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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Man Behind the Curtain

The Raving Atheist recently gave us a post dealing with something rather interesting. Specifically, he was discussing an article in Newsday that asked a group of Unitarian Universalists whether or not they believe in god.

As a side note: I think those two sentences should get an award of some kind for sheer link-density.

Indeed, I've had a fair amount of experience with UU's, given that my Sainted Girlfriend is one and she has... um... escorted me to local services from time to time. Additionally, I know the organization is popular among intellectuals due to its provision of community within a context of free-thought and tolerance. Within the blogosphere I'm sure there are numerous UU's, though I only know of one for a fact: the occasional blogger Sarah Elizabeth. So, I was curious what Newsday's Unitarians might have to say.

From the article, it's clear that some of their respondents are pretty intelligent and may enjoy tweaking the interviewer a smidge:

A sky god who willed the chemical origins of the cosmos and Earth's evolving life? The jealous Zeus of massive temper tantrums that is Yahweh on a bad hair day? The vindictive, wantonly cruel God of Christian fundamentalists, who sadistically watches people burn in hell or promises mass slaughter for most of Earth's people in a grand finale of rapture . . . is an unlikely God for Unitarians. In our congregation, half the people are atheists who do not believe in imps, incubi, Satan, archangels, holy or unholy ghosts; the other half believes in some kind of "God." Both believe we are hard-wired to a spiritual dimension that seeks meaning and metaphor through the passage of life and death, which compels us to compassion and justice.


In other words, when you don't believe in god, all invisible friends in the sky are created equal, and none are more or less plausible than others. This is a point I myself made fairly recently. As you might expect, the Raving Atheist was complementary about this remark.

He was less complimentary, however, about UU Janet Hanson's answer:

I have to believe in God because I see so many things -- both good and bad -- done in God's name. God exists in the minds of people. To say that I don't believe in God would be absurd.


The RA responds to Ms. Hanson with considerable scorn:

So God exists in her mind because it exists in the minds of others who say He does things. But what if those people are all doing the same thing -- basing their beliefs on Ms. Hanson's conviction that God exists, a conviction that itself is based only upon her opinion of what’s in their heads? God might just be a belief about what other people believe you believe about what they believe.


In one sense I agree with the RA- believing in something because a buttload of other people do is a pretty stupid reason. On the other hand, I do think the RA is missing something important here. The Sociologist W.I. Thomas wrote, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences," which is often used as a one-sentence summary of social construction. In short, humans collectively decide on the nature of the world, building a set of interpretations and understandings as a group activity. This is not to say (in my view) that an ultimate, single physical reality does not exist, but rather that the webwork of meaning that humans use to interact with that world is produced through social means. Though stated inelegantly, Ms. Hanson has stumbled across a similar revelation. On a certain level, if enough people believe in god then god is socially real, even if he is not materially real.

Okay, yes, I know most religions claim their gods are immaterial, but I trust you understand the distinction I am making between what is real in a person's head (which, after all, includes delusions and hallucinations) and what is real in the outside universe.

I see no particular reason to doubt the social reality of god, given the many things that are done in his name. Men and women have defined god to be real, and he has become real in his consequences for the world. Such a process of social construction can easily be invoked to explain religious devotion- as occurred in a conversation last night between myself, my Sainted Girlfriend, and one of my officemates. We toyed with the notion that Jesus might have been subject to some form of psychopathology, like schizophrenia. Not a new idea, but interesting in that much of what we know of the man Jesus might be the result of centuries of social construction- a process that both generated modern Christianity, and a suitable messianic figure to head it. Might it be possible that other more modern faiths might someday reach a similar level of sophistication, and deify their own unique messiah to a similar extent?

I think it not merely possible, but likely inevitable. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim analyzed religion as a system of signs, totems, and rituals that served to unify and express the group. I see nothing wrong with this definition, as it does sum up many of the apparent functions of religion, and perceive no way that it is incompatible with a notion of god as a socially constructed reality. If this approach to religion has merit, it suggests that the development of religion is a distinctly human process that is unlikely ever to cease fully. Moreover, perhaps it helps explain why religion in public life has become so contentious an issue in the United States. To the extent that Jesus and Christianity are socially constructed, to the extent that god is socially constructed, there is some truth to the idea that they ARE the culture that they stem from. Perhaps the conservatives aren't protecting their god, so much as the group that is, in truth, represented by their god. Perhaps that means that those of us who dispute the role of faith in public life should take greater pains to differentiate between positions we dislike, and people who sometimes hold those positions.

Most importantly we must respect what religion is. For some, saying that god is socially constructed is akin to saying that God is a glorious show put on by what turns out to be simply a man behind a curtain. Yet, just as the Wizard of Oz remarked, "I'm a good man, but a bad wizard," so we too must not misunderstand the value of a socially constructed god. Our socially constructed gods may be lousy deities, in that they have no power independent of ourselves, but they may be good guides. To say that something is socially constructed is not to say that it is fake or stupid, but neither is it inviolable, unchangeable, or "real."

To the extent that our creations benefit us we can accept their goodness while, perhaps, forgiving their theatrical excesses. But, to the extent that our creations lead us to dangerous extremism, it is perhaps wise to remember that they are, after all, merely men cowering behind a curtain.

And this, perhaps, is the greatest lesson the Wizard has to teach us.

As an end note, I just want to observe two things. First, I can't wait to see the e-mail that my L. Ron Hubbard/Jesus comparison is going to generate. Secondly, you really sometimes turn up some unexpected things when you do a google image search for "charity."

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