Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reasons for Believing

On his blog, Simon Barrow points to an intriguing post (by Kim Fabricius) about how Easter should be for Christians an opportunity to break free from the false comforts of religion - not Christianity, but *religion*. As he quotes from the piece:

"Lose your faith in the god that the cross exposes as a no-god, a sham god. Lose your faith in the god who is but the product of your projections, fantasies, wishes, and needs, a security blanket or good-luck charm god. Lose your faith in the god who is there to hold your hand, solve your problems, rescue you from your trials and tribulations, the deus ex machina, literally the “machine god”, wheeled out onto the stage in ancient Greek drama, introduced to the plot artificially to resolve its complications and secure a happy ending. Lose your faith in the god who confers upon you a privileged status that is safe and secure. Lose your faith in the god who promises you health, wealth, fulfilment, and success, who pulls rabbits out of hats. Lose your faith in the god with whom your conscience can be at ease with itself. Lose your faith in the god who, in Dennis Potter’s words, is the bandage, not the wound. Lose your faith in the god who always answers when you pray and comes when you call. Lose your faith in the god who is never hidden, absent, dead, entombed. For the “Father who art in heaven” – this week he is to be found in hell..."

This both fascinates and confuses me. It seems to me that it is exhorting Christians to give up on the idea of God as comforting or helpful in any way. That rather than rely on God's presence watching over you, hearing your prayers and guaranteeing a happy ending when you die, one should "manage our lives without him."

From an atheistic perspective, there is certainly something refreshing about a preacher urging people to give up the many parts of religion often described as a crutch. But it presents a mystery which, I think, dooms such efforts to failure: Why believe?

There are at least two types of reason for believing in a certain proposition. One is the truth-finding type of reason: It seems likely that it is true, based on the evidence we have. The other is the beneficial type of reason: It seems beneficial to us to believe that it is true. The two often coincide, perhaps more often than people realise. Although a particular truth (about the evils of which humanity is capable, for example) may well be depressing and so appear non-beneficial, in the long run having that greater understanding is likely to aid us in our interactions with other people and the world at large, (perhaps even allowing us to make up for some of that evil - it is rarely the naive that make great changes in the world for the better). It is possible that one of the two types dissolves into the other: Perhaps beneficial reasons tend to be a useful way of discovering the truth (although it seems unlikely in general) or perhaps truth-finding tends overwhelmingly to be beneficial (which seems more likely). In any case, I cannot think of reasons for belief which do not amount to one of these (although I welcome suggestions).

What of religious claims? I think (and here is where I must be tentative) the majority of religious people would accept that the normal truth-finding reasons for belief are rather weak in this field. Occam's Razor is usually accepted as a fundamentally useful principle of truth finding, yet it seems to go out of the window when it comes to belief in gods. Even though there are mysteries which such belief could solve, it always raises more, even trickier questions.

Most of the classical truth-finding reasons for believing in God look rather thin: The ontological argument (proving God through wordplay) is generally ridiculed. The arguments from miracles and religious experiences are embarrassed by the increasing (although far from complete) ability of science to explain such occurrences without reference to the metaphysical. The argument from design was once triumphant, but again scientific principles - especially evolution - have shown how it is unnecessary to solve some enduring mysteries, and it seems unwise to pin one's belief to the ever-shrinking remainder. The first cause argument is intriguing, but shows far less than it purports - at most that there was something that came first, not that it was self-aware let alone a person, or even a good person.

The Catholic Church maintains that rational evidence will lead to God, but tends to point to these same tired old arguments. The Protestant response, however, varies between this and the idea of faith. Many will say that in fact it is right and proper for there to be no clear rational evidence, since only this allows for faith in God, a quality to be praised. This is often a particularly frustrating argument for atheists, who tend to confront it from a truth-finding perspective. If we are not using truth-finding evidence, then why would one have faith, and in what?

The answer has always seemed to me to be clear. One has faith in one's religion, rather than in any other religion, or in new age beliefs, or in no supernatural entities at all, because of beneficial reasons. Religions tend to provide effective carrots and sticks: The latter is provided by the catch all of Hell (or lonely separation from God) while the former is myriad - not only Heaven, but a comforting presence at all times, someone to watch over you, "Someone to hear your prayers / Someone who cares." I could go on for a while about how these are manipulated to make people fit in with particular moral and political agendas, but the point is that it can make good beneficial sense to believe such things.

If I am reading Kim Fabricius correctly, Christians should let go of all of the beneficial elements of faith. Certainly the afterlife is not mentioned, but it would seem within the scope of what is written. After all, what could be more comforting than thinking that one is not only escaping Hell, but gaining access to Heaven? If I am correct, then the question is why one should retain belief at all. Without beneficial reasons, one has only truth-finding reasons. It may be possible to construct a truth-finding case for God, but it seems highly unlikely. It seems likely that most believers use truth-finding reasons to bring God within the realm of possibility, and then rely on beneficial reasons to bridge the gap to actually believe - the process often termed faith. It seems that a religion without such beneficial reasons, such carrots and sticks, is unlikely to attract many believers, since the rational gap is too far to leap without at least some incentive.

It may well be that I have misread Kim. Perhaps beliefs in the afterlife are excepted from what one should exclude from consideration (although I don't see why). Perhaps the point is to exclude these only during Holy Week, to suffer something of the aloneness of Christ and to fully appreciate one's relationship with God thereafter (although many things in the article seem to tell against that). But if I am right, I think there is a good reason why many people apparently found the sermon hard to swallow. I can't help but sympathise with the hypothetical parishoner who took the message to heart and now thinks "So what's the point in believing, and coming to Church every week, if it helps me none?" In no way am I condemning people for such thinking; nor am I advocating a fully self-interested view. But given the difficulty of relying on truth-finding reasons for believing, I cannot blame religion for emphasising the beneficial aspects of belief, not the religious for relying on them.

I am interested in anyone else's view of what the post is trying to say, and whether there are other reasons to believe once the beneficial is excluded. I'm interested in why people believe, so if you can help educate me then please go ahead!


Thinking about it, I'd like to clarify something. When I talked about beneficial reasons, I drew the boundary too narrowly at self-interest. I am quite happy to include within it other-regarding reasons; perhaps 'pragmatic reasons' would have been a better descriptor. If we continue to read Kim as excluding only self-interested reasons, then perhaps other-regarding interests could be enough to explain / justify a leap of faith.

I am doubtful about this though. No doubt there are people who think like this, although I don't imagine this is a major consideration for most people. Perhaps some people feel that they need to believe in order to be good to others, but this shows an odd (although not impossible) set of desires: If they wish to be good to others, why do they not just do so? Alternatively, perhaps they believe that their example will make others believe, which will be good for them (or for society as a whole). But here, pretence would be equally valid. Perhaps actual belief would be easier than pretence, however.

Therefore, it seems at least possible that one could exclude self-interested reasons and still have enough reasons for the leap of faith. However, I remain doubtful that this actually does have much of an impact on people, given the problems I've noted.