During Andrew Sullivan’s absence, this last week at The Daily Dish, there has been a flurry of discussion around issues related to Daniel Dennett’s recent attack on “belief in belief”. In a series of posts, I want to go through a number of these interesting lines of thoughts that have been raised and possibly bring in discussions on the themes raised from elsewhere on the internet.
First, however, let’s put Dennett’s definition of “belief in belief” on the table and let me give a couple quick reasons for wholeheartedly endorsing rejecting “belief in belief.” In subsequent posts, I’ll dig into further replies from The Dish.
“belief in belief” is a common phenomenon not restricted to religions. Economists realize that a sound currency depends on people believing that the currency is sound, and scientists recognize that the actual objectivity of scientific studies on global warming is politically impotent unless people believe in that objectivity, so economists and scientists (among others) take steps to foster and protect such beliefs that they think are benign. That’s acting on belief in belief.Sometimes the maintenance of a belief is deemed so important that impressive systems of propaganda are erected and vigorously defended by people who do not in fact share the belief that they think is so important for society to endorse. For instance, imbecile monarchs have been kept on their thrones by widespread conspiracies of oblivion and deception when it has been deemed too socially disruptive to confirm to the populace what everybody suspects: the king is an idiot.
Religion offers an extreme case of this. Today one of the most insistent forces arrayed in opposition to us vocal atheists is the “I’m an atheist but” crowd, who publicly deplore our “hostility”, our “rudeness” (which is actually just candour), while privately admitting that we’re right.
The reasons I agree with Dennett in criticizing “belief in belief” are (a) it is patronizing to believers and to the average human intellect and (b) it is a quietist approach to human development. Simply because in the past peoples have used religion as a crutch to inculcate community and moral teaching in societies without more sufficient means of achieving these things through rational means, does not mean that humanity is doomed to resorting to falsehood and superstition to have these things in the future.
I actually find it rather astonishing that anyone looking at the power of cautious and critical thinking embodied by the scientific method (but also present in other rigorous disciplines of thought) and its growth over the last few centuries with all the benefits for technological and social transformation, could look at humanity and assume that in perpetuity we are doomed to cling to authoriatarian assumptions about knowledge, superstition, and fallacious habits of inference.
In short, the more we live in a world that proves the superior power of careful thought and the impotence of wild guesses, and the more we live in a world only where peace is achieved where reasons and consensus are treated as absolute requirements whereas tyranny flourishes wherever dogmatic claims to political, moral, and intellectual authority are allowed to prosper—I cannot imagine how people’s belief in authoritarian sources of knowledge and morality can still look like the necessary or ideal future for humanity.
I grant those who believe in belief that there are challenges for secularism going forward to create the practical bridges to community and feeling of moral unity that can replace the religious bridges now in use. But for an atheist to throw up her hands and declare the endeavor to secularize moral community futile in advance is just an expression of unwarranted counter-productive pessimistic fatalism that stands on the side of regressive quietism and against working with people in terms of what she thinks to be the truth.
Quite honestly, I find the belief in religious belief by atheists (or, more specifically by “faitheists”) a cynical combination of disingenuousness, indifference to truth, and elitist condescension. Last night a new Jesuit friend and I came to common ground in our common recognition that the contents of our beliefs matter and that we have more in common with each other than both the religious and secularists who are indifferent to truth and ignore the truth about answers to these questions and nakedly admit that all that matters to them is pragmatic social influence. He became a Jesuit out of a conviction that if he believed in Christianity then the only way for him was to go whole hog with it and in my case, when I was an evangelical, I realized that when I saw no good reasons to remain believing, I had to leave the religion together altogether. Because for both my Jesuit friend and I, it is commitment to what we think reality is and to not condescending to each other that matters.
But not everyone agrees with Dennett, my new Jesuit friend, and me, so for more of the back and forth on this in subsequent posts, start with Sympathies For The Religious…
But also, I also am eager to have Your Thoughts on the content of this particular post, so please comment below!