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Belief is the wound which knowledge cures

June 6, 2011

[Title quote from Ursula K LeGuin.]

I’m glad you put the word ‘belief’ in quotes as it applies to me, because it is a word with multiple meanings:

1. something believed; an opinion or conviction: a belief that the earth is flat.
2. confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof: a statement unworthy of belief.
3. confidence; faith; trust: a child’s belief in his parents.
4. a religious tenet or tenets; religious creed or faith: the Christian belief.


I have, it would be idle to deny, a lot of beliefs in sense 1.  I have opinions and as you have probably noticed I am usually quite happy to state them.

I definitely don’t have beliefs in sense 4, as you know.   I probably have some beliefs in sense 3, although I am no longer a child.  I believe, for example, that Britain for all its faults is a basically decent place to live.

Sense 2 is the interesting one.  I imagine you’d agree that your religious beliefs fall under this as well as under sense 4?  They are not, as far as I know, immediately susceptible of rigorous proof, although feel free to disagree if you like.

In religion, belief (sense 2) is often counted as a virtue, and doubt as a vice.

I think this is one of the flaws of religion, and one of the weaknesses of a religious world view.  Belief in this sense is something to be avoided, not to be sought.  I think the ideal would be to hold opinions only to the degree to which they are justified by evidence.

Of course no human lives up to that fully.


I’m afraid I still don’t fully understand the nature of your claim about your beliefs, sorry.  Are you saying that you are confident in your faith because it holds up in the darkest hours?  Or because you have examined it a lot in the darkest hours?  Or something like that?  Please can you go on restating it until I understand!

The thing is, I am sure that your faith gives comfort to you and to others, and that you are confident when you speak to people about it that you are giving them the best you can.

However, wouldn’t you agree that people also find things comforting which are not true?  I am sure that Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs etc. get comfort from their faith as well, and also that those faiths are taught by well-meaning and convinced people.

But you think those people are wrong, despite their conviction and despite the comfort it gives them.

What makes you different?

You said that Christianity is “a philosophically valid world view that can be tested against all other faiths and philosophies, and put alongside other “explanations” of the world we experience, and shown to be internally consistent and strongly coherent. ”

Firstly, the Bible contains many contradictions.  For just one of many examples, there are two different and separate genealogies given for Christ in the Bible, in Luke and in Matthew, and these are mutually inconsistent and cannot both be true as written.

Secondly, my post on why I am an atheist set out several contradictions in Christianity (or what I take to be such).  Care to explain why I’m wrong?

You also said the following:

To be a Christian believer means, I think, to acknowledge one’s need of God – to accept that without God’s help I will remain self-centred (and sinful); that by God’s grace through Jesus Christ I can be not just given strength day by day but also set free from sin and death.
So to become a Christian requires an attitude of heart and mind that are willing to admit their limitations and to submit to a greater wisdom.

 (Contrary to appearances) I don’t think of myself as the fount of all wisdom, and I accept that I have many limitations.  But if you are asking me to accept (and submit to) a greater wisdom, you have first to demonstrate that it exists, and secondly that it is worthy of my obedience.

By the way, sin is sort of an empty concept for me.  I believe in human level stuff like cruelty or error or selfishness, and I believe that they are bad, but the word ‘sin’ makes a lot of assumptions I don’t buy into.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary permalink
    June 6, 2011 10:17 pm

    I am finding this fascinating – being somewhere very precisely between the two of you! I keep switching backwards and forwards between “yes – um, but no – on the other hand, yes!” installment to installment.

    I think the ideal would be to hold opinions only to the degree to which they are justified by evidence.

    This is something where the sort of atheism espoused by Dawkins is just baffling to me, because it seems to entirely deny the reality of human emotional experience. Part of the way I feel about faith is love: it is on the spectrum with what I feel about my partner, or my house and the shelves I put up and the wall I painted, or the village I grew up in, or my mother dying. It is to do with familiarity and trust and knowledge and intimacy and love, and the way that Dawkins and the whole atheist movement attempt to measure faith in the terms of science and rational knowledge is simply baffling to me.

    I can know, quite obviously and easily, that my mother was not the most perfect woman who ever lived, that my partner is not the most beautiful, or funniest, or cleverest woman in the world, that my shelves are slightly wonky and that I got emulsion on the skirting board, and simultaneously love these people and this place and rather look upon this than on anyone or anything else which is qualitatively, measurably better but which aren’t mine and aren’t familiar or beloved. And nobody thinks that is irrational or extraordinary: it is the quite ordinary human condition. So it seems extraordinary to me that anyone could think that there is a contradiction between an inability to rationally “prove” God and an whole and human experience of belief in God.

  2. June 7, 2011 4:03 pm

    Dear Mary, I’m afraid we may be destined for a state of mutual bafflement.

    I’m afraid I’m always baffled when people don’t appear to be concerned by the truth or otherwise of their faith.

    I think we can both agree that Helen, lovely though she is, is not perfect? So in fact your love of her is not based on anything untrue – you love her as she is, not a perfect image of her.

    But when it comes to faith, I simply don’t see how someone can be content to continue with something which claims all sorts of truths [“We believe in the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen”, etc.], without being able to show at all that these things are genuinely true.

    If religion were just a nice warm communal experience, that would be fine, but it isn’t. Religion is used to justify all sorts of things, from homophobia to changes in the science curriculum. That being so, shouldn’t it be subject to rational analysis?

    “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” – HL Mencken

  3. June 12, 2011 7:54 pm

    I think Kate your own words hold the key to this different world view. You use the phrase “subject to rational analysis”, and I think most people would agree that for many areas of life that is the best approach. Where in Japan to build nuclear reactors – rational analysis please. When to raise the base rate in the UK – rational analysis please. But who to choose as my life partner, what colour to paint the bedroom, or which National Trust properties to visit on my summer holiday are surely not decisions that are to be taken only “rational analytical” grounds. We need touch, feel, mood, instinct – and when choosing a life partner, trust.

  4. June 13, 2011 2:11 pm

    The trouble is, these are not equivalent questions.

    In order to decide any of these points, you already accept that paint, bedrooms and the National Trust exist.

    I can’t fall in love with, or have any type of trust for, a god, until I have good reason to think it exists.

    There is a further point here, that you are only choosing the paint, museum, and life partner which works for you. You’re not saying because you think Mum is great, you think everyone else should marry her as well…. nor that every other type of paint should be discontinued.

    But you are claiming that there is only one God, that you know better than others, and that every other God and belief system is false.

    A different level of reasoning is required.

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