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"?
"Alice in Wonderland" is a story with deep personal importance for me. It is a story that has given me a framework for understanding myself and the world, a story that has woven its threads throughout my life, a story that has imbued my experience with great meaning. (Seriously. I even have the Jabberwock tattooed on my arm.)
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.
I am stealing this idea outright from John the drunkard, who posted it in a recent comment here on this blog. We were talking about the extremely vague, "so abstract it's indistinguishable from non-existent" God believed in by Karen Armstrong and other modern theologians; the God of the gaps that's been squeezed into nothingness as the gaps in our knowledge are closing; the God that's been scrubbed so hard by the scouring pad of evidence that he's effectively disappeared.
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 remember this vividly from my own days as a woo believer. If I was talking with a skeptic, I'd say things like, "No, you don't need to think of the Tarot as a mystical force to think that it works -- it's designed to work, the cards are designed to be about human experience, it's just a useful hook to hang a conversation on." But if I was talking with a fellow believer, I'd say things like, "The cards don't lie." I'd assume that the cards were being moved by some unexplained mystical force in response to the question on the table... and I'd do my readings, and carry on my conversations with the people I was reading for, based on that assumption.
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."
I wish I could better explain it. The best I can do is describe it. And the best way I can describe it is to say that my beliefs were slippery; and my justifications for them shifted around depending on what was convenient, and what allowed me to hang onto my beliefs and enjoy them. I didn't really believe anything that had been demonstrated to be absurd...while anyone was watching. When nobody was watching, I believed some seriously crazy bullshit.
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.
If Karen Armstrong really believes in a God who's essentially defined as "whatever it is that really exists," a God about whom nothing at all can be said regarding his actions and attributes... then why does it bug her so much when atheists say that God doesn't exist? If she thinks that the Bible story is "psychologically true"... then why does it bug her so much when people say that it isn't literally true? If Julia Sweeney's priest really thought that it wasn't important whether the Bible was literally true, because people believe it and shape their culture based on it and "this is the story that God wants us to know"... then why did it bug him so much when she continued to ask questions about the book's errors and contradictions? If Wiccans and other New Agers really think that the sentient universe is just a useful metaphor, a way of feeling connected with the world and being responsible towards it... then why does it bug them so much when atheists say that the universe isn't really sentient, and that the story isn't really true?
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.