Thursday, November 23, 2006

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

I highly recommend an old—though quite relevant—post by Will Wilkinson that examines the behavior of a class of people that I’ll call “unbelieving believers”.
Many of us believe that we believe because the social and psychological benefits of appearing to be a believer seem to us greater than the costs, and the most compelling way to appear a believer, but to avoid the behavioral costs of actual belief, is to earnestly but falsely believe that one believes.
Wilkinson’s muse, however, was a paper by philosophy prof. Georges Rey entitled Meta-Atheism. Rey writes:
[my] concern here is not with what religious people do, but rather with the content of what many of them say they believe. The more seriously I think about it, the more bizarre I find it. I find myself thinking that, if this content were removed from the rich aesthetic and cultural traditions in which it is standardly presented, it would be regarded as, frankly, psychotic, rather like the delusions of paranoids who think that there are invisible psychological agents, with larger than life powers, with whom they enjoy some special "super-natural" communication. It seems to me so overwhelmingly obvious that there are no such beings in either case -as most introductory texts make plain, the usual arguments for the existence of God are patently fallacious- that I have come to entertain the idea that, actually, no reasonable person really does believe in God, despite what they may say or consciously "think" to themselves. For want of a better name, I call this view "meta-atheism." It says:

Despite appearances, not many people -- particularly, not many adults who've been exposed to standard Western science -- seriously believe in God; most of those who sincerely claim to do so are self-deceived.
Now, before you take offense, or self-congratulate (depending upon your particular view of theism), note that Rey added the following disclaimer:
I used the word "psychotic" above. But please understand: I don't think that most religious people are psychotics nor even insincere. Rather, I think that many of them are engaged in a form of self-deception, a little like a wife who ignores the evidence of her husband's infidelity. This is an extension of the familiar observation that most religious stories involve patent wishful thinking.
Not only do I not disagree, I’ve long argued that many (if not most) self-described “believers” are, in actuality, anything but. This likely stems from culture, pier pressure, fear or some combination thereof. This may sound odd coming from me, an unashamed Christian who, in an age of scientific enlightenment, had the audacity to suggest that atheism is irrational.

There’s no contradiction in my thinking, however; I’ve consistently taught my children to think independently, to not simply “take my word for it” where God is concerned. As it stands, all three of my kids are agnostic…and they know why. I will, however, take issue with (at least) one of Rey’s eight points...sort of:
(7) Belief is Not a Matter of Choice Religious belief, understood as faith, is supposed to be at least partly a matter of choice. But try to decide to seriously believe that there is an even number of stars, or that there are gigantic cats on distant planets. Imagine how puzzling it would be to if someone claimed merely to "have faith" about these things.


Perhaps "religious faith" is a commitment merely to be prepared to consciously think and say certain things. Perhaps that's a kind of attenuated belief -or perhaps, again, it's exactly the phenomenon of self-deception!
Any worthwhile argument for theology in general, and faith in particular, is necessarily based upon the Bible (I readily acknowledge that the Bible’s veracity is questioned). That said, consider Hebrews 11:1 - ”Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. That is, faith is not merely assent, hope, mystical theory, etc.—faith is imparted, not “learned” knowledge. Choice (free will, determination, etc.) has absolutely nothing to do with faith.

Of course, I can’t empirically prove this, hence my parental posture. Nevertheless, marginalizing theism, and indeed theists, strikes me as an easy and, quite frankly, a self-serving exercise; it’s not exactly a black or white issue. Not all believers are self-deceived.