Overview:

When we say that we believe in God or not, are these fundamental beliefs themselves dependent on other ideas? On our morality?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

There is a phenomenon that has been taking place, particularly in the US, with greater regularity over the last few decades—the behavior of “church shopping.” The congregant attends a church and listens to the pastor making moral-political statements, and they think to themselves, “This pastor is off the track here. I need to find me another church.”

When the church disagrees with the believer’s moral-political stance, rather than adapt that stance to the moral theology of the church, the believer finds another church that does accord with their political views.

In other words, a believer is more likely to adapt theology to their existing moral-political views than they are to adapt moral-political views to their theology.

Morality holds primacy here.

Believers would no doubt like to think their belief in God and relevant theology is at the core of their being, but it probably isn’t.

When we wonder about whether things matter or not, we more often than not make these considerations with reference to the metric of morality. Does knowledge matter in and of itself? That’s an interesting question, but there will be many who answer that there is no intrinsic value to knowledge (or any other thing we might be discussing), only extrinsic value. How might knowledge affect the world we want there to be, our happiness, our desire for lack of harm to others? These are all facets of the moral domain.

But this kind of church-shopping behavior is not confined solely to religious adherents. Everyone is victim to motivated reasoning and other cognitive biases. Motivated reasoning might be defined as the phenomenon where “emotional biases lead to justifications or decisions based on their desirability rather than an accurate reflection of the evidence.”

We don’t choose to believe things. It sounds nice, and it sounds rational, but we don’t consciously do this. In philosophy, this is known as doxastic voluntarism. Imagine I ask you to believe, right now, that the moon is made of cheese. You couldn’t just switch your belief based on volition alone. These sorts of beliefs result from a certain tipping point of evidence and motivation reached in one’s nonconscious brain that flips a switch.

Thus, trying to work out why we believe certain things is to speculate on what’s going on in the mechanics under the hood, so to speak. And that can involve quite a bit of conjecture.

For me, the question of interest is why I am an atheist.

To answer that, I need to rewind to the age of about 17. As a child of an armed forces family, I was at a private boarding school as my parents lived abroad. I was a Christian, of sorts, though my actual theological understanding of the Holy Trinity and Atonement were so…wrong that I could arguably have been invalidated from holding that label. I prayed to God at night for comfort or to ask for things, wore a crucifix, got confirmed, and that was about the sum of it.

So when I deconverted, what happened?

The biggest component of my deconversion was the problem of evil: How could there be so much evil and suffering in the world given an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing god? Something had to give, and it was God. But, at that age, I was not really losing anything by that deconversion. There was no loss of family, friends, job, community, invested time. There was no sunk cost to fallaciously motivate my reasoning.

It was an easy decision. But it was one that was driven by a moral appraisal.

When I look back on my previous self at that age, I was an obviously liberal-minded young lad. Empathy played and plays a huge role in my morality. The psychological so often underwrites the philosophical. I have always had an overactive empathy, often hiding behind cushions when watching embarrassing TV as I would clearly be putting myself in those situations and imagining having to cope with those cringeworthy TV moments. Indeed, one of my twin boys (12) is presently exactly the same to the point he has to walk out of the lounge whenever he can’t handle some embarrassing moment on the screen.

I remember one moment in the context of a private boarding school for boys (you can imagine that many peers, including close friends, were the traditional, conservative sort). We had a number of students from Malaysia who were Muslim, and it was Ramadan. They could only have one plate of food throughout the day and, needing to eat it after sunset, it was stored in the fridges of our “houses.”

In one typical incident, two of my friends, with their in-group/out-group moral outlooks, seeing these Muslims as outsiders, sabotaged their meals with salt, pepper, and anything else they could get their hands on. I, with no particular love for Islam, and with my own reputation among my peers to nurture, stood up for the Muslim students pretty robustly. It was just wrong. I would hate to have been those people, being victimized in a foreign country, unable to eat a single thing all day.

I became known as a “Paki-lover” for a short while (the term is a bad racial slur in the UK), and I existed temporarily, for some of my peers, as an out-group member. I only recount this incident to show that, in an environment of soon-to-be conservatives, I was a liberal. And yet not because I particularly rationalized it, but because I felt it. It was part of my moral character, in turn arguably dependent on my psychological character.

So when I think about why I deconverted, I then start wondering whether my moral underpinning acted as the real driver.

I didn’t do politics at that age. I never really understood the left-right paradigm (as problematic as that may be). My household was one of the traditional British “we don’t talk about politics or religion at the dinner table”-type houses. Politics only clicked in my mid-to-late 20s. But this was also driven by my moral sense. I soon threw off my inherited conservatism (which was pretty liberal anyway) as I also started to question why I should read the same newspaper as my father, or have the same beliefs as my parents.

In short, and nothing particularly unusual, I became my own man.

Here, “my own man” is shorthand for evolving back to a central moral core and allowing that to flourish, rather than constraining it with social, familial, and communal expectations or overlays. This core informed my political reformation and my views on God.

Is there some sort of motivated reasoning that continually drives me to atheism? When I look at my belief system now, and my atheism, I wonder whether my whole life since converting has been one of post hoc rationalization, where I psychologically adopt a position and then spend inordinate amounts of time and effort justifying it with rational arguments. But these subsequent arguments aren’t really why I disbelieve…

There might well be an element of this. After all, this is the sort of psychological activity that I accuse so many theists of taking part in. Why should I be so exceptional? In reality, though there may be a degree of this, I still look at the whole gamut of rational arguments for atheism and can’t for the life of me imagine a way for belief in God to be plausible.

What really appears to be going on is that I can’t for the life of me imagine a way for belief in God to be plausible because God doesn’t jive with my core moral-political psychology.

In the same way that a Christian might church shop until they find a church that suits their political persuasion, I have perhaps previously worldview shopped until I found one that jived with my moral-political persuasion.

Now, there is lots of space for discussion here. For example, how much is nature and how much is nurture? How much do genes have primacy and how important is the environment? Do some people have their core moral character develop coextensively with their, say, religious belief? How do we explain people changing political persuasion, changing religion?

There is certainly a lot of elbow room here for some good philosophical and psychological debate. And yet for me, at any rate, the situation is one of dependence on my core metrics and moral codes, mores, and intuitions. Simply put, I could never be a Christian until the theology and holy book accorded with my morality, and that has very little chance of happening.

I recorded these musings you are reading as a YouTube video and a liberal Christian made an interesting observation that coheres with this idea:

“I am a Christian because almost everyone I interacted with when I was young is Christian. But I have an interesting background as my father was very humanist. That has made me adopt a more liberal position on Christianity. But there is a lot of Cognitive Dissonance going on in me. I believe we all have it…. I actually attend an Evangelical church. It is probably because I was used to hearing debates between my mom and dad about religion…. When I attend Bible studies I disagree with what everyone says at that church. However, because they are willing to listen to my point of view I tolerate it. I was once asked if Christianity was proven to be the way conservatives view it, would I be a Christian? My answer is absolutely not. If, for example, I came to the conclusion that there is hellfire and all non-Christians were going to that hell, I would become a non-Christian too. I would probably call myself a Secular Christian as well. I don’t mind calling myself a Humanist. I personally don’t think humanist values and my Christian values are mutually exclusive.”

So, there it is: I think that our core moral identities have a lot to answer for.

It’s an added bonus that atheism is also a deeply rationally justifiable position.

Which is nice.

Avatar photo

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...