Getting Rid of the Middleman
It’s rare to find truly new arguments or perspectives. Most of the daily diet of writing concerning atheism covers events, issues, controversies, boycotts, and the like. There are a few exceptional writers who continue to pump out fresh ideas, day-in, day-out–you know who you are. Today I ran across an article by Matt Schirano of Drexel University which articulated something I’ve been ruminating about for the last few weeks. It started when one of my documentary interview subjects brought up the following point:
When someone says “God wants” or “God says,” they are simply saying “I want” or “I am saying.”
This seemed somewhat obvious on the face of it, but I had never quite heard it affirmed that plainly or forcefully before. I’ve often maintained that people invoke the name of god when they don’t want anyone to take issue with their statements or desires. But if we look at all such invocations as simple expressions of desire, things become a lot more clear: God is the middleman for any thought, desire, or course of action we imagine that is too bold, deep, expansive, unsupportable or unrealistic to express on our own. Think about it. How many other places in life hold this type of dynamic?
- A car salesman pretends not to be able to negotiate because s/he has to “check with the manager.” And you don’t get to talk to the manager.
- On the playground, a teacher’s pet or tattletale will invoke the name of the teacher to get their way. In most cases, other kids are simply cowed into doing what the pet wants for fear the teacher will actually show up.
- In the current Hollywood writer’s strike, the studio heads refuse to negotiate, but rather send the AMPTP to talk in their stead. The strike drags on far longer than necessary, because the writers don’t know who they’re talking to.
Diplomats are familiar with this tactic, and have established hierarchies of discussion where talks move up the ladder. Representatives of both sides must be equally matched, and talks begin at low levels and escalate to summit meetings where the real business is done. But treaties to be signed at summits are hammered out in the lower levels to avoid the embarrassment of two presidents holding talks and failing to reach agreement. There are middlemen, but they serve a distinct purpose, and no one pretends it’s otherwise.
In interpersonal relations, the stand-in god can represent positive human attributes and desires: love, compassion, favors, hope, mercy. These are all qualities possessed by humans. But religion has created an artificial need for divine love, divine compassion–which sounds all well and good, even transcendent, until we realize that it’s a backhanded compliment. If we acknowledge the need for divine love, for example, it’s inescapable that we therefore distrust human love. So when we invoke god in conversation, we are essentially devaluing ourselves and whoever we are talking to. Take for example these statements which are so ingrained in the language that even many atheists use them: “God knows.” “Oh my god.” “Goddammit.” And of course the ever-irritating “god bless you,” “god willing” and “With god all things are possible.”
Let’s purge the language and our thought of these disempowering middleman phrases and concepts.
We haven’t yet considered responsibility for negative thoughts and actions. The first part of this article is only talking about “higher” emotions and aspirations, and how they use their middleman “god” to get their way. But god’s not just a carrot, he’s also a stick. When we kick out the middleman, Schirano says,
This is a double-edged sword because it means man has a propensity for horrible atrocities as well as wonderful love, but it also shows us how amazingly diverse we are, that there are limitless capabilities even within just one person.
This is what my belief in atheism is based on, that throughout history Gods have stolen the credit for most great human achievement, while our faults have been the product of our ineptness and lack of devotion to him. Take away God, and all that is left is us…[emphasis added]
The invocation of ‘god(s)’ has been used by most of humanity as a direct tool for personal shadow-denial. Again, this is fairly intuitive, but I hadn’t quite put it together as clearly. The human hatred many religious people express is justified by their personification of a wrathful and vengeful god. As I’ve often said, scripture (when attributed to a middleman-god) is like the alphabet. It can be used by preachers or devotees to justify whatever they themselves want to express or follow. Which gives us the gay-bashing Fred Phelps on the one hand (previous article), and on the other gay-friendly Jay Bakker (previous article).
To atheists, God is just an extension of the human mind. It’s the way people express feelings they don’t want immediately connected to them.
Think about it. [religious people say] “I don’t hate gay people; it’s just that God says it’s wrong.” Take God away and that says: “I don’t like gay people.” Is that logic flawed? I guarantee you 99 out of 100 devout Catholics who think homosexuality is wrong based on the Bible don’t like homosexuals anyway. People join clubs and organizations that share similar interests and views, how is religion any different?
Well said. In this vein, I recently had a brief dialog with CUT member Matthew Crown, who insisted that even though there were flaws in the teaching and flaws in the “guru,” it was OK because sometimes discerning the flaws was the so-called spiritual “test.” In support of this idea, he quoted a dictation from “The Great Divine Director” making a statement against accepting doctrine on “authority,”
“Then there are the false doctrines and dogmas of Christianity that bind people to no religion but to wolves in sheep’s clothing. People are bound because they somehow believe without having given thought to it that they must be subservient to the system, having been taught that only through this or that body or church or organization or individual can they have salvation.
You are the independent thinkers. You are here because you do not buy into something said simply because it was said by “a very important person” to whom others think they must surrender their very minds.
-Great Divine Director: 6-26-94
Notice how the “Great Divine Director” belittles Christianity. If that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is. The irony is priceless, a statement from a being that calls itself the “Great Divine Director” arguing against authority. But this irony sums up the essence of my argument: If you don’t accept authority-based dogma, and if you think independently, then you don’t need a god, a scripture or a teaching at all. Someone worthy to accept the title of “Great Divine Director” ought to have understood that implication.
What I’m understanding, however, is that people have varying degrees of ability to assume this all-important responsibility for their own thoughts and actions. This may be their brain hard-wiring, or at the very least their cultural conditioning. Time and more brain research will tell. But we can pretty safely hypothesize the following: The least evolved are the scriptural literalists. As we move up the ladder, we get those such as Matthew Crown who question and interpret their scripture on their own terms. These are the cherry-pickers who take what they like from the teachings and leave the rest. Though they have begun the journey toward free thinking and a strengthened self-esteem, they still lack the confidence to throw off their crutches entirely. This type also permeates mainstream Christianity as we see the watering down of the bible in a diversity of denominations and views–effectively demographic market segmentation for believers.
But why have these varying religious denominations? Why cherry-pick scripture? Why not just climb to the top of the ladder and use our own brains to analyze morality, events, and our own actions and take the full responsibility for our own decisions?
In other words, why not just cut out the middleman?