Our old friend Peter Boghossian recently posted a link to this short article from 2000, bearing the title Meta-Atheism, by Georges Rey who is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland. Why this old article is circulating I'm not sure, especially since it doesn't go much beyond Freud's standard account of religious belief as wishful thinking, only adding some particulars to the observation, but there it is.
The "meta-atheism" the title refers to is Rey's claim that "despite appearances, not many people -- particularly, not many adults who've been exposed to standard Western science -- seriously believe in God; most of those who sincerely claim to do so are self-deceived." This is a formulation of the de jure objection to religious belief which Alvin Plantinga deals with thoroughly in his Warranted Christian Belief (in which Plantinga rigorously demonstrates why none of the de jure objections, in their various formulations, actually work as objections).
Be that as it may, it certainly isn't controversial to suggest that if God is not real, or there is no supernatural reality, that therefore religious belief is a product of wishful thinking or self-deception. That's obviously true, operating on that conditional. Indeed, even if God does exist and one religion is True, it still may be true that other instances of religious belief in other gods are products of these mental processes (though Christians would claim that they are products of a natural desire for God, implanted by the creator, though this doesn't mean that desire can't be commingling with other, fallen mental processes). So that hypothesis (even though I don't accept it, at least as regards Christian faith) is at least understandable.
What doesn't make any sense at all is Rey's particular enumerated list of 'extensions' of wishful thinking in religious belief and practice. These seem to be specific examples of how self-deception and wishful thinking manifest themselves in things believers do and say. Rey thinks certain things believers do and say betray that they don't really believe what they claim they believe. Let's see if he has a point, and address them:
1) Detail Resistance
2) Comparability to Fiction
Though listed separately, this is actually a single objection, with #2 functioning as an addendum to #1. The problem here is that he mistakes a well established doctrine of creation ex nihilo for intellectual incuriosity to detail, when really it's acute attention to the conceptual details of that doctrine which reveals there simply can be no mechanistic 'details' of the kind he's asking for, nor is there any reason to expect they should exist. On the contrary, expecting them (as he does) shows a lack of understanding of the doctrine. The lay religious person may not articulate this to him in his interactions with them, but it's what they're intuiting when they recognize his questions as 'silly'. The one example he gives of 'detail resistance' is justified 'detail resistance'. Ignoring the specific example, and attempting to make sense of the objection itself, it still fails; given the Christian doctrine of Incarnation -- that God became flesh in a very particular, fleshly Jew, in whom all truth and hope resides -- 'detail', or the finite, or the-particular-as-such is entirely redeemed, as David Bentley Hart explains in The Beauty of The Infinite. The details of the form of Christ are everything, and we have no desire to shy from them.
However, it is sometimes, with regards to certain questions, entirely appropriate to point out that the "how" of some process is at best of secondary importance, or possibly of no functional significance at all.
3) Absence of Evidence IS Evidence of Absence
Here he attempts to flip a common theistic refrain on its head, though he fails to do so. Absence of evidence can be evidence of absence, if the evidence that's missing is evidence we would otherwise expect to find were the claim true.
Which is the case (to some extent) in the murder example he gives, but
not the case as regards Christian belief, and so the supposed
objection is really no objection at all. If Christian belief is true there is no reason to expect we should have more evidence that it's true than what we do in fact have.
4) Appeals to "Mystery"
Some believers appeal to 'mystery' or 'paradox' at times when they ought not to. When, for instance, an answer to something isn't
actually a mystery, it's just something they don't know or understand. Believers ought to have more humility and acknowledge that just because they don't understand, or aren't aware of, something, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a mystery. However, certain appeals to mystery (as it happens, the ones that are most commonly made) are absolutely justified, given that an infinite God can't be fully apprehended by finite
creatures. We can -- through His Grace, the Incarnation, scripture, tradition and the intervention of the Holy Spirit -- come to know truths that He reveals to us about Him, but as finite beings we by definition will not be able to have a full knowledge of Him. This "appeal to mystery" is entirely appropriate given the infinite-finite distinction.
5) Merely Symbolic Status of the Stories
This objection is not very well articulated. First he objects to the internal coherence of the Christian doctrine of atonement (an objection which is predicated on a misunderstanding, which I will explain anon), and then says something about how if the Christian story is merely symbolism then the problems aren't relevant. Well yes, but so what? Is he saying that many believers do claim that such stories are symbolic? If so, how are they self-deceiving, according to him? I honestly can't make out what his point is here.
As for his objection to the doctrine of the atonement: One must first
understand death as a consequence of sin -- rather than just something
that happens for no ultimate reason, but just because of entropy or
whatever -- and then one can begin to understand how the unjustified death
of a sinless man can be an atoning death. I won't attempt to exegete the entire doctrine here, but he is missing the very fundamental first principles of it and then declaring it incoherent. Of course, if God doesn't
exist, and death isn't a consequence of sin etc. then the atonement of
Jesus doesn't make sense either, but what he's really objecting to here
is the internal logic of the scheme of atonement, when that logic is absolutely pristine and he simply doesn't understand it.
6) Betrayals By Reactions and Behavior
The example he gives here may be somehow inconsistent for certain faiths, but not for
Christian faith. And I suspect his confusion is a result of a confusion
that is common among Christians too, which he just accepts but which is
false; namely, that our eternal destiny is a disembodied heaven which we
arrive at upon at the instance of our death, when actually our hope is
in bodily resurrection and in New creation, a New Heavens and a New
Earth. None of which has yet to come, and so mourning at death (which is
a consequence of sin, and antithetical to God's plans for creation) is
completely consistent and appropriate. Again, his confusion is somewhat
understandable since even a wide swath of Christians share it, but it's
his (and their) confusion that leads to seeing mourning as contradictory
when it's perfectly consonant with orthodox Christian belief. "Blessed
are the mourners, for they shall be [future tense] comforted".
Jesus, significantly, didn't say "cursed are the mourners for there is
nothing to mourn." Because there is something to mourn; death is inimical to God, God's
enemy, and Christ defeats his enemy at the cross. Because of Christ's
work death has no ultimate power over us, and therefore we don't
sorrow like those without hope, but we do mourn a loss to the waste and
destruction of death. For now.
7) Belief is Not a Matter of Choice
Again, his point here isn't all that clear. It seems to consist in nothing more than ponderous musings on the nature of 'faith' and how faith differs from simple 'belief'. Well, yes, quite. And? He does make the unsupported assertion that "I suspect you can have 'faith' only about what isn't really a serious contender for truth." Oh you suspect that, eh? Cool story, bro. I suspect differently. Glad that's all cleared up.
Somewhat more seriously, faith is mostly invoked with regard to propositions that are not matters of efficient, material causality, and so when he talks about "a serious contender for truth", he's pitting religious belief against scientific empiricism as a means for finding out truths about material causality -- something people of faith don't use faith for, at least not in the vast majority of cases, so the objection is just absurd and amounts to no more than "faith doesn't do what it isn't intended to do".
Here he merely asserts that humans have the capability to project meaning into things where it might not be there. Of course, he doesn't make an argument showing why this is what is occurring in all or most instances of religious belief, but merely asserts that it's something that can happen. Indeed it can, though I'm not sure how this supports his hypothesis. If the meaning he believes is being projected into things is actually there and he just isn't apprehending it, then it's his senses which are damaged, not the supposed 'projector'. And assuming said meaning isn't there presupposes atheism, rather than lends support to it as a conclusion.
In addition to each of these claims having problems within themselves, many of them don't even have any logical link to his central hypothesis about self-deception. His #3, for example, is just an attempt at a standard atheistic argument about God's non-existence. It's a de facto objection, not the de jure objection he was claiming that he was making. It's about the likely truth of religious belief, not whether religious persons are self-deceiving for holding to the belief. The objection, even if true, would not establish that religious people were self-deceiving when noting that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This is true to varying degrees of a number of the listed objections.
Granted, this isn't a scholarly piece, and it comes with a disclaimer that he has developed the argument in more depth elsewhere, but with such carelessness of thought and with so many fundamental errors and misunderstandings, I can't imagine the argument gets anything but more convoluted and confused in its 'deeper' incarnation.