Larry Beinhart, the author of the article “Why Atheism May Be the Best Way to Understand God,” begins by announcing that “…there’s little serious investigation into why people believe, or why some will kill and die for their faith.” Richard Dawkins made several suggestions why young men kill in the name of their faith in his provocative, but serious article Religion’s Misguided Missiles published in the Guardian in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. He suggested that, “testosterone-sodden young men too unattractive to get a woman in this world might be desperate enough to go for 72 private virgins in the next.” The “next” being the promise of an eternal afterlife. It demonstrates that promises made of an eternal life reduces the value of life in this one. Richard Dawkins’, The God Delusion, Michael Shermer’s, Why People Believe Weird Things are books published within the last few years on the subject of why people believe in a God. The Four Horsemen is a two hour long discussion with philosopher Daniel Dennett, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author Christopher Hitchens and author Sam Harris, on the reasons why people believe.
After explaining the four classes of religion, Beinhart discusses how we can understand religions by asking about God from three positions, belief, agnosticism and atheism. He asserts that “Each position forces certain questions and does not permit others.” I get the impression that he is applying equal credence to each position. The problem with faith is that it is belief without evidence. Atheism and agnosticism are positions that encourage skepticism, questions and evidence. The article takes a questionable turn when he discusses God from the atheist position.
The first question asks, “If God doesn’t exist, why do so many people believe in him?” So, if most of the world’s population believe in a monotheistic God, then it must be true? This seems an incredibly weak argument for asserting that there may be a God on the basis that lots of people believe in an omnipotent God. Perhaps Father Christmas exists because most children under the age of six believe in him? People believe what they are told to believe. Nothing other than accident of birth determines, for the most part, people’s beliefs. Richard Dawkins explains this concept in his book, The God Delusion.
I find it fascinating that many people cannot mention atheism without coupling it with the “C” word, Communism. Whenever they hear mention of the “A” word. They scream, Russia! China! Eastern Europe! Beinhart does just this to demonstrates the point of failed officially atheist societies and how they ultimately looked up to western societies with religious freedom. Yes, these societies were officially atheist, but that does not mean that the citizenry of these societies were atheist. Interestingly, totalitarian theocracies go unmentioned as societies that severely undermine human rights.
Beinhart concludes his article by saying that we can understand God through unbelief. I am not convinced that this is the answer to understanding why people believe. I think a more valid and poignant question is why most of humanity needs to believe in a God in the first place? Science provides adequate answers that ascertain with high probability that a God probably does not exist and that therefore, there is nothing to understand. Steven Weinberg, in his essay “A Designer Universe?” quotes Richard Feynman who says, “When you look at the universe and understand its laws, the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.” There is no reason to understand a God any more than it is to understand the motives of any other mythical creature made up by humanity in an attempt to seek comfort without having to think about how to think.