"As If" - Deconstructing Religious Memes

Here's an essay that I submitted to Broowaha Los Angeles. Enjoy! ~~~~~~~~~~~

What happens when believers and nonbelievers start to debate religion?

The first thing that is placed on the table is a covert acceptance of the religious person’s beliefs. How so? This happens the moment that a nonbeliever acknowledges and uses the words that the believer is using.

Acknowledgement, recognition, and understanding implicitly support an argument, no matter what it is.

Say that in a meeting of city council members, Jennifer stands up and says, “I propose building a plingy in the middle of the downtown mall.” Furrowed brows—no one knows what plingy is. No one has ever heard the word before. When Jennifer turns left and right, seeing the bewildered looks, and stammers, “Come on, you know, a plingy! Everyone knows what that is!” and is still confronted with blank stares, what has just happened? An As If. Jennifer has taken the stance that assumes common knowledge; she speaks “as if” everyone in the room knows exactly what she’s talking about.

The “as if” technique can be used when a person is trying to break a habit. Say that you have been smoking cigarettes for many years but are determined to stop. A “quit counselor” might recommend that you go into the “as if” frame of mind. Start talking, thinking, acting, and living “as if” you have already quit smoking. Replace the self-talk “I really want to quit smoking” with “I’m so glad that I’m not a smoker anymore.”

An “as if” thought process sets up an avalanche of ripples in your psychology, most of which will be subconscious. The person who is acting “as if” he has already quit smoking may walk down a street and never realize that he just sauntered past the bar where he used to pop in every day to grab a pack of matches.

Now consider what happens when a religious believer starts a debate with a nonbeliever. The following types of words will be sprinkled through the discussion: heaven, demon, angel, god, devil, hell, sin, ghost. And there is an implicit and mutual agreement between these two people that they understand and acknowledge the words—even though the believer uses the words as symbols for reality and the nonbeliever does not.

It would be a truly amazing social experiment to approach a conversation about religion from an “as if” stance that does NOT give implicit acknowledgement of these terms. When the religious believer jumps into talking about heaven, god, and angels as if they are part of consensus reality, he will be stunned if the nonbeliever challenges the actual terminology.

Here’s an example. We’ll follow Rob and Jenny, who are getting acquainted at a coffee shop:

Rob: “Do you go to church?”
Jenny: “Nope.”
Rob: “Oh. Well, do you believe in God?”
Jenny: “Believe in what?”
Rob: “God.”
Jenny: “What’s that?”
Rob: (laughing) “What do you mean, what’s that? God. We all know what God is.”
Jenny: “Uh, maybe you do, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. What’s a god? Something you sprinkle on food?”
Rob: (shaking head) “You gotta be kidding me. You really don’t know what God is? I don’t mean whether you believe in him or not—you don’t even know what the concept is?”
Jenny: “A politician? Rudy Giuliani?”
Rob: “Uh, NO. The creator of the universe? The all-powerful force that is central to all the great world religions?”
Jenny: “Wait, that sounds like one of the characters that they just brought on in Deep Space Nine...”
Rob: “The source of all life? What the Jews and Christians and Muslims pray to? The life force that watches over us all?!”
Jenny: “Are you talking about your old girlfriend?”
Rob: (groaning) “Oh, I give up!”

Sounds comical, doesn’t it? Or a new version of Abbot and Costello’s Who’s On First? But notice that Jenny never takes the religious bait, so to speak. She responds to the question about god by only discussing that which she accepts as reality. What she does NOT do is discuss things that she does not accept as part of consensus reality. By disallowing acknowledgement of the word, she impedes any implicit acceptance of the existence of something (gods) that she does not include in consensus reality.

If the person who does not hold any religious beliefs forces believers to give full explanation of the concept or imaginary entity that they wish to discuss, it will immediately throw a wrench into everything. Suddenly there is no easy back and forth, or debate, when one person sticks to discussion ONLY of things that the majority of people can readily agree are actually real.

So if you find yourself in this type of situation, you have the choice. You can choose to reject the idea that the concepts of demons, hell, eternal life, and so on are anything more than creatures of the imagination. You can choose not to give discussion of angels the same credence that you would to waterfalls or starfish or cornfields.

If you choose otherwise, you give legitimacy to something that is, in your own paradigm, illusory.

Any “debate” of “theology” (I say these with quote marks around them) only cements the cultural delusion that the concepts are anything more than concepts.

So here’s a new tactic. Behave as if. Engage in discussions “as if” you are speaking with a lucid person who can separate reality from fantasy. Engage onto the point where that person maintains a viewpoint that you both agree is part of consensus reality. When the person diverts into science fiction/fantasy—that is, discussion of hell or god or demons—abandon the discussion. Immediately.

If you choose otherwise, you give legitimacy to something that is, in your own paradigm, illusory.

Religious believers will suddenly find themselves in the position of working much harder to elaborate on the entities in which they believe. They will have to spend even more energy, time, and breath simply explaining the terms that they want to use.

By NOT using the terminology of religion—by not accepting it as legitimate parts of speech and writing—nonbelievers send a crystal clear signal: “I am happy to chat with you about reality, but I will not enable religious delusion.”

Nonbelievers, expect a lot of sputtering.

I feel that all those who live happily without the supernatural (humanists, rationalists, atheists, freethinkers, and so on) have been, for too long, enabling religious delusion by means of “linguistic legitimacy.”

Just because there’s a word for something doesn’t make it real. Just because the words god, satan, demon, Garden of Eden, or angel are in our dictionaries doesn’t mean that what the words symbolize is any more part of consensus reality than King Lear or Humpty Dumpty.

The philosopher LL Sovrana wrote, “We must be vigilant to discern between words that exist for imaginary things and the existence of imaginary things.”

** Want to listen to the audio version of this essay? Go to http://www.lori-stephens.com/AOMultimedia.html

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Comment by Lori Stephens on November 25, 2008 at 2:04pm
They are - except that a greased pig is a tangible part of the world that we atheists call "real". A demon or an angel is not. How do you debate Wodin versus Poseiden??
Comment by DaVinci on November 25, 2008 at 8:47am
Excellent article. Do you think the success of the theist's arguments are mostly due to the arbitrary definition of the things they speak of. I mean it gives them wiggle room in any discussion to redefine "the terms they use" at will. I see this in most of their debates. Rational people look like they are attempting to catch a greased pig while debating.
Comment by Lori Stephens on November 17, 2008 at 1:28pm
Go Mr. Black! Here's to verbal judo and aikido - that is, turning the force of an opponent into its own forward motion.
Comment by Father Nature on November 16, 2008 at 12:32pm
Good advice Lori. I'm going to start using this approach on the "Supers". It's sure to be entertaining.

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