In his treatise entitled “Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception,” Georges Rey outlines in quite clear terms his rationale for doubting the true existence of theists and of the possibility that thinking, educated people could harbor an innate belief in the existence of God. Rey’s strongest arguments are evidentiary in nature. In other words, the absence of any clear, objective evidence that God exists establishes a strong foundation upon which to base the contention that there is no such being. As such, Rey contends that “the reasons for atheism are obvious, and not dependent on subtle metaphysics or sophisticated theories of knowledge” (Oppy and Scott 2010, 221). It is a straightforward but compelling proposition: Without evidence, there is no need to indulge the issue.
Critics of such hard-headed, rational pragmatism respond that belief in God is a matter of “faith,” that one cannot truly comprehend the existence of a Divine Being intellectually, that God is something “felt” rather than “understood.” Rey points to arguments put forth by the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes, brilliant philosophers in their own right but men guilty of putting forth “patently bad arguments” (Rey 2004) based not on concrete reasoning but on the nebulous precepts of religious faith. The concepts of existence as predicate and the unmoved mover do not, Rey contends, come close to resolving the existence of the Divine being that Aquinas and Descartes envisioned, and upon which Christian ideology is based. Essentially,
Rey argues that Aquinas, Descartes and those that followed them have made arguments that hinge on faith rather than logic to “establish their intended conclusion” (Rey 2004).
Consequently, without evidence, one can only make an argument which proceeds from faith rather than logical reasoning. And if this is the case, then it must be concluded that what those who support theism are concerned with is really nothing more than theological sophistry, the exercise of intellect without the possibility of reaching a supportable conclusion. Though well-presented and thought-provoking, the premises put forth by Aquinas and Descartes cannot be said to rise to the level of true philosophy or to comprise an argument derived from knowledge of the known world. Those who profess to support theism are, by definition, dealing in the inexact and immaterial.
Rey acknowledges that there are numerous claims to be made for the existence of God and the certitude of faith, claims based on personal and subjective experience that cannot be certified or truly shared. Rey notes that “’religious experiences’ or ‘intuitions’ no matter how ecstatic or profound, could obviously be explained by any number of other far more modest hypotheses” (2005). This, he asserts, is not the result of insincerity. Religious individuals evince a degree of fervor in their actions and observances which unquestionably supports their intent. Nevertheless, religious feeling, with its tacit avowal of religious stories, involves what can readily be explained as “patent wishful thinking and (a) rehearsal of childhood dramas with one’s parents or social class” (Rey 2004). Such “wishful thinking” is the means by which the theist creates a moral universe and validates order in a world bereft of evidence for the existence
In creating a Godly, orderly world, the devotee is complicit, a willing participant in a fantasy. In so doing, the individual is conscious, on some level that he is helping to perpetuate an intrinsically fallacious construct. As such, Rey contends, no one with a standard educational background or the ability to think in a logical, coherent manner could possibly believe in the existence of God. The whole basis for theism is the supposition that there is an all-knowing Being guiding the universe, as in Aquinas’s primary mover, an entity who theists believe must be acknowledge and lauded through the medium of worship. Rey, however, posits that since no argument has ever established the existence of “a being with a mind and a psychology” (Oppy and Scott 2010, 221), a deity guiding the destinies of all things, that there exists within the act of faith a de facto concession to the inevitable fact that, without proof, there is no true faith, no actual object of worship.
The fact that theists persist in this behavior is indicative of another difficulty concerning belief in the existence of God. Rey calls this phenomenon “self-deception,” a state in which the individual willingly allows him or herself to carry on in a belief even “at some level” they know the belief to be false (Rey 2004). Rey uses the example of people intentionally overlooking the symptoms of a disease, or ignoring the clear evidence that a spouse has been unfaithful; “in most of these caseswe have reason to suppose that the people involved are otherwise quite intelligent enough to draw the conclusions that they consciously resist that we suppose there must be something else at work” (Rey 2004).
For Rey, self-deception is not “genuine belief” but “things people merely sincerely ‘think’ or ‘avow,’ even when they don’t believe them” (Rey 2004). Rey is concerned with the psychology behind the phenomenon of self-deception, because he believes on some level the theist knows full well that the religious stories upon which his faith is based are not true. Ultimately, religious claims are “manifestly insensitive” to the existence of fallacies in their arguments. “It is the maintenance of the avowals despite an understanding of the errors that leads (one) to speculate that it must be due to self-deception” (Rey cite). Thus, because the believer is self-deceiving, using whatever method is native to his or her way of thinking, their theism is negated because by self-deceiving they are covering up what they already know: that faith is based on the faulty presumption of a Divine presence in their lives.
There are a number of ways in which self-deception may be employed. Brian P. McLaughlin argues that such individuals utilize “memory-exploiting strategems” which enable them to reconstruct past events so that they fit the individual’s understanding of the world (Bach 1981). This may include, for instance, using selective memory to reconfigure a traumatic event so that the individual’s survival or recovery can be ascribed to the intervention of some supernatural aid (i.e. “Divine intervention”). Kent Bach, who essentially concurs with Rey, contends that the self-deceiver prevents himself from thinking what he truly believes (Bach 1981). As such, “No contrary belief is needed to suppress or inhibit the effect that the unpleasant belief normally has on his thinking” (Bach 1981). Rey maintains that the “unpleasant belief is a ‘central belief,’” while the self-deceptive conviction is an “‘avowed belief’” (Bach 1981). But maintaining an avowed belief, no matter how fervently held, is not enough to justify the
existence of God.
Nor should it be sufficient to excuse actions that are clearly destructive to human beings, or human civilization. History is replete with examples of theists using their faith to assert that God somehow wanted them to take some severe, adverse action. “Claims, for example, about which people God has ‘chosen,’ what he has promised them, whose side He favors in a war, and which sexual arrangements He approves, are somehow supposed to provide some special grounding to moral views” (Rey 2004). For example, during the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee frequently referred to Divine influence as a force that favored the righteous, that it was “God’s will” that hundreds of thousands of men should have died in horrific battles. This avowed belief, presumably, did not help Lee come to terms with why the Confederacy was defeated and occupied by the Union. Lee’s theism was not supported by the course of events or by any direct evidence of Divine intervention on either side.
For Rey, the immoral and improper assertion of religious bigotry is symptomatic of the fact that there is no objective moral center to the human universe. Rey points out that people have, for centuries, intimidated themselves and others “with unsupportable, bizarrely medieval claims about how the ‘Lord of the Universe’ approves or disapproves and will punish people accordingly” (Rey 2004). This is a theistic conceit that Christians have no right to assert, Rey argues, because they have no grounds upon which to equate God with morality in the first place. Just as philosophy has nothing to do with theism, the idea of God has nothing to do with a man-made model of moral behavior. For Rey, morality is an intrinsically relative concept that theists apply as it suits their needs.
In the final summation, the core of Rey’s argument is quite simple. Theism is a self-evidently false doctrine for no more complicated reason than it cannot be proven. “Despite what they claim,” Rey explains, “theists in fact treat (God) as an idle wheel that does no serious explanatory work” (Dodds 2012, 108). Since there is no observable or temporally experiential evidence for the existence of God, Rey concludes that God is no more real than our wildest fantasies: “I’m afraid that I really don’t think the question of the existence of God is much more ‘open’ than the question of the existence of leprechauns or ghosts.” Thus, the absence of proof is the strongest argument against theism.
Bach, Kent. “An Analysis of Self-Deception.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research,
1981, Vol. 41, pp. 351-270.
Dodds, Michael. Unlocking Divine Action. The Catholic University of America Press, 2012.
McLaughlin, Brian P. and Rorty, Amelie Oksenberg, eds. Perspectives on Self-Deception.
Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988.
Oppy, Graham and Scott, Michael. Reading Philosophy of Religion: Selected Texts With
Interactive Commentary. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
Rey, Georges. “Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception.” Philosophers Without
God, Louise Antony, ed., 2004.