What to believe?

Religion, or the lack of it, is a hot topic on my Facebook news feed this morning. One friend came out of the closet and admitted to being an atheist, another shared a post having something to do with how science is increasingly demonstrating the existence of God. In the news a former Seventh-Day Adventist minister has decided that God doesn’t exist but that atheism can be “awkward” 1. Deciding what to believe with respect to this God thing is a puzzle. I believe that for the vast majority of the universe, the part that doesn’t include humans and human civilization, the notion of a deity plays no part. The subtle complexities of observable physics are sufficient even if I don’t understand them all. On the other hand, for human society, the notion of a deity or deities plays a significant role. It has a huge impact on this artifact we call civilization. This is where we live our lives.

The human obsession with God(s) raises interesting questions. Perhaps the most interesting is why are humans so passionate about their beliefs on Hugh Latimerthis topic? Christians have, for the most part but not completely, given up on killing people who don’t share their beliefs. Portions of Islam seem to still be working on this. Many Christians have moved on to the much more civilized and satisfying tactic of ruining the lives of people who don’t believe the way they do. I guess this is an improvement, but it seems to be just a different variety of cruelty. On the flip side, the atheists who believe that God doesn’t exist because of all of the bad things that happen is hardly conclusive. It depends on what you define your god to be. There are certainly gods in many belief systems that are the cause of problems, not the mitigators. Some of these atheists then go on to deride those who don’t appear to be paying attention. To cite the often used explanation, people have a need to explain the unexplained. Fine, but why is it also true the people have a need to harm others who don’t agree with their explanation? How does this help?

A second question is why are there these two camps at all? One way of identifying them is that one group relies on observations or the observations of others. The other group relies on imagination or the imagination of others 2. This doesn’t work. Religions begin with an attempt to explain observations and all of science is an application of imagination to observation. Along this dimension they aren’t at all different. A key difference with science comes from critical thinking. In other words, being critical about what you’re thinking. If my theory stops explaining what I’m observing then I let it go and move on to another theory. Many religions take an opposite approach. When observation disagrees with theory (aka belief) then denial kicks in and the observation is questioned rather than the belief. Science can lead to atheism, but science isn’t atheism. Atheism can be little more than “I don’t know what to believe at the moment, but I’m certain I don’t believe what you believe.” A fun thought experiment is to imagine obtaining conclusive evidence for the existence of someone’s definition of a god. I wonder what percentage of atheists would change their beliefs. I suspect that for some atheism is just the default religion.

Creating beliefs is system two work 3. It can be painful, unpleasant and exhausting. For some reason though, like sex, we just have to do it. It’s an innate part of being human. The easiest way is to let someone else determine our beliefs for us. This is what most people seem to do. It’s much more difficult to create your own from rawer materials.

I guess there are three takeaways from this ponder…

1. Can you explain why you believe what you believe in a way that doesn’t simply rely on appealing to some authority?
2. If evidence is presented that refutes your belief, can you let it go?
3. Are you OK with someone believing differently than you do?

If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, particularly the third question, then we have less to talk about. If the answer to all three is “yes”, then let’s grab a cup of coffee and talk more. There are likely things we can share with each other that will make both of our lives richer, more interesting and more satisfying.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. See EX-SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST PASTOR TAKES A YEARLONG TIMEOUT FROM GOD and After Year Of Atheism, Former Pastor: ‘I Don’t Think God Exists’
  2. This, of course, makes four groups rather than two; imagination vs. observation, their’s vs. other’s. The wonders of a 2×2 matrix.
  3. See Thinking, Fast and Slow
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One Reply to “What to believe?”

  1. Interesting stuff. I'd love to talk over coffee sometime. Regarding the level of passion about this topic, perhaps it's related to our need for certainty, as described by Robert Burton in "On Being Certain". He addresses the need we have to feel certain about things ("we just have to do it"), and how this may be an important cause of religion. The key thing is that certainty is not a function of logic or evidence, but an expression of system one (although he doesn't use that term). So certainty is more correctly described as an emotion than the result of reasoning. So when this vital emotion is tied to something as significant as life, death, love, etc, the resulting behaviors can easily become extreme.

    On the other hand, does this level of passion only exist around religion? Look at the way people behave regarding politics and sporting events. It often seems this is simply a manifestation of some basic human need to draw lines between us and them. Where does that come from?

    Regarding your three questions, I don't have any problem answering "yes" to them. However, I think the second one is more subtle than it seems on surface. For example, what constitutes valid evidence, and what role does evidence play in the formation of beliefs about transcendent reality? (As opposed to logical consistency, efficacy, or aesthetics, for example.)

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