Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Belief in Belief

     In the US Religion Wars (aka The Campaign to Distract Americans from Iraq), somebody, somewhere is attacking Christianity at any given moment. If a bunny is called the Garden Bunny, Christianity is being attacked. If someone sees a piece of a boob for a second & a half, Christianity is being attacked. If every American does not smile and profess ecstatic joy for Jesus's birth every December, Christianity is under attack. And not only Christianity, but Belief itself is in danger of crumbling.
     Which begs the question (at least for me), why do we care? I understand a lot of people have formed attachments to Christianity. But as far as belief itself, when did that become so important? And worse, why is belief so important for belief's sake? In Judaism, it is forbidden to eat pork. According to the laws of kashrut, Jews just can't do it. Even if you're a Jew who thinks pork is tasty, it's still against the rules. It would certainly help if you believed that God would punish you if you ate the pork. But it's not required. All that's required is that the pork doesn't enter your mouth (or any other orifice, for that matter).
     In Christianity, belief plays a more important role. According to the book of John, Jesus said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." Of course, that belief was really meant to get people to accept him as a god. He didn't mean that believing in just anything was good.
     So why is belief itself celebrated? I once dated a Catholic girl whose father was very religious. He apparently approved of me because I was religiously active, albeit in a faith other than his own. Although I was certainly pleased and relieved at the time, I wonder why belief itself was more important than what I believed in. And why would it be wrong to derive your belief in God through reason and science and logic? Why would it be so bad to prove the existence of God through physical evidence?
     I read an article in Slate by Judith Shulevitz critiquing a book on religion by Daniel Dennett. Dennett invented a concept called "belief in belief". According to him (via Shulevitz), "people who believe in belief believe that civilization needs myths to live by, so we mustn't examine religious ones too closely." In other words, it is not God that holds our world together, it is our collective belief that does so. ("Myth" in this usage, refers to traditional supernatural stories, not necessarily a fictional tale.)
     For those of us whom the words "glorify God" never quite seem to make it to the top of our daily task list, this might seem like a laughable claim. Why would life fall apart if, say, there were incontrovertible evidence that Jesus had been a used chariot salesman who liked to partake in the local marijuana-oil? You would still love your family. You would still go to work so you could feed and house and clothe yourself and your family. You would still enjoy watching 4 Law and Order episodes a night on TNT and USA. After all, if God exists, surely He is not so childish and petty as to get mad about simple human failings.
     Dennett says that belief in belief is a "compromise formation" for those who attend church regularly but don't really internalize the strictures. I say these people make up the vast majority of American population. Last year, a major poll found that 45% of Americans attend religious services weekly, and nearly 66% pray daily. But when Dr. Phil asked America questions, 41% said they had cheated on someone and 68% said they had been cheated on!. Just today, the Catholic church in Ireland revealed that 102 priests are under suspicion of sexually or physically abusing children. Clearly there are people out there who are going through the motions of religion in public but don't follow the rules when they're in private.
     To me, their belief in belief is strong enough that they have a strong desire to retain religion, even as they ignore it. And while I feel that proponents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster make an excellent point about belief, they're preaching to two different choirs. On one hand, they're targeting people who already have their belief system set in stone, thank you very much. On the other hand, they're targeting people who have already discovered they don't need one.
     Of course Janet Jackson's tit isn't going to destroy Christianity. But it may help reveal the lack of real commitment many Christians (and members of other religions) have to their chosen faith. And that may help damage the pervasive idea that belief in religion is what keeps the world functioning. And that, of course, may convince the millions of people who pay lip-service to their religion to spend their time doing other things. And that is what could destroy Christianity. What is the solution? Well, it's only a problem if you believe your actual religion is going to fall apart, but the wisdom of Yoda comes to mind. "Do or do not. There is no try."
     Update: See Lindsay Beyerstein's take on Dennett's book.

3 comments:

Phil said...

"Why would life fall apart if, say, there were incontrovertible evidence that Jesus had been (not God)"

Well, for starters, the Christians would probably split into two camps (not including those whose cognitive dissonance convinces them to maintain their belief in Jesus). One would go agnostic, and the other would say that the Jews were right all along. I can't tell which would be the greater earth-shaking event.

"And why would it be wrong to derive your belief in God through reason and science and logic? Why would it be so bad to prove the existence of God through physical
evidence?"

I'm with you. I think the standard answer would be that if you "hang your faith" on something, and some scientist comes along and disproves that 'something,' your faith comes toppling down. However, a faith that's purely blind is improper, too. I think the compromise solution is to have a "blind" faith that is /supported/ by as much science as you feel you need. Some people, like Andrew Flew perhaps, /start/ off believing in nothing, then use science and logic to come to a belief. Later on, they (maybe not Flew, though) switch from using this science as a foundation, to using it as a support instead.

Speaking about Dennett and religion, did he say the following?

"Safety demands that religion be put in cages," explains Dennett, "when absolutely necessary....The message is clear: those who will not accommodate, who will not temper, who insist on keeping only the purest and wildest strains of their heritage alive, we will be obliged, reluctantly, to cage or disarm, and we will do our best to disable the memes they fight for."


As to your main point, this problem in "believing in belief"... I totally agree.

Phil said...

Hi,
Forget the Dennett quote. It was probably out of context.

Concerning your comments on pork, I agree with it, but I'm not sure you well you used it to make your point. "But as far as belief itself, when did that become so important?" Isn't /another/ one of the commandments to love God with all your heart? Some say it's pretty hard to really love God without believing in Him. {grin}

Scott said...

I agree with your pork comment - after rereading it, I'm not sure I made my point as eloquently as I thought I had earlier this evening.
Regarding loving God with all your heart - if I were to play devil's advocate, I might say I love Star Wars with all my heart, but I don't believe it.
Besides, I think the larger point is that one main consequence in "beliving in belief" is lip service to religious rules, including the one to love God. IMNHSO, you either do or you don't. You don't go pretending to your friends that you do because the appearance of piety is what is really important.
In a way it's like voting - your 1 vote won't make a difference (even if you lived in Palm Beach in 2000). But don't let other people know you're not voting, because it could cause other people to stop voting and then the system would fall apart.