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On belief

June 16, 2011

Firstly, the quote was just intended to be a poetical flourish which went with the theme of my post.  No offence was intended, and I’ll try to be less poetical in future.

However, I will also say that I don’t think belief (in the religious sense) is a virtue.  Of course not – if it were, that would mean that those of us without it were lacking.

It probably is true that 98% of people have believed in religion of some sort.  It’s probably also true that a similar percentage have believed in astrology of some sort.  You would probably be quite happy to say that their belief in astrology was wrong or misguided, and view yourself as superior in some way to them (if only in being better informed).  Isn’t it okay for me to feel the same way about a different issue?

This is actually quite an interesting question.  I think that one of the reasons that religious belief is so common is because we have naturally occurring tendency to ascribe ‘agency’ or ‘personhood’ to inanimate objects and events, and also to view events as linked or causal when they are not.  This was evolutionarily advantageous to us – the caveperson who sees grass rustling and runs away, even though it isn’t a tiger, lives longer than the one who is stoical in the face of rustles which turn out to be a tiger.  Likewise, the dangers of failing to recognise the actions of someone in your tribe, or from another tribe, are much worse than the dangers of seeing intention where it doesn’t exist.  Failure to recognise an existing causal relationship (rustles -> tiger) is more dangerous than recognising a fake causal relationship (black cat -> bad luck).

You can see it in people all the time, saying their computer doesn’t ‘want’ to process their documents, or that their car knows what they are thinking, or that of course it rained, it’s a bank holiday.  They also remember positive coincidences (‘I was thinking about my sister, and then she phoned me!’), and ignore all the times they were thinking about her and she didn’t phone.

So the human mind has a number of inherent biases and blind spots, and religion is an outgrowth of these.  As is astrology, and any number of other superstitions such as belief in ghosts.

Note: this isn’t my reason for not believing, it’s my hypothesis about why religion is so common.

I don’t think people are worse (either morally or intellectually) for believing in religion.  I know plenty of clever people who believe.  I view this as being evidence of the nature of the human brain, not as a fault of the individual.

Nor do I think my lack of belief is evidence to consider myself superior.  Luckier, possibly, because I’m not devoting my life to something which doesn’t exist – but then believers clearly benefit from sense of community, purpose, security, etc., so in some ways they are luckier.

I don’t want you to lose your faith, because I know how much it would hurt you.  I just want you to understand a bit about my views.

And by the way, we’re all wounded.  Some people (successfully) find solace for their wounds in religion.  I’d just rather have whatever plasters I can make myself, however inadequate, than rely on the imaginary plasters other people tell me about.


Speaking of considering oneself superior, though, it is often religious believers who seem to think they have the right to tell others what to do.  You will note that there are no teams of atheists going door-to-door seeking converts, or giving sermons in schools, or speaking on Thought for the Day.  No Bishops of Atheism in the House of Lords.  No atheist weekly services, and no atheists trying to stop consenting adults having the right to choose who they marry.  However, there are religious people doing these things all the time.

There are religious people flying planes into buildings, cutting pieces off their children, giving up their worldly possessions in expectation of the apocalypse, forcing women to wear veils, and telling their followers to kill in the name of God (Christians as well – look at George Bush, or at Northern Ireland).

And they still go on TV saying they have the superior morality and the only way.


By the way, do you seriously think that two genealogies undermines the whole Biblical revelation of the character and purpose of God?

I think that contradictions in the Bible (of which that is only one example) prove that it is not wholly true.

Presumably you will agree that at least one genealogy must be inaccurate?  If so, though, how can you view the rest of the Bible as true?  If it’s all God’s Word, how can part of God’s Word be wrong?


Does that help you grasp what was saying initially about the attempts I have made, and continue to make, to inspect my world-view and test it both “outwardly” against facts and “inwardly” against experience.

Well, not really!  Let me try to restate it in my own words again, and you tell me if I’ve got it right or not.

You consider your faith holds up because you find that your internal experiences of prayer, etc., and your external experiences in the world, do not contradict it.

Did I get it right?

If so, how does that work when you look at the reasons I gave (in my second post) for not being a Christian?  Or when you ask other people to believe?  Your internal experiences are evidence for you, but not for others – to communicate with others you need external evidence.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Frances permalink
    June 16, 2011 9:42 pm

    1) I quote: “Nor do I think my lack of belief is evidence to consider myself superior. Luckier, possibly, because I’m not devoting my life to something which doesn’t exist – but then believers clearly benefit from sense of community, purpose, security, etc., so in some ways they are luckier.”
    Don’t you think that to some degree we all benefit from others’ beliefs? Without them there would not have been the windows of Chartres cathedral, the music of the St Mathew Passion, countless hospitals, schools, libraries, poetical works etc. Society needs faith.
    2) “There are religious people … cutting pieces off their children”
    I assume you are referring to circumcision. In the case of male circumcision this is frequently performed for non-religious reasons. It is reputed to diminish the chance of transmtting HIV. Both your uncles were circumcised for non-religious reasons!

  2. June 17, 2011 8:42 am

    1) Yes, there are religious hospitals etc. There are also secular hospitals, and religious wars. Do you really think society needs faith?

    On the subject of cathedrals, though: I agree that some of them are beautiful, but I also can’t look at them without part of me getting angry. How many people starved to death, etc., while they were being built? The wealth of the various Churches is a disgrace, if they claim to follow Christ. So much human potential squandered and misused.

    2) If male circumcision is medically necessary for a child then of course it should be done, just as the parents should make sure the child has any other necessary medical treatment. Absent medical necessity, though, they have no right. The child should grow up whole and then make their own choices – they are not their parents’ property. (Also, male circumcision should be done with anaesthetic, when it is necessary.)

    Female genital mutilation is never medically necessary, and is indefensible on any grounds.

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