not whether Judaism and Christianity merit separate guides, but why Islam was singled out for special treatment? The answer is that while the theological claims of Islam are not of special interest, the threat of political Islam is. Islamism is a fascist ideology that is a threat to life as all who are not Islamists would wish to live it, and that includes moderate Muslims. Think Nazi ideology circa 1920s. We infidels need to be cognizant of this threat which Judaism has never posed, and which at present only some Christian Fundamentalists can match.
Why I Am Not a Theist
By Charles Dawkins
“I see it too clearly: the care taken of our childhood forms our feelings, our habits, our belief.
By the Ganges I would have been a slave of the false gods, a Christian in Paris, a Muslim here.” —Voltaire
Why I am not a Muslim is fairly easy—I was not born into a Muslim family or culture, although I would like to think that had I been, I would have had the courage and clarity of Ibn Warraq to crawl out from under such a rock. That I was born into a theist society, a predominately Christian one, is a fact I was only vaguely aware of as a child. My parents, thinking themselves ignorant, left my education (including religious) entirely to others, and those others, following the convention that religious conditioning is entirely the prerogative of parents, also taught me nothing about religion. Once, at about the age of eight, I went to a church with a friend. I was given a palm leaf, but had no idea why (years later I realized my friend’s family was Catholic and it must have been Palm Sunday).
That I might have a religion was revealed to me as a Boy Scout. There was some sort of large week-long meeting at an Air Force base of people from out of the area and ad hoc religious services were provided by the base chaplains on Sunday morning. We Scouts were supposed to serve as color guards and carry flags at each service. The Scout Master, trying to decide which service to send me to, asked me what my religion was. I said I didn’t know, and he said, “You’re probably a Protestant,” so I ended up at a Protestant service. My second exposure to a church proved just as bewildering as my first. Although I knew that as a Scout I was expected to be “reverent,” and would later learn that apparently atheists can’t be Boy Scouts, it was a credit to my troop leaders that this was the only time the subject of religion ever came up.
I had heard the word “God,” of course, but I had no idea who was being referred to. From context I gathered that God was a really important guy. From looking at maps I knew that the world was divided into many countries and that each had something like a President. I also gathered that there was a hierarchy of power—mayors, governors, presidents—and so I figured that God must be the president of all the presidents.
I recall looking at a globe and wondering where God lived. As president of all presidents he surely couldn’t show favoritism by living in one president’s country, so I decided that God probably lived on one of the islands out in the Pacific Ocean. In a five-year old such a theory might seem cute, but since I never asked questions and never read until well into my teen years, I don’t recall knowing any better until I was a teenager.
At fifteen I read Houston Smith’s “The Religions of Man,” and so began my study. I was dumbfounded by all the competing claims, and would remain so for many years as I tried to sift through the chaff. I had remained ignorant to an extraordinary degree until I was too old to take in information uncritically, and not knowing (by an accident of birth) what was true or false like most everyone else, I had to take in all claims, all religions, all philosophies, all cultures past and present, and try to sort out the true from the false. That took a few years.
While I was about as close to Locke’s tabula rasa as it is possible to be short of being raised a feral child, I did not remain untouched by theism. I was aware that seemingly all figures of authority—politicians, community leaders, indeed all “respectable” persons of any note—showed deference to religion, God, and religious claims. Who was I to question the powers that be? How could they all be wrong? Yet the claims varied so wildly, how could they all be right? There was Billy Graham, advising presidents, enthralling millions; could he simply be fundamentally (pun intended) wrong?
The problem was not so much one of questioning theist claims, but of being free of any compulsion to be for or against, to accept or reject. The initial bias was to accept, then to reject, but until I was free from both my inquiry itself would remain unproductive. In college I sought out the company of theists to help me overcome some residual prejudice against theism and theists. I needed to see, up close and personal, that believers were not different in kind, but only in the content of our memes. It was quite a stretch, but I kept on until I could actually entertain, if only briefly, the possibility that they might be right.
While atheists consider theism indefensible, I do not. Mortimer Adler made a useful distinction between matters of truth and matters of taste—one need not bother arguing matters of taste. Martin Gardner, whose merest credentials as a skeptical inquirer I am unworthy to polish, is a theist of the highly attenuated sort. He points out that the human mind is likely no more able to understand the ultimate nature of things than a dog can understand calculus. Point taken. If Gardner peers into that vast cloud of unknowing and, as a matter of taste, sees the possibility of something ineffable and god-like, then bon appetite. If another looks into the same cloud and sees nothing, well, that too may be a matter of taste (or the lack thereof). To make a full confession, I have to admit a fondness for Eckhart’s God: “Why dost thou prate of God? Whatever thou sayest of Him is untrue.”
But an ineffable god is really no god at all; anything you can say or think, any concept or image you can form, is untrue. Yet an ineffable something, “before whom all words recoil,” is not to be dismissed. The implication is merely that there is some aspect of existence that thought cannot grasp (which should come as a shock to no one), but you can’t call “it” anything, nor can you call “it” nothing—thought must remain silent. In that silence, in the mysterious, perhaps both theists and atheists can find common ground.
Unfortunately, being neither a theist nor an atheist, this infidel doesn’t care whether theists and atheists find common ground or not. Being neither a lion nor a lamb, what care I whether they lie down together? Both are equally “contaminated and enmeshed in error.” What remains is to point to the error that theism is an expression of.
The claim will be that theism, in all its forms, is a form of false religion, of the human religious impulse gone awry. This is going to be a tough sell since the consensus among both theists and atheists is that “religion” and “theism” are pretty much synonymous terms. In “The God Delusion,” Dawkins writes, “For most of my purposes, all three Abrahamic religions can be treated as indistinguishable. Unless otherwise stated, I shall have Christianity mostly in mind…And I shall not be concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism.” This is pretty much how everyone in the West sees it.
Once while browsing the stacks at a university library I noticed about six feet of shelve space devoted to books concerned with the conciliation of science and “religion.” What struck me, as I paged my way through these tomes, was that in every case the word “religion” was used as a synonym for Christianity. Only a few books deigned to include a chapter on Judaism, and none, like Dawkins, concerned themselves with “other religions.” In popular usage, again, the word generally means having “Christianity mostly in mind.” I suspect this collective failure to be more inclusive reflects the fact that the religious impulse has found expression in two fundamentally different and incompatible forms such that if you have one mostly in mind, you can’t have the other. The two forms are: religion as creed and religion as quest.
We in the West are all too familiar with religion as creed, as doctrine, as dogma, as Truth supported only by Faith. Doubt is the enemy, something one prays to be delivered from, and to so much as question someone’s "deeply held convictions” is a grave offense. Beliefs and believers are organized into groups containing specialists who serve as interpreters and guardians of Truth, who help the believers know what to think. Those who fail to think rightly become heretics and often founders of yet more groups. Successful groups, viral meme machines, extract considerable wealth from their followers and tirelessly promote missionary work. Thus organized, “religion” becomes a major source of social power that often aligns itself with the political powers that be. Take a good look: What could be more profoundly irreligious than organized religion?
While there is more than enough doctrine, dogma, and organized religion in the East, there is also a greater familiarity with and acceptance of religion-as-quest. A religious quest can only be undertaken by an individual, never a group; any insight gained is experiential, not conceptual, and being "ineffable” cannot be shared directly with others much less turned into a dogma; quests are undertaken by inquiring minds full of doubt, never by believing minds full of certitude.
The driving force behind religious inquiry is the intuition that thought-consciousness may not be the only form of consciousness that humans are capable of. Thought-consciousness allows us to be aware of the world as a multitude of things. What may be missing, some suspect, is a non-conceptual awareness of the unity of all things. Thought sees the multiplicity but not the oneness of things since thought is functionally dualistic. Thought operates by making distinctions between a "this” and a "that.” Without distinctions, without divisions, thought ceases to function. If thought were to become silent, would we cease to be conscious? Inquiring minds want to know.
Religion-as-creed, including theism, is firmly entrenched in the world of thought and makes definite claims about how the world works: there IS a supernatural realm; God/gods EXIST, humans HAVE souls; there IS life after death; karma IS a law; Muhammad IS the Seal of the Prophets; you WILL be reborn; Jesus DIED for your sins and WILL return. Such claims differ from scientific/scholarly claims only in being wholly derived from outmoded explanatory fictions/dogmas passed unconscionably from generation to generation and unsupported by our best reason and evidence. Religion-as-creed makes claims that fall within the magisterium of science and conflict with it. Ironically, while Gould's non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) principle does not apply to religion-as-creed, it does apply to religion-as-quest since any putative insight into "Oneness” the seeker may have is entirely beyond belief, beyond words or concepts, and so cannot be in conflict with thought-based claims.
Theism is a failed hypothesis to be tossed into the bin containing the infinite number of other hypotheses that we don't need. Should some compelling reason or evidence arise to suggest that we may need the God hypothesis, then we can take it out, dust it off, and entertain it as a scientific, not religious, hypothesis. Religion-as-creed is irreligious; it does not make religious claims, it makes no claims of interest to anyone other than the believers who espouse them (and those who may feel a need to refute them). Religion-as-creed is little more than a collection of atavistic beliefs best regarded as pseudo-religion.
I am not claiming that religion-as-quest is the One True Religion. It too could be wholly false and religion in its entirety could, like astrology, be consigned to the pile of claims so weak as to merit little consideration. What I am claiming is that The Way of the religious inquirer is not intrinsically in conflict with the way of science and reason. Most religious inquirers only claim that there might be something that could be called "religious” to inquire into. Maybe. This is because if there is a consciousness that transcends thought-based consciousness (sometimes picturesquely referred to as Enlightenment) it is uncommon—few seekers actually find the pathless land. Indeed, enlightenment may merely be a traveler's tale, a chimera that no one has ever seen for themselves. But the possibility that a few have cannot be discounted prior to investigation.
Let's imagine the religious inquirer says, "My consciousness has been transformed, but my life, the way I live, has changed not in the slightest.” We can say, "Good for you, but your claim cannot be assessed and is really of no interest anyway.” But what if the religious seeker says, "My consciousness has been transformed and my life and mind with it.” Well, then, the claim that they now function differently is interesting, testable, and can and should be subjected to all the rigors that scientific inquiry can bring to bare. A claim of altered subjective consciousness is untestable; a claim of altered functionality is a scientifically scrutinizable one. If the claim of altered functionality remains unsupported, if enlightenment has no detectable effect on the alleged enlightened one's life, then we can wonder why anyone should care. At least religious aspirants of the questing kind are mostly harmless, make for a more interesting world, and are no threat to life as I would wish to live it.
Historically religion in the West took a wrong turn with Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic faith that is yet uncompromisingly dualistic, and from which the Abrahamic religions have derived their versions of God/Satan, heaven/hell, body/soul, man/nature, saints/sinners, good/evil, not to mention holy prophets, divine revelations, virgin births, resurrection of the dead, final judgments, and so on. It is the whole view that this universe of a hundred billion galaxies is the work of an uncreated Creator who is deeply, unaccountably concerned for his Creature, Man, who is to worship and serve Him, to struggle against the forces of Darkness in a historical drama to be played out until the End Times when the Army of Light will at last conquer the Army of Darkness, when Good will obliterate Evil, the lion will lie down with the lamb, the Savior will arrive, and the blessed, the chosen ones, the true believers, will live with their Lord in paradise forever and ever.
Religious inquirers, by contrast, are uncompromising monists, so much so that they seek to transcend the inherent duality of thought itself and penetrate the apparent divisions of self/other, past/future, now/eternity, existence/nonexistence, observer/observed; to know life as a Wholeness, an “implicate order,” much as one might seek to know what “cold” is by jumping into ice water. “To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull facilities can comprehend only in the most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.”
While devotees of religion-as-creed can claim to have “religious” feelings, so too can others (even scientists), and feelings, even feelings about God, are not what characterize theism. The defining element is belief. Beliefs are products of thought and there is nothing sacred, sacrosanct, or religious about thought—it is entirely mundane. About the only thing we can say about ideas, concepts, and beliefs with any certainty is that they are highly prone to error.
What the believing mind wants is not God but Certitude—God is merely one form of certitude that believers have glommed onto. Unfortunately, trying to take away someone’s certitude generally involves prying it from their cold, dead fingers. For those who are paying attention, however, the universe has a clear message for all believers: “Give it up. If you want certitude, become a mathematician.”
It is well to remember that theism is not the only root of Western Civilization, and that perhaps the best and brightest of our culture is ascribable to the Greeks. Arguably the central problem of Greek philosophy is the problem of the One and the Many. "All things come out of the one and the one out of all things,” said Heraclitus. (Compare this to Seng Ts'an’s, “The One is none other than the All, the All none other than the One.”) But how to make sense of this? Needless to say the intrepid Greeks ran into a bit of trouble here. Perhaps we can simplify and say that skeptical inquiry into the nature of the Many is the province of science and existential inquiry into the nature of the One is the province of religion, and evoke NOMA to account for the difficulty in reconciling the two. Note that while philosophers can think about the problem of the One, to seek a direct, radically empirical apprehension of the One would pass over the line to become a religious quest.
I am not a theist because I want to live in a culture of inquiry, and religion-as-creed is incommensurate with such a culture in a way that religion-as-quest is not; as philosophy (reason-based inquiry) is not; as science (evidenced-based inquiry) is not; as art (aesthetic taste-based inquiry) is not; as ethics (value-based inquiry) is not. Organized religion, superstition, and political ideologies, all mind-crippling certitudes, would have to be left behind to be relegated to historical and anthropological interest only. If such a culture is nowhere to be found, perhaps we can create it one mind at a time.
Note: The distinction between religion-as-creed and religion-as-quest is not an original one. Aldous Huxley made essentially the same distinction in his book, "The Perennial Philosophy,” but he used the terms "exoteric” and "esoteric” instead. For anyone interested in this take on religion, I would recommend Huxley's book for a much more detailed treatment if only as a splendid anthology of religious literature that even an infidel may find interesting.
Charles Dawkins is the author of “The Infidel’s Guide to Islam,” a video guide and website (infidel2u.org/islam), who, not wishing to be martyred by an offended Muslim, writes under an obvious pseudonym and is understandably reluctant to provide a photo. He claims to live in Virginia Beach, VA, but can be contacted with greater certainty at infidel2u[at]gmail.com.