The Message and the Messaging

June 2013


I like to be able to speak my mind about things I think are important.  And while I try to steer clear of being strident or obnoxious in how I express my views, I don’t always give the kind of careful thought to my wording that would guarantee no one could take offense.  And then, of course, there are subjects – religion and politics, for example – where it seems there can be no such guarantees.  Still, I’d prefer to avoid offending people, if I can do it without “wordsmithing away” what I’m trying to say.

This issue came up recently, when I posted a link on Facebook to an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled, “Belief is the Least Part of Faith,” written by a Stanford professor who has studied evangelical churches.[1] I quoted the portion that I believed captured the essence of the piece:

” … secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. … And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it…. If you can sidestep the problem of belief … it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good.”

And then I added my “two cents”:

 “This strikes me as ‘let’s believe this (or pretend to believe it) because it makes us feel good.’ Maybe this approach (‘let’s do magical thinking because it makes us feel good’) would be okay if it weren’t for the very real negative ‘side effects’ — like people getting into ‘God told me to do this …’ Didn’t George W. Bush say that God told him to do some of the (incredibly destructive) things he did? I think I’ll stick to the reality-based community and try to find joy there.”

Several of my Facebook friends concurred with my “two cents,” but one, who is a friend of mine outside of Facebook, took exception. Her final comment (in a back-and-forth with me), I believe, captures the essence of her position:

 “When you characterize someone’s beliefs as ‘let’s do magical thinking,’ I feel that the implication is, ‘I am very rational and I see that what you believe is superstition (magical thinking,) therefore you are duped or a fool for believing it because my rational beliefs are the truth.’ Perhaps that’s not what you intend, but it’s what comes through to me, and I find that way of thinking to be pretty much the same as believing that one’s particular religious beliefs are the truth. That’s the part that troubles me.”

I was bothered by her response – in particular, by the fact that I had offended her – so I got to thinking about what I’d written and her response to it, and what a reasonable response to that would be.  This essay is my attempt to sort it all out.

I see two issues here: (1) what I think, and (2) how (or if) I should express that publicly.  As I have noted elsewhere (see Waking Up From the Fever Dream), religion is a very touchy subject because people tend to be very emotionally invested in their religious beliefs. As I have also noted elsewhere, religious beliefs (at least those having to do with a supernatural being) are unverifiable – they cannot be proven or disproven.  I don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I can prove there is no God; I cannot.  “I don’t believe in God” is basically shorthand for: “There is no evidence that there is a God (particularly a God who cares about us; a “personal God”), and I therefore see no reason to believe in one.  If evidence were to become available, I would be open to changing my mind.”

Perhaps if I had just said that, I would not have gotten into trouble with my friend.  It was the reference to belief in God as “magical thinking” that put her off.  Now, let me say first that there are many different concepts of “God” out there, from the highly anthropomorphic to the highly abstract. There are people who say, “God is love” or “God is an unknowable force.” Traditionally in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), however, God is an anthropomorphic being in the sense that God is aware of us, cares about us (but judges us), and can hear our prayers. The sense that God is benevolent and omnipotent is shared by all the Abrahamic religions. Because evangelical Christianity is well within this tradition, and based on what I know about it, I assumed that its concept of God shares these basic attributes.

Now, there is no evidence, in the usual sense of the word “evidence,” for a God with these basic attributes. I thus referred to such belief as “magical thinking” – by which I meant “belief in something for which there is no evidence.” I am actually hard pressed to see how such belief is any less magical thinking than, say, belief in faeries or unicorns. Most of us would say that believing in faeries or unicorns is silly; but few would say that believing in a benevolent and omnipotent God is silly.  Why?

Well, one reason is that most people, at least in this country, believe in such a God.  And it offends people to tell them you think what they believe is silly.  It would offend me if someone told me that what I believe is silly. But after the initial feeling of being offended, I would think about it and ask why they think it’s silly. I would take a step back and question the belief that they questioned.  This is not to say that I would necessarily change my belief; but I would reexamine it in the light of their assessment and ask: Do I think perhaps they have a point? If so, why? If not, why not?

In a talk at the Singularity Summit ( about her organization, the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), my daughter, Julia Galef, described CFAR as trying to “create this culture in which changing your mind in response to evidence is a virtue that’s admired and applauded …” She told the story of an old professor who for 15 years proclaimed that he didn’t believe a certain theory, but who, in the face of new and overwhelming evidence, publicly declared that he had “been wrong these 15 years.” Julia said, “That is the kind of person who I want to be.” Me too.  Because the goal – my goal, at least – is not to be right, but to get at the truth.

That isn’t to say that I know the truth, especially when it comes to such a weighty subject as God. But I do think that a questioning mind, one that wants evidence, is a necessary condition for finding the truth.

But didn’t I just say that the existence of God is unverifiable? That it cannot be proved or disproved? So how can we find out the truth about something that is unverifiable? We can’t – at least not definitively. But we can think hard about what we mean by “God,” and whether what we experience in the world is consistent with our concept of God.  To do this, however, one must be truly open-minded; one must avoid motivated reasoning (i.e., reasoning whose goal is to “find” a desired answer rather than to find the truth) – and this is hard to do if one is emotionally invested in believing something.  My sense of evangelical Christians – and what I took to be the point of the op-ed piece to which I linked – is that their goal isn’t to find the truth so much as to find happiness, and their belief is in the service of that goal.  This is quintessential motivated reasoning.

My friend interpreted my “two cents” as arrogant, as an assumption that “I am very rational and I see that what you believe is superstition (magical thinking,) therefore you are duped or a fool for believing it because my rational beliefs are the truth.” She went on to say that she finds “that way of thinking to be pretty much the same as believing that one’s particular religious beliefs are the truth.”

I don’t know how rational I am, but I aspire to be rational, because I think that’s the best way to get at whatever truths are out there. I don’t think people who believe in things without evidence are necessarily fools, but I also don’t think believing things without evidence will get anyone closer to any truth. Moreover, I think that the message that it’s okay – even admirable – to believe things based on faith alone (without any actual evidence) can have dangerous consequences. In fact we have witnessed the seriously harmful consequences of religious belief repeatedly, as I commented on Facebook.

As for thinking that my rational beliefs “are the truth” – I think that rational, evidence-based thinking is the best way to get at the truth. I am always open to questions and to reconsidering what I believe in the light of new evidence or arguments that persuade me that my thinking was somehow flawed or off-base.  Like my daughter, I want to be the kind of person who can say, “I was wrong.” But so far, I think that evidence-based thinking is clearly preferable to thinking that is not based on evidence (what I called “magical thinking”) – and that is the big difference between my way of thinking and that of those who think their religious beliefs (in a personal God) are the truth: I try to rely on evidence; they do not.

So that’s what I think.  What about the second issue? How should I express my views publicly? Or should I express them at all?  There are various opinions about this within the atheist community. Richard Dawkins, one of the leading lights of the atheist community, puts it bluntly: “Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated and need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.”[2] Daniel Dennett, another prominent atheist, expresses similar sentiments: “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.”[3]

Perhaps not, but I would like to try. When, as a college student, my son first got interested in what religious people believe and why they believe it, I cautioned him about how he approached the subject with them. “Don’t be obnoxious about it, Jesse,” I said. “Say what you want to say, but say it in a non-obnoxious way.” “Don’t mock people; don’t be contemptuous.”[4] At the time, I hadn’t really thought through why I was giving this advice; it just seemed like the Golden Rule – Jesse wouldn’t want others to mock or be contemptuous of him, so he shouldn’t do that to others.

Later I realized there’s also a practical reason: If you ridicule people, they tend to get their backs up. No one likes to be ridiculed; I certainly don’t. And if you really want someone to consider a different way of thinking about something – if that is your goal – you are more likely to be successful if that person’s back isn’t up. Making someone feel attacked or mocked is just a poor way to give him the emotional leeway to take that step back and reconsider something – especially something that is most likely held very dear.

So I guess I’m at the other end of the spectrum from Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett when it comes to the messaging (how the message is delivered). We share the same message – that there is no rational basis for belief in the traditional Abrahamic concept of God (and certainly no evidence to support such a belief). But if I am trying to talk to a religious person about these things, I cannot see myself describing his/her beliefs as “magical thinking,” because I can see that that might sound mocking.

And now, as I write this, I can see why: Although I used the term “magical thinking” to refer to “belief in something for which there is no evidence,” the word “magical” has other associations attached to it as well – for example, we think of credulous people being fooled by magicians.  So by using the word “magical” I (unconsciously) “smuggled into” my “definition” these other (less than flattering) concepts. Comparing belief in a personal God to belief in unicorns or faeries has the same problem – since it is children who are likely to believe in unicorns or faeries, there is a hidden implication in this comparison that belief in a personal God is childish.  So when it comes to my messaging, I see now that I was clumsy, at the least – and I’m more than willing to admit it.

Ironically, this same kind of “smuggling in” of meanings goes on all the time when people discuss God, as Julia noted in a piece she wrote on the Rationally Speaking blog.[5]

So why did I chose the term “magical thinking” in my comment on Facebook? Well, I didn’t consciously think to myself, “Belief in a personal God is childish and foolish.” But, honestly, I do think it’s kind of childish, even though I can understand how appealing such a belief may be.[6]  So I guess that thought slipped in “through the back door of my mind.” Trouble is, on Facebook I instinctively imagined I was talking to like-minded people (always a mistake on social media), so I didn’t try to choose my words very carefully.  Like many people, I often use Facebook to vent.  I’ve just experienced some of the downside of doing that.

But this Facebook incident highlights an underlying conundrum: What to do if what you think is critical of some group of people? If I have a correct understanding of what most evangelical Christians believe, I do think it’s kind of childish.[7] I would not say that to an evangelical Christian’s face; but it is what I think. Sometimes we don’t have completely positive views of other people. I completely respect their right to believe whatever they want; but I don’t necessarily respect the beliefs themselves. And I would like to feel free to express that – although hopefully not in an obnoxious way.

That is the challenge or, perhaps, the tightrope we walk, if we want to be able to express our opinions but also want not to be hurtful to others, two “goods” that sometimes conflict – because, in the last analysis, while rationality matters, empathy matters too.  Thanks, my unnamed Facebook friend, for reminding me of that.

[2]  From Richard Dawkins’ speech at the Reason Rally on the National Mall, March 2012:

[4] I should note that Jesse has succeeded beautifully at this.

[5]  Julia Galef, September 2, 2010. “Definitions Don’t Prove Anything.”  At

[6] Belief in a personal God was appealing to me for many years; even though I did not actually fully believe in such a God, I wished I could. See: Religion: A Useful Fiction?

[7] For example, a majority of evangelical Christians believe in angels and demons. Of course, this can be said of several other major religious groups in the United States as well: See


4 comments on “The Message and the Messaging

  1. Franklin Lonzo Dixon, Jr. says:

    Compassion is a natural effect of a rational mind. Also, rational people understand differences of opinion as exactly that, differences of opinion, and they work together rationally to change opinion into fact.

  2. My original comment was written because I think attacking other people’s religion leads to wars. Look at how much devastation religious wars have brought about and continue to bring about. It seems to me that evangelical atheism is in danger of becoming another religion in its own way. While I agree with you about the concept of a personal god being somewhat immature and a very small, limiting definition of God, I don’t think that an understanding that a possible God would be incomprehensible to our limited minds and senses, so vast a “life force” that we just can’t take it in, is twisting oneself into a pretzel. I also believe that you misunderstood the original article. I think religion is essentially about finding joy despite what goes on in life, and that many people see the teachings of fundamentalist religion as metaphors, which they don’t take literally, and do belong to churches to find a sense of community and of something that transcends the mundane and secular. Religion does a lot of harm, but it also does a lot of good. I know many people whose lives have been transformed through their religious beliefs–they have in many ways been “redeemed.” While I cannot believe as they do, I would not want to take away from them the underpinnings of their renewed happiness, confidence, and ability to live a coherent life. To my mind, the danger of religious belief is the idea that everyone should believe as you do, that everyone should believe or not believe in God, and that believers or non-believers should be forced through law, violence, or war to behave according to one religion’s dictates.

    Most of the attacks on religion that I’ve read are attacks on that “little” God, the one that can be defined. Nevertheless, they do feel personal somehow, even though that is not my definition of God. Religious beliefs are intensely personal, deeply part of a person’s makeup sometimes, as things learned in childhood or come to in an intense, emotional conversion often are. To attack a person’s religion is to attack their very essence, to say that what they are is somehow wrong. You have evidently experienced this as an atheist or sceptic. Would you not agree that others should have the same freedom from feeling wrong that you wish for atheists?

    • ellen post says:

      Elizabeth, it’s difficult to discuss the topic of religious belief precisely because it is so important to so many people – especially if discussing it in any critical way is taken as “attacking.” And, as you note, religious beliefs can be intensely personal and are often held from early childhood. I think it is a mistake, however, to cordon off religious beliefs – or any other subject – as a topic for discussion and inquiry. I don’t feel, as an atheist, that I should have the “freedom from feeling wrong.” If someone can convince me that I’m wrong to be an atheist (or wrong about anything else I believe), I am open to changing my mind, as I said in my essay. I find “freedom from feeling wrong” an odd expression, especially if it implies the freedom to not have anyone question your beliefs. I think beliefs should be questioned, including my own. Hopefully, they can stand up to scrutiny. It can be painful to have one’s beliefs questioned, but I think we’re all better for it if we are open to questioning from others (especially if it’s done in a non-obnoxious way) and reexamining our own beliefs from time to time. Open minds are, I believe, better than closed minds.

  3. I was really responding to two essays at once here. In the fever dream (or vice versa) you say, “Now suppose further that all these believers in the hephalinx tell you that if you don’t believe, something’s wrong with you. If you don’t believe, you’re a really bad person.” I believe you are discussing the campaign to offer support to atheists, and my comment about “feeling wrong” was stemming from that, not from anyone’s ability or lack thereof to change their minds. I see that once again, I’ve failed to make my points clear to you, for which I’m sorry. I’ll just say that I’m certainly not espousing closed mindedness, but rather the opposite. And also a little tolerance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s