1. We can distinguish between “strange and remain truly strange” possibilities for origins, and “strange and then somewhat anthropomorphized” origin stories. Most religions fall into the latter category, all the more so for Western religions. I see plenty of evidence that human beings anthropomorphize to an excessive degree, and also place too much weight on social information, so I stick with the “strange and remain truly strange” options.Like Cowen, the root of my unbelief is that positing "God" does not make the world more understandable to me. It simply moves the discussion to even more abstruse mysteries. I regard the origin and nature of the universe, and of human life, as profoundly mysterious, which is why I also avoid the term atheist, but I just don't see how the concept of God helps us understand anything. Plus much about all religions feels to me too much like what we might wish to be true, and I always rebel against any theory that seems emotionally pat.
I see the entire matter of origins as so strange that the “transcendental argument” carries little weight with me — “if there is no God, then everything is permitted!” We don’t have enough understanding of God, or the absence of God, to deal with such claims. In any case, the existence of God is no guarantee that such problems are overcome, or if it were such a guarantee, you wouldn’t be able to know that
2. The true nature of reality is so strange, I’m not sure “God” or “theism” is well-defined, at least as can be discussed by human beings. That fact should not lead you to militant atheism (I also can’t define subatomic particles), but still it pushes me toward an “I don’t believe” attitude more than belief. I find it hard to say I believe in something that I feel in principle I cannot define, nor can anyone else.
2b. In general, I am opposed to the term “atheist.” It suggests a direct rejection of some specific beliefs, whereas I simply would say I do not hold those beliefs. I call myself a “non-believer,” to reference a kind of hovering, and uncertainty about what actually is being debated. Increasingly I see atheism as another form of religion.
4. I am struck by the frequency with which people believe in the dominant religions of their society or the religion of their family upbringing, perhaps with some modification. . . . This narrows my confidence in the judgment of those who believe, since I see them as social conformists to a considerable extent.
That all said I do accept that religion has net practical benefits for both individuals and societies, albeit with some variance. That is partly where the pressures for social conformity come from. I am a strong Straussian when it comes to religion, and overall wish to stick up for the presence of religion in social debate, thus some of my affinities with say Ross Douthat and David Brooks on many issues.
6. I do take the William James arguments about personal experience of God seriously, and I recommend his The Varieties of Religious Experience to everybody — it’s one of the best books period. But these personal accounts contradict each other in many cases, we know at least some of them are wrong or delusional, and overall I think the capacity of human beings to believe things — some would call it self-deception but that term assumes a neutral, objective base more than is warranted here — is quite strong. Presumably a Christian believes that pagan accounts of the gods are incorrect, and vice versa; I say they are probably both right in their criticisms of the other..
Add all that up and I just don’t believe. Furthermore, I find it easy not to believe. It doesn’t stress me, and I don’t feel a resulting gap or absence in my life.
Also like Cowen I think that religion fulfills very important social and psychological roles and I wonder what will happen to human societies as it fades. (Conversion to Mormonism has been found to be the most effective anti-poverty program ever tried.) I also sometimes miss the richness added to the world by beliefs in the spirits of springs and groves, the ghosts that haunt old houses, fairies who cross between this world and some other. But maybe most future people will feel as he and I do, and as my children seem to, comfortable with our lack of belief.