Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Wanting to believe

People have a lot of different reasons for being religious or believing in God. Since I was raised in a secular household, I have to admit I don't really understand most of them - I've never had the experience of being religious. But there's one argument that I always have conflicting thoughts about: "Wanting to believe."

I was hanging out/on a pseudo-date with a friend/guy/whatever you want to call him (it's complicated, take that however you wish). He was raised religious, but now is one of those wishy washy deist/Buddhist/spiritual types. He's totally cool with my atheism, but he was telling me a story about a priest he saw give a talk. The priest said he witnessed an exorcism where the girl was floating a foot above the ground. I gave him one of my Uh Huh, Sure looks.

Guy: But the way he told the story with such conviction...it made me want to believe, you know?
Me: Wanting to believe in something and that something being true are two entirely different things.
Guy: Does it matter if it's true if it gives you something good to believe in?
Me: *gives him the I Don't Want to Debate Religion While Snuggling look*
Guy: *shuts up*

That's the argument that always gets me. Does it matter? My mom is the same way. I'd call her an agnostic theist/deist - she doesn't believe in the more supernatural stuff like virgin birth and walking on water and all that, but she wants to believe in something. "What does it hurt?" she'll say, and I know it's true that it comforts her. When her friend passed away unexpectedly a couple years ago, she took comfort in the idea that she was in "a better place."

She's also pretty superstitious, which she gets from my Greek grandparents. She told me how a couple months after said friend's passing, she was watching the news and the pick three lotto numbers were her friend's birthday. "It's a sign!" she said. I paused, wondering if I should say anything and risk upsetting her. "It's not that unlikely that those three numbers would come up together. This looks special, but you don't remember the hundreds of other lottos where the numbers meant nothing to you." She rolled her eyes. "Whatever, let me believe what I want to believe. I think it's a sign!" I left it at that.

Don't get me wrong, I think we'd have a lot less worries if the religious population was dominated by deists and agnostic theists. Most of them seem benign enough that I'm not inclined to debate them - I mean, they're not the ones flying planes into buildings and trying to pass religious laws, right? But at the same time, the idea of believing in something just to comfort yourself, even if you have no reason to believe it's true, bothers me. I like being a scientific thinker. I need evidence for what I believe to be true, and when better evidence comes along, I'm willing to admit that I was wrong and adjust my views. So do you let people go on believing in something you see as a delusion, just so they can be happier? If your friend was convinced their beat up clunker was actually a red hot Porsche and that made them the happiest guy alive, would you point out that he's wrong? Or do you just bite your tongue? Is it okay if he keeps it to himself, but once he starts bragging you should tell him what you think?


  1. Personally I see the wishy washy theist just as bad as the atheist, but without the good bits. Well, I'd better define what I'm talking about with atheist here. I'm talking about the atheist who doesn't just not believe, but believes that there is a better alternative to religion. That includes scepticism, ethics, a structured objective morality.

    To me, it's like the fable of the tower built on the rock compared to the tower built on the sand. At least structured religion gives them a rock to build their tower.

  2. Maybe it's a 'glass half full' 'glass half empty' kinda situation. You think they shouldn't believe it because there isn't a reasonable amount of evidence to verify it. I think they want to believe it because there isn't too much evidence to dismiss it. (This could actually start up a whole new debate of course.)

    In the end, whether believing we can live after we die is daft or not isn't their point here. Their point is that believing that we can live after we die isn't doing any harm. So long as there is a modicum of doubt regarding whether it is possible or not, they can feel justified in believing in it for the psychological benefit.

    (I think it's a lot dafter than some people like to make out. "A man experienced heavy brain damage in a car accident today. Fortunately it had absolutely no effect on his ability to think or control his body. It turns out that you don't need a brain for that because all you really need is your immortal immaterial soul. Here's Frank with the weather...")

    I think the exorcism example is a bad choice. Most Roman Catholics don't do exorcisms on people anymore. They are more likely to cleanse a house of demons than a specific person. Exorcising a person can often be abusive.

    The beliefs we are talking about here are a little more subtle than believing your clunker is a Porsche. We can see that a clunker isn't a Porsche, so that would not be a good enough analogy. Believing that their clunker is really a Porsche and only looks like a clunker would be more akin to the sort of belief we have here. The benefit would be that they would consider their car to be better than it looks, but would still recognise how it appears to other people. There would also be an issue of how literally they were taking that belief. (Do they really think it's a Porsche, or is it a metaphor for looking past ordinary material wealth and thinking of things in terms of their personal value?)

    In the end I think the best answer is "it depends on the belief". Unfortunately, it's not a terribly simple answer...

  3. Okay, I guess the Porsche was a bad metaphor. Sam Harris summed it up better (which is why he's a professional author and I am just a lowly blogger):

    "With religious moderates, you have people talking about just wanting meaning in their lives, which I argue is a total non-sequitur when it comes down to justifying your belief in God.

    If I told you that I thought there was a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in my backyard, and you asked me, why do you think that? I say, this belief gives my life meaning, or my family draws a lot of joy from this belief, and we dig for this diamond every Sunday and we have this gigantic pit in our lawn. I would start to sound like a lunatic to you. You can't believe there really is a diamond in your backyard because it gives your life meaning. If that's possible, that's self-deception that nobody wants."

    Anyway, I don't go out of my way to debate people, no matter what level of religiosity they are. But when even a liberal deist starts saying stuff like that to me, I feel like I should respond...even if they're not hurting anyone.

  4. "even if they're not hurting anyone."

    They are though, they are hurting themselves. Even in the example from Harris, these people are wasting their time digging for something that is not there. Most of these people tithe and give up part of their money. Where does that money go? To things like recently in my state, Oklahoma, where people were trying to build a statue of the ten commandments on government property. Now that is affecting me. My tax money was wasted on a lawsuit that the state had no chance to win.

    You can't say no one is being hurt because in the very least they are hurting themselves and their one life.

  5. BeamStalk:

    Well the liberal deists/agnostic theists I'm talking about aren't ones who go to church or tithe or anything like that. I mean people who don't associate with organized religion, but like to believe in "something" because it makes them happy.

    There are plenty of liberal/nice/etc religious people who still affect us exactly in the ways you describe. I don't feel bad debating them. It's the people who truly have a personal kind of spirituality that I'm talking about (however rare they are).

  6. They are rare and yes they are not the first ones I would target for a debate also. I just can't say they are not hurting anyone. A lot of them still spend time and money on it. I guess you could say I am wasting my time and money on my hobbies, mainly video games, but I guess it just seems to me like a waste. I think that is what I am trying to say. Getting my point across clearly is not always my strong suit.

  7. In a universe without purpose, there is no such thing as a wasted action. There is no end to work towards, so every action is equitable.

    I like to debate these sorts of things, so for me, its situationally dependent. If I'm in a church session (for whatever reason), I usually don't say anything because the church setting usually precludes faith -- it's for the faithful, so it would be kind of silly of me to start questioning faith as an obvious outsider (as opposed to someone who maybe believes, is searching, so asks questions about faith).

    But if I'm just hanging out, I'll state my disagreement. I love dialectical discussion, even if I'm a bit ham-fisted at it (I express myself in writing more clearly, I think).

  8. My mother, who is a wishy washy agnostic/deist, has the feelings of wanting to believe, and sometimes, this is what keeps her going on days that she really misses her husband (he died of cancer). Days that she can barely get out of the hourse, let alone off the couch, she just wants to believe he's in a better place and that he's there with her, and if this keeps her going, I'm not going to say anything otherwise to her.

  9. The wishy-washy ones seem harmless, at least to others, so what if they want to waste their time? Well, as you pointed out about your mother, it seems to me that those folk are much more gullible and much more open to "signs" and thus, acting upon irrational thoughts. Again, it may not seem like a problem if they're no harm to anyone but themselves, but just how much of that sort of thing can be kept just to one's self? How much of that behavior may directly harm someone else? How much of being exposed to someone engaging in such behavior will perhaps inspire someone else to behave similarly? It's a tough issue, and one I find very similar to drug or alcohol use.

    Unlike the religious view, where it doesn't matter how you become religious as long as you do, the atheist view shouldn't be the same. It should not be a mission to make everyone atheists by any means necessary, but rather the mission should be to instill critical thinking skills in people which more than likely will lead them to an atheist position but even if it doesn't, it could very well safeguard those who just want to believe because it makes them feel good from seriously endangering themselves or anyone else.

  10. "That's the argument that always gets me. Does it matter? My mom is the same way."

    That is the two-headed hydra that we call religion. One of the heads is named Truth and the other is named Comfort.

    By responding to Truth with arguments against theism and attacking theism's claims to truth, you lop off its head.

    But then Comfort comes up and says: "My faith comforts me! I don't wanna die! My faith is personal! It's true to me! Why should it matter if things are true or not? Hey, just let me believe what I want to believe! It's not hurting anybody!"

    When you show that it is not a mere form of recreation and that it can cause harm, you lop off Comfort's head.

    And then Truth and Comfort resurrect themselves and Truth says "Ah, but you can't prove us wrong!"

    And the cycle begins again.

    The fact is that these religious philosophies make implicit claims about the nature of outside reality whether that fact is recognized or not. No religious person wants to have his or her religion to be a mere form of recreation, comforting fantasy, or soothing pastime.

    This disingenuous appeal to solace is probably why I always found religious belief so off-putting from the get go, even as a small child.