What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.

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. Continue reading “What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.”

Belief in Belief & Practical v Factual Realism

I seems to go unsaid by ‘believers’, most of the time, but occasionally on blogs it might be admitted to explicitly, that there might be no God. Or it might be said that it doesn’t matter if there is no God.

To some extent this is a step in the right direction. But I can’t help but feel it smacks of being ungenuine; there appears to be a dishonesty there, buried somewhere deep in the otherwise honest view that faith is good for us, even if it’s a faith in something that doesn’t exist. If faith developed by some evolutionary mechanism and had some purpose in the past, is it okay to go on believing now, even if you feel there’s nothing there, or if you feel it doesn’t matter if there’s something there of not?

Dan Dennett, in his AAI 2007, Good Reasons for “Believing” in God talk covers a number of reasons for believing, and addressed this particular notion.

He identifies a self-censorship by preachers, who wouldn’t dream of saying openly that God does not exist. Maybe some are more open in their true beliefs – certainly enough to say it on a blog, and for those this might turn out to be a brave move. Fessing up to this hidden truth is something Dennett concedes is courageous in his talk.

Dennett says the God of old, Yahweh, is like Mount Everest – it’s there for all to see and exists without question. But, he explains, God has been watered down, until it has become like low rolling hills – not quite so obvious. But in the minds of the modern theologian it resembles more of an insubstantial mist, a fog.

What follows is some of Dan’s talk. Towards the end Dennett includes words from David Sloan Wilson’s book, as if in debate. In what follows the two parts are identified by DD and DSW.

DD – Gradually, over the years, the concept of God is watered down. These personal revisions are passed on without notice. not just from preachers, but from parents talking to their children. Gradually, from what started out as a Mount Everest type concept of God, becomes a sort of amorphous cloudy mysterious concept that nobody really knows what it is. Mystery is itself elevated and considered to be wonderful. And we get the privatisation of the concepts – this is particularly true in the cases of the mega churches in this country [USA] where, “We don’t care what your concept of God is, just so long as you’re One With Jesus and you come to the church.” So they’re actually allowing to freelance and come up with your own concept of God. It doesn’t matter what concept of God you have, “[whisper] because nobody believes it anyway.”

DD – So we get the almost comical confusion of today. It’s very important this happened [the change in what God is] imperceptably. If it was sped up it would just be hilarious; the revision piled on revision; and all in one direction.


DD – Here’s a quote:

“It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us”

DD – Now, that’s a wonderful joke by Peter De Vries in his hilarious novel The Mackerel Plaza, back in 1958. But…

“God is so great that the greatness precludes existence.” – Raimon Panikkar in The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha (1989)

DD – That is not a joke. That is said in all po faced seriousness.


Dennett finally addresses one of the ways of treating this God that isn’t there, as a myth, as another form of reality. He tackles David Sloan Wilson’s account of ways of believing, form Wilson’s book, Darwin’s Cathedral, 2002, in which Wilson uses the terms:

Factual Realism and Practical Realism. He quotes from the book…

DSW – It’s true that many religious beliefs are false as literal descriptions of the world, but this merely forces us to recognise two forms of realism: a factual realism based on literal correspondence, and a practical realism based on behavioural adaptiveness. An atheist historian who understood the real life of Jesus but who’s own life was a mess as a result of his beliefs would be factually attached to and practically detached from reality.

DD – So he ought to believe a myth even at the expense of his factual knowledge in order to keep his life not a mess? That seems to be the implication.

DSW – Rationality is not the gold standard against which all other forms of thought are to be judged. Adaptation is the gold standard against which rationality must be judged, along with all other forms of thought.

DD – If this were a philosophical audiance and it weren’t so late at night I’d take issue with that, but I just draw your attention to these passages.

DSW – It is the person who elevates factual truth above practical truth who must be accused of mental weakness from an evolutionary perspective. If there is a trade off between the two forms of realism such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time.

DD – So he seems to be giving what he thinks of as an evolutionary endorsement for practical realism over factual realism.

DSW – Many intellectual traditions and scientific theories of the past decades have a similar silly and purpose driven quality once their cloak of factual plausability has been yanked away by the hand of time. If believing something for its desired consequences is a crime, then let those who are without guilt cast the first stone.

DD – I want to point out the fundamental difference betwee factual realism and practical realism is that the truth or faslity of factual realist theories is always an issue. Imagine if a priest were to say, “of course there really isn’t a God who listens to your prayers; that’s just a useful fiction, an over simplification.” No, even the Unitarians don’t just blurt out the fact that these may be useful fictions, since it’s quite apparent that their utility depends on their not being acknowledge to be fictions. In other words, practical realism as recommended by David Sloan Wilson is paternalistic and disingenuous.

DSW – It appears that factual knowledge is not always sufficient by itself to motivate adaptive bahaviour. AT time a symbolic beliefe system that departs from factual reality fairs better.

DD – At what? At motivating behaviour. Well, you know I think he’s right about that. Is this a recommendation that one should lie when it will lead to adaptive behaviour? Does Wilson recognise the implication of his position?

[Dennett shows a photo of the Bush Adminsitration team: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld]

DD – Let us consider, practical realism of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. In a chilling article several years ago by Ron Suskind, White House correspondent, we get the following quote, “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

DD – There’s practical realism for you. It seems to me that David Sloan Wilson hasn’t thought this through. He maybe though actually saying that we are confronted with a sort of tradgedy. It may be that our quest for scientific truth has somehow trapped us: It’s too late for practical reality, that was for bygone days, we’re stuck now with factual reality, which some times won’t motivate us. We just know too much. We can never again act honestly, and honestly follow the path of practical realism.

DD – I don’t believe it. But that might be the position that he holds. Well if so we will just have to do the best we can guided by our knowledge. We will have to set ‘practical’ realism aside; it’s too late for that. there’s no going back.

DD – But, I’m actually optimistic. here we see the Vatican [picture]. Twenty years ago If I had stood up and said in a few years the Soviet Union woill evaporate, it will not exist any more, people would have laughed. If I’d sai Aprteid will be gone in just hew years, people would have laughed. Sometimes institutions that seem to be massive and have tremendous inertia can just pop like a bubble. So, how do we know until we try? Maybe within our childrens’ lifetime the Vatican will become the European Museum of Roman Catholicism. And maybe mecca will become Disney’s Magic Kingdom of Allah. If you think that’s funny just bare in mind that the hagia Sofia in Istanbul started off as a church, then it was a mosque, and today it’s a museum.

Of course Dennett is seeing the possible consequences of the lying that is implicit in this position of holding to a fictional practical realism over a less comfortable factual realism. It’s no good simply saying that continuing to believe in belief, while knowing that the belief you’re believing in is false, is okay because if makes people feel good, or behave well. Those you incite to believe false beliefs have a habit of interpreting those beliefs for themselves.

So, no matter how stupifying the belief is, I don’t think it’s worth it in the end.

According to Dennett, “it’s quite apparent that their utility depends on their not being acknowledge to be fictions. In other words, practical realism … is paternalistic and disingenuous.”

It’s also dangerous.

Psychology of Belief

I’ve been discussing the relative merits of a scientific world view versus faith, with Lesley over on her blog. To clarify my view, basically how I get to my world view, I’ve added a couple of posts on this blog:

Contingency of Knowledge – How I get started, about what I can know.

Human Fallibility – Why we have to be careful about what we conclude.

Lesley has responded today with this post on Human Fallibility.

The distinction I would make, between our two positions, is as follows.

What Lesley is describing are the effects of actually believing, some of which are good, but others bad. The problem is that choosing to believe on faith leaves people open to persuasion or even indoctrination, and the way that goes, good or bad, seems to be the luck of the draw. If it goes the wrong way then faith can be used to justify awful behaviours.

The other side of the distinction between religion and a scientific approach is that the critical thinking that is promoted on the science side encourages self-analysis to an extent that faith doesn’t – some Christians being exceptions rather than the rule.

As a result of this, another bad effect of faith is that it provides justification for avoiding the effort to think too much. This can be carried over to other areas of human interaction, where it’s easy to let a view on marriage, sex, law, education, or politics, be so guided by one’s religion that it’s natural to just decide on the basis of what your own religion or you local or personal spiritual leader says. But this is often disguised by the fact that some critical thinking does go on, but only within the framework of the faith – the faith trumps reason.

Further, though each religion may recognise the existence of other religions it tends not to scrutinise them too publicly, too critically, particularly in a multi-cultural society like ours, because, I think, that there is genuine apprehension about exposing it’s own inconsistencies. This leads to an odd form of cultural relativism within religions that is somewhat like the left wing secular cultural relativism – where for the latter, you say anything goes, and for the former, you keep quiet about uncomfortable differences because of the uncomfortable similarities. We end up with daft compromises, like Rowan Williams on Sharia, in order to maintains one’s own privilege.

Here is a guide that demonstrates potential problems with thinking processes, with particular reference to belief in God. It’s a little bit geeky, but if you can get through it, it should shed light on what I think is wrong with religious thinking.

Psychology of Belief, Part 1: Informational Influence

Psychology of Belief, Part 2: Insufficient Justification

Psychology of Belief, Part 3: Confirmation Bias

Psychology of Belief, Part 4: Misinformation Effect

Psychology of Belief, Part 5: Compliance Techniques

Psychology of Belief, Part 6: Hallucinations

And, here’s another quick guide.

Top 25 Creationist Fallacies

Like all theories based on psychological research there are often controversies and new research results, but generally these modes of influence on thinking are well recognised, and identifiable in much religious discourse. Some of the above are also associated with logical fallacies in reasoning.

Of course this requirement for critical thinking applies to our side of the debate too. We too are human and not immune to error, and have to listen to criticism fairly.