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Why Atheists and Believers are Both Wrong

This post was written by Anna
on November 1, 2011 | Comments (9)

Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Philip H. Farber, author of Brain Magick: Exercises in Meta-Magick and Invocation.

When I was younger I took a perverse pleasure getting into religious arguments. While I’ve always tended toward agnosticism and never felt very strongly one way or the other about organized religions, I took it as fair game that anyone coming to my door trying to convince me to join their religion was a ripe target. I was often amazed at how proselytizers could ignore simple logic and profess faith in what I considered to be pretty far-fetched ideas. It was fun, but I eventually grew out of it.

These days, the dialectic between religious zealots and non-believers has moved online—and it’s taken a bit of a twist. Many who profess a strong belief in something, rational or irrational, become offended when you point out that their belief is an article of faith or a matter of perception and not some kind of objective reality. Which is my way of offering fair warning that what I’m about to say may cause irritation to those who might hold onto their beliefs too tightly: I think the “new atheists” are very nearly as irrational as fundamentalist zealots.

I subscribe to an online alternative news source that hits my inbox daily with great articles about politics, social trends, ecology, and much more. Along with great political analysis, however, comes an endless series of articles about how atheists are the new down-trodden minority of the world and how religions are messing up the planet. The reader comments on these articles exemplify the ongoing debate between those who refuse to believe and those who believe too strongly. It gets pretty loony, actually, with many members of both sides demonstrating that hate and vitriol may be wielded with or without a deity.

Most of these arguments attack straw men of various kinds: all believers are fundamentalists or Bible literalists, all non-believers are intolerant bigots, all believers worship a single unseen entity, all non-believers have no faith in anything. From my point of view none of the arguments address what lies at the heart of the issue, a point that I think experienced magicians and long-time pagans may appreciate. The argument isn’t really about the existence of god or gods, but about the level of that existence, the way in which humans understand and perceive entities.

In my book Brain Magick: Exercises in Meta-Magick and Invocation, I outline the neurological and cognitive processes by which humans form their perceptions of deity. Neurotheology is a rapidly growing and expanding field and, really, we’re starting to understand what happens in the brain when we think about entities. There’s a bit of a surprise there: the processes that we use to invoke, evoke, and conceive of gods are the same processes that happen in the brain when we think about other humans, about stories and myths, about legal entities such as corporations, schools of thought, and quite a bit more. In short, humans don’t limit perceptions of entities to those things that are conveniently labeled “god.” In all likelihood, when an atheist contemplates Science (with a capital S) or the corporation he works for, he’s approaching those ideas, neurologically and cognitively, in exactly the same way a Christian approaches God (with a capital G).

Now, all of a sudden, gods and goddesses are on equal footing with a whole lot of other cultural phenomena that we take for granted every day. We don’t doubt the existence of Microsoft in our world, but we may engage in the debate over whether corporate entities are to be treated, in law, as people. We don’t doubt the existence of the United States, but we may not notice that we often treat it, mentally, as an individual, even when referring to it as “Uncle Sam.” Many adults may not believe in Santa Claus as a living, breathing human, but he nonetheless inspires us to give gifts and donations to charity and to tell stories about him to our children. All of our entities exist (at least in part) in the realm of human consciousness, as forms that are transmitted, perceived, and interacted with. The gods of the major religions have influenced the lives of most of us, in exactly this way, without ever showing a flesh and blood physical form. Jehovah and Allah have shown their hands (incorporeal as they may be) in the formation of law, education, and medicine, for better or worse.

So do gods and goddesses exist? Sure, though you may not be able to invite them over for dinner. As complexes of information in the sphere of human perception, they have accompanied us through history, as familiar as our friends and neighbors. Believers and atheists alike need to keep their minds open and, perhaps, to check into some of the new science about how we perceive our world.


Our thanks to Philip for his guest post! For more from Philip Farber, read his article “Magick: Changing Your Brain.”

Reader Comments

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#1 
Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on November 1st, 2011 @ 10:25 am

Thanks for posting this, Philip! Another great article. For many years I’ve contended that new trends in magick and occultism exist on the “edge of science.” Walking along this slender edge may, in the future, result in falling on the side that is scientifically validated. For example, it was an occult belief that all of the continents were, at one time, united and drifted apart. This was denounced by scientists until it was discovered to be true and actually became an important basis of modern geology. Other aspects of occultism may fall to the other side, be proven false, and should be abandoned. Most remain on that fine line and deserve further experimentation and research. Your point that what some people see in science is analogous to the experience some others may have with religion matches what I have expressed. Specifically, that for some their idea of science is simply Scientism: an often out-of-date set of beliefs of what modern scientific thought presents held with the same sort of fervor that some fundamentalist religionists hold their faith. The defenders of Scientism will attack any who challenge their personal beliefs in the same way that some religious believers will attack any who question their own beliefs.

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#2 
Written By Phil Farber
on November 1st, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

Agreed, Don. The neuroscience quoted here mainly deals with how we experience entities (and we experience them all over the place, whether we call them by name or not)… however, we can apply the same concept to dogma in general. There are as many firm and ludicrous non-religious beliefs in our culture as religious ones, all of which are probably formed and perceived in very similar ways.

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#3 
Written By David Bellamy
on November 1st, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

This makes me want to say: Come on, atheists! Create for yourselves some goddesses and gods and worship them like the rest of us do. Surely we are not all that much more capable than you are.

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#4 
Written By Phil Farber
on November 2nd, 2011 @ 8:57 am

David, I believe atheists already do create their share of deities, they’re just a bit squeamish about using the G words to describe them.

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#5 
Written By Randa
on November 2nd, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

I think this is pretty arrogant. All atheists don’t use science or approach it that way. And it gets tiring for some of them to receive that question : what happens when you die. Personally. The answer I like to give is : I don’t know and I don’t care. They’re not wrong. Period. No one is. This sounds like the same thing as ‘ you should believe in something or you’re wrong’. I don’t like it. Not far from the christian ‘ you should believe in god’. Irritating and arrogant.

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#6 
Written By Joe Carli
on November 3rd, 2011 @ 7:32 am

Randa’s got a point, but don’t omit the entire premise of the article. The latent abilities in man that modern-day religions and philosophy mythologize and only skeptically attempt to uncover is organic; it has been known for centuries by occultists and devoted practitioners of humble faith, and as the sciences of today open horizons into great deeper understandings in religion, physics and psychology the wisdom of antiquity will be reinforced with the hard-earned understanding made possible by our advancements in science. Good stuff.

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#7 
Written By Terry
on November 3rd, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

I don’t see how this proves anything. So certain concepts light up the part of the brain that lights up when we contemplate humans? Just because we relate to the concept of “entity” is no indication that an entity really is there. All this proves is that humans tend to personify experiences and that the brain responds to objects in thought in the same way it responds to objects in fact. I’m reminded of research that shows that imagining oneself to be playing golf (for example) can improve your game as if you had actually practiced. The imaginary games had a real effect, but just try to use those imaginary scores to change your real-life handicap.

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#8 
Written By Phil Farber
on November 4th, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

Terry, it’s not that we relate to the concept of “entity,” but rather that we perceive many things AS entities. If we find that our brains respond in the same was to “Logic” or “Existentialism” as they do to “God” or “Ganesha,” well, none of them are really “there” in the same sense as your computer or the cheese in your refrigerator, but cognitively and neurologically we relate to them in very, very similar ways.

Get the book if you want to understand the neurological pathway that allows our brains to differentiate between “entity” or “cheese.” It is explained in great detail, in a way that would never fit into a blog post.

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#9 
Written By Meg
on November 15th, 2011 @ 1:41 am

AMEN

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