I consider myself an atheist, in so much as I dislike religions. I don’t believe in god, but then again I don’t think that my disbelief in god is a big part of why I would call myself an atheist. Having studied a little bit of sociology, I would agree with the sense that religions are responsible for creating the idea of god. God, in this sense, is constructed as a being that forms the centre of a social and political belief system: a religion. So, I would argue:
Without religion there would be no god.
Which is akin to the well known sense that:
Man created god in his own image.
Which itself is a reversal of the biblical phrase from Genesis, of ‘God created man in his own image’.
My position, then, is that god is somehow secondary to religion, since creating a god is a strategy that religions use to do what they do – whatever it is that they do: social power, thought control, building churches, lobbying governments, coercing children etc.
So, I am a bit bemused that humanists tend to be so literal about their disbelief in god, as if a belief or disbelief in god were the be all and end all of religiosity or atheism.
One of the key issues here is that many vocal atheists are humanists, and humanists are often scientists or have founded their sense of atheism on the scientific theories of atheists such as Richard Dawkins (see his book The God Delusion). Scientists like to argue in ways that are familiar to science. They tend to value ‘objectivity’ and neutrality highly, for example. They look for ‘evidence’ or ‘facts’. Arguing about the existence of god fits this bill very well, since scientists can propose the existence of god as a hypothesis that can be tested. They can ask, for example, ‘what is the evidence for the existence of god?’ By asking this question as if it was centrally important, they make the assumption that just because it is important to scientists, that it is important more generally. (They essentially split ‘belief’ away from religions, as if the part can meaningfully be studied independently of its social context.)
I would argue that scientific humanists are ultimately seeking to critique and combat religion as a social force, but are seeking this aim via first seeking to discredit the notion of god as a creator. But they rarely admit to this as a strategy, preferring to claim that they are primarily concerned with facts or theories about the existence of a de facto god. Ultimately, I would agrue, such humanists are structuring their attack on the assumption that:
Without god there would be no religion.
Which is kind of an opposite to my more sociological thinking mentioned above, i.e.
Without religion there would be no god.
What I find worrying about the scientific humanist type approach is that it seeks to be apolitical, and that this is disingenous, since religions and belief systems affect us all personally. That is, scientific humanism doesn’t firstly confront religions as social forces run by actual people. Rather, it seeks to question the existence of god, as if the existence of god was somehow more important than the religion that created the idea of god. Such a scientist could thereby approach a vicar, a pope, etc, and say, it is not so much ‘you’ or your religion I have a problem with, it is the belief in god itself that I am questioning. This is a curiously apolitical, asocial, and non-confrontational form of argument, because it attacks an idea more than it attacks a social group, institution, or an actual person of figurehead. Scientist humanists, in this sense, are unlikely to say to a religion:
But you created this god! You maintain this god!
Scientists, in this sense, avoid getting personal with religions.
I much prefer the Christopher Hitchens approach. He had the nerve to attack religions as tribal institutions that seek to promote and ingrain ignorance and intolerance. Unlike the humanist scientists who stake their claim on the existence of god, Hitchens would fight religions on all fronts, drawing on politics, sociology, literature, psychology, history, and just about any other resource or technique he felt he could argue with. For Hitchens, theory is a messy and pragmatic business, where the theorist fights with whatever he has to hand.
The glory in that is that Hitchens was being very true to himself, in that he was essentially arguing that there are many good reasons to dislike religions, and that it’s worth fighting religions with everything in your arsenal, even if that means embracing your feelings and impressions (e.g. anger and hatred, personal experience – i.e. acknowledging and celebrating the fact that theory is both subjective and objective.) If you find religion to be repugnant, it’s OK to say so without having to have an overarching theory via which to incorporate your feelings. Unlike scientific humanists, then, Hitchens didn’t limit himself to notions of ‘objectivity’ or otherwise confine himself to one mode of argument.
A lovely example of Dawkins and Hitchens arguing together can be found here on YouTube.
So, by way of summary, my argument is that religions are primarily social institutions. Thus, religions should be critiqued as social institutions, and not simply on the dry and philosophical terms of whether a god exists. God, I would argue, is secondary and almost incidental. So to put god first is to fight on a false front, as it were, and has the consequence of not facing religions and religious people themselves.