JR'S Free Thought Pages
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Believing in Belief

by Johnny Reb

If you don't value truth, then what do you value?

"The central problem of epistemology is the first person problem of what to believe and how to justify one's beliefs"  [Thomas Nagel]

Opening remarks

"Man is a credulous animal and must believe something. In the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones"  [Bertrand Russell]

I maintain that anyone who has not been reasoned into his beliefs cannot be reasoned out of them. I apologize to my many religious friends, but belief in a proposition alone, regardless of its intensity, will not qualify as knowledge. As Thomas Nagel has intimated in the citation above, to move beyond belief to genuine knowledge demands justification(i.e., evidence and/or cogent argument) and some means of determining truth. From the time I was old enough to think about such things, I've never understood the attraction of "faith", belief without evidence. The innate incredulity and demand for justification that I had as a child, I presume, is true of most children. Unfortunately, our culture and education system will beat these valuable instinctive dispositions out of most of us soon enough.

Sadly, many people before reaching the age of reason, have been subjected to a program of indoctrination, the most potent being religious. Accordingly they are incapable of ever questioning the beliefs they hold as the result of such indoctrination. Moreover, both our public and even more so, our private education systems, further contribute to the indoctrination process, turning many of us into unquestioning docile drones. Is it any wonder why our democratic institutions are eroding?

A skeptic is someone who exposes his beliefs to the indignity of evidence, fact and rational argumentation. It is the encouragement of critical thought, free thinking, logic and most importantly, skepticism, that ought to be the foundation of any education curriculum in a society that values freedom of thought and professes to be an authentic democracy.

Unjustified Belief

"I do not pretend to be able to prove that there is no God. I equally cannot prove that Satan is a fiction. The Christian God may exist; so may the gods of Olympus, or of ancient Egypt, or of Babylon. But no one of these hypotheses is more probable than any other: they lie outside the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them. The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more often likely to be foolish than sensible"  [Bertrand Russell]

Every day in the media there's a story about someone who claims that their prayers or religious faith saved them from disaster, disease, death - or something as banal as clearing the path to victory in a sporting event. Unfortunately for those who belong to the reality based community, it's impossible to escape the barbs to our intellect from the ubiquitous absurdities of references to God and the supernatural. There's a continual deluge from the devout who claim with perfect faith that by believing in Jesus they'll escape death, that the Rapture is imminent or that the world is going to end at a particular moment in time. I too have my beliefs, but I make every effort to restrict them to plausible propositions that have a reasonable probability of being true. Reality and truth are well, sort of, important to me - and I have this strange aversion to bullshit. I believe that the earth is round, gravitation is real, snow geese are white and that 2 + 2 = 4, slavery is wrong  and that George W Bush is a doltish buffoon, but I have never felt an ongoing need to preach my convictions to the Universe. I suspect that people who make unjustified claims are delusional - lying to themselves, preferring a permanent childlike existence and comfort over truth.

 Most beliefs fall within the vague borders between the unquestionably true and unmistakably false. But how is it that so many people come to believe something that defies reason and often flies in the face of our common understanding and established scientific fact? Beliefs seem to come easily to so many people; they are inclined to believe and seek confirmation later, often in the form of well-known rationalizations such as confirmation bias. The best available evidence usually does not automatically update our belief, particularly those we hold dearly and those that have been inculcated at an early age. They often take on an active life of their own as we shelter them from conflicting evidence and harsh realities. People, especially those with conservative leanings, have a low tolerance for change, uncertainty and ambiguity . Moreover, in most social situations, especially within the confines of religion, politics and business, acquiescence and endorsement of the doctrines of faith and group ideology are rewarded while skepticism and challenge to the status quo are punished. If you want to survive and flourish within a corporation,  religious community or political party, stifle your skepticism and "go with the flow".

Almost always, the beliefs I periodically hold are ones I don't really firmly believe, or that I might conditionally believe based on some marginal probability. If you could read my thoughts, you might sense me thinking to myself "that stock is going down and I ought to sell it short", "that economist's forecasts are hooey" or "the promises of that politician are bullshit". But these beliefs are not articles of faith; I do not have a knock down rational basis for tentatively holding them. Most of us hold beliefs that are provisional in this way until counter-evidence or refutation emerges and as rational agents, we will reject them. But as Bertrand Russell has claimed, the beliefs we hold most passionately are generally those that have precious little or no evidential support. In other words, the emotional intensity of a belief is generally inversely proportional to the supporting evidence.

The "beliefs" I internalize are those I might want to believe, or those I'm trying to talk myself into, or those that I'm trying on for size. But when I cross the threshold to actual belief, I stop review­ing the matter. Again, I try to pare down my beliefs as much as possible since, after all, it leaves you with less to justify to both yourself and others. But when the faithful congregate on Sunday morning to pronounce the Thirteen Principles of Faith, the Nicene Creed or the Testimony of Islam, the perception that I have is that surely none of these people really and truly believes these things. Nor do they believe any of the attendant intellectual hokum that hangs with their chosen religion - or the belief in an omnipotent omniscient supernatural entity. Instead, I propose that these people believe in belief.

Of course, as I have intimated, there are degrees of belief. Contingent upon the evidence in their favor, some of my beliefs are more disposable than others. I believe that water freezes at zero degrees Celsius and that Evolution is true but I don't hold the belief that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE with the same conviction. It wouldn't take much evidence to convince me I'm wrong about the latter. It would take consider­ably more to convince me that Primo Levi was not an Auschwitz survivor and vastly more to convince me that the Holocaust never occurred. My most vulnerable beliefs are those I've never much thought about, which is likely because I don't find their subjects very in­teresting.

That's what I think religion is like for most people. They be­lieve that they believe, but their "beliefs" are of the most dispos­able kind. Consider a thought experiment. Suppose you could take a devoutly religious person and propose to him a wager by asking him:"Are the tenets of your religion true?" and somehow convince him that the life of his child depends on getting the answer right. I'm guessing that ninety-nine times out a hundred, you'd find yourself confronting a born-again heretic. The only reason that rarely happens is that there's seldom an occasion when getting the right answer actually matters. What's my evidence for this assertion? I'll try to offer it in a moment, though I'm not sure it's even necessary. It's my contention that religions are such patent hokum that it's clear no one with a discerning mind could possibly believe the rubbish. Case closed. Notwithstanding the power of indoctrination, I'm confident that no sincerely thinking adult could buy into Christianity or any other religion, cult or paranormal world view for the same reason I am confident that almost no adult could accept the story of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. And let's be honest folks - God is just really Santa Claus for grown-ups.

The Ethics of Belief

"...it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it--the life of that man is one long sin against mankind" - W K Clifford (1877)

Is it possible to argue for an epistemological ethics? The British essayist and mathematician W K Clifford thought so. You can read his wonderful essay by following the link above. Clifford's essay was influential in choosing the topic of my graduate dissertation in philosophy titled Skepticism, Critical Thinking and the Ethics of Belief.

Aside from mathematics and fundamental laws of physics, I think one can confidently assert that justified true belief, that is, genuine knowledge, is rather rare. Consider the fact that most religions assert that their chosen deity sees all our actions, punishes us when we're bad, and rewards us when we're good. Like Santa Claus, "he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake". But to say the very least, the godly punishments for transgressions are extremely draconian and cruel. Any cursory reading of the Bible will confirm as much. For a God to punish the entire world for the "sins" of a few and to eternally burn in a lake of fire for not believing in Him (Her?) is a bit excessive and unjust wouldn't you say? And what about the suicide mission of his god/man son Jesus sent to die for the sins of all mankind? Can any ethical clear thinking person really wrap their mind around such a morally depraved idea? I'll personally be responsible for my own moral indiscretions, thank you very much. By the way, I'm sorry to inform all you religious folks about morality based on promise of reward and threat of punishment, but ethics cannot be reduced to prudence.

So given an omnipotent celestial dictator who knows all, punishes and rewards all,  you'd expect religious people to behave better than the nonreligious, especially in circumstances where no human is watching. How can the proceeds of a corner store robbery, selling narcotics or Wall Street banking scam be worth an eternity in hell? You might respond that the sort of people who rob corner store stores are notoriously shortsighted, so they can believe in hell but still put it out of their minds, focusing on present rewards and ignoring future punishments. The problem with that response is that it conflicts with what we know about the efficacy of deterrence. Contrary to public perception and the Old Testament views of conservative politicians, it doesn't work. In a long term study of high security prisons in the USA, it was found that 0nly .2 % of inmates are atheists (that's one-fifth of one percent) so the deterrent of eternal punishment in  a lake of fire counts for naught since the rest of the inmates in the study claimed to be Christians who you'd expect would fear God's wrath. So much for the claim that religion, despite its inane irrationalism, makes us better people.

Now, to a true religious believer, the conviction rate for "sin" is 100 percent. God sees all, knows all, and punishes all. Hence, based on everything we think we know about deterrence, true believers should almost never commit crimes. But I haven't been able to uncover a shred of evidence that those who profess belief in God are any more law-abiding than their atheist counterparts. In fact. the results of the aforementioned study suggest the opposite. Here we have a testable implication of the hypothesis that religious beliefs are sincere. I look forward to seeing that test conducted.

Viruses of the Mind

Richard Dawkins is one of my favorite writers and I've read pretty much everything he's written in book form. A few years back he wrote a best-selling book called The God Delusion to refute the claims of religion. The book was understandably condemned by the indignant religious community. Though his arguments are impressive, one might contend that they are superfluous, especially if you don't think anyone really believes those silly religious claims anyway. Faith surely does not qualify as knowledge and I think an argument could be provided that it fails to even qualify as a belief. It's hard to conceive that belief can be a mere act of the will. Flying in the face of the most elementary scientific understanding, religious people claim to believe in an invisible deity that scrutinizes their every move, that Jesus is the man/god son of this deity who impregnated his mother without sexual contact, that he was resurrected from death, performed miracles, died for our "sins", and so on and so forth. Give your head a shake. Do we need a book called The Santa Claus, Fairy or Goblin Delusion?   

In addition to his refutation of all religious claims, Dawkins provides data showing that, at least on a state-by-state basis in the United States, there is no correlation between religiosity and moral behavior. At any rate, as I have mentioned previously, behavior motivated by fear of punishment or the expectation of reward is not ethics, but cost-benefit analysis. Dawkins point is that religion does not make people any better, but he misses the putative inference that that if religion doesn't make people better, then it would seem that the religious probably don't really believe the main tenets of their religion (in the case of the USA that would be Christianity). As Dawkins is quick to acknowledge, his statistics (quoted from Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation) don't really establish causation so don't actually conclusively  prove anything. But the previously cited figure that only .2% of people in US prisons are atheists (the vast majority of the rest of the prison population claim to be Christians) ought to at least cause Christians to re-think their highly dubious claims to moral authority, particularly if their source is the horrific book of atrocities called the Bible. I'll continue with this thread in the next section.

Believe or Burn

"If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed" - Albert Einstein

Woody Allen remarked in his brilliant movie Love and Death (1975), "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens" and in the final scene in which he's standing next to the Grim Reaper, he responds to Diane Keaton's query about what it's like being dead by saying, "There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?" Religions sermonize about death a lot, many  promising not just eternal punishment for the disbeliever and disobedient after their death, but a glorious "afterlife" for the righteous true believers. One would expect that if believers are honest, this too should affect their behavior. Oddly the only criterion the Christian God requires for salvation is to have faith in Him, His Royal Holiness, the Invisible Dictator in the Sky. How this rule can have any claim to the ethical realm remains a mystery to anyone who understands anything about ethics. But it doesn't seem to bother the devout and surely those Christians who expect to survive their own deaths should be less indisposed to die, and should therefore invest fewer resources in self-preservation. Do those who call themselves religious spend less on health care and life insurance than the rest of us? Do they buy fewer smoke alarms and security systems? Are they more likely to take risks to life and limb? Are the professional baseball players who are incessantly pointing to the sky thanking God when they hit home runs, less likely to flinch when a wild pitch is directed at their skull? I'm guessing not, and if my guess is right, it becomes almost difficult to imagine that their "belief" in an afterlife provided by the same deity that facilitates their home runs, could be sincere. But I guess they're intellectually satisfied by the fact that "God works in mysterious ways".

It's at this point that someone with a tincture of curiosity might ask: "What about suicide bombers - or even people willing to bomb abortion clinics or shoot abortion doctors? Surely voluntary martyrdom is a symptom of sincere belief in the reward of an afterlife." Then I might reply: "Yes, but this is my point -If religious belief is as widespread as people claim it is, there should be an limitless supply of eager voluntary martyrs."

For example, there are approximately one billion Muslims in the world, of whom at least several million profess to believe that martyrdom is the most di­rect path to heaven and 72 virgins. Why, then, have Islamic terrorists managed to carry out no more than several hundred suicide bombings in the past two or three decades?

Even among those several hundred bombers, a large proportion were children. Now I don't deny that many children believe in God, just as I don't deny that many children believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Adult suicide bombers seem to be a greater rarity. Among the nineteen hijackers of September 11, 2001, a majority were not told the nature of the mission and were led to believe they'd return alive. Why would this comforting declaration be necessary? Apparently, the leaders of Al Qaeda, with all their resources and all their fanatical support­ers, were unable to dig up nineteen men who actually bought into the whole bullshit package complete with the 72 virgins.

Of course you don't need religion to create a suicide bomber. There's the classic example of Ted Kaczynski, Unabomber, a PhD in Mathematics. This man was clearly not stupid and refused to accept the defense plea of insanity. If you read his "Manifesto", it's difficult to accept he was insane, whatever that legally entails. The most prolific suicide bombers in modern history have been the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, who were motivated by political ideology, not religion - as is likely to have been the case for Kaczynski and at least some of those whom we categorize as "Islamic extremists." Take out the children and the politically motivated, and we're down to a couple of hundred suicide bombers over fifteen years. One could argue that's significant, but as "evidence" that tens of millions of people believe in God and heaven, it's negligible.

Religious Discord

The only excuse for God is that he doesn't exist - Friedrich Nietzsche

Religion is a magical device for turning unanswerable questions into unquestionable answers - Art Gecko

I now turn to the peculiar phenomenon of "interfaith dia­logue": Catholics and Protestants, or Jews and Christians, or Christians and Muslims, gathered to learn more about each oth­er's Bronze Age beliefs in an apparent ambiance of mutual respect. But respect for what, exactly? Is it respect for each other's beliefs per se, or simply for their right to hold those beliefs? If it's the latter, then surely there's no need for dialogue; from a deferential distance I can respect your right to hold and espouse beliefs and be wrong and ridiculous. This is the essence of a liberal outlook of tolerance for anyone to hold and express beliefs, no matter how outlandish, immoral or irrational. But interfaith dialogue is alleged to be about respect for the beliefs themselves, which entails some acknowledgment that those beliefs might be true. What else could it possibly mean to respect a belief? But because the beliefs of competing religions are in large part mutually exclusive, as soon as the Christian admits the Muslim might be right, he at the same time admits that Christianity is quite likely wrong. So much for perfect faith.

Orthodox Jews have traditionally shunned interfaith dialogue on the assumption that there's no point in discussing issues that are already definitively settled. Jews "know" Jesus wasn't divine, so why waste time discussing the issue? I take this as confirmation that Orthodox Jews typically mean what they say about their religion although I continue to think that this view is countered by evidence to the contrary. But in most other religions - including other variants of Judaism and Christianity - mainstream leaders have frequently encouraged and participated in these debates and dialogues. Unlike many heretical Christians and Muslims, countless Jewish intellectuals are avowed secular humanists, despite the fact they may participate in the social, ceremonial or cultural  aspects of the religion they have intellectually rejected.

To a true believer, what purpose could such interfaith dialogue pos­sibly serve? Do they ever address the problem of the thousands of Gods that people have believed in but no longer exist because there's no one left to believe in them. Yahweh is the one true god for Christians and Allah the one true god to Moslems. But what about Zeus, Thor, Odin, Ra, Apollo, Baal, Brahma, Osiris, Mithra, Shiva, Wotan, Vishnu and the countless other gods. As atheists will often argue, every religious person disbelieves in these gods except their own. So why do they not apply their arguments of rejection of these gods and apply them to their own? They are one god short of being an atheist. Why are people born in India very unlikely to be Christian - or someone born in the United States unlikely to be a Hindu? The answer is obvious: Gods are mere social constructions and the belief in them  a function of the forces of cultural indoctrination.

And at the end of these interfaith discussions and deliberations, does anyone ever swap religions - or reject them outright? Or do they simply present opposing viewpoints within the context of broad-spectrum agreement ("Jesus died on the cross for our sins," "Jesus will return from the grave after the Rapture," "Jesus was an ordinary mortal", "Jesus was merely a mythical figure", "Jesus could heal the sick", etc, etc), after which everyone nods politely and then goes home? That's not how people generally behave when they actually believe they're absolutely right. In my experience, if you fill a room with people who have strongly held conflicting beliefs about important matters of fact, especially those held passionately, they don't leave until they've either figured out who's right or have collapsed from exhaustion.

What's curious about interfaith dialogue, then, is that it tends not to involve dialogue at all. In fact, actual dialogue and serious critique of religion is conspicuous by its absence throughout so-called polite society. After all, many people refuse to challenge another's religious beliefs, that would totally demolish their conceptual opacity, intellectual content and logical support. If people really believed this rubbish, surely they'd want to defend it. But with the exception of priests, preachers and pastors and other members of the church hierarchy, only a small fraction of professed believers are enthusiastic proselytizers. But if you've ever attempted to seriously critique the sacred cow of religion in a letter to the editor to one of our major conservative corporate newspapers, lots of luck in getting it published.

Despite the numerous intrusions I get from JWs and Mormons at my doorstep, why don't more believers work harder to spread the word to their unenlightened neighbors? Is it simply a matter of civility? I could accept that if we were talking about politics or ethics, but not religion. Religious disagreements are quite unlike political dis­agreements, because religious disagreements always hinge on matters of empirical fact. Not so in politics, which generally focus on matters such as ideology and class interest. Business owners and corporate executives prefer policies that enhance their interests while workers prefer policies that support their interests. Seat them next to each other at a bar, and the business tycoon and the employee might decide to steer clear of politics for the sake of decorum.  So far business has been the big winner in promoting their interests over workers. But if they disagree about what is causing global warming or the steadily increasing disparities in wealth around the world , then propriety doesn't necessarily require them to remain silent. They might offer evidence and argument and try to determine who's correct, and if anything of great consequence hangs in the balance, they'll likely persevere until they've resolved the issue. If they disagreed about the divinity of Jesus, I'd expect them to do the same. But this is usually not the case - challenging religious beliefs is one of the sacred cows in our culture.

But why is this? It's primarily because in matters of faith, belief occurs without intellectual support. It's like tennis without nets; faith by its very nature is impervious to rational challenge. No evidence, no compelling argument and usually lack of conceptual clarity where rules of logic do not apply. So the critical thinking skeptic who challenges religious claims is basically shooting dead fish in a barrel. But from the outset, the skeptic is not obligated to argue for the non-existence of gods; the burden of proof for any claim, religious or otherwise, is always on the believer. It's the religious believer who is responsible for providing evidence and argument for his claims. This rule applies equally to religion as it is in the science lab and a court of law. So how does the religious believer convince someone when rationality and rules of logic do not apply? As the history of religion has shown, it's by rhetoric, sophistry, fallacious argument, preaching, indoctrination-  and brute force.

Testing Belief in Science

In science when a viable hypothesis is exposed to inquiry, it begins with what is called the null hypothesis. In probability and statistics, the null hypothesis has a specific meaning, but I'm considering a more general sense: the hypothesis under consideration is deemed false (null), until proven otherwise. The null hypothesis states that P does not cause Q. If you believe that P does cause Q, then the burden of proof is on you to provide convincing experimental data that will reject the null hypothesis. This is the way science works in practice such as establishing the effectiveness of a new medical drug to the veracity of evolutionary theory. And once a hypothesis becomes theory it's required that it be falsifiable, in other words, there must be some way of proving it wrong.

Moreover, scientists are not conservatives; the status quo is anathema to the scientific enterprise and any genuine scientists looks for counter-evidence that might force a modification or even rejection of his theories. Charles Darwin understood only too well the human predilection for reaffirming the status quo and protecting cherished beliefs. In his Autobiography he noted how he frequently tended to ignore or forget any information that might contradict his pre-conceived beliefs and theories. Consequently he made it a rule to write down any such data so that he would not forget it. Like Darwin's mental self-check, rigorous hypothesis testing overcomes certain limitations in how the human mind processes information in dealing with pre-existing belief.

Self-Reflection: Do I really believe this stuff?

"Hegel held that animals have no religion, but as against that, Darwin (and others before him) said that, to a dog, its master is a god. If this is true, it is to the credit of canine intelligence, since the evidence of this theism is obvious and overwhelming. But where is the evidence for the belief that humans are somebody’s cattle?"  [David Stove]

Now let's turn from interfaith dialogue to internal dialogue, that is, self-reflection. Generally speaking, the subjects we care most about are those we've studied and deliberated over. Cosmologists get worked up over the size of the Universe, accountants about debits, credits, balance sheets and pure mathematicians about conundrums like Goldbach's Conjecture. That's true for two reasons: First, enthusiasm in­spires study, and study inspires possible confidence and renewed zeal.

Religious believers, then, should, by and large, be students of - well, of what, exactly? Religion is first and foremost a physical theory - a theory of how the Universe was formed, what keeps it going, how it will end, and what sort of material inhabits it and how it got there. I predict, then, that true religious believers should have a passionate interest in fundamental physics and biology - even if only to figure out what's wrong with the mainstream scientific theories that contradict their world view. But I expect that the bookshelves of the average churchgoer are even less likely than anyone else's to contain a good survey of, say, Cosmology, Evolutionary Theory, Quantum Mechanics or String Theory. Like the Bible, they may have it on their bookshelves for display, but never turn a page. I also submit that the average person on the street who, in answering a survey claims to be a Christian, is not a true believer and has very likely not read much of the Bible, if at all. In fact in surveys, it's been shown that atheists usually know more about the Bible than the professed Christian.

Likewise, Creationists, if they are sincerely interested in the ori­gins of life, will have read Charles Darwin - or better yet because he's more concise, current with the massive research in genetics and writes for contemporary readers - Richard Dawkins, arguably the most famous and esteemed evolutionary biologist on the planet. I can indeed imagine someone who has read The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion or The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True ( a new book directed at all ages from about 9 years old and up) soundly reject its contents, but I cannot fathom someone who cares passionately about the origins of life but has no interest in learning what Dawkins has to say. Evolutionary Theory is the cornerstone of modern biology and anyone who rejects it cannot lay claim to being an educated enlightened individual.

Of course, the problem here is that once you're acquainted with the spectacular success and explanatory power of modern physics and biology, it's difficult both intellectually and psychologically to sustain your religious beliefs. As the psychologist Paul Bloom has pointed out, "religions consistently make claims - about the age of the Earth, the nature of mental illness, the origins of species on earth and the Universe, the nature of consciousness, even to the mundane causation involved in feats of athleticism, and so on - that turn out to be dead wrong." You'd expect the people most aware of these errors to be those most interested in the nature of mental illness, the origins of species, the nature of consciousness, why I hit that ace at match point in the tennis game, and so on. There you see the paradox: People who value truth and are deeply curi­ous about the origins of the universe, species, the nature of consciousness, mental illness, and so on will tend to be aware of those errors and hence tend to reject religious explanations. People who are not deeply curious about those things might embrace religion, but they cannot embrace it seriously, because they're not really interested in the ideas that religion is about. Who's then left to be religious? The deluded? The deranged? The indoctrinated and brainwashed? The willfully ignorant?

So, contrary to my conjectures, just where is the evidence for widespread belief? The best evidence appears to be the testimony of the alleged believers themselves; survey data indicate that more than 90 percent of Amer­icans believe in God, with God being an extremely opaque abstruse concept. But social scientists have long known that raw survey data tell you very little, because most survey re­spondents have almost no motivation to examine their own religious conceptions and beliefs about them very assiduously. Moreover, the surveys themselves are flawed by the lack of any reasons demanded for the responses. The issue here is intellectual integrity, what I would call the ethics of belief.

If people really don't believe in God, then why do they say they do? The answer is clear; people say things they don't believe all the time. On the evening before election day in the last federal election, I turned on the news and watched a Conservative Party candidate pronounce that "it doesn't matter who wins the election tomorrow; it only matters that everyone gets out and votes." This was a politician who had zealously devoted the past six months of his life while spending millions of dollars of campaign funds trying to ensure his party's victory. If he didn't think it mat­tered, why did he bother? It's because next to religious leaders, politicians are the most blatant purveyors of bullshit on the planet.

Sometimes we lie; sometimes we utter empty platitudes. Many an atheist I'm sure has committed a Freudian slip by thanking God for a Canucks victory or promising to keep an ailing friend in his nonexistent prayers. It's all part of religious parlance and metaphor that have been drummed into our heads since childhood. And sometimes we express our thoughts spontaneously without thinking about what we have actually said. Similarly, we berate and threaten our cars and computers when they misbehave, even though we don't believe for a moment that they actually hear us.

Now, cognitive scientists will tell you it's not that simple - depending on what you mean by belief, it's perfectly possible for different parts of your brain to believe contradictory propositions. One part says, "I think I'll have another beer," while another region of your cranium says, "No! Don't you dare!" Perhaps some part of your brain does believe your computer is listening, even while the more thoughtful parts know better. But here's the sense in which I mean you don't believe for an instant in your computer's sen­tience: If you had to bet all your wealth or your child's life on the matter of belief, there's no question which side of the bet you'd take. Would you bet your house or your child's health on your belief in God? If you believe that your afterlife in heaven is superior than the earthly one, why not just take the lethal injection now? If our earthly existence is just a brief interlude, and for many one of misery and suffering, one has to wonder: what's the point? Why doesn't God just shuffle us all to heaven at birth?

Many of us, especially the religiously inclined, seem to have two processors and two hard drives in the brain. One for the irrational credulous activities like getting on your knees at church to pray to and worship a non-existent metaphysical entity and the other for the rational skepticism you invoke while listening to a salesman trying to sell you that new car or investment in Moose Pasture Resources.

According to the Canadian cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom (McGill, MIT), supernatural beliefs arise when the social system tries to un­derstand physical phenomena. So what caused that tsunami? The social system insists on rewording the question: Rather than what caused that tsunami, we ask instead, who wanted that tsunami -and why? Ask the question if you are inclined to the supernatural and you're set yourself up to discover a pissed off God. But pissed off by what or whom? Bloom offers this as a theory of why 96 percent of Americans are religious. I prefer to see it as a theory of why 96 percent of Americans say they're religious. The instinct to believe in God comes perhaps from the same brain functioning as the instinct to believe in malevolent software. But an instinct to belief (or a meta-belief) is not the same as belief itself. But why are other industrialized and technologically advanced countries like Sweden, Norway and Denmark so non-religious with less than 50% believing in God. There must be historical and cultural forces at work that also need to be taken into account and explained.

One important difference between God and our computers is that we actually have to live with our computers. If you cling to the instinctive belief that you can bully your computer into sub­mission, you're in for endless aggravation. But whether you cling to the instinctive belief that God sees all, knows all, and guides all is of little consequence - provided you don't much let it af­fect your everyday behavior. Regardless of how the question is framed (and the framing is surely relevant to the response) you can inform the pollster you believe or disbe­lieve. But he records the result and walks off just as surely and promptly either way. The main problem with polls is they don't ask the more important question of "why you believe".

Viruses of the Mind

Eskimo: If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?

Priest: No, not if you didn't know.

Eskimo: Then why did you tell me?

-Annie Dillard

The philosopher Daniel Dennett, has written an engaging book called Breaking the Spell where he investigates the evolutionary origins of religious belief. Dennett observes that religious beliefs reproduce like viruses of the mind, or memes, sometimes reproducing in slightly mutated form and subject to natural selection - precisely the conditions necessary for evolution to occur. It's important to recognize that Dennett is talking about the evolution of religious ideas themselves, not the evolution of religious people, though the two histories are surely parallel. Therefore a search for religion's evolutionary origins is not at all the same thing as a search for religion's evolutionary efficacy to people. As Dennett observes, the common cold virus certainly evolved, but that doesn't make it beneficial to humans.

Daniel Dennett is considered the originator of the idea that some weak-minded atheists (agnostics) "believe in belief": that is to say that they think, like the historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), that "all religions are equally true to the masses, false to the philosophers, and useful to the politicians"; and that the philosophers ought to just get over it. To Dennett, this is an outrage. Religion is, as Bertrand Russell has effectively argued, a tried and true instrument of fear and control. Religion deliberately keeps people ignorant who ought to know better. If we are sincere and ethical atheists, how dare we encourage superstition, regardless of its consolatory value. The ethics of belief demands that we deem it unacceptable to believe propositions that are false, simply because they are convenient palliatives.

I think there is much to be learned from this sort of inquiry, though I'd give it a slightly different emphasis. Where Dennett asks, "In the face of scientific understanding, why do so many people believe in God?", I'd prefer to ask, "Why do so many people have a powerful instinct or motivation to believe in God?" One may have a motive for believing a proposition, but" motive" is not the same as "reason", in the epistemological sense of providing evidence and argument. To the believers themselves, that instinct might feel and be operative in the same way as an actual belief. But it seems to me, for the reasons I've outlined, that most people also have an active cogni­tive apparatus that rejects that belief. As the late great science fiction writer, Philip K Dick once said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, won't go away." Despite Dick's truism, psychological mechanisms like cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias are very powerful in maintaining belief in the face of reality. There are literally dozens of these rationalizations for maintaining beliefs including the hindsight bias, self-justification bias, attribution bias* and the sunk cost bias.

*In one study of attribution bias, ten thousand randomly chosen Americans, were asked why they believed in God and why they thought others believed in God. The two most common reasons they attributed to why they believed in God was "the good design of the Universe" and "the experience of God in everyday life." When asked why they thought other people believed in God these two reasons dropped to sixth and fourth place respectively, and the two most common reasons given were that belief is "comforting" and "fear of death." This reveals a sharp distinction between an intellectual attribution bias, in which people consider their own beliefs as being rationally driven, and an emotional attribution bias, in which people see the beliefs of others as being emotionally driven.

It's very easy for people to claim they are religious - to pollsters, to friends and acquaintances, and even to themselves - when nothing of impor­tance hangs in the balance. But beliefs often do affect behavior. Believers in hell should commit fewer crimes; believers in heaven should take more risks; believers in one religion should interact in pre­dictable ways with believers in another and believers in God should have a powerful interest in the alternatives. Those implications ought to be testable. I am moderately confident that carefully gathered statistics could refute the hypothesis that religious beliefs are widely or deeply held. Are there exceptions? For genuine true believers with profound emotional ties - perhaps? Are there many? I doubt it. I expect that with religious belief diminishing rapidly, even in The Republic of Jesus (aka, the USA), religion may all but disappear within a few generations. I would argue that if we could wipe the slate clean and erase all minds of religious superstition, it would be gone forever and not reappear.

I would expect that the countless numbers of 1-800 televangelist entrepreneurs who pollute our airwaves don't believe in any of the nonsense they spew out every day - as they line their pockets with the donations of the credulous. Fraudsters and charlatans like Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Ted Haggard, Al Sharpton, Pat Robertson and their ilk have never done an honest day’s work in their lives and are simply parasites who pinch themselves every morning at their good fortune at living the easy life exploiting the vulnerable and gullible. For them, not unlike the incalculable number of con men on Wall Street, religion is nothing more than a racket.

For the final word, here is the late great Christopher Hitchens:

"...the racketeering and exploitative side of religion, as with its no-less-mark­ed tendency to generate wars, atro­cities, and repressions, isn’t the whole story. What of those who try their best to help others and lead a decent life, attributing this conduct to their belief in a Virgin, a Prophet, or to the story of Exodus, or any other such fabrication? I never cease to wonder, in dialogues with such people, whether they are really saying what they mean or meaning what they say..."faith" is at its most toxic and dangerous point, not when it is insincere and hypocritical and corrupt, but when it is genuine. At that point, its energy of certainty and self-righteousness can be used, not only to reinforce the Church but also (as Mother Teresa’s continuing reputation demonstrates) to impress even the secular. The evidence now is that this is how she and her confessors squared the circle. Repress your misgivings, overcome your de­spair, re­double your efforts, and we will make you a saint and later claim that you cured the sick even after your death. It’s at this point that the cynical loops round to meet the naïve and say in effect that anything is permissible as long as it keeps the illusion alive. Again, one has to stand amazed before a clergy who can use, as a recruiting sergeant, a wretched old lady whose own faith, as they well knew, had worn to a husk"


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