There are numerous quarks, odd bits, and evolutionary holdovers to the human psyche. Most people think the human brain is perfect, processes information accurately, and does what it’s supposed to, much in the same way that they think of 20/20 vision as perfect. Who could ask for more?
But there’s better than 20/20 vision. Many people have 18/20, 16/20, or even better. Not only that, but the human field of vision has a blind spot where one cannot see, and sometimes two people can see two completely different colors when looking at the exact same thing. Investigate a bit below the surface of your everyday assumptions, and you realize 20/20 vision is far from perfect.
It’s the same with our brain and it’s reasoning skills. Our brains do a lot of strange things, and are wired to make some rather poor and irrational decisions without a second thought. Because these behaviors are so natural to us, we cannot see them or distinguish them from alternative modes of thought without considerable study.
One of the most consequential of these quarks is religion. We as a species are compelled to create gods. We’ve always done it, in every culture, every tribe, in every time in history. It’s wired into us. We don’t know why, but it appears in part that it’s part of our coping process—a defense mechanism; when faced with something frightening or overwhelming, we invent a solution to the stimulation which makes it seem easier to control, more manageable.
That still doesn’t make it a good idea. False beliefs can (as we all know far too well) have staggeringly bad consequences for a great many people. There is no insurance against suffering, tragedy and villainy can strike anybody anywhere at any time. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that in any situation, mistaken beliefs, no matter how comforting, are far more likely to lead to the suffering of innocent people than unpleasant truths are.
But because this is a defense mechanism, a way of coaxing a seemingly infinite universe into our most decidedly finite minds, people can become so hostile to the notion of challenging it, and entrench themselves implacably into religious positions. The universe is huge, and we are unfathomably tiny. There is very little more humbling or more terrifying than an accurate perspective on the size of our race compared to the rest of known universe.
This phenomenon is a kind of mystical intuition, one in which we “feel” the presence of a higher power. Indeed, it seems to me that all people, believers and atheists alike, do feel a numinous connection to something greater than ourselves. The notion of a higher power seems intuitive, even so far as to be a voice in our own head, a combination of intuition and some magic we don’t understand, and yet somehow feel completely natural with.
In times of great distress, this mystical intuition grows far, far stronger. It can be so strong that, in life and death situations, people often report feeling a presence with them, a spirit, guardian angel, or even an imaginary friend. This is called “The Third Man Factor”, and is reported in atheists and believers alike.
It appears baked into the DNA of our species.
Now, theists will tell you that the fact that we all have this intuition proves that something is there, and we are indeed communing with it (this, of course, is a deistic substitution fallacy: even if they’re right, it’s evidence of some higher power, not for any one incarnation of that spirit, like Hanuman, Zeus, or Jesus).
That too, is a comforting thought. But it doesn’t make it true.
Now I’m happy to leave other people’s beliefs in such things unbruised, except where the beliefs of one-person cause harm to others. Because we enjoy these beliefs, we’re incentivized to blind ourselves to the suffering they cause, but that suffering is very real, and utterly ubiquitous.
Take homosexuality, for example. Coming from a Judeao-Christian ethic, our culture has long abhorred homosexuality, and chastising, mocking, bullying, beating, and even murdering homosexuals, has been a staple of our culture in one way or another, since its inception. A person may not do most of these things, but if you chastise a homosexual, tell them they’re wrong, that god doesn’t love them, it has a detrimental psychological impact. The effect? Being a teen is hard enough, but in this country, homosexual teenagers have a 3x higher suicide rate than heterosexual ones. If you’ve ever chastised a homosexual, you’ve contributed to that suffering.
20,000 people starve to death every year in Africa. In every third world country where condoms have been introduced and actively encouraged, poverty rates drop, disease rates drop, and life-span and health indexes go up. Everywhere. But in 2001, the Catholic Church decided to try to convert the whole continent of Africa, in have withheld aid (and even gotten the US to withhold aid) to organizations and clinics which distribute condoms or makes sexual education available. Every study shows that this increases disease, poverty and death, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen in Africa, where the AIDS epidemic exploded to nearly 40% of their population.
Its hard to argue that theistic beliefs don’t have severe consequences, even when we ignore the occasional holy war or terrorist attack.
So where does one draw the line? Where does religion and this mystical intuition turn from a possible benefit, maybe even something real, to something menacing and dangerous?
That line is the boundary between deism and theism.
The deist uses the third man intuition to comfort themselves in their own lives, to expand their connection with others, and explore their spiritual side. The theist, however, divines from the third man rules which must not only be followed, but (if one is to be a moral agent), imposed on others—presumably for their own good.
The position of the Humanist Codex is one of atheism—that is to say the lack of belief in any theistic god (or to go a step further, “New Atheism” or anti-theism, which is to say the explicit objection to, and opposition of, such beliefs on moral grounds). We do not, however oppose deism. It is the position of the Codex that there is no harm in deism, and we wish all deists joy and happiness, and congratulate them if their beliefs bring them that.
There are those who work for the Codex who are in fact deists, who believe in a higher power. This in no way contradicts or antagonizes the primary mission of the codex, which is in opposition to theism.
That said, there are a number of deistic critiques on the Codex. This is only in the case of deistic substitution fallacies, which is to say common deistic arguments being pressed into service of a theistic claim.
Is the third man real? Is it nothing more than a coping mechanism? We here at the codex encourage each and every person to explore and come up with their own answers to these questions. The only thing we know for certain is that the effects of this intuition are very real, and when one begins to use it as warrant to control the lives of others, it is immoral, and must be opposed.