May 20, 2010
Religion and evidence-2: Belief in belief
In their study of people's religious beliefs, Michael Shermer and Frank Sulloway identified the seven strongest predictors in favor of belief in god:
- being raised in a religious manner
- parents’ religiosity
- lower levels of education
- being female
- a large family
- lack of conflict with parents
- being younger
Four of the factors that favor being religious applied in my own case. I was raised in a conventionally religious manner. My parents were religious but not overly so. We went regularly to church but not every Sunday. We never said grace before meals or had family prayers or were otherwise openly devout. Religion was seen as a private thing and we did say individual prayers. Also in favor was that I was a younger (middle) child and had no conflicts with my easy-going parents.
The three factors that should have pushed me away from religion were that I was male, we were a small family (three children), and I had a higher than average education. So in my case, it seems to have been basically a toss-up as to whether I would end up religious or not.
I think that for a lot of people, whether they believe or not is based on whether they feel the need to believe in a god-like entity and whether they want to believe for whatever reason, perhaps even just to blend in with family and society. If the answer to either question is yes, then they will look for reasons to believe and will make up something that serves their needs.
Harold Kushner, for example, is a rabbi and writer who is perhaps best known for his book Why bad things happen to good people. In this recent NPR interview he discusses the problem of suffering, the major difficulty that religious believers have to confront.
If I, walking through the wards of a hospital, have to face the fact that either god is all-powerful but not kind or thoroughly kind and loving but not totally powerful, I would rather compromise god's power and affirm his love. So the conclusion, the theological conclusion, I came to is that god could have been all-powerful at the beginning but he chose to designate two areas of life off-limits to his power. He would not arbitrarily interfere with laws of nature. And secondly, god would not take away our freedom to choose between good and evil.
Note that after laying out what he see as the two possible options for god that explain the existence of suffering, Kushner declares that he gets to decide which kind of god he wants to believe in and thus can bring that god into existence. God seems to have no say in what kind of qualities he can have. Kushner emphasizes that he has arrived at what he calls a theological conclusion, as if that added weight to it, though what he has done seems to be purely self-indulgent wishful thinking. Is it any wonder that theology is such a useless discipline, capable of accommodating any and all wishes of those who want to believe? Kushner, for whatever reason, only wants to believe in a certain type of god and, presto, that is the god that exists. The interviewer does not ask the obvious question of the basis for that particular choice because when one is confronted with a 'person of faith', especially someone who seems as nice and humane as Kushner seems to be, it is impolite to ask exactly what that faith is based on.
Actually, the alternative that Kushner rejected, that god is all-powerful but not kind, makes a lot more sense logically. If you postulate a 'thoroughly kind and loving' god as Kushner wants, you then have to tie yourself up in all kinds of knots to explain the existence of suffering and evil and injustice. But if you postulate the existence of an omnipotent but evil god who enjoys toying with people's lives and making them suffer, everything makes a lot more sense and the otherwise intractable problem of why there is suffering goes away. An evil god is much more plausible than a loving god.
Kushner seems to be a fideist, a useful label that I came across while reading Michael Shermer's book How We Believe (2000). On page 9 Shermer describes what a fideist is by recounting an interview with someone who labels himself that way:
Martin Gardner, mathematician, former columnist for Scientific American, and one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement, is a believer who admits that the existence of God cannot be proved. He calls himself a fideist, or someone who believes in God for personal or pragmatic reasons, and defended his position to me in an interview: "As a fideist, I don't think there are any arguments that prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. Even more than that, I agree with Unamuno that the atheists have the better arguments. So it is a case of quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds." Credo consolans, says Gardner – I believe because it is consoling.
The phenomenon of fideism seems similar to what Daniel Dennett describes as 'belief in belief' (Breaking the Spell, 2006), that while people deep down don't really believe in the existence of god, they somehow see belief in god as a good thing that they want to be a part of. So they find some reasons for believing. It seems to me that Kushner, like many religious believers, is a fideist, someone who believes because he needs to, and thus searches for something that he feels comfortable believing in. Such people seize upon a "quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds."
POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on The Enemies of Reason