Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Believing in Belief

In The God Delusion, which I subjected myself to during this recent down time, Richard Dawkins talks about the need for some of us who don't believe to nevertheless believe in belief. Some of us feel supernatural belief is a nice idea, we feel sentimental about the religions of our upbringing and culture, and fail to see the danger there within.

This suggestion woke me up somewhat. I'm afraid I wasn't keen on The God Delusion, but not for a particularly good reason. I read lots of Dawkins when I was studying Philosophy and I'm afraid I don't get on with his style. Goodness knows he has written about subjects which are of tremendous interest to me, but it's a bit like talking to a very elderly relative who you realise has a truly fascinating story, but who keeps being distracted and talking about the increasing price of jam at the Co-op or some such.

For example, he dedicated a good few thousand words to the taunt that Hitler and Stalin were atheists. It should have been enough to say that their personal take on the God question is completely irrelevant - if indeed, it was worth answering what amounts to a childish jibe. Hitler's diet is irrelevant to the ethical questions of meat-eating, but it's a commonplace wind-up to vegetarians to make out that Hitler was one of them. The vegetarian reply is not to insist that Hitler was a meat-eater, but to insist that their position is not about the virtues of the person, but the practice of eating or abstaining from meat.

The history of Hitler, Stalin and other dictators (most notably Mao) do raise important issues about the exploitation of religiosity, religious conflict and oppression. However, before Dawkins got round to mentioning this, he instead speculated at tedious length that Hitler remained a Catholic throughout his life. So what if he did? We already have Pinochet, Franco and Mussolini as examples of Fascist dictators who made themselves out to be Catholic, and it doesn't say anything much about Catholicism, let alone Theism that they did. Or indeed, the price of jam, which is up nine pence on last week. Okay, so there was a three-for-two offer, but who needs three jars of jam, I ask you?

Still, clearly this is just me and others get along with him very well. Amazing chap, really important work he's done, really important book this and my irritation wasn't such a bad thing; I wasn't very well at the time, and every time I threw the book across the room, it took me some time before I was able to get up and go fetch it. This helped to pace the effort of concentration.

Anyway, this believing in belief bit was interesting to me. In order to talk about this I'm going to have to be explicit about my own beliefs, which necessarily risk offending anyone who is offended by beliefs which are contrary to their own.

Thing is, I share Dawkins' perspective, which is a rigorously logical one; nothing can be said to be true which cannot be proven. Dawkins calls this atheism, I think I am more rigorous by calling it agnosticism; I cannot disprove the existence of God, only identify inconsistent claims about Him (of which there are squillions). It could be that God exists but human beings have got in a tremendous muddle on the matter - in fact, that's exactly what I believed as a teenager; I was lost to Christianity when I read the Bible, but God was still there for a while. Yet I am frequently frustrated by the way human nature (including my own) is inclined to blur the edges, confuse what we feel very strongly with what must be true.

However, I don't object to the religious beliefs of others; I have no desire to disillusion anyone who is causing no measurable harm to themselves or others. Despite my frustration, I am also fascinated by the part of human beings which invents this stuff; it is the same part which observes patterns, which seeks to understand the natural world and the human condition. I suppose I may even be sentimental about the Abrahamic or Semetic God; in a sense I regard Him as an imaginary friend, but He is a very valued imaginary friend of many of my friends and family and as such I feel compelled to formalise the pronoun. As Hedwig said when asked whether she accepted Jesus Christ as her saviour, "No, but I love His work.".

Anyway, Dawkins seems to argue that supernatural belief is necessarily a problem. Moderate religious belief provides the foundation for fanaticism, since it is irrational on whatever level; accepting and respecting one type of irrational belief leaves the door open to the acceptance of another, since it is impossible to discriminate between one type of irrational belief and another. There are a couple of problems with this.

The first is a non-sequitur. There are plenty of situations where moderate religious leaders and people simply do not do enough to condemn violent extremists within their ranks. This does make me very angry, but it doesn't follow that this is the nature of religious belief - there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. Meanwhile, there is often a harmful extreme to an innocent point of view. The vast majority of sensible football supporters are not responsible for the violent hooligans within their ranks, for example. Similarly, you can't take the likes of Martin Luther King Jnr. and say, "If it wasn't for moderate Christians like him, there wouldn't be a Klu Klux Klan."

Secondly, whilst all supernatural belief may be irrational, irrational is not always problematic. People carelessly compare religion to mental illness - Dawkins himself chooses the word delusion, but there is a fairly strict criteria for where an irrational belief indicates illness. There is a further strict criteria for where an irrational belief indicates that a person can't be relied upon to make decisions for themselves.

For example, if I think Jonny Depp is the best looking man on the planet (I'm not sure I do); do I need to be dissuaded if this doesn't stand up to objective examination? In fact, when it comes to liberty, religious belief is (somewhat ironically) very much like sexuality; it involves strong feelings which are outside reason, it involves complex arguments about nature and nurture, it involves practices which may seem ridiculous or abhorrent to outsiders, and it frequently involves dressing up in impractical costumes. However, through reason, we find it relatively easy to discriminate between those aspects of sexuality which are problematic and which are okay. What people think, believe or fantasise about, however distasteful or offensive, is entirely their domain. What people express publicly, what people impose on non-consenting parties is another matter. It's not that people cannot express their sexuality or religious belief pubicly at all, or be afraid of disclosure, or not 'flirt' with others like those Jehovah's Witnesses who were chatting me up earlier today, but there have to be boundaries to protect everyone's freedoms, since everyone is equally entitled to autonomy in these two matters. Does that make sense?

Thing is, I think people like Richard Dawkins are really important; talking about this stuff frankly and openly is a really good thing, even if there are flaws in his argument. The reason this is so important is that there is a serious and perhaps increasing conflict in the world over religion.

This is not a conflict between believers and non-believers. I don't even believe it is a conflict between two or more different religions. From a good few paces back, I reckon this is a conflict between those who reject reason and those who do not. A person who applies reason to these matters is always an ally, whether or not they happen to have any sort of 'faith', whether or not they have previously come to the same conclusions; we can at least talk to one another. And the more we do that, the more we are likely to defy those who mistake their feelings for the truth on those matters which affect us all.


Mary said...

I don't hold Bob and Flo who go to church every Sunday 'responsible' for the existence of religious fanatics and extremists. I don't even hold the local priests/vicars/whatever responsible. But I reckon they could say NO a lot louder to the people who are, as you put it, doing measurable harm to themselves or others. Rather than sitting around saying "oh well he goes too far but he has a point" or "he's nothing to do with me..."

tom sheepandgoats said...

The first generation of atheists, guys like H.G Wells were mournful. They thought atheism was correct, but they knew what they were "giving up" by decreeing the death of God. Isn't there some futility about a mere 70-80 years and then decline and a permanent end?

The second generation, Dawkins, Harris, contrast, are absolutely gleeful. The same short lifespan seems to them a great bargain. It's as if they delight in sawing off the branch they're sitting on.

I can easily picture people becoming agnostic. As you say, religion has not proven a very good guide for finding God. But since this life is only the tiniest sliver in the time spectrum, it's hard to imagine anyone so dull as to catergorically deny any existence beyond our short lifespan.

Anonymous said...

I'm wanted as a sunbeam;-)

looking forward to meeting up with Ena, Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst.

Anonymous said...

simply inspirational. I do hope you won't mind too much me completely ripping off your title for my blog post where I discuss this blog post and my own thoughts about religion, Dawkins and the like...

Anonymous said...

I would like to read The God Delusion some time - just haven't got a round tuit yet.


Gone Fishing said...

Heaven and Hell On Earth!

having been dissabled to some extent (I hate people who say Oh I neve rnoticed I prefer honest people).

Been injured through working and treated worse than any dog should be by Accident compnesation Staff (they dont deserve the label people)

Been through a very bad marriage to a manic depressive.

Spent time in wild raging oceans and fighting extremely hot living bush fires, somethimes I even amaze myself at what I have gotten away with!

Having spent nights on duty as a security gaurd and watched "night people scavenging butts and food from rubbish bins, and kids living in the town park.

I now am certain that we can go through Heaven and Hell on earth, no need to wait until you die tos e what happens next.

I have prayed, during raging ocean storms and surrounded by living fire.
So No I cannot claim to be an atheist or agnostic!

Whether or not there is a God who predetermines everya spect of ours lives. Well sometimes I really do wonder.

But one thing I amc ertain of in times of extreme predjudice many people turn to prayer and the resulting inner hope and strength to survive which it brings.

That said, raised a agood presbyterian, educated at a Church of England Preparatory and Secondary School, with a father who was a Lutheren and people around me seem to often consider me a Jew and yet having a diverse family which now covers almost all races and creeds on earth, I admit I have not been to church for quite a few years, yet have not been struck down by some hand from the sky.

Battles I have fought a few, and wondered how or why I have won and if there is some great plan for my constant trials and tribulations but hey I am braind amaged and the more life throws at us the funnier the looking back becomes.