Thursday reading

October 6, 2022 • 12:00 pm

I haven’t yet subscribed to Freddie deBoer’s Substack site, but I get emails when he posts, and you can read this one for free. And you should (click on screenshot):

First deBoer attacks “belief in belief” (a term I believe was coined by Dan Dennett): the “little people” argument adduced by nonbelievers who claim that religion is good because it’s a form of social glue, and also because it fills the need to believe in something: the “god-shaped hole” that we supposedly all have. He said this in an earlier post on Jon Haidt:

. . . belief in belief is belief in delusion – worse, in other people’s delusion. It is one thing to argue that religion is true or is not true. It is another to say “it isn’t, incidentally, but go on pretending, it’s good for you.” In the inherent condescension of that attitude I see something worse than Christopher Hitchens ever unleashed against the faithful. Whatever Christianity is, it is not worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Judaism is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Islam is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. And in fact if you take the precepts of those religions at all seriously, you can see praying to the God-shaped hole for what it is: idolatry.

Now, however, deBoer sees the rise of another form of religion, one that has occasionally been adduced by Andrew Sullivan:

There’s a new wrinkle to all of this: nowadays I frequently encounter people online who not only say that postmodern religion (post-belief religion) is good, I regularly hear that there has never been another kind. That is, I am told that, according to an extremely tendentious and evidence-light perspective, pretty much nobody ever believed any of the supernatural claims in religious stories – not the burning bush, not water into wine, no splitting of the moon, no siddhis, none of the supernatural events common to Mahayana Buddhism. In this telling nobody, or almost nobody, has ever believed in transcendent extra-material deities or their magical works in the world of man. Do these people think Jesus’s apostles never really believed that he died and rose again – not metaphorically, but actually, in the physical and literal realm – but went out to spread his gospel anyway? Unclear! Haidt cited St. Augustine and Pascal as two people who spoke to his idea about the god-shaped hole. Neither of them professed any belief in belief as such, any belief in belief with no actual divine referent.

This is projection on a whole other level, to me. People find that they can’t summon belief in the supernatural, but they want what people who can summon that belief have.

This “projection” is of course pure bushwa, on the level of Andrew Sullivan instructing me that no Christian really ever took Genesis as literal truth—a claim that you could make only if you’re either completely ignorant of the history of Christianity or deliberately dissimulating.

If you think that Church Fathers like Aquinas, Augustine the Hippo (that’s a joke, folks) or Tertullian saw the Bible as pure metaphor, you don’t know your theology. (Yes, they saw the Bible as metaphorical in some bits, but also as literal truth as a whole.) I lay this out in Faith Versus Fact.

deBoer takes apart this idea of Relgion as Metaphorical Comfort:

If you want to say that belief in the supernatural elements of religion has always been complicated; if you want to say that at least some doubt in the existence of God is common to lived religious practice; if you want to say that it’s all more complicated than I’ve laid it out here – fine. But I continue to find belief-in-belief to be a dead end. I cannot for the life of me understand why you’d engage in religious practice without any belief in the actual transcendent claims on which religion is based rather than simply participating in moral philosophy. It is admittedly difficult to craft a transcendently/objectively true moral philosophy without some conception of a deity that determines right and wrong, but people have been working on it for a couple thousand years. I also understand the desire for the community and fraternity that religion can engender, but surely these are possible without religion, and our Bowling Alone present (the death of communal life in contemporary times) is a bigger and separate issue. The basic question remains: why bother with the bric a brac if you know that the crucifix you pray towards reflects only a deluded carpenter who tried and tried and finally got Rome’s attention? There are many pretty buildings in the world. You can eat your own bread and drink your own wine. You can burn your own incense. It’s all available to you.

The only way that such belief is justifiable is if you admit that you don’t accept any of the truth claims of the religion but simply like seeing the candles, hearing the choir, and smelling the incense—and think that it’s good for society to have such rituals. To me, the real believers that enable the incense-sniffers are a drag on society, though, and we always have books, soccer, and wine for entertainment. Why is smelling the incense when you lack all belief better than smelling the bouquet of a fine old Bordeaux?

22 thoughts on “Thursday reading

  1. I’ve been a paid subscriber to Freddy deBoer’s Substack for a while and have found it well worth the money. The man writes a lot! And most of it is on point, although I am not a Marxist, as Freddy is. Thank you, Jerry, for bringing his work to my attention.

    1. I am trying to decide whether to support Freddie’s substack. He’s a smart guy with opinions that in my view vary from obnoxious (Israel is an apartheid state, revolutionary communism) to on the money (school problems arise from low student ability, anti-blank-slate and atheism). I found his recent book Cult of Smart very interesting. I like confronting contrary views – maybe it will change my mind.

      1. Ditto. Totally agree. He does provide thinking points and it is a real delight to be challenged on a large variety of topics

  2. A pop postmodernist approach to religion can justify the claim that “people have never believed religion was literally true” by getting completely bogged down in the impossibility of finding any clear meaning to the terms “people,””never,””belief,””religion,” and “true” while attempting to drag the skeptic down with them. If that doesn’t work, they can jump back and question the suspect and sloppy process of “justifying a claim” in the first place.

    I think most people who Believe in Belief and find it satisfying do so because they were either raised with religion or find it fascinating and, at some level, they do kinda think it’s maybe true. They’re like skeptics who refuse to play with a Ouija board when asked not because they think doing so encourages superstition, but because they recently saw the movie The Exorcist and Linda Blair fiddling around with a Ouija board is what started it. It doesn’t work but why chance it?

  3. I’ve never fully understood the religious belief for its “morality” or its “promise.” Basically, the gist is, if you believe and follow the precepts, you exchange this life, which you will give over to worshipping the almighty and proselytizing, for the next, where you will have eternal bliss. Nobody seems to understand why a god would want to be worshipped by humans, nor why he’d go to the lengths of creating a huge, vast universe in which we’re a tiny piece and only we worship him. Then, nobody seems to question what eternal bliss might be (I always ask what we’d do to break up the monotony after the first 2-3 billion years of bliss, but nobody gets the joke). It seems to me to be the pinnacle of selfishness, rather than selflessness, because, in fact, the eternal bliss part is the only reason why people want it. So, believers are totally selfish in the hopes of eternal bliss. Yet, they think that they are on some kind of moral high ground, all the while, nothing they describe, and almost nothing described in the religious literature, really is moral high ground. And, they end up following morally vacuous leaders such as the last president. Go figure.

    1. What’s rather horrifying to contemplate is that one could, in principle, altered any conscious mind to make it simply feel “bliss”, and nothing else…no curiosity, no interest, no boredom, no desire for company or interaction or for change…and if it were a truly omnipotent being doing things, what could prevent it? Maybe this is what Satan was rebelling against? (Taking arguendo that such things could be real, which there’s no reason to think they are or could be, thank Cat).

  4. A few years ago, the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini questioned a cross-section of his church-going friends and colleagues about their beliefs. They were all well-to-do, Oxbridge intellectuals like himself, apart from the fact that they were church members. He expected them to agree with his suggestion that a lot of the Bible was allegorical or symbolic: for instance, that the crucifixion and resurrection were not literally true.

    Not a bit of it! Most of them were perplexed at his suggestion, and insisted that they believed in the literal truth of the entire Gospel account. So it’s not just a question of thinking that belief is good for other people: many folk, even intelligent ones, are content to think that it’s good for themselves.

    1. If they are so convinced, would they be in favour of teaching it in history and science classes? I too have encountered people who began by saying that they believe in the creation and resurrection. But when I asked them if they would teach it as part of science and history, they hesitated. Then they started talking about ‘religious truth’ not being the same as ‘scientific truth’. They implicitly recognized a difference and, in effect, were using ‘truth’ as a label.

      There are people who would welcome the opportunity to teach their religion, and only theirs, in science and history class; but there are others who, even though they say they believe their religion to be true, hesitate when forced to confront the possible consequences of their beliefs.

  5. Why would religious types engage in mass killing if they did not believe but only liked the buildings, etc.? Why didn’t martyrs simply repudiate their beliefs rather than be burnt on a stake? They don’t kill for a metaphor (in their eyes).

  6. The only way that such belief is justifiable is if you admit that you don’t accept any of the truth claims of the religion but simply like seeing the candles, hearing the choir, and smelling the incense—and think that it’s good for society to have such rituals.

    And don’t forget that it’s good for me. Many of us live in communities where profession of belief brings respect. If it is known that we do not believe, knowing that we at least defer to those who do can be helpful to us. When we decide that we can no longer live that lie, we have to accept the loss of that respect.

  7. Inspired by Steve Pollard’s comment, I’d like to riff a bit on his main theme. Since it appears that most if not all religions begin as cults of personality, I submit that both the conservative and liberal religious have in common the core belief that the central, seminal figure of their religion did really exist and had unassailable divine authority. Indeed, this is the sine qua non of anyone who professes a faith. Thus, Jews believe that Moses really existed; Christians, whether of the Sully or Ken Ham stripe, believe Jesus really existed. In the same way, Muslims, Muhammad; Buddhists, Siddhartha Gautama; Jains, Mahavir; Parsis, Zoroaster; Rastafarians, Haile Selassie. (OK, this last one did exist, but my point about unassailable divine authority still obtains.) Hell, even Hindus believe that Rama existed and will triumphantly return to Ayodhya some day. This belief in the perfect personage is the hardest to disabuse the religious of.

    1. I see you conveniently left out the Mormons. Joseph Smith certainly existed and the golden tablets were proof of unassailable divine authority.

      1. For the sake of my argument, I postulate the Mormons, 7th Day Adventists, and Christian Scientists as Christians.

        1. Meditating further on your point, I see Mormonism as a cult of personality around a cult of personality. This could apply to 7th Day Adventism, Christian Science, et al., but the LDS church is the most successful of those nominally Christian cults that arose in the 19th century that it can be considered a separate religion from Christianity.

  8. Nietzsche had an amusing and obvious take on Christian belief (Human All Too Human, section 117):

    The Everyday Christian.—If Christian dogmas of a revengeful God, universal sinfulness, election by divine grace, and the danger of everlasting damnation were true, it would be a sign of weakmindedness and lack of character not to become a priest or an apostle or a hermit and, in fear and trembling, to work solely for one’s own salvation. It would be senseless to lose sight of one’s eternal advantage for the sake of temporal comfort. If we may assume that these things are at any rate believed true, then the every day Christian cuts a miserable figure; he is a man who really cannot count to three, and who precisely on account of his spiritual imbecility does not deserve to be punished so harshly as Christianity promises to punish him.

  9. Once you abdicate the responsibility to back up your beliefs with evidence then anything becomes possible – including the many atrocities that have happened in the name of religion throughout history. If you’re going to play at religion because it makes you feel good you better stay very clear that you are responsible for your beliefs, words and actions.

    There is zero objective evidence that God exists, no evidence upon which to characterize such a God or to know what such a God would want. Therefore we can have no idea of God that isn’t of our own manufacture. But by dissociating themselves from this manufacture believers absolve themselves of any responsibility of evidence. They create their God but take no responsibility for it.

  10. Freddie deBoer: It is admittedly difficult to craft a transcendently/objectively true moral philosophy without some conception of a deity that determines right and wrong,

    I always cringe when some atheists hand this over to the religious – as if there is some default to “sure if there’s a God morality will be objective” (but there is no God).

    The religious shouldn’t be made to feel so comfortable and justified in that assumption, given there aren’t good arguments for it in the first place.

    It should be obvious that a concept which is intrinsically tied to a particular Person (Omnipotent or otherwise) – as the religious claim for morality – cannot be objective.

  11. I don’t think belief in belief is meant as anything other than a cynical atheistic view of the utility of religion. It is a little people argument and nothing else at all. Rituals and rites dreamed up to simulate a religion held to be true by its adherents are empty gestures in the dark. Unsatisfying and ultimately rather silly. Just as daft is the idea that one might choose a religion to follow, just like choosing a new hat at the milliners. And to stick with hats, I think the way it works is that The Choosing Hat of Religion picks you, not the other way round. And even that doesn’t apply to the vast majority of believers, who simply continue to follow the faith in which they were born.

    Is there a benefit to going to church/temple/shul without actual faith? Yes, a social one, but it’s not as if it will do anything for you beyond that. And to be honest, it is a bit insulting to stand there mouthing the words but thinking about pruning your roses: the believers present really ought to chuck you out rather than be grateful you bothered, whilst quietly harbouring the hope you will see the light and be saved. I’m an atheist because I cannot believe in something I think untrue. Life might be a more simple and sure affair if I had actual belief in a religion, but I don’t, and wanting that certainty when I have chosen to be a grown up is simply crying over spilt milk.

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