What’s wrong with belief?
I’ve commented much about this in the online forums, so bear with me if you’ve already read my opinions on this matter.
I suppose that the first thing I must say about belief is that, like many other words, it has multiple meanings, and one must be careful to not confuse them. We all believe things, and when we’re young, belief seems to be very important to our survival. Either you believe mom when she tells you not to walk out from between parked cars, or you don’t survive to reproduce. So you look both ways when you cross the street, you always wear clean underwear in case of an accident, and you don’t eat food from the refrigerator that smells funny.
And as you grow older, you find that many of the things your parents and guardians told you were very helpful. But you also find that some of those things are actually questionable; that some of them were just plain wrong.
Maybe mom and dad weren’t comfortable around people whose skin shade didn’t match their own. Maybe Ford isn’t the best automobile. And maybe smoking like mom and dad do isn’t a healthy activity.
So you have the opportunity to think for yourself, to make your life your own. You still don’t walk out from between parked cars because you have seen how dangerous it can be. This no longer constitutes a belief – now it’s knowledge, whether because you can logically understand that people in oncoming cars can’t see you in time or because you’ve become aware of what’s happened to those who didn’t pay attention to their moms.
You were out looking at new cars, and you’re impressed by a new Chevrolet. But you are still irritated that Dad told you that Fords were the best cars and you still believe it. You read the brochures from the dealers and you like the looks of the thing, but you get another opinion. You read Consumer Reports, you read reviews on the internet and you come to the conclusion that maybe Dad wasn’t right. It now appears that Chevy is getting a much higher satisfaction rating than Ford. What can you do? Suddenly you realize that you no longer entertain the belief that Ford is best. You buy the Chevy and after four or five years you’ve had great experiences with it, a minimum of problems, and you realize that your belief was false. It wasn’t really all that painful to finally rid yourself of what you once thought of as true.
So why is it, using my best Andy Rooney voice, that people will stick with religious belief in spite of evidence to the contrary?
Obviously, religious belief can be far more important to one than the belief in a superior automobile. Religion can be life-affirming, fulfilling, and it can make one part of something larger than themselves.
Now it’s time to get into that pesky idea that there are more than one definition for belief. I used to be very impressed with people who really lived their “belief.” I thought them to be more authentic than people who just gave lip service to their creeds – those who came to church with a hangover and slept through the services. I’m talking about people who never missed their Sunday services, who dressed in ways that showed they followed scriptural dictates, who never did anything that would conflict with their religion. Now that’s belief.
Contrast it with those who go to church occasionally, sometimes contribute to the offering basket, never speak of it for the rest of the week. Those who attend church at Christmas because they feel that it’s incumbent, even though their church tells them they must come every week or suffer eternal torture. Remember, they gotta keep holy the Sabbath.
But Daniel Dennett says we often are believers in belief. We think that we should believe, so we go through the motions as if we do, and we never give it much thought. I think there’s a lot to be said for that position. In my own Catholic family, I’ve seen a number of variations on this theme. Imagine my surprise, discussing these things with them, to find out that many of them are quite ambivalent about their belief. They’re unsure, and yet they go through the motions just in case there might be something to it. Like the infamous Mother Theresa, they entertain serious doubts, yet they still identify themselves as Catholics.
Some people, when they say that they believe, really mean it. They are stalwart, unmovable, unswerving. I suppose they could be said to believe. They become very uncomfortable even to the point of aggression when faced with questions to their belief.
And belief is the problem. It’s quite obvious that people can, and do, believe anything. Belief is based in nothing. There are no limits to what one can believe, if no effort is made to be critical of claims. People believe that Klingon is a legitimate religion. People believe there’s a spaceship hiding behind a comet waiting to take them away. I recently listened to a debate with an evangelical who seriously, seriously! believed that Jesus floated up into “Heaven” in full bodily form, and that he is still alive today. When questioned about it, as to whether Jesus needed to defecate, eat, or get a haircut, the evangelical Christian insisted that Jesus’ body was transformed into some sort of celestial body that no longer needed food, or haircuts, or apparently, something solid to stand on.
No thoughts were given as to how such a transformation would be possible, or by what mechanism bodily cells could become something entirely different.
People believed and perhaps still believe somewhere that tossing virgins into volcanoes would appease the angry gods. And the gods are always angry about something. Sometimes, they get angry at us for having the chutzpah to exercise our intelligence, and sometimes the reason for this is given as “lest they become like us.” Notice the plural nominative in the Hebrew and allegedly monotheist scripture.
Con men thrive on belief. And con men are everywhere. I find it very difficult to think that those who run mega-churches or powerful church organizations are ignorant of the manipulative nature of their work. Whether for greed or power, it’s obvious to me that whatever it is that these shysters believe, it’s not what their sheep believe.
In conversation I tend to avoid use of the word believe because although it’s an expression of opinion that is common it doesn’t mean that I actually believe something. I suppose that it could be said that I believe that there is a difference between knowledge and belief; that believing is an act we perform when we do not have knowledge and knowledge is something that we have learned that has passed our standards of a true thing. If we have knowledge, we have no need of belief.
If people were able to separate what they believe from what they know, their lives would be far more simplistic. If people could occasionally just admit that they don’t know something rather than claiming to know what they could not know – if they could be more honest with themselves – I think that religious belief would become an artifact of the past. I cannot say whether that would lead to a finer world because people are still people and some of them will always seek power and wealth and there will always be some sort of conflicts, but from what I’ve observed of countries with higher percentage of atheism it appears that there is a more egalitarian and effective society.
In Australia, where the atheist population is over 18% we see the election of an atheist (and female) prime minister, something that could not happen in this United States, and that certainly seems like a better world to me.