The Samovar

“Belief” – la revanche!

A couple of years ago I wrote a post cheekily entitled Nobody believes in God which, following some recent conversations with friends, I want to revisit. This will actually make the third time I’ve gone back to this idea (see the first and second). I think this is because there’s an important kernel of a good idea there, but also much that is unclear.

Unfortunately, and perhaps to some tediously, the biggest problem is that the term “belief” is not well-defined. In my original article I wrote that “To believe something, you have to act in a way that is consistent with the belief being true. Otherwise, you’re just saying that you believe it.” This is an important sense of the term “belief”, somewhat akin to Daniel Dennett’s notion of the “intentional stance”, but it became clear that this isn’t a definition most people would agree with, and is problematic. It’s not necessarily detrimental that most people wouldn’t agree with it, but there are other problems. Notably, it assumes a certain consistency and unitary quality that people don’t have. All of us have beliefs that are inconsistent, and we wouldn’t want to say we don’t have beliefs just because of that. Similarly, all of us take actions that are inconsistent with our beliefs. Imagine that someone tells you that if you move your leg they will kill you, and then they tap you just below your knee with a hammer – you will, despite your sincere belief in what they say, move your leg. It’s not possible for you not to – the signal never even reaches your brain but is instead turned into a motor command by your spinal column. This is a trivial example, but suggests a general point: we do not have a single identity that we could ascribe our beliefs to, we have multiple systems in our brain that are sometimes under conscious control and sometimes not, etc. Ramachandran describes the case of a split brain patient who had one half of the brain which believed in God, and one that didn’t.

So using an individuals actions as a guide to their beliefs cannot give us the full story on belief, but that still leaves us in a quandary: what can we go on? Since people lie, we obviously can’t uncritically go on what they say. So if we can’t go on what they say or what they do, what is left? The only option remaining, it seems, is to give up the idea of a single, unitary thing called “belief” that people have, and admit that belief is a vaguely defined, context-specific thing that can, depending on specific circumstances, violate almost every single intuition we might have about it. Again there is a risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and giving up usage of the term completely. No, clearly the idea of belief has some use, but we have to be careful about saying what type of belief we’re talking about, and when reasoning about statements involving “belief” be aware of the practical consequences of the different types of belief in different contexts. The next task is to unpick some of those types of belief and how they affect our actions. In the remainder of this entry I’ll discuss some of the types of belief that have been suggested to me in recent discussions that are relevant to religious/theistic belief.

The first conception of belief I’ll talk about is my original one, broadly corresponding to Dennett’s intentional stance, that someone believes something if they act consistently with it being true. For example, the shortest way from my office to the street is through the window, but I take the more laborious route via the stairs because I believe in gravity. There’s no doubt this is a useful conception of belief that has practical consequences. And, I stand by my original contention that most religious people don’t believe in God in this sense.

There is a complication though, which is that in this sense stated as above, I “believe” there is a china teapot orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars: I never do anything that is inconsistent with there being one. Somehow we want to exclude such beliefs as this, but this quickly becomes problematic if we want to talk about religious beliefs, for obvious reasons. There is a kernel of religious belief that cannot ever come in conflict with our actions. The idea that God “exists” and “created the universe” cannot be in conflict with anything we do. Many people today will, when questioned on their religious beliefs, agree only to this minimal kernel of faith and nothing more, but will vehemently defend the idea that they do believe in God. So do they believe in God or not? Here’s where context comes in handy: we can say of these people that although they may believe in God in some highly rarified symbolic context, in the everyday context of the real world, they have no belief in God. If God didn’t exist, nothing they did would be any different.

One suggestion for defining belief was precisely this: by the term “belief” we mean exactly that component of our thoughts that doesn’t come into conflict with reality. If it could be proved (or disproved) we wouldn’t have to believe it. This corresponds nicely with the notion of faith developed in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” where the Babel fish causes God to cease to exist by proving his existence and thereby eliminating faith. I feel that this definition does indeed correspond to some aspect of what we ordinarily mean by the term “belief”, and it has some resonance with the Christian relationship with “doubt”, but I’m not sure there are many theists who would be happy with a definition of belief as that which is inconsequential.

The second conception of belief that came up was several ideas around a common theme: the idea that belief is a form of post hoc rationalisation of our actions. This is related to the notion of confabulation in psychology. This is easily shown in an experiment with split brain patients where you tell one half of their brain to go and get a coffee (by whispering in one ear so that the other ear can’t hear it), and then you ask the other half of the brain why they went to get a coffee: they will typically reply that they were thirsty, or felt like a coffee, or something like that. In other words, having observed their own actions, they create a rationalisation for them. With probably a minimum of reflection, we can see that this isn’t just a peculiarity of split brain patients: we all do this from time to time.

Jacques Ellul used this notion of belief following action as an explanation for an important part of the power of propaganda, what he called “integration propaganda” (which I discuss in the last paragraph of this entry). Essentially, if you can get people to engage in certain actions, especially ones with a powerful emotion attached to them, then they will tend to create their own beliefs for why this was the right thing to do. The alternative to believing that it was right is believing that it was wrong, or meaningless, and most people don’t want to do this (cognitive dissonance). This form of belief applies very nicely to religion, in which you are first enculturated into various patterns of behaviour (going to church, prayer, etc.) and are thereby integrated into the social community of the Church. There is a strong incentive later in life not to admit, even to yourself, that you don’t believe in God, because to admit that would be to admit that all those actions were meaningless, or even worse, actually wrong.

So what type of belief is this? At first glance, it is a purely symbolic form of belief: you will say “I believe in God” if asked. Does the belief have consequences though, and in what contexts? It’s difficult to distinguish, in this case, because a belief such as this came with a period of social integration, which, especially in the case of people raised as religious, will have defined their whole moral outlook. Which consequences of this process are due to the belief, and which to the social process of creating the belief? It was put to me that religious people often do extraordinary things, such as not having sex before marriage, hating gay people, reading the bible, and praying, and that shouldn’t we take this as evidence that they believe? I countered that we can equally well explain those as consequences of their being brought up and part of a religion which encourages these sorts of behaviour (think of the extraordinary things that people did and thought in atheist Soviet Russia). I don’t think either of us was satisfied with this answer, it’s too difficult to pick apart why people did those things.

The question then, to me, is what explanatory power does the idea of “belief in God” have beyond membership of a religion? My argument is that it has very little power to explain behaviour because social pressures are able to explain so much. Twisting Laplace, I have no need of the hypothesis that people believe in God. You can say that I’m trying to have my cake and eat it – or rather, eat my cake and have it, as the expression should be in order to make sense – on the one hand I want to say that belief in God doesn’t lead to any actions, but when faced with an action that does appear to stem from a belief in God I want to write it off as the consequence of religious enculturation. How could I be proved wrong? But the defender of the idea that people really do believe in God has the same problem: when a religious person does something that isn’t consistent with their beliefs, they want to say that it’s because they are inconsistent, or weak, or because their belief doesn’t really apply in that case. I will put forward a few reasons, that may not be conclusive, to suggest that the social process is more important to explaining behaviour than the belief:

  • Historically, behaviour by religious people is very inconsistent. In the past, and still very frequently today, Christians hated gay people, abhorred them as sinful, sometimes citing some of the nastier bits of the Bible in favour of this. These days, more liberal Christians will cite rather sophisticated theological reasoning to explain away the passages in the Bible that refer to killing gay people (apparently, Jesus “fulfilled the law” so we don’t have to follow it – if you can make any headway on that good luck to you). In any case, if both of these types of Christian “believe in God” in the same sense, then this belief clearly isn’t reflected in their attitude towards gay people. “Belief in God”, in other words, has no explanatory power with respect to attitudes towards homosexuality. We can play the same game with any number of attitudes and behaviours. What is left?
  • In my original entry, I argued that if you really believed in hell, you would never sin, and yet people often do. It has been countered, innumerable times, that these days most Christians either don’t believe in hell, or don’t believe that they’ll be going there. But, this is sophisticated theological reasoning, and I’m pretty sure that throughout most of the history of Christianity, the masses certainly did believe in hell, and thought that they might well go there. And yet, they sinned. Is our “belief in God” so different to theirs? Could it be that they didn’t believe in God, but that Christians today do? Perhaps, although that makes belief in God a very recent phenomenon, which seems somewhat counterintuitive. I would rather say that the belief (or lack of it) in God is the same, but that there has been an innovation in the language game of belief, coming about as a response to the increased interaction of religious people with atheists. Since the belief in God is the same we can apply my arguments about belief in hell to people a couple of hundred years ago and find that they don’t believe in God (beyond their membership of the religion in question), and that consequently, neither do people today.

Although I may be able to explain the actions of people raised as religious without using the idea that they believe in God, and therefore show that the post hoc rationalisation form of belief exists only at the symbolic level, there is still a problem with saying that there is no such thing as consequential belief in God. The problem is: what about people that come to believe in God later in life, perhaps having been raised as atheist? They didn’t experience a correlative moral training by theists, and so their actions, such as they are, must be explained by the belief in God. And since these actions are often similar to those of the people brought up as religious, shouldn’t we interpret both as stemming from their belief in God? This is certainly a conundrum, and perhaps even an antinomy, but it applies equally to those who believe that people believe in God (see bullet points above). I suspect that people who have converted later in life are often those who have experienced some sort of psychological trauma, and want the safety and acceptance of a social group, and perform the actions because they are an entry requirement to the social group. If anything, we would expect them to be more extreme in their performance of the rituals, because they have more to prove: they are trying to come in from outside, rather than being allowed to stay in by default of having grown up inside. This does seem rather supercilious though, and I have little to no evidence that it’s the case.

To finish with, I want to outline a position similar to my first followup to the original article, which is also similar to a suggestion made to me recently, and that at least partly resolves some of these difficulties. The position is this: we hypothesise that we think at a symbolic and non-symbolic level, and that there are interactions between these levels, but that they are not tightly integrated. The reality is undoubtedly more complex than this, but perhaps this hypothesis can shed some light anyway. Belief in God then impacts only directly on our thinking at the symbolic level. Typically, this symbolic belief in God is instilled by integration into a community (although it can also occur through other means). Normally, our actions are guided by pragmatic reasoning, or by routine, and these actions can be correlative with our thinking at the symbolic level having both been influenced by our upbringing.

The suggestion that was put to me was this: Infrequently, a decision presents itself which cannot be decided by either pragmatic reasoning or by routine. For example, what do we think about stem cell research? Stem cells are sufficiently far removed from anything we have ever thought about before that neither pragmatic reasoning nor routine thinking can enable us to come up with an answer to this. It is in these unusual instances that our belief in God can have an effect, because we are forced to pass from our beliefs to our actions rather than the other way around. My response to this though is that belief in God doesn’t have strong explanatory power here: the situation is really that the stated set of (self-contradictory) principles that someone believes in have to be resolved in a particular case by making a choice one way or the other. The fact that these decisions can sometimes go one way, and sometimes another (for example, in religious schisms that come about in these situations) shows that the resolution is to some extent arbitrary, or at least decided by other factors.

In conclusion then, I prefer to look at religion as a purely social phenomenon, which happens to include the notion of God, but that could equally well be replaced with any other purely symbolic object and serve all the same purposes. Everything that I’m interested in as regards religion can be understood in this way: we can see how it is that religion is capable of both great evil, and great good, just as any other form of power can be exercised in ways that are harmful or beneficial. In fact, we can treat religion purely politically, and I think if we do this we’ll see that it’s harmful and beneficial precisely where political systems are harmful or beneficial. Harmful when hierarchical, centralised, authoritarian, and beneficial when democratic and driven by ordinary human needs and desires. See also my old manifesto entry on religion, and followup on religion, atheists and hierarchy.

Why is this important? Because it changes the stance that atheists should take towards theists. For a start, we should probably not expend much energy in trying to undermine the idea that God exists because this is probably not primary for most religious people. It may have some use as a focal point for atheistic communities, may serve as a hook on which to hang ones atheism, and may help to give the final push to people who have already decided to give up their religion, but is unlikely to be a major force in converting people. More important than this rhetorical or didactic reason for not focussing on God, we shouldn’t do so because belief in God is largely inconsequential in comparison to religion as a political phenomenon. If the atheist community could apply their considerable talents to political analysis, perhaps really great things could be achieved. As it stands, atheists are as likely as not to be politically reactionary and supportive of authoritarian and hierarchical structures.

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