There’s a trope going around among progressive religious believers and theologians. It goes something like this:
I’ve been hearing this trope for a while. And something recently occurred to me about it: something so blindingly obvious that I’m smacking myself in the head for not having thought of it earlier.
If religion is just a story, then why does it upset people so much when atheists say that it isn’t true?
If religion is simply a story, a personal perspective, a way of framing experience and giving it meaning… then why are people troubled when someone says, “Actually, that probably isn’t true”? Any more than they’d be troubled if someone said, “Actually, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ probably isn’t true”?
But if someone said to me, “Actually, according to our best understanding of the world, there are no rabbits who carry pocket watches and speak English, and no potions that can make you shrink to three inches tall,” I wouldn’t be troubled. I’d actually be puzzled as to why they felt a need to explain that to me.
So if religion really is simply a story, why does it upset people when someone says, “Actually, that probably isn’t true”?
If a belief in an immaterial spiritual realm really is simply a story, why does it upset people when someone says, “Actually, the preponderance of evidence strongly suggests that the universe is entirely physical — every attempt to gather evidence for an immaterial world affecting the physical one has failed, and the arguments in favor of this hypothesis are self-contradictory and weak”? If the idea of a non-corporeal soul animating our consciousness is just a story, why does it upset people when someone says, “Actually, the preponderance of evidence strongly suggests that consciousness is entirely a biological product of the brain”? If the idea of the universe being sentient is just a story, why does it upset people when someone says,” Actually… well, see above, re consciousness being a biological product of the brain, it isn’t physically possible for the universe to be sentient”?
If religion really is simply a story, why does it upset people when someone says, “Actually, that probably isn’t true”?
Because they don’t really think that.
They only think that when anyone is watching.
And John the drunkard summarized Armstrong’s theology thus:
“We don’t really believe anything that you have demonstrated to be absurd…while anyone is watching.”
While anyone is watching.
When explaining their theology in public, when debating their theology with skeptics, they don’t admit to believing anything that contradicts evidence or logic. But in the company of other believers, and in the privacy of their own minds… it’s another story entirely.
I wish I could better explain this particular form of compartmentalization and self-deception. (It is, after all, the crux of my thesis here.) It’s hard to explain, since it now seems very alien to me, and I don’t really understand it fully myself. It’s not that I was consciously lying, either to the skeptics or to my fellow believers. It’s more that my fundamental agnosticism — my belief that the answers to these questions could never be fully known — was slippery. It shifted up and down the “levels of belief/ non-belief” scale, between “I don’t know if the Tarot cards have mystical properties, but they don’t have to in order to be useful”… and, “I don’t know if the Tarot cards have mystical properties, but it sure seems like they do.”
And I think that’s exactly what’s going on for the modern, “religion is just a useful story,” “it doesn’t have to be literally true to be useful” crowd.
Because they don’t really think that.
They really think that the story is true.
They really think that God exists, and is true, and has an observable and important effect on the world. They don’t really think that religion is simply a beautiful story, or a useful metaphor, or psychologically true. The metaphor stuff is just a cover story, to keep skeptics — and themselves — from questioning their beliefs too hard.
They only think that when someone is watching.