The Intractability of Belief

Often, there are calls for debate and discussion regarding and the concepts which underpin it. Mostly (online anyway) these seem to come from those who already hold to a belief and want to debate with those poor who do not agree.

Now I think it is more than possible that some of the people making these calls are doing so for honest reasons, and actually want to have a debate. Sadly, I also think that most do not actually want a debate but, instead, seek to convert others. Shame on them.

In this, I am not talking about the fallacy of scientific debate, I mean things like the “blogwar” between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan (which was mentioned yesterday). This happens on television and radio as well (especially on Radio 2 in the UK, during the lunchtime phone in show). It creates the impression in the observer that both parties are open to new ideas and are open minded enough that they are willing to listen to others and possibly become swayed by a new point of view.

In science, and in rational people, this is common. For a long period of time Newtonian gravity was believed to be the best model, but then along comes general relativity. For a long period of time people believed the Earth was the centre of the solar system (and indeed, the stars were part of “our” solar system) but then along came , , , et al. Rational people accepted the new information and changed their world out look as a result of it.

There are always nutcases who ignore the new evidence and, normally, they are marginalised and laughed at. Flat Earthers, people who think the moon landing was a hoax etc., are not even given the respect of normal kooks (alternative medicine practitioners for example).

Oddly, this doesn’t happen if the irrationality is based on a Religious Belief. The assumption that a “religious belief” is due more respect than any other belief weighs hard with people and I think this alone will ensure any debate is meaningless. As soon as any points are made, the defence “it is my belief” becomes unsurmountable – even if the religious belief is based on as much evidence as Flat Earthers have (i.e. none). Even religious moderates, and people who profess to have minimal religious belief argue from a position on unshakeable conviction. Take this excerpt from Andrew Sullivan, where he is replying to a question in which Sam Harris asks what evidence it would take to make him give up his beliefs: (emphasis mine)

I have never doubted the existence of God. Never. My acceptance of God’s existence – of a force beyond everything and the source of everything – goes so far back in my consciousness and memory that I can neither recall “finding” this faith nor being taught it. So when I am asked to justify this belief, as you reasonably do, I am at a loss. At this layer of faith, the first critical layer, the layer that includes all religious people and many who call themselves spiritual rather than religious, I can offer no justification as such. I have just never experienced the ordeal of consciousness without it. It is the air I have always breathed. I meet atheists and am as baffled at their lack of faith – at this level – as you are at my attachment to it. When people ask me how I came to choose this faith, I can only say it chose me. I have no ability to stop believing. Crises in my life – death of loved ones, diagnosis with a fatal illness, emotional loss – have never shaken this faith. In fact, they have all strengthened it. I know of no “proof” that could dissuade me of this, since no “proof” ever persuaded me of it.

Now, in all fairness to Andrew Sullivan, this is the cornerstone of “belief” but it does make a mockery of any debate. In science a theory is “believed” to be true until some evidence is discovered to show that it is not. In belief, there is no need for evidence one way or another because people are indoctrinated from childhood to accept it as true. The idea that “faith chose [me]” is laughable. This is an otherwise intelligent, educated person creating a “supernatural” force to explain the fact that growing up in a Christian family, learning about Catholicism (in this case) pretty much from birth and the attendant “brainwashing” (for want of a better word) has created an unshakable faith in him. I am 100% sure that if he had grown up in a Pentecostal, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Jain (and so on) family he would be equally saying the “faith chose him” but it would be a different faith.

Now, even though I am an Atheist there are numerous ways in which any Deity could convince me of his or her existance. That does not mean I have “less” faith than a “believer,” it simply means I am rational. I have not been brainwashed. I am not insane. If Andrew Sullivan was talking about a teacup floating in orbit around the Sun, people would laugh at him. Because he is talking about the other invisible fantasy, people respect him

Is that not madness?

3 thoughts on “The Intractability of Belief

  1. Pingback: Why Dont You Blog? » Misunderstanding Atheism

  2. “Is that not madness?”

    No it’s the difference between a postulate and a conclusion.

    You say “any Diety” should convince you of his/her existence, yet there are assumptions in saying that. A traditional omnipotent and omnibenevolent God should do that, but is that the real God? I rejected the traditional God as a teenager because I can’t make sense of that God and this world we observe, similarly to what you’re arguing. I liked science much better and feel privileged to live now when there are such extensive explanations of physical processes that require no hand of God. Imagine what it will be like in another hundred years.

    There still may not be a better understanding of the ultimate origin of the universe by then, but so what? If there is a Creator of the universe who cares nothing about me, what difference does it make? I don’t know why people are stuck about talking about God in that place. Clearly science has shown that God doesn’t micromanage nature, unless everything is an illusion. But just because that was a big area where people needed the illusion of God in the past doesn’t mean that’s who God is.

    God is whoever and whatever God is, from something impersonal and ultimately physical that fills the God-shaped void in our brain evolution gave us, what evolutionary psychologists describe when they describe our need for power, knowledge, love, and goodness, and how neurophysiology has us looking in hidden places for those things, among many other perceptions where we look for hidden causes, to something that is utterly beyond the physical universe, or alongside it or within it. Science does not say the latter does not exist. Science is silent about that. Some atheists suggest that silence is evidence that there is only the physical, yet that’s just a guess, no matter how many times one invokes Occam’s Razor or whatever argument one wants to make about being an atheist now as opposed to gathering more data. Why guess? Why not explore all possibilities?

    My favorite definition of God is that God is the one who answers when I pray, “God help me!” I haven’t found such a functional definition among other theists, but maybe they’ll catch on someday how much better a functional definition is than something which is purely abstract. Science is silent in many places, such as how to live my life, where best to go for that power, knowledge, love and goodness I need to connect with. Some people mock those who look to the supernatural for help with that, but who’s the better scientist, the one who explores the unknown or the one who assumes he or she already knows what’s there? I understand if atheists say the hypocrisy or other failings of theists don’t encourage them to explore religion. Maybe it really is that hard to connect with the real God. I’m certain communication from Him is very difficult and always a cooperative effort between God and the man or woman, but possible, and over time it’s a lot more than anyone can get from God in a day. Our mind is only so plastic.

    I felt put off by hypocrites, but in my thirties my career and my marriage were going badly enough that I decided to pray and see what happens. Was there something to the God of my childhood after all? The possibility of that God was my postulate, not a conclusion. Eventually I developed the relationship I have with God today as a liberal Christian. Along the way God has given me direction, strength, and comfort. My experiences along with always having an eye out for purported medical or other miracles have convinced me that God doesn’t do physical miracles, just mental ones. I would get a lot of argument about this empirical conclusion. I could argue back. It doesn’t change much.

    It is an important question to ask why everyone doesn’t wind up with the same conclusions about God. What does that mean about who and what the real God must be? It is logical when atheists believe that every spiritual experience I’ve had was contained within my brain, but they go too far in saying that is the only logical possibility. If God is only my imagination, what’s that? What is the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of imagination, especially the different levels of imagination from my willful picturing of some object to a dreamlike waking experience of a road-to-Damascus experience? Neuroscience doesn’t know. Quacks like Michael Persinger who say they can reproduce anything like this with magnetic stimulation are liars, not scientists. I see nothing compelling to choose between the atheist view on this and different possibilities for there being more than physical events in such experiences. So everyone is really talking about postulates, not conclusions, even if they pretend their arguments account for their beliefs.

    Do you know the book Religion Explained by academic anthropologist Pascal Boyer? Boyer presents a prespective from evolutionary cognitive psychology. He never mentions any chance of there being a God to fill the God-shaped void he is describing, but he does mention how simplistic his fellow atheists can be in dismissing religion. It’s a book that I wish both atheists and theists would read. It would elevate some of these arguments if people knew everything in that book.

    It’s not madness, or would you like to explain scientifically, meaning with good data, good analysis, and allowing for all possibilities, what the madness is?

  3. drdavid600, thanks for commenting. I may respond fully in a new post, but for now there are some points I’d like to address.

    “Is that not madness?”

    No it’s the difference between a postulate and a conclusion.

    It strikes me that you are arguing against something which is not contained in the post you have replied to. In this post, I am talking about the pointlessness of debating issues of belief with a “believer,” simply because they will believe no matter what information or evidence is presented to them which may be contrary.

    I feel your post is a good example of this, in that you have a pre-ordained belief and no amount of contrary evidence will shake you of this. It is interesting to note that the vast majority of people brought up in Christian families then lapse, “re-find” Christianity rather than (for example) Zoroastrianism. The same applies to Hindus, Muslims etc. This is not (to me) a case of the faith finding the person, but the person’s life experiences re-affirming the childhood indoctrination. (A variation on the gamblers fallacy springs to mind, but there are more which examine the tendency of people to ascribe inaccurate probability to events then bring in a supernatural cause)

    It’s not madness, or would you like to explain scientifically, meaning with good data, good analysis, and allowing for all possibilities, what the madness is?

    First off, allowing for all possibilities would indeed be madness. There are an infinite number of possibilities so that can be ignored. I hope all my posts are the result of good analysis which only leaves the data. Let us try this:

    Today, my washing machine spoke to me and said it was the voice of the creator. The universe is actually the insides of a multidimensional laundry appliance, which is why galaxies get their spiral shapes. The washing machine said that the universe was caught in a cosmological struggle with the tumble dryer (who is the embodiment of all evil) and that the tumble dryer had spawned false beliefs onto the world. As supporting evidence the washing machine told me that while humanity was a mere 6000 years old, all the other “evidence” had been planted there by the tumble dryer to trick people.

    Now, if I were to go out into the streets and start proclaiming this as true what would people think? Would I get tax exempt status? If I carried out my actions in accordance with the wishes of the washing machine, would people say I was living a “Holy life?” Or, as I suspect, would I be placed into psychiatric care?

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