Thomas's Rant

Story, myth, writings

The Atheist, the Believer and the Confusion on both sides

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This is another piece written for my philosophy class. I’m sure there are “logical” holes and “unverified statements” in it but, honestly, I think it’s a tautology to correctly reason for the inappropriateness of reason. It’s like using emotion to be impassive. (This is another article in my series surreptitiously themed, ‘philosophy is just applying the logic systems of reason to experience, feelings and perception and then wondering why it all doesn’t make sense’…)

“The Christian begins the recital of his faith with the words, ‘I believe’, and it would be an utter distortion to construe this as anything like ‘I have inquired and found it reasonable to conclude’.”

“A person’s belief in anything, including religion, should be directly dependent on the evidence in favour of it.”

Discuss. Is the first of these claims right? The second? Both? Neither? Explain why.

These two statements represent the philosophic debate surrounding religious belief. The atheist thinks religious belief is ‘irrational’ because it is not verified by evidence. The theist argues that the basis of religious belief is not evidence but ‘faith’. I will argue that both misunderstand each other. The second statement is more incorrect as it treats religious belief as if it were a scientific hypothesis instead of a personal conviction. These things are very different. The first statement, made by Richard Taylor, is more correct but Taylor goes on to use faith as supporting religious belief which, as we shall see, is also problematic.

The contention here surrounds the definition of belief – there are two conflicting interpretations involved. The first defines belief as conditioned and adjusted by evidence – this belief we shall call a hypothesis. This is exemplified by the second statement above. The second definition is not conditioned or affected by external evidence – this belief is what Michael Scriven considers as simply confidence in an idea. I believe the impression is much stronger than this; it is really a personal conviction, as represented in the first statement. A hypothesis and a personal conviction are very different things, the former involving knowledge content – a hypothesis expresses fact content about the external world – the latter experience content – a personal conviction is subjective, internal and feeling-based.

Of these two ideas, it is important to note that one is not simply a poor or invalid version of the other. Consider: an incorrect hypothesis is distinctly different from a personal conviction. A personal conviction is expressive of personal experience or subjective impressions. Examples include statement like, ‘I believe in true love’ or ‘I really enjoy playing tennis.’ These statements cannot be ‘proved’ using external evidence as they involve some internal personal evaluation – they are subjective. Contrast this with statements like, ‘I believe I can jump from a ten-storey building and gravity will not pull me down,’ or ‘I believe I can drink arsenic and not die.’ Apart from being externally verifiable through evidence, these statements also do not involve subjective evaluation – they have no feeling content or ‘meaning’ without their factual value.

The cause of contention regarding religious belief is that these two concepts – hypothesis and personal conviction – have become mixed up, their definitions blurred. The situation is rather like that involving a smoker who enjoys smoking so much, it gives her such a personal buzz, that she claims it must be good for her despite the evidence against this. The personal conviction, ‘I enjoy smoking’ has been confused with the hypothesis concerning the physical effects of smoking on the human body, ‘I believe smoking is good for me.’ Examination of the physical effects of smoking (the evidence) by a scientist can invalidate the hypothesis but, unfortunately, for many a smoker this does not affect the personal conviction that smoking is enjoyable. Similarly, the theist’s personal conviction that God exists is not threatened by any evidence to the contrary, however this is only a personal conviction, I am not sure what the hypothesis is that the atheist attempts to invalidate. It may be something like, ‘A physical God exists somewhere overlooking our lives.’ Note that if this is the hypothesis, there is no physical evidence to examine here. God as a physical presence technically cannot be proven to not exist any more that it is possible to prove any negative statement. The atheists position here is that, since physical evidence cannot prove God’s existence, God is merely unlikely.

It has always concerned me that the atheist usually attempts to prove belief in God is irrational rather than harmful. The implication that anything irrational is necessarily valueless or worthless is a disturbing disparagement of important irrational elements in life such as emotional experiences, creativity, love, meaning, etc. Some more extreme atheists have argued that religious belief is harmful but these usually involve criticism of elements only peripherally associated with belief such religious wars, paedophile priests, conservative moral values or hypocritical church leaders. Science might equally be disparaged with reference to nuclear disasters, pollution or chemical warfare. These unflattering elements have no vital link to the core of the belief and prove nothing.

So what is the core of religious belief? To get to the answer to this question we need to examine the common traits of religious experience not popular hearsay or negative offshoot ideas. Michael Scriven says that the popularity of an idea such as religious belief cannot be trusted as evidence in its favour. I agree with this view – just because a large group of people believe something does not mean that they may not all be wrong. But Scriven contradicts himself when he goes on to dismiss religious belief based on refuting the popular views of religious people. This is not examining the physical effects of the belief – it is listening to hearsay.

If Scriven were a medieval doctor trying to discover a cure for disease, what he does here would be like listening to the superstitious stories of the survivors who claim that “I prayed to God,” or “I wore this lucky charm to keep off the devil.” He ignores the physical experience of his patients who, unbeknownst to them, may have saved themselves by simply washing more frequently. Such a doctor ignores the physical symptoms and listens to superstition and hearsay.

The ‘symptoms’ of religion do not include the usual ideas which atheists ‘disprove’ as ridiculous such as a physical God or the system of metaphysical punishment and reward, or even ideas like the Trinity. The essential religious element is a powerful awe-inspiring feeling, of wonder, of the numinous, a strong emotional intuition for a sense of rightness or emotional truth. This feeling is the basis for the personal conviction of religious belief. The internal source of this feeling is the reason why external evidence does not affect such a belief. Furthermore, the conviction ‘God exists’ is only one particular expression of what the religious experience is or means. By challenging this conviction, the atheist philosophy only challenges the particular verbal expression and not the religious experience itself. This is attacking only an associated idea again.

In reality, this verbal expression – ‘belief in God’ – only amounts to something like a metaphor which attempts to describe the religious experience. There is some objection to this idea by religious people as it seems to belittle God, but, significantly, every word we use to describe strong feelings is a metaphor to some extent. When I feel sad, this is an indistinct personal feeling which I may gauge as ‘sad’ or ‘sorrowful’ or ‘suicidal’ or ‘a bit down’. When we experience a personal attraction to another person we may call this ‘love’ or ‘lust’ or maybe I just ‘like’ them. It is significant that we often cannot easily tell which it is. This shows that the words we use are only expressions, verbal approximations for emotional feelings. However, these effects definitely exist to us despite their relatively insubstantial nature and our imprecision in naming each state definitively. Scriven dismisses metaphoric religion on the basis that most religious people deny this reading but once again, he does not listen to his own council – he is listening to hearsay and popular ideas instead of addressing the basis of belief.

So it seems that both sides in this debate are making vital errors. The religious believer, overcome with a powerful feeling of the numinous, explains this as ‘belief in God’, then makes the mistake of over-interpreting this literally, positing a physical God, and denying the feeling and metaphoric basis of the ‘power that fills his soul’. The atheist then comes along and correctly refutes the over-interpreted idea, but rather than criticising the theist’s verbal expression of ‘belief’ as too general or confusing, he dismisses the religious experience altogether. This rightly offends the theist because the atheist is essentially censuring him for having a meaningful experience, indeed this experience is the source of any and all awe-inspiring feelings in anyone’s life. Just as no one is necessarily unable to experience love or anger, even the atheist can feel the awe-inspiring ‘religious’ feeling too, it is simply that the atheist refrains from naming the experience as anything other than ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’. (This vagueness may, disturbingly, devalue such an experience, which is what can happen if you over-emphasise rational thought).

So in conclusion, the first statement is closer to the truth because the second disparages religious belief based on an inappropriate definition – it says all forms of belief must be based on hypothesis which is not the case. However, the first statement is used by Taylor to suggest ‘faith’ is the basis of religious belief and ‘faith’ is another cloaking metaphor for the religious feeling which is only called upon because it is conveniently vaguer and so less refutable by scientific hypothesis. However, later in Taylor’s article he quotes Hume describing faith as “a continuing miracle in [a believer’s] own person.” What could this bizarre sentence mean if it is not a metaphor expressing poetically a numinous feeling-impression? Until either side of the argument is willing to admit the experiential nature of belief or define properly their use of the word ‘belief’ then both sides will be arguing against each other’s own misunderstandings.

Written by tomtomrant

23 November 2011 at 12:16 pm

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