Melting Asphalt and God as a cipher

An atheist writer over at Melting Asphalt wrote this:

In light of this view of religion (as a tribal strategy), I’d like to share a little hack I sometimes use to make sense of religious practices. Whenever I hear someone say “God,” I try substituting “society” in its place. E.g.:

  • God is great becomes society is great.
  • When someone says, praying before a meal, “We give thanks to God for this food,” I hear praise of society, of civilization
  • When a Muslim says that Islam is all about submission to Allah, I understand this as submission to society.

Though that’s a neat little mind hack, he’s missing some things. Many religious people often, after they come to believe in a deity, find themselves living lifestyles that are in stark contrast to society and thus in conflict with its mores and its most powerful members. To adhere to a religion in a serious fashion often puts an individual at odds with society. So though it is a nice hack for an atheist trying to play nice with religious doofuses (make no mistake the irenic author calls religious beliefs crazy, in a sense that either means obviously untrue, therefore being held delusionally or perhaps in the sense of outrageously unintelligent to hold), it does not work as a descriptor of actual religious belief. A central piece, for instance, of the New Testament message is that:

If anyone thinks that he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, but instead deceives himself, his religion is worthless.  (27)  A religion that is pure and stainless according to God the Father is this: to take care of orphans and widows who are suffering, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26-27)

It is precisely that there is a society that makes widows and orphans into a group of undesirables that makes the message of Jesus necessary. Incidentally, God, in the book of James is precisely not anthropomorphic (a claim the aforementioned blog makes several times). God is rather, unchanging. God sustains the universe, free agents therein do evil.

Every generous act of giving and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father who made the heavenly lights, in whom there is no inconsistency or shifting shadow. (James 1:17)

Many theistic religions would claim that, for whatever reason (some have explanations and accounts of how/why this is and some do not) there is evil in the world, but ultimately God is goodness as such. Thus, God is for the well being of the cosmos and of discrete creatures but not discrete creatures at the cost of the whole cosmos. This is a vast oversimplification, but God is not a substitute for society. When a society is evil, God, being goodness as such, is then manifestly opposed to that society’s actions and ideologies.

For people who have trouble with the concept that God is goodness, I recommend reading the posts here at Ed Feser’s blog. God’s existence is a matter of metaphysical demonstration, not a matter of symbolically replacing society with a super-person. Religious people claim either to be trying to live good lives because it is morally appropriate in light of God’s existence or they are a part of a community which claims to have revelation from God (or a combination of the two). That can lead to beliefs that seem crazy but that remains to be demonstrated based on the logic of the claims that the best representatives of the group make, not based on “obviousness.” It’s obvious that humans are internally symmetrical based on their exterior until you dissect one.

When a journalist writes about a scientific theory he/she accepts, its explication will usually not touch its technical nuances and difficulties. The same with religious folk. A Thomas Aquinas or Samuel Clarke would be considered better representatives than a pious shop-keeper just like a laboratory researcher is a better representative than a science-y journalist.

By and large I do find the asphalt article to be thoughtful. But there’s a massive misunderstanding of what makes people religious. Pointing out that religious beliefs are clearly false, therefore religious people must subconsciously mean something else by them isn’t going to cut it for most people who sincerely practice there faith (a Buddhist will not agree that nirvana is a cipher for society).

I may have totally misunderstood this fellow’s post, but those are my thoughts. It is interesting stuff to read. Have a look.

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