Article

Getting Rid of the Middleman

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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).

Schirano continues,

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?

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Comments (11 comments)

Morgaine / December 7th, 2007, 12:36 pm / #1

Nice article BlackSun.

You answered you own question though…about why not take full responsibility:

“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.”

That’s the bottom line, I think. This varying capacity is in all likelihood due to some combination of genetic predisposition, enviromental conditions surrounding fetal brain development, parenting, and ongoing cultural influences, (expectations, pressures, psychological traumas) that further engage brain chemistry and brain structure in an ongoing feedback loop.

And, for each person there’s going to be a different interplay between these factors. One person might not have the capacity (due to a psychological wound) to ‘eliminate ‘the middle man,’ but has no foundational brain idiosyncracy that hinders their ability in this arena (for introspection). For them it may be more a matter of time, a desire to consciously engage the healing process, and exposure to this kind of thinking, before they can confront the ‘free fall’ …whereas someone else might never be able,to get there. Reverse engineering of the brain will surely reveal how we tick, why some otherwise remarkably bright, high -functioning people, seem to need an ongoing parent representation to buffer them from reality…why they can only go so far in holding the tension of the unknown elements in objective reality.

BlackSun / December 7th, 2007, 12:53 pm / #2

Morgaine,

Thanks. That last question was somewhat rhetorical, of course. While I understand intellectually about people’s varying capabilities, I still maintain nothing is cast in stone. People at any point can decide to change their approach, beliefs, etc. It just takes focus, determination, and the willingness to wrestle with their own psychology.

Just like if I want to lose 20 pounds, I can at any time decide to start an exercise program and stick with it. Or just accept the way I am.

We as a society tend to excuse people’s inertia, but I think my role is to be an encourager, a goad to help people do what they probably know they should do anyway. And I’m always as hard on myself as others, so I don’t feel bad about pointing out these philosophical shortcomings.

As a comparison, there’s nothing like a former smoker to terrorize current smokers and tell them what dupes they are. As a former minister, I guess I could be accused of the same thing about religion. As a light smoker, however, I don’t necessarily appreciate anti-smoking Nazis. But whether or not I’m ready to quit, I can’t deny they’re objectively right about the harmful effects of cigarettes.

John Evo / December 7th, 2007, 1:52 pm / #3

BlackSun: You can probably imagine my outrage upon coming here and finding a post titled “Getting Rid of the Middleman”! I figured it wasn’t about me though.

I totally agree with both you and Schirano. I’ll only correct him on this one point -

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?

Well, only superficially. What they would appear to be saying is:

“I say homosexuality is wrong”. Naturally it’s a short step from there to asking why it’s wrong and the answer would probably come back to “I don’t like gay people”. But you’d still have to ask - why?

Morgaine / December 7th, 2007, 3:00 pm / #5

BlackSun,

Maybe I am misunderstanding you. When you say, it just a matter of “focus, determination, and the willingness to wrestle with their own psychology” it sounds awfully similar to those who say, for example, that drug addiction or alcoholism is a character flaw, and that they could control themselves if they chose to. The truth is that people have varying biological strengths and handicaps, making in this case, the choice to drink moderately a lot easier for some than others. Everyday scientists are honing down on the specific proteins and enzymes that metabolize differently in the brain of a person who can drink moderately, and one who cannot…

This is not a matter of making excuses. Tell a person who is hallucinating to stop being delusional. Likewise depression cannot always be willed away. But pin-point the neuro-transmitter that’s not produced in an adequate quantity, or a structure in the brain that isn’t communicating optimally with another structure, and we can begin to address the problem. With this malfunction corrected a person will then have the foundation for doing their psychological work in a way that was, in many cases, virtually impossible before.

Clearly, there is a complex interplay of factors that determine each persons capacity for understanding…anything. Knowing that some have more capacity than others to view the world in naturalistic terms is not the same as condoning the status quo. Like our realization about the mechanics of addiction, it’s actually the first step that we MUST take if we hope to improve things. We need to know what medicines or other interventions (i.e. biofeedback) might help a person struggling with their addiction and make them available, rather than spend our time insisting they just snap out of it. And until we know in far more detail what roles the varying brain systems play in our perception and interpretation of the world, we will be somewhat limited in what we can do to encourage (or identify) those with inflexible hard wiring that isn’t equipped for optimal objectivity. For others who ARE more malleable, and there is probably a sea full, your role is a greatly needed one.

So the answer in my opinion, is to encourage people who have even the slightest capacity, with education, via blogs like this, and other resources to take responsibility. Of course, to try to wake people out of complacency is a good thing. But I think it’s an equally important piece of the puzzle, (especially for knowing where to allocate attention and resources) to realize (and hopefully discover a methodology for identifying) who is in this malleable and potentially open category, versus who is, minus some foundational physical manipulation, (for whatever reason) hard wired shut. It matters that we know who needs some medicine to stop hallucinating and who we can just argue out of their passing ‘Complex.’ And it matters that we can discern when a belief is a distortion of reality, not psychosis, but nevertheless remains rooted in organic brain states…and which may, or may not be subject to influence with more complex intervention.

Religious ideation and mental health are intertwined and fall on a continuum. There are many critical but slippery lines which we need to locate…where is a person eccentric vs a danger to themselves and others…And again, where is a subjective belief a relatively healthy defense mechanism, and where is it a problem? Huge questions that, as stated before, I think reverse engineering will shed a lot of light on.

Tommy / December 7th, 2007, 11:57 pm / #6

The United States Declaration of Independence is a good example from history of using God as a middleman. What the colonists were trying to do in separating from Great Britain was against the law. There was no precedent for them to turn to in order to justify their actions. Therefore, they had to invoke something higher, a “creator” or “divine providence”.

Jeff / December 8th, 2007, 1:47 pm / #7

Nice job, Blacksun. While few Americans can talk intelligently about the whole bible, I think most know the basics of the Ten Commandments. And most of these commandments begin, “Thou shalt not…” Also, “god-fearing” is still used as a compliment.

Think about the psychological implications of this in our society. Once a mind is wired to accept the list or partial list of “Thou shalt nots,” a list which virtually nobody can fully follow throughout life, the backbone for a pattern of pathological guilt (or shadow denial) is established.

If adultery, admiring your neighbor’s hot wife or remodeled house are deemed “crimes against god,” then it becomes very easy for a believer to look, for instance, at drug use and act as a proxy for god in discerning that it must be wrong too.

IMO, the link between belief in god and the Drug War is very strong and clouds rational judgment by the majority. Of course, god has infected common sense in our society in so many ways.

Roger / December 10th, 2007, 2:57 pm / #8

I really miss some of the older atheists philosophers, even though I disagreed with them their writings were better thought out and studied, they definitely knew their adversary and could express themselves in an unbiased and un-opinionated manner, this article though interesting with a strong concept waned in the body missing it’s mark completely, It was very weak from a Christian’s perspective, all points could easily be refuted by an advanced young adult’s class in Sunday school.

As soon as the article began with, “When someone says “God wants” or “God says,” they are simply saying “I want” or “I am saying.” It crashed and burned rendering the rest of the argument futile.

A Christian would tell you that is so far from the truth it’s laughable, by the way God wants me to go to the strip club or God wants me to have sex with this man’s wife, sounds absurd or too extreme? That is basically what this writer is telling me.

It is known among Christians that when praying there are certain requests many dare not ask God because he just might grant it, such as God what do you want me to do?, God do with me as thy will? God I am at your will and mercy, no sacrifice is too great.

Only the bravest and faithful among us dare ask because we might end up being a missionary in Africa or worst a highly islamic or hindi territory where emotional, spiritual and physical persecution is a reality for a christian.

Atheists really don’t give these christians the respect they deserve. I have seen christians drop a nice comfy, safe life in suburban white America to do what GOD wants them to do and go where GOD wants them to go. Who in their right mind would want this for themselves?

“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.”

Christians believe and put their trust in God because he has never, ever, strayed from his word; man however? Even many mothers and fathers have let down their own children in so many ways. All men are imperfect and full of sin and without God’s grace our future is extinction. Sci-fi writers paint the future in many films as a dark, bleak, dieing place where tomorrow is uncertain. Atheist would have you believe that with a lot of hardwork, bumps and bruises we can do it by ourselves and produce a Gene Roddenbury utopia but even Roddenbury knew in order for that to happen man would have to rid himself of the love of money, racism, bigotry etc. That will never happen without God even christians struggle with their own sin resulting in wars and unspeakable brutality. That is wishful thinking and true fiction. For christians to put their trust in man or that belief would be not only be foolish but suicidal. From a christian’s perspective man had it’s chance and failed miserably.

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?

No your logic is flawed. How do you make that connection? (I don’t hate gay people) + (that God says it’s wrong) = (I don’t like gay people)…Whaaaa?

Christians are commanded by God to hate the sin love the sinner, for some easier said than done.

Atheist tend to look at the messenger (and at times with good reason) who is imperfect with sin because we christians still have our prejudices and disposition that God himself rebukes and condemns, christians believe homosexuality is a sin just like fornication, adultery, lust, greed, etc…etc…etc…. so by your logic we hate the entire world including our own family members?

It is true there are christians that go after the homosexuals with a unscriptured and unsupported zeal making it his or her personal crusade in the name of God and christianity and that is wrong because God continually tells us so, we christians are told by God that we have no right to judge others and we shouldn’t have to point out sin because a sin is a sin and he sees us no different than he sees gay people, christians are to tell the world plus reminding ourselves that we are ALL sinners and fall short of the glory of God because of our sin we ALL are separated from God and face damnation but Jesus died for us and if we accept him in spirit and truth and repent of our sins then we are saved and that is between you and his word, no more no less therefore homosexuality should not be treated as some greater degree of sin or singled out because there is nothing to support that in the bible that is once again man’s imperfectness and sin displayed through a christian

True christians do not cherry pick scriptures, the bible is the word of God and ALL IS GOOD therefore I try to do everything commanded in the bible.

Louis / December 10th, 2007, 9:53 pm / #9

True christians do not cherry pick scriptures, the bible is the word of God and ALL IS GOOD therefore I try to do everything commanded in the bible.

Do you try to ‘NOT’ work on Saturdays, Roger? What happens when you fail? Do you try to kill yourself?

Sorry dood, you cherry pick just like the rest of the True Christians out there. THATS RIGHT, YOU CHERRY PICK!

Christians believe and put their trust in God because he has never, ever, strayed from his word

That flat out cracked me up. Meaningless nonsense.

I guess we can all be thankful that the entire surface of the earth hasn’t been covered with water… the fact that there once was a global deluge is a total myth aside.

How bout this one… Do you tithe? Have you moved into a bigger house because your current one is insufficient in size to hold the outpouring of blessing that there wasn’t enough room?

Anyway, nice flowery speech there Roger, completely absent of any evidence however.

I have never seen a single example of Gods word being kept. Not one. There is no evidence.

I suppose you’ll say faith doesn’t require any evidence, which is rather convenient.

If you want to make a statement about this alleged God keeping his word, proof is sort of a necessity. Otherwise, you could shut up about it already.

If you only have your testimony to offer, well thanks, but… I DON’T TRUST YOU.

Why should I? You talk about something that is completely imaginary, and when called on it (to prove your claim) you’ll likely use the faith clause…

What exactly makes you different from any other asylum patient who experiences delusions? The schizophrenic who sees patterns in everyday ordinary objects… Many of these mental patients have spiritual experiences… Should I believe them as well?

The bible is the word of men and reflected the morality of the times they lived in.

God hasn’t said one single word to you, EVER! If you can prove otherwise, by all means, present the evidence. Otherwise, your nonsense testimony is worthless.

Sean, I hope this gets posted, you have no idea how much I bit my tongue to keep from cussing this guy out. ;)

BlackSun / December 10th, 2007, 10:37 pm / #10

@John Evo,

“I say homosexuality is wrong”. Naturally it’s a short step from there to asking why it’s wrong and the answer would probably come back to “I don’t like gay people”. But you’d still have to ask - why?

Probably something that predates religion, I’m guessing it goes back to some evolutionary psychology (lack of procreation or some perceived threat to procreating families, possibly upsetting the male-female balance in a tribe, etc.). Gays have been closeted and persecuted in many human societies. But religion just capitalized on this existing prejudice and reframed it as an “offense against god,” preventing humanity from evolving past it.

@Morgaine, well said. I understand about the biological limits. I’ll settle for people just taking responsibility for their own actions. If they’re unable to give up God entirely, they could certainly be taught that even if God tells them to do something, they are still responsible for the consequences of that action. That would be progress.

@Tommy, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the rights elaborated in the Declaration of Independence dated back to the Magna Carta. Yes, it’s true, the D of I said “endowed by their creator with inalienable rights.” Probably this was to prevent the authors from having to refer to the Magna Carta, which was a powerful symbol of the English common law they were trying to separate from. I don’t know why the secularists (who prevailed in the drafting of the constitution) failed to prevent the inclusion of religious language in the Declaration.

@Jeff, good point about the drug war. I think Europe’s secularism has a lot to do with its’ less draconian drug laws.

@Roger,

A Christian would tell you that is so far from the truth it’s laughable, by the way God wants me to go to the strip club or God wants me to have sex with this man’s wife, sounds absurd or too extreme? That is basically what this writer is telling me.

Actually, that’s exactly what a lot of hypocritical Christian leaders do–as we can see from all the sex scandals that erupt about every 5 minutes.

Atheists really don’t give these christians the respect they deserve. I have seen christians drop a nice comfy, safe life in suburban white America to do what GOD wants them to do and go where GOD wants them to go. Who in their right mind would want this for themselves?

Who in their right mind would claim that GOD was talking to them? If they went to Africa, that was their own choice. In what form was GOD supposedly speaking to these people? Did he appear out of thin air? Write them a note? Come to them in a dream? How would anyone ever know? Come on.

Christians believe and put their trust in God because he has never, ever, strayed from his word; man however? Even many mothers and fathers have let down their own children in so many ways. All men are imperfect and full of sin and without God’s grace our future is extinction. Sci-fi writers paint the future in many films as a dark, bleak, dieing place where tomorrow is uncertain. Atheist would have you believe that with a lot of hardwork, bumps and bruises we can do it by ourselves and produce a Gene Roddenbury utopia but even Roddenbury knew in order for that to happen man would have to rid himself of the love of money, racism, bigotry etc. That will never happen without God even christians struggle with their own sin resulting in wars and unspeakable brutality. That is wishful thinking and true fiction. For christians to put their trust in man or that belief would be not only be foolish but suicidal. From a christian’s perspective man had it’s chance and failed miserably.

Roger, what was that gobbledygook?? You can’t factually say that humans face extinction, nor can you accurately say what Roddenberry thought. You can’t say that god hasn’t broken his word, because we don’t even know what his word is or if he exists. The bible itself is contradictory, so if it’s true then he’s already broken his word. You’ve clearly given up on humanity, which is a sad commentary on the fruits of your beliefs. You’re just making Christians sound even more unbalanced and wacky. This is a recitation of typical fear-mongering end-times rhetoric: “and God rode to the rescue and swept the believers up into a cloud.” While the rest of us perished in flames.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s how it’s going to go down. No one can predict the the future. You say “The End is Near.” I say “The End is Beer.” Who’s right?

Christians are commanded by God to hate the sin love the sinner,

That is the most mealy mouthed bullshit philosophy ever. You can’t separate people from their behaviors. If you discriminate against behaviors, you are discriminating against the people themselves. Please take your head out of your ass.

Roger, you may want to consider whether Black Sun Journal is the place for you. All of your arguments are presuppositional, hence violating the comment guidelines as in: 1) witnessing, and 2) circular arguments. Please go read the guidelines, and decide whether you can live by them.

@Louis, thanks for pitching in. I only allow comments such as Rogers’ to demonstrate how weak and absurd these type of arguments actually are. Yet, as we can see, there are plenty of people who continue to make them.

John Evo / December 11th, 2007, 10:09 am / #11

BlackSun said: Probably something that predates religion, I’m guessing it goes back to some evolutionary psychology (lack of procreation or some perceived threat to procreating families, possibly upsetting the male-female balance in a tribe, etc.). Gays have been closeted and persecuted in many human societies. But religion just capitalized on this existing prejudice and reframed it as an “offense against god,” preventing humanity from evolving past it.

Excellent analysis. Good post, good comment.

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