The Samovar

Nobody believes in God redux
March 14, 2010, 3:28 pm
Filed under: Religion | Tags: , , ,

A while ago I wrote an entry Nobody believes in God. I don’t think I argued the case particularly well there, but the conclusion was basically correct. I’ve just come across some interesting quotes from Hume and Mill saying more or less the same things.

David Hume, The Natural History of Religion:

We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

Mill, On Liberty, chapter 2:

To what an extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects — the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. … All Christians
believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; … that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as the reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers — are not a power in their minds.

Thanks to this post for the Hume quote, this essay for the latter quote and this blog entry for the link to the essay.

Nobody believes in God

OK, not nobody, but almost nobody.

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. If someone tells you that twiglets are highly toxic and will kill you instantly, at the same time as munching a bag full of them, you’re likely to doubt they really believe it. Same thing if they told you that it would lead you to an eternity of damnation. You wouldn’t trade in the brief pleasure of eating a bag of twiglets for an eternity of damnation if you really believed in it. But this is exactly the situation of people claiming to believe in God whilst simultaneously doing things all the time that are inconsistent with it being true. Anyone who believes in hell but sins anyway – they don’t really believe in hell. Someone who believes in the teaching of Jesus, but also thinks that capitalism is a great idea – doesn’t really believe in Jesus’ teachings at all. And so on.

Now at this point, a Catholic will come along and say: you don’t necessarily go to hell if you sin, as long as you repent afterwards. But… if you sin planning to ‘repent’ afterwards, that doesn’t count (so I’m told). Well, I bet quite a lot of that goes on if people were honest with themselves. It seems to me that if you really believed in God, you wouldn’t try to sneak stuff by on a technicality. If you have any respect for the concept at all, you’ve surely gotta believe that He is wise to that.

In fact, when a religious rule is inconvenient, it tends to be ignored, or the meaning of it changed. In a capitalist society, the stuff that is antithetical to the pursuit of wealth is ignored. In a liberal society, the stuff about stoning adulterers and homosexuals is ignored. Conversely, in an illiberal one the stuff about loving your neighbour and turning the other cheek is ignored.

When it comes to a clash between what religion says you should do, and what is convenient to do in real life, convenience wins out over religion almost every time. Or in other words, the reason that there are so many adulterous affairs is that people don’t give any credence to the idea that they will be eternally punished for it in the afterlife (no shag is good enough to warrant infinite and everlasting pain as a consequence, surely?). In practice they behave, quite sensibly, as if the notions of religion were false. And for these reasons, I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t believe in God.

The meaning of ‘belief’

I suppose to make my case a bit more convincing I need to say something about the meaning of the word ‘belief’. Three obvious possibilities come to my mind when trying to define what belief might mean, someone believes something if:

  1. They say they believe it.
  2. They act in a way that is consistent with it being true.
  3. They are in some internal state correlative with the concept ‘belief’.

The twiglet example shows that (1) isn’t good enough, and it’s not clear that (3) has any meaning although it’s obviously compelling in some way. So for me, I have to go with (2), although I’d modify it slightly. I would say that to believe something is, roughly speaking, to act in accordance with a mental model of the world in which the proposition is true. I prefer this way of talking about it because it deals with the difficulty of defining what is or isn’t true (you can define truth or falsity of a proposition relative to a model without having to define it for the real world), and it gives a slightly more precise idea of what sorts of actions would count as consistent (i.e. those that are made by some decision-making procedure based on a mental model relative to which the proposition is true). This definition has its difficult points too, but I think it’s a helpful starting point at least.

In my experience of explaining this idea to people, there are various sticking points that stop people from agreeing that nobody believes in God. For starters, it seems kind of rude to suggest all these people are saying they believe in God but don’t really. Well, maybe that is rude, but is it any ruder than saying that one of their fundamental beliefs is wrong and that their view of the world is completely warped? I don’t think so, but even if it is that’s no reason not to say it. I think a more fundamental sticking point is that most people tend to have some sort of mixture of definitions (1) and (3) in their minds when asked about what belief means. If there is a mental state correlative to ‘belief’ – and introspection and intuition says there is – then surely the best person to report the status of that mental state is the person concerned. All very democratic, but people are often very bad at introspection and may themselves think that the fact that they are saying something without attempting to deceive means they believe it. The problem with that is: what about the unconscious?

The last sticking point is perhaps the most interesting of all, that in many ways it seems as though people do act in a way that is consistent with it being true. They go to church (some of them), they try to avoid sinning too much, they pray, etc. My response to this is that all of these actions are consequences of their believing that they believe, but not their actual believing. And I think that’s not a contradiction. The thing is, our mental models are disjointed fragmentary ones, not grand theories of everything. To get by in the world, we only need incomplete, heuristic models of situations that tend to recur. A mental model of the world in which we act as if we had a mental model of the world in which God exists doesn’t necessarily mean that we do indeed have a mental model of the world in which God exists. Mental models, and decision making procedures based on them, don’t have to be complete or accurate. They don’t need to be deductively complete or consistent, because most of the time we’re not capable of nor interested in making all the deductive conclusions possible from our different fragmentary mental models. In particular, our mental models of ourselves are often quite incredibly wrong. We think “In situation X I would do Y”, but then situation X happens and we do Z, the exact opposite of Y. It happens all the time. So it’s perfectly possible that we can believe that we believe in God, and consequently do all of the things we associate with a person who believes in God, but not actually believe in God (which would if we thought about it deeply enough, entail doing all sorts of things we wouldn’t actually do).


With most ideas, someone has already had them before you (often Hume in my experience, the clever bugger), and this is no exception. I haven’t read much Dennett, but it appears he has covered some of the same ground. I’m told that he makes a distinction between belief and opinion that is somewhat akin to what I’m talking about here. I didn’t find anything directly about this (please post a link in the comments if you have a good one), but his article Do Animals Have Beliefs? has this interesting nugget which might have some relevance to the discussion of the three definitions of belief above:

There are independent, salient states which belief-talk ‘measures’ to a first approximation.

I also found this YouTube video of him saying that he doesn’t believe that believers really believe. It’s my first embedded video on this blog, too.