Why Even Atheists Need Myths

God is my Partisan
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So yesterday I alluded to the notion that you can’t coherently rebut arguments for the existence of God without either confronting them on their own turf (metaphysics) or challenging the whole concept of metaphysical fact. Ever since I finally rejected the argument from empiricism, I’ve preferred the latter.

Crudely speaking, I’m a logical positivist. My view is that there is no such thing as metaphysical fact, since facts are statements about the word that are verifiable and either true or false. You can create a false statement pertaining to metaphysics if you claim a metaphysical force (like, say, the mind, a ghost, etc.) somehow interacted directly with physical objects, because such a phenomenon is logically impossible. However, statements that are of a purely metaphysical nature can be neither true nor false.

So if you ask me if I think there exists an interventionist God who has agency in the real world, I’m going to give an emphatic no. But if you asked me if I think the God of Einstein and Spinoza exists — an impersonal, abstract intelligence who “reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists” — then I would say you’re asking the wrong question.

When it comes to purely metaphysical claims about God, both the people making them and the people listening tend to mistake them for statements of fact about the universe. Instead, I see them as statements about the conscious state of the speaker, and the structure of her perception and cognition. “God is all around me” isn’t a factual statement like “the dog is brown,” but an expression of sentiment. A clearer way to phrase this expression of sentiment might be: “I am having the experience of being surrounded by an omniscient being.”

Put that way, most forms of metaphysics might be better understood as wayward children of phenomenology, or the philosophical study of the structure of our experiences. This discipline is where philosophy overlaps most closely with good old-fashioned psychoanalysis. It also has a certain literary quality to it: phenomenology can illuminate the inner workings of the human psyche in a manner very similar to (but more direct than) that of brilliant first-person narration. It’s no coincidence that phenomenology overlaps quite a bit with existentialism, probably the one school of Western philosophy to have directly inspired more fiction than any other. The phenomenologist, the psychoanalyst, the existentialist and the fiction writer all share a common mission: to articulate what it means to want, fear, and feel like a living person. We remain fascinated by these efforts because they help explain us to ourselves and make us better at being what we are.

Religious narratives do the same thing, although stylistically they’re obviously closer to fiction than phenomenology. This is why it’s disappointing to hear other atheists refer to them as “myth” and use the term derisively. Since when have myths been less than fascinating? Since when hasn’t pretty much everyone used some fictional narrative or another (whether they were aware it was fiction or not) as an explanatory tool for understanding the self? Even phenomenology is more or less a myth: it’s an ongoing attempt to put into words a structural understanding of our “mind” and “consciousness.” These things are purely metaphysical beasts, not real-world entities. Any attempt to articulate them can only end in crude metaphor.

But if crude metaphor is all we have to go on, it suffices. It may not be capital-T true, but it still reveals something in us we couldn’t even catch a glimpse of otherwise. That’s why I compared it to literature, and that’s why I think religion still has something to teach to the atheist. Remember: When we want to commend authors like Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy for the richness, beauty, purity, and sheer, awe-inspiring might of their fiction, we have a word that encapsulates all of that. We call their work Biblical.

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8 Responses

  1. These are fantastic points, Ned. I’ve really been enjoying your posts on atheism, and I think this is the best one so far.

    The funny thing to me is that even though the mindset you’re describing would be conducive to greater harmony between believers and atheists, many religious people almost certainly would disagree with your positivism. Basically, you could envision a world in which atheists and believers get along perfectly well but in which each accommodates the other’s worldview for totally different reasons. Not that there’s necessarily anything odd or paradoxical about that, of course, but just something a little odd and surprising.

    • Thanks! And yeah, I think that’s a pretty good way of articulating my position. I don’t want to ignore disagreements. These things matter enough that I think we should argue about them! I just wish the arguments themselves were more fruitful.

  2. Hey Ned, checked back in on your blog after a while! glad to see you’re still churning out great posts.

    On topic: Isn’t the obvious retort by the Atheist that religious “fiction” is not presented as just a story. Religious stories are presented as fact and dogma, which is largely why they cause so many problems in the world and corruption of otherwise rational minds.

    A response to this is markedly absent from your alternative perspective on religion.

    • Hey Chris,

      I’d say the response is embedded in the earlier post, though I didn’t really make it explicit. Yeah, when people take Biblical narratives as literal truth, that’s a problem. And a disturbingly large number of the people in the United States believe in the literal truth of Genesis and all of that — but when the foundation of a person’s religious faith is mostly or entirely metaphysical as opposed to empirical, then what I was talking about in this post becomes relevant.

  3. This sort of reminds me about a blog post of my friend. I’ll use what I said on his post a little.


    I read your other post. In a basic sense I agree with you: for the intelligent and skeptical reader of religious stories, they might provide good lessons or reflections. But whether or not you actually *believe* the stories is sort of beside the point. Religion has a lot of baggage, and convincing atheists to value it as much as a novel by Melville doesn’t address the other consequences of religion in society that Melville’s novels certainly do not have.

    Until religion is presented as purely a story, I think you would have to establish that religious stories can of even greater use to society than any other non-religious literature. Otherwise, why should we value religions when we have a plethora of equally valuable literature without all the baggage?

    • My intention wasn’t to address the other consequences. I’m trying to lay out what I see as the groundwork for mutual respect and productive exchange between moderate believers and atheists. As far as fundamentalists go, mutual respect and productive exchange is going to be a lot more difficult.

  4. *can be of even greater use

  5. and ignore the scope shift from the individual to society that I made. I think it works both ways–individual and society–anyways.

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