It’s a common assumption in religious polemics at least, that you can’t really hate someone you don’t believe in. You see this assumption appearing arguments for and against belief in God. Christian apologists often claim that atheists hate God, and that this hatred is proof positive we really know he exists after all. Atheism is little other than rebellion against God, at least according to this view. For our own part, atheists often respond to the accusation that we hate God by pointing out that we actually don’t believe in him. We can’t possible hate God, so the argument runs. We don’t even believe in him. At least we we have that in common I suppose, believers and unbelievers. We agree that it doesn’t make sense to hate a being you don’t really believe in.
Except I don’t agree with that either.
To those who insist on this assumption, I have two questions:
Do you watch Game of Thrones?
How do you feel about Joffrey?
Admittedly, this gambit loses a little force when the answer to the first question is ‘no’. Still, t think those familiar with the HBO series or the books it’s based upon will get the point pretty quickly. This hateful little brat prince is hardly unique in fiction. Felix Unger and Frank Burns used to get pretty deep under my skin. I didn’t believe in them either. I certainly don’t believe in Lucy from Peanuts, but when she pulls the football out from under Charlie it makes just wanna reach right into the screen and throttle the little two dimensional mini-troll. Can’t stand the Police Chief in most detective shows or the principle in countless school settings. The list of fictional villains, nitwits, jerks, and outright assholes goes on and on. None of these characters are real. But yeah, I hate them!
(Here, I can practically hear my mother saying; “no, you dislike them intently,” but no, I hate them.)
I really don’t think my feelings about these characters are all that unusual. Joffrey, at least, seems to have inspired quite a few haters out there. Hell, I reckon that’s something else believers and unbelievers can generally agree on. The little bastard was awful. Got off with an easy death!
Anyway, the point is that you can have a strong emotional reaction to a being you know very well isn’t real. People ought to keep that in mind when they opt to battle it out over the existence of God.
I should add that this point can flow in both directions or even (I suppose) at a tangent to the usual stakes. I can love Jesus when he’s preaching tolerance and compassion just as I can be outraged at a God who would tell Abraham to kill his own son. The inconsistently might bother me if I actually believed either story to be true. As it stands these are just emotional reactions to a being I don’t really think is real, as described by different narrators with different messages at different times in history. Maybe if I expected a degree of literal truth from these stories, I would feel the need to work out my feelings about the big Guy In the Sky, but I don’t. I can accept that stories about this being will trigger different feelings at different times, and no reaction at all in many instances. Consistency might be a desirable property of arguments and theories, but it a square peg to pound in the round hole of emotions.
What makes the difference between a vision of God that inspires me and one that pisses me off may be an interesting question, but the answer to that question is, for me anyway, essentially a function of story-telling.
I suppose a Christian too could acknowledge some role for the story-tellers in his feelings about God in different parts if scripture. There is a certain flat-footed evangelism that runs contrary to such an approach, but not every believer checks their sense at the church door. I’ve known quite a few who could handle such questions with subtlety and care.
I realize this may not be the most serious theme in debates over the existence of God, but it certainly does seem ubiquitous. I think to some degree this is a reflection of the debate-camp subculture that has developed around people interested in haggling out the issue. I’ve certainly engaged in my share of such matters, but one does not live by polemics alone, and not everything that people think or feel about the topic in question comes prefigured for purposes of argumentation. We can argue the rational merits of any given position, but nobody should really be surprised to find that participants in these arguments also have an emotional reaction to the topic.
We’re allowed to be human.
So are they.
I know I’ve made this argument before. I just wanted to take another crack at it.