One of the difficulties encountered by the science fiction author is to imagine how an intelligent extraterrestrial would think and behave, to depict a true alien in a convincing manner. Humans are excellent pattern detectors–we see images in clouds, in pixels on a screen, even on burnt toast–and more often than not we project images and meanings with which we’re familiar onto the unfamiliar. Thus, a science fiction author might anthropomorphize her alien character instead of coming to grips with the possibility of nonhuman intelligence.
As an atheist I sometimes feel like an astronaut on an alien planet, surrounded by creatures with strange customs and beliefs. There the theist is, perfectly human in a biological sense, but psychologically alien to the atheist. Take, for example, the Jack Van Impe television show. Here are two members of the same species as my own whose every thought seems underpinned by the beliefs that the creator of the universe communicates to us by writing a book which predicts a future apocalypse in miraculous, minute detail; that God transformed himself into a human and then allowed himself to be killed to show his love for us; that the Christian’s duty is to inform as many people as possible of these facts, because the stakes are an eternity in heaven or in hell. If an extraterrestrial flew to Earth in a spaceship and spoke about the society on its home planet, I don’t believe the extraterrestrial’s story would sound any more bizarre than the Christian’s theological worldview sounds to the atheist. The extraterrestrial’s planet might be very distant in space, but the theist speaks of a spiritual dimension, of supernatural creatures, of miracles–all of which are foreign to human experience, by definition.
This sense of the theist as the Other, as psychologically an alien, can be appreciated best by comparison with the practice of demonization. Currently, many Christians and Muslims demonize each other. Despite politically-correct talk about moderate universalists on both sides, many believe there’s an imminent “clash of civilizations.” Notice, though, what demonization involves. A demonized person is regarded both as other and as evil, as very different and as very bad. Examples of demonization are prevalent in Hollywood action movies. A terrorist, for example, is portrayed as unremittingly evil, of course–villainous in appearance, in word, and in deed. But were the antagonist in an action movie merely evil, there would be no excuse for the protagonist not to consider even for a moment reasoning with the villain. Invariably, in such movies the villain is exterminated like a cockroach. According to the Hollywood formula, the villain wouldn’t listen to reason; instead, the bad guy would laugh in the hero’s face and try to kill more innocent people.
The antagonist is portrayed as so evil as to be insane. But an insane person should be psychiatrically treated, not punished. What’s wrong with punishing an insane person is precisely that no one can be simultaneously insane and morally bad, and that punishment is reserved for bad people. If the action-movie antagonist were merely evil compared to the hero, then the same moral standards would apply to both characters. Even if the antagonist were stubbornly to resist admitting the commonality between himself and the hero, namely their appreciation of the same moral laws, the antagonist would still have to be readily able to appreciate these laws. That is just the meaning of the claim that the hero is good and the villain is bad: both must be subject to the same moral standards, and part of what it means to be subject to a moral standard is to have the ability to appreciate the standard. The hero should find the villain psychologically familiar, which is the point of the cliche that even though most people don’t commit murder, just about everyone has the psychological capacity to do so under certain circumstances.
On the one hand, then, the demonized person is regarded as evil. On the other hand, however, the demonized person is regarded as other, as insane, as nonrational–even as literally an alien, as in the case of many science-fiction movies. And this is quite incoherent. Either a person is very bad or is psychologically very different, but a person cannot possibly be both at the same time. An evil person must be similar enough to the good person such that both can recognize the same moral laws. The evil person simply chooses to violate these laws. An insane or psychologically alien person has no such ability to recognize common ground. Think of the rules an inmate in an insane asylum conjures to run her own private world. Instead of appreciating a common set of laws, such as the law of gravity, an insane person might believe she can fly; her behaviour is dictated by belief in laws that flow from her own imagination or neurosis. It makes no sense to call such a person evil, since doing so presupposes psychological common ground which doesn’t exist.
What I’m suggesting is that the atheist should not succumb to the cynical or intellectually lazy practice of demonizing the theist. While some theists may be morally or intellectually deficient just as some atheists may be, theists aren’t characteristically so. Instead, the atheist’s experience seems to be that the theist is psychologically alien to the atheist. In other words, demonizing the theist is inappropriate, because only half of demonization fits the atheist’s experience of the typical theist. Moreover, the concept of a demon or of something demonic is incoherent. Of course, I’m putting to one side the uncommitted theist, the cultural materialist, say, who only pretends to be a theist. The genuine theist and especially the fundamentalist seems to me as alien to the atheist, psychologically speaking, as any extraterrestrial might be.
Against what I’ve said someone might argue that some theists become atheists and some atheists become theists, which suggests that the two groups must have more common ground than I’m allowing. But this ability to go from one group to the other supports my point, given the kind of radical conversion involved. When the committed Christian describes her conversion experience, she often speaks of God or some other holy agent as “coming into her heart” or, at any rate, as somehow personally responsible for the transformation. What I’m suggesting is that, from the atheist’s perspective, this aid of the Holy Spirit might as well be the tentacle of a body-snatching extraterrestrial which possesses the human and turns her into a member of a psychologically incompatible species.
Another objection would be that this is a preposterous exaggeration, that two members of the same biological species must have psychological common ground. Obviously Jack Van Impe and an atheist have some common ground. For example, both might speak English, both might read the same newspapers, and so forth. However, I believe this moderate view of the relation between atheism and theism underestimates the mind’s plasticity. Humans are mentally so flexible that we’ve proactively transformed the natural environment so that we might adapt to any artificial environment we can imagine. This degree of flexibility implies that the human mind is capable of an enormous variety of behaviour. And this shows that the atheist’s feeling of being surrounded literally by alien minds is at least potentially based on fact.
This objection, though, would have to be countered also by listing the atheist’s and the theist’s central beliefs and then comparing them. I submit that here practically no common ground would be found. Granted, for example, both might believe that two and two are four, but the theist wouldn’t take arithmetic to be central or to rest simply on axioms or even on the existence of abstract objects; instead, the theist would posit God to explain arithmetical truths and indeed all other truths. Not only do the atheist and the theist differ in their central beliefs, but the nature of the beliefs and the different sorts of behaviour they license give the atheist an awareness of the absurd.
How should the atheist interact with the theist, given these considerations? The question should be as puzzling as that of how contact with an extraterrestrial should be handled. If the human mind is flexible enough that members of the same biological species can sprout such different ways of life that people not only seem psychologically alien to each other but really are so, then an encounter with a mental foreigner should be handled with great care. In particular, the encounter shouldn’t be trivialized or downplayed. While an individual theist may be comparable in many ways to an individual atheist, theistic and nontheistic ways of life are quite incomparable. Thus, the typical theist shouldn’t be viewed as irrational, as protoscientific, or as comprehensible by nontheistic standards of behaviour. The theist–again, the true believer, not the secularized moderate–isn’t better or worse than the nontheist, psychologically speaking, but just very different. Even if the survival of the biological species practically depended on the elimination of religion, the difficulty of the task shouldn’t be underestimated.
Putting the point more positively, given that atheists are in a tiny minority, atheists should see themselves as the aliens. On this planet theism is normal and atheism is viewed at least as other but often also as bad. In other words, the atheist is often demonized. Atheists, however, should see themselves as charting a rare way to be human, one which is psychologically incomparable to the theistic way. Of course, the main common ground is the world itself which both the atheist and the theist inhabit, and I believe the world makes theism false and atheism true. Nevertheless, this way of comparing theism and atheism doesn’t affect the psychological discontinuity between theist and atheist. Both live in the same external world, but their internal maps, their worldviews are not at all the same.
The atheist needs to appreciate how fundamentally different is the theist, rather than resort to the dubious claim that the typical theist is simply less intelligent, less skeptical, less scientific. The typical theist can’t be both psychologically inferior and very different. If the typical theist were only psychologically inferior, there would be no way to account for the atheist’s feeling of theism’s strangeness. The atheist’s experience of theism is characterized first of all by culture shock. Once we grant that the theist is psychologically very different from the atheist, we can’t then add that the theist is generally inferior. Instead of demonizing the theist, the atheist needs to think like a character in a realistic science-fiction novel: the atheist needs to stretch her mind to appreciate the theist’s alien thought-patterns. Dealings between the two cultures need to proceed from this humbling recognition of otherness, not from demonization and certainly not from a mere negative evaluation of the theistic worldview. There are many reasons why theism should be rejected, but at the level of the atheist’s experience of theism the overriding issue is how to respond to strangeness.
 One explanation of the widespread practice of demonization takes into account the logical “principle of explosion,” which is that any proposition follows from a contradiction. Once a contradiction is handy, or readily introduced into an argument, any proposition at all follows by assuming the negation of the desired proposition, entering the contradiction, and concluding with the desired proposition. What this means is that someone could count as justified an antecedently chosen course of action by arriving at the need for this action on the basis of an accepted contradiction.
For example, if an action-movie hero already wanted to go on an adventure and to kill a great many people, say to achieve some secret goal, the hero could logically justify these actions by reasoning as follows: First the protagonist would assume that the adventure should not be undertaken and that a great many people should not be killed. Then the targeted people would be demonized, which amounts to introducing a flat contradiction into the argument, namely that the targeted people are both very different from the protagonist and his allies, but also evil. Then the contradiction of what was assumed could be deduced, since the contradiction about demonization would follow from the initial assumption, showing that this assumption must be false.
In symbols the argument would run as follows:
A = a violent adventure should be undertaken
D = the foreigners are very different from the person who wants to undertake the violent adventure
E = these foreigners are evil
The contradiction in (4) and (5) says that the foreigners are both very different and not very different from the hero, which amounts to demonization given that one way in which the foreigners would not be very different is if they were evil and therefore subject to a common set of social laws, which is the assumption in (1).
All that’s needed for this sort of argument to work is the antecedent belief in the legitimacy of demonization. If demonization were generally taken for granted as a legitimate practice, that is, if those the hero had to convince that the adventure was needed happened to be ignorant about the incoherence of demonization, then these allies would take the demonization at face value and grant that creatures who are both very different and very bad are dispensable. At the same time, the wise hero would appreciate that demonization is contradictory and can’t be accepted at face value, but would privately reason that in a world where so many people can be led astray by a contradiction, any course of action is permitted. This would be a case of the “noble lie” as discussed by such thinkers as Plato and Leo Strauss. Demonization can be used as a pretext to carry out a secret plan. A person who is capable of accepting a contradictory belief, say by failing to analyze the belief, might thereby unwittingly support what someone else merely wants to be true.