I had a conversation with an atheist friend recently and I think we surprised each other.
Though an atheist she still felt she needed to believe in ‘something’, though she didn’t quite know in what; and to some extent she envied religious believers in that they had something to turn to, some belief. This surprised me, because though I know of some atheists who feel this way this was my first opportunity to hear it first hand. What surprised me more was her surprise at the nature my atheism.
She asked me, “What do you believe in? You surely must believe in something, ‘in humanity’, for example?” Her surprise was that I said that as far as I can tell I don’t believe in anything, in that religious type of ‘believing IN something’, and I don’t need to. “What about life, family, your wife?”, she asked.
I chose to respond about my wife – one’s wife is a common subject when believers insist, for example, that surely you have ‘faith’ in your wife’s love for you – gender & orientation notwithstanding. Of course, I love my wife. Along with my (adult) children she is most important to me. But I don’t ‘believe in’ her, in some all encompassing sort of way. She’s another human being. She has flaws, as do we all. It would be unfair to ‘believe’ in her in that way, and totally unnecessary. I’m not saying believers in gods require that what they believe in does not have flaws, but then what does it mean to believe ‘in’ whatever it is?
I trust my wife; and I’ve learned to do that with experience of not being given any reason not to. This is the type of trust that can be lost, and sometimes is, in marriages. Unfortunately, the believing ‘in’ the transgressor is precisely the kind of nonsense that keeps some unfortunate souls in abusive relationships.
Exactly what I trust my wife with or about is less clear, but generally I’d say I trust her when she says she loves me; I trust her not to intentionally do anything that would hurt me in any way. But my wife and I are simply two human animals that have that type of loving bond that humans are capable of. It’s not magic. It’s not spiritual. It’s human. It’s what humans do, as a variation on what other animals do with less intellect and complexity, as far as we can tell.
I could come over all lyrical, quote lines from poems or love songs to express how deep my love is, but that seems to be rather superficial when trying to get to the bottom of this belief stuff. I need to explain it rationally. Spouting words of romantic love would express my feelings, perhaps, but wouldn’t go any way to explaining anything about belief, and would amount to gilding the lilly of human nature.
Believing ‘in’ something always seems rather contrived; fake. I’m not disputing that people do believe like that. But I get the feeling that they’ve been busy fooling themselves into such beliefs, Praxis, or buying into romanticism spouted by poets, philosophers and theologians. It all seems such unnecessary nonsense. I get all the wonder and magic of living a human life, with other humans, and with other animals on this plant, and from the mysteries of the universe itself. I don’t see the need to believe ‘in’ anything. It’s like adults that indulge in ‘the magic of Disney’.
Coincidentally Will Self has a piece in the BBC News magazine: A Point of View: Why not caring about anything is only for the young. “It is not the content of our beliefs that really matters, so much as the practice of believing itself, argues Will Self.”
Well, no, believing doesn’t matter, in this sense. Or, rather, not believing ‘in’ something, avoiding such an error, is what actually matters, because it allows you to believe whatever you find to be the case. I think Will is mistaking apathy for not believing ‘in’ something – two different things altogether. And if Will’s target is mere apathy, then that was not clear from his piece.
I find that believing ‘in’ something gives that something an importance that cannot then be betrayed by truth, and can lead to the denial of any truth that threatens what you happen to believe ‘in’. Religions gain their coercive authority from having people submit to belief ‘in’ them as truths about the nature of reality.
“Dostoevsky understood that what humans are, in terms of our moral being, is crucially tied up with what – if anything – we believe.”
As a matter observation, I guess that has been right, historically; mostly, for the thinkers that think about, thought about, those things. But I don’t think it’s a necessity for humans. I think it’s a habit, like one’s religion, that we have tended to fall into, or grown up into. It seems so common that I suppose it might be some quirk of the brain that makes it happen; an accident of genetics and gene expression in the environment of human brain evolution.
“In the contemporary secular era, one the lineaments of which Dostoevsky could perfectly well discern when he was writing in the 1870s, there are plenty of people keen to assert that they have no beliefs at all, if by this is meant a settled conviction about such big questions as why we are here, where we are going, and whether good and evil are ultimate realities or merely functions of a given social structure during a particular era.”
Quite right. If the enlightenment has shown us anything it’s that such convictions are foolish. It’s ironic that believers are often quick to tell us how wrong we atheist science proponents are in our belief ‘in’ science. They assume we believe ‘in’ science the way they believe ‘in’ whatever it is they believe in. And they couldn’t be more wrong. Scientific scepticism is the withholding of conviction – barring over enthusiasm in one’s pet theory some fall into now and again, but we’re quick to clarify the contingency of our apparent beliefs. The contingency is what we take for granted as a lesson quickly learned in the failure to make accurate predictions when we expect to be able to make them.
A succesful experiment can confirm or falsify a hypothesis. A failed experiment is one that doesn’t work sufficiently to tell us anything, or brings out completely unexpected results. A failed experiment is telling us something: something unexpected about the subject of the experiment, or something unexpected about how to perform the experiment. It’s all good. While results can be shockingly unexpected, they are not as soul destroying as discovering what you devoutly believed in is a lie.
Learning to trust science generally, as a process of discovery, as the best process we have available to us, is not a commitment to a belief ‘in’ it, it is a learned trust in it. And when it comes to science in specific instances it’s usually the scientist doing the science that knows full well how contingent their very positive looking results are.
“But is it really true to say we have no beliefs? After all, if we truly believed nothing it would be difficult for us to operate in a world where everyone else behaves as if they did believe in something, that something being – by and large – the efficiency and reliability of the technologies we rely on for our daily life.”
Will Self is here failing to distinguish between belief, as expressed when we say ‘belief in’, and a learned trust in our experience, our common lived experience, and in the science that informs us in greater detail about our experiences.
Trust is a powerful empirical tool used throughout the animal kingdom, by animals possessing brains. Trust: we can start with it, and potentially withdraw it; or we can start without it and learn when to award it. The inquisitive nature of the young is an expression of this learning process: to dive in head first with no negative expectation, and learn from one’s mistakes, or to tread cautiously and learn what can be trusted.
Now it may well be that the human brain, with greater powers of reflection, is sometimes a little too sceptical for its own good, and often a little too trusting in invisible powers for which there is no evidence. These are issues of psychology and neuroscience that we are still trying to discover in detail. But despite our history of over indulgence in belief ‘in’ things, there is no reason to suppose this is some necessity for survival, or happiness.
“When we push button A we very much expect B to happen, when we flick a light switch we anticipate the light going on.”
Well, yes. These are learned expectations. There is no reason to believe a switch will bring forth light, and any ancient would be rightly mystified if it had. From an early age my children grew up with VHS video recorders which they could use to record and play back TV programmes. That was something I learned was possible at a much later stage in life than them, since I grew up with only two TV channels, then four, and no means of recording. My children’s children will think it quite natural to walk down the street seemingly talking to themselves when in fact they are in intimate live conversation with someone on the other side of the world. How would that not be sorcery to people of earlier times. But these are not beliefs ‘in’ anything, they are learned expectations.
“they depend upon beliefs that we hold on trust”
Yes, on trust, not through belief ‘in’. They are commitments of quite different kinds.
“This reliance on essentially occult beliefs for the smooth running of the physical aspects of our lives has engendered a further strange belief in us, a belief about our beliefs concerning those big, metaphysical questions.”
For some that aren’t fortunate enough to have the opportunity, through circumstances, to enlighten themselves that may be fair enough; but for anyone at all educated this amounts to wilful ignorance. I don’t know many of the details of physics, cosmology, chemistry, biology, and when I try to express my opinions on these subject I no doubt make mistakes, or run out explanatory steam. But I know enough to know that there will be answers there, if in fact I know that someone somewhere has taken the effort to make the appropriate discoveries. It seems to me that failing to grasp the rudiments of how things work is a failure of inquisitiveness not unrelated to the closing down of inquiry we see in many systems that require a belief ‘in’ them.
We can even go so far as to make reasonably educated estimates about as yet incomplete knowledge; not because we know that these things ‘will’ be discovered, but from a trust born of previously successful extrapolations. And tempered by previous failures too. So, as just one example, I see no principled barrier to humans discovering the nature of consciousness, as a function of a biological brain, to the extent that one day we will be able to enhance our own consciousness, encapsulate it in substrates other than evolved brains, and will be able to generate it afresh. There really is no known principle that persuades me this will not be possible. There is, however, a lot of belief ‘in’ stuff going on in some human brains that prevents them entertaining this possibility. Their belief ‘in’ some unsubstantiated specialness of human kind or person, often divinely created and so outside the creative reach of man himself, prevents them seeing the possibility. Believing ‘in’ things seems such a hindrance to the imagination – another irony given the flights of fancy believers often engage in without any need for evidence to support their beliefs.
“This abrupt curtailment of the Western metaphysical project has left us at the bottom of our metaphorical gardens, in our figurative garden sheds, and depending for our belief system on a series of makeshift structures we’ve knocked up ourselves.”
That’s right. We’ve invented some holy shit. And look at the price we are paying for that right now. The most profoundly religious places on earth are often the most abysmal. Of course the dogmas of religious belief are no worse than those of atheistic beliefs ‘in’ something or other – as religious believers will be only to pleased to remind us by bringing up Stalin and other wackos. But sceptical scientific atheism isn’t made of the same stuff: it’s the lack of unconditional belief ‘in’ things. If we’re going to believe something it’s going to be conditional on the evidence that supports it; and if better evidence comes along we give up the belief somewhat easily, though sometimes reluctantly, because our beliefs are contingent.
“If called to account on the gimcrack quality of our convictions, we relapse into a sort of stoicism light: “Well,” we say, “it’s true that these beliefs aren’t altogether credible, but that doesn’t matter because at root I don’t believe in anything – I’m just trying to get by like the rest of us.” But the problem with stoicism light is that it just can’t deal with the heavy stuff.”
I agree. There’s a lot of unthinking conviction going on. And ‘sophisticated theology’ is the cheapest and showiest ornament of all. And it’s all so unnecessary. But worse, it’s always poorly thought out. Supposedly sophisticated, it’s nothing but a sham.
“The problem with our contemporary secular beliefs is that they’re either makeshift, or entered into unconsciously, simply as a necessary operating system for our busy and digitised lives. The great believers in the wonder of the universe, as revealed to us by science, seem to have considerable difficulty in either galvanising us to social solidarity, or providing us with true solace.”
As for the social solidarity I defy you to give any example of solidarity that is more inclusive of people than is science. There are no bars to membership. And as unlikely as it is to find someone that is both Muslim and Christian, there is no reason a Muslim or a Christian can’t be a scientist.
And as for solace, I think the difficulty is in the minds of those expecting solace. Cast it off. You don’t need it. Or, to put it another way, there’s a natural peace and solace in the freedom from belief ‘in’ anything in particular. It’s deeply liberating.
Life throws up crap, and often this happens when you’ve taken the greatest care in your life to avoid it; and to rub salt in, you witness the most cavalier kind swanning through life happily with the least effort. When will you get it into your heads that the chaotic nature of nature defies perfect order. Shit happens, and the best you can do is try to avoid it happening to you and your loved ones, and if you can help a few others around the world avoid it too, all the better for your empathetic biology. And if you can positively create and improve, then better still.
“I’ve yet to hear of anyone going gently into that dark night on the basis that she or he is happily anticipating their dissolution into cosmic dust.”
Then you’re not listening.
That’s not to say an individual at death’s door doesn’t long to survive. We are biological survival machines. We are programmed to stay alive if we can, and barring relief from pain and suffering the human organism is programmed not to go gently. If you doubt the power of this biological force of nature then watch the beating twitching body of a mouse your cat has toyed with. For a more traumatic example make yourself witness (it’s your duty to do so) the struggling body of the victim of a beheading at the hands of those that currently take their solace from the religion of Allah. Then decide what makes stoicism so biologically unnatural, and how reliable religion is at providing solace.
It is one of the supreme powers of self control to slip away in fully conscious peace – it goes against our biological grain. And all the more incredible when not pretending we are simply crossing over to a better eternal life of bliss. Knowing you are going, right now, and this is the end, may be a challenge to our animal survival that even a contemplative brain has difficulty with. All the more virtuous then, if virtue is something you find appealing.
I expect to die, and I don’t expect some fantasy reward (or punishment – no telling how masochistic some sinners can be) waiting for me on the other side. I appeared, through no choice of my one, and spend a lifetime enjoying, suffering and puzzling about life; and then it’s gone. It really is that simple. Imagine your life, with your intellect, but with the life span of a mouse or a Mayfly. You wouldn’t have time to be indoctrinated into religion, or to record and learn our histories, our sciences. Mistaking our longer lived complexities for a specialness that has some divine meaning is a folly.
“nor do I witness multitudes assembling in order that they may sing the periodic table together, or recite prime numbers in plain chant.”
And what’s that got to do with the price of eggs? Do you think atheists that believe in nothing in particular cannot be stirred by the rhythms of music. Emotive religious music can be deeply moving. But then so is music by the Doors. Try Rhythms of the Brain, by Gyorgy Buzsaki if you want to know why rhythm is important – it’s nothing to do with the religious content. It’s nothing to do with believing ‘in’ something. It’s to do with biology.
“By contrast, religious beliefs continue to offer many people genuine succour, and they do this, I think, as Dostoevsky realised, not because of the specific concepts they appear to enshrine – such as an afterlife or eternal judgement – but because they place the human individual in a universal context, and thereby give her life meaning.”
I can understand that, in a time of relative ignorance. And the irrelevance of the specific content of belief goes some way to explain the arbitrary and varied nature of it. What else could explain the success of Scientology? A trumped up religion, invented by a failed science fiction writer, and people actually believe ‘in’ that stuff? This tells us more about the gullibility of the human brain than it does about our need for succour – or it tells us it’s such a desperate need we’ll believe damned near anything other than the cold facts of life and death. It is almost as incredible that any educated intellectual falls for the religious crap, but sure enough they do. And some of them scientists too. Even biologists.
We might still be early in our journey of the discovery of this universe and beyond, but the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and evolution, and latterly the brain sciences and the discoveries of our symbiotic relationship with all life on earth, and with any other life there might be in the universe, and with the rhythms in the dust of the universe – all this, it gives life far greater meaning than any trumped up imaginary fantasy.
Don’t get me wrong. Fantasy has its places, from childhood fairy tales, to adult fictions, theatres, art. We are emotionally driven intellects, and it’s often fun to lose ourselves in our imagination. And the devotional life may have its merits in personal fulfilment – it takes all sorts, and there’s no telling what one’s brain might find satisfying. And the simplicity and beauty of non-belief-in provides an exhilarating freedom of its own kind.
Further more, the speculative fantasising about what might be, including metaphysical specualtions, that in the past legitimately included wondering if there might be super beings pulling our strings, are all part of the human experience and have contributed to our enlightenment. But clinging on to old fantasies that doen’t stand up to later scrutiny is naivety in the reasonably educated laity, wilful dishonesty in the scientifically literate professionals.
So, it’s not a belief ‘in’ something, the universe, and our place in it that we need. It’s the marvel of the discovery that we collectively, accumulatively, we lumps of dynamic dust, have been able to contemplate and understand what we are, what we came from, where we might yet go, that gives life its meaning. That and a good pint or a tasty dram, a hearty meal, passionate sex, holding hands, a melody, a pleasant snooze in the afternoon. Living our small short lives and marvelling at the greater universe is plenty satisfying enough. I don’t need to pretend in an afterlife or in any cosmic shepherd to watch over me and guide me. The last thing I need is the atrocious nonsense that the big religions dream up. I don’t need to believe ‘in’ something; what a chore.