Should We Accept Religious Beliefs?

The head shaman of the religious community Altan Serge in Buryatia.

In my last post on outgrowing my childhood religious beliefs, I said this:

Some ideas are mostly self-evident and others just aren’t available to you…. So I believe the earth rotates around the sun…and that biological evolution is true, but I can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead…or that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. And it’s not like I have to try to believe the former two things and not believe the latter two.

This claim elicited the following slightly edited comment from Professor Darrell Arnold.  

This issue of trying to believe things is interesting. We have all kind of beliefs. I can look outside and see that it is raining and then believe what my eyes tell me. I can feel hungry and believe that I’m hungry. These are two examples of beliefs that are even more self-evident than those you mention. (Professor Arnold is right about this.)

Other beliefs, like the belief in atomic particles or evolutionary theory, require an education. Yet because the evidence is quite straightforward, they generate consensus once someone has learned the methods of research in these areas and how correctly examine the evidence.

Then there are the metaphysical beliefs such as those you mention (as well as beliefs about ethics or aesthetics.) When it comes to metaphysics it’s difficult to know what counts as good evidence.

But what is apparent is the degree to which people rationalize their religious beliefs. To really believe in God, the father almighty, that a man walked on water or rose from the dead or that the spirit of the universe is contained in a wafer — that takes some hard-core suspension of disbelief and (a lot of) rationalization. It’s both frightening and fascinating that we are so ready to do this for views that we have been told are sacrosanct.

As evidence for such far-fetched beliefs, people often appeal to “inner experience” as evidence. Yet there is no clear analysis of what type of inner experience would be adequate for forming a belief in miracles, the resurrection of the dead or that some god is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing. Clearly, as Hume pointed out, there is always a more plausible account for a miracle than that the miracle actually happened. And it’s easy to argue that finite beings can’t experience the infinite. 

Yet there is no argument or evidence that would suffice, for the adamant believers, to falsify their beliefs. They believe because they want to and the evidence presented for these beliefs is disingenuous—usually, it is based on religious experience. Those who have had such experiences then accept, normally whole cloth, the group of beliefs that their particular religion are supposed to believe. The religious experience, of course, doesn’t justify those beliefs.

One of the most interesting things about religious views is the set of social conventions and institutions set up to try to guarantee their unquestioning acceptance. Another is the certainty many believers claim to have despite a clear lack of evidence for their views.

Those in religious institutions, of course, have material interests in maintaining those institutions. But much of the rationale behind the dogmatist’s effort to ensure they never doubt is the deep insecurity of the dogmatists themselves. When the reasons for belief are so poor, believers take comfort knowing that others remain convinced of the ideas.

In any case, fear and intimidation are cornerstones of religious education. In standard Christian and Muslim traditions, children are taught they will be eternally punished if they have false beliefs, and that they should never question tradition and the authority of their religious institutions. So not only must believers engage in difficult mental gymnastics to try to sound rational to themselves but those who oversee the institutions must work hard to try to ensure that believer never begin to doubt. 

To reiterate, some ideas are self-evident. We don’t have to work hard to believe that it’s raining when it’s raining or that we’re hungry when we’re hungry. Other ideas require hard work and continual suspension of disbelief.

The paradox is that the more difficult religious ideas are often held with the greatest certainty. But believing in them requires continual effort which raises questions about what existential and social functions such ideas play. Why are they thought so important that billions of people suspend rational thinking and accept them? And why do institutions work so diligently to try to ensure that believers don’t dare question them?

10 thoughts on “Should We Accept Religious Beliefs?

  1. Both you John and Professor Arnold exhibit the stunningly ignorant superstitious
    confinement to materialistic; physical perspective and fail to grasp the empirically sound spiritual dimension and evidence behind convoluted religious dogmas or metaphors.
    The essence of a universalist religion of believing in a cosmic unconditional lover and experiencing an intimate relationship with such lover and fellow beings is based on years of vigorous questioning and doubting half -baked materialistic speculations, as well as silly pseudo religious dogmas.
    Professor Arnold starts well about self evident evidence in the physical realm, such as hunger and then he rightly states that when it gets to deeper layers of reality such apparent self evidence is no longer obvious.
    But then he makes the superstitious materialistic turn, like you John, and abandons the spiritual realm altogether by putting it into the ‘too hard’ basket and equating it with fear, tradition and or delusion-based beliefs, not realising that in fact the two of you are engaged in precisely such materialistic superstitious and shallow enterprise.
    Phenomena, such as infinite wisdom, love in an eternally living supernaturally intelligent God are mere empty superstitions to you, because you haven’t even begun
    to experience these because of your materialistic close mindedness.
    But you can spend the rest of your lives in shallow sophistry-like intellectualisations and miss the most profoundly fulfilling and beautiful substratum of existence: the living divine dimension. God bless you and may you wake up one day to that magnificent living-loving dimension; the only profound meaning giver of life.

  2. Believers can ‘botize faith, which would push their faith to one side– make it less harmful.

    An advanced robot Jesus could provide a family with a feeling of spiritual security.
    A ‘bot Jesus can preach the Gospel to the family; break bread and drink wine with them; and a very advanced waterproof Jesus-‘bot would be able to walk on water.

  3. …John, I sidestepped a direct reply to this article– as it is a very broad subject.

    “Why are they thought so important that billions of people suspend rational thinking and accept them?”

    What I can do is provide one discrete factor: religion existed for thousands of years; a few hundred years ago religion gave birth to ideology. When Communism foundered three decades ago, so did all ideology. Anarchism, libertarianism, socialism, fascism, etc., are antiquarian. Equality also ended when Communism ended. If ideology had not finished, religion would have diminished more since 1989. Thus religion can be thought of as a form of ad hoc socialism, continuing sans ideology.

  4. Many years ago, our town was infested with rats. In our house courtyard, at night, you could see them insolently scurrying along beside the walls and going in and out of their holes with little care for people walking across the yard. I hated them! So, I set up a trap and placed it beside one of the walls in the yard. For the next few days I would always find a dead rat in the trap. But then it stopped! I persisted in setting up the trap and tried to change the bait, but in the morning, sometimes the bait would be gone and the trap snapped shut but there was no dead rat in the trap. I decided to find out. I put up a chair a safe distance from the trap and watched for a good part of the night. To my surprise many rats passed beside the trap without going for the bait! Have they learnt about the danger of being killed? I asked myself. Some big ones tried steal the bait without being caught, obviously aware of the danger of the trap. But here is what brought tears to my eyes and made me feel deeply sorry for setting up the trap; big or adult rates passed by the trap without being tempted by the bait , but then a small rat appeared and it immediately went for the bait when all of a sudden and adult rat appeared and rushed towards it and bit it! The little rat squeaked loudly and ran away from the trap. Obviously, the older rat was teaching the young rat not to eat that dangerous bait!

    Now, if that young rat did not learn its lesson of not to get too close to the trap despite the enticing smell of the bait it would die and would carry away with him from the gene pool of the rats its lack of ability to learn. The adult rat did not have to prove to the young rat why it should not try to eat the bait. It sufficed it to just ‘tell’ the young rat by biting it.

    There is great selective pressure on mammals and many birds such as crows to learn. In man, because of language, it became believing without proof on being told by the members of the group especially the elders who knew from personal experience and tradition what to go for and what to avoid. The vast majority of what we are being told are useful and the tendency to develop tenacity to hold to what we are being taught is good for our survival. That is why individuals follow the group and do what they do. It is biological! Rationality and proof are a later cultural development which will stay weaker than blind belief because there are no selective pressures upon it; those who do not think rationally will continue to survive and procreate. It is therefor no surprise that people accept religious beliefs without proof and would rather follow the group of believers than being tossed hither and thither aimlessly by a few disbelievers. The religious institutions are the manifest body of the group of believers.

    But here is a catch; one can also teach children to reject stories of miracles and supernatural beliefs without rational proof and they will believe you without proof!!

    As for my story with the rats, it ended amicably with me making some atonements for my crime against intelligent beings who loved their young and were keenly aware of death. I tried to block all holes leading to the main villa, became very careful not to leave any bits of food lying around inside the villa and did something unusual which relatives and friends found very funny; I made peace with the rats by designating a small corner in the yard where every night I placed some bits of leftover food to discourage them from attempting to make further explorations by trying to enter the villa.

  5. In his comment on the previous post, Mr. Chris Crawford articulated the best guidance for living a meaningful life: strive to “make our world a better place”. I wholeheartedly agree. To his guidance I would only add that we should be tolerant of the beliefs of other individuals, no matter how strange or illogical they may seem.

  6. nice story. agree that children generally believe what their parents say because it had a survival advantage.

  7. Thanks Andris, Alhazin and others:

    Andris, though most people who argue against miracles and the various beliefs I did are materialists, there is actually nothing in what I wrote that necessarily affirms materialism. One could be a panpsychic and still believe that there is no good evidence for accepting the story of Jesus walking on the water, that there was a literal resurrection from the dead or that God is a “father” or “almighty.” I guess we could debate whether the views of Whitehead’s process philosophy are atheistic, since the foundation of being he imagines is neither infinite nor all-powerful. Whatever the answer to that question, there are still various spiritual traditions that are best viewed as atheistic — this applies to some western forms of Buddhism, which advocate that we cultivate deep spiritual exercises, though they would reject all the beliefs I mentioned. The point is: everything I’ve said is compatible with some spiritual traditions (and even some religions). John labeled the blog post a certain way, which is provocative. But in what I wrote I don’t take a definitive stand on the question of whether we should accept any religious beliefs whatsoever. (That would require, among other things, a definition of religion.)

    I can say that I do not have any doubt that many such beliefs like that in the resurrection of the dead have some metaphoric power. But here’s the rub: While most Catholics, for example, interpret major portions of the bible metaphorically, they tend to take the Jesus miracle stories literally. They also tend to accept a literal interpretation of the resurrection and of stories of the ascension into heaven. In fact, numerous theologians in the past 40 years have lost their teaching posts at Catholic universities because of having embraced mere metaphorical readings of some of these things. This is unfortunate, especially from an institution that maintains that faith and reason are not supposed to conflict. The point I was trying to make is that there is not a good reason for the literal belief in any of the notions I discussed.

    Alhazan wrote a beautiful story hinting at one of the key social functions of reason. Religious narratives reinforce our social identities. As Durkheim puts it, sociality is the heart of religion. One of the reasons that members of religious organizations likely work so hard to ensure that people do not stop believing in dogmatic narratives is that those members sense the social value of common belief, as well as common ritual — which facilitate collective action. Other than that, I think those who see that there is little good justification for their beliefs often feel insecure about them — that too is allayed when large numbers of people share the dogmatic, if ill-found beliefs.

    In our description of reason I don’t think nearly enough attention is paid to how it is used to facilitate our social lives. Instead, the focus is normally on how it serves to facilitate our understanding of the world around us. Scientific explanations here serve us well. Nonetheless, given the evolutionary advantage of belonging to social groups, another extremely important function of reason is to facilitate social coordination. Religious and political narratives particularly serve this latter role. Indeed, given the importance of social belonging, we not only engage in myth making of a sort (such as again, the agnostic, Durkheim, acknowledged) but exert much energy finding rationalizations to agree with those in our social groups. I do though think that many traditionalist religious explanations that are used for generating social coordination can be replaced by more enlightened narratives. But to describe this in more detail is quite involved.

  8. A was looking for the laughter emoji. You’re right of course. There is some hope that younger US Americans are more enlightened about these questions than older ones. But a look at the growing population demographics shows that those parts of the world most prone to superstitious belief are growing at exponentially higher rates than those experiencing different tendencies.

    To adequately deal with the dangers from climate change that John is writing about, we can at least hope that religions embrace the green turn with increasing enthusiasm. But it’s difficult to be hopeful.

  9. “Should we accept religious beliefs?” Look, if I can smile indulgently at those who say their cold virus was caused by a change in the weather, I can do the same for those who say there is a god almighty and jesus walked on water. As you, dear reader may have gathered, I’m with the late, great Christopher Hitchens on all things religious. We invented gods because we feared death and to explain phenomena we had no understanding of. At least when we worshipped the sun, we were closer to the mark of basic life on earth and mother earth as a natural progression of growth from that. I think it began to be corrupt when men decided a matriarchal society was ripe for a power takeover.It’s rather strange that my sister and I were sent to Sunday school every week but they had a good choir and Mam wanted a lie – in. I can’t ever remember a time when I accepted the dogma though. We smiled indulgently and thought “O.K., but don’ expect us to believe all that rubbish”.|But then, someone asked Mam why she bought a newspaper brim-full of conservative propaganda and she said, “It pays to know what the enemy is thinking”.(She was a south welsh mining valley labour voter all her life). In contrast, My daughter never got sent to church and she’s a firm believer of heaven and often says my old dog (long deceased ) is sitting beside me. I tell her she has a right to believe that, just don’t expect me to. She has special needs so is a bit vulnerable to others’ persuasions.

  10. We merely talk at cross-purposes with fundamentalists. If we were to state that religionists are helping to destroy the world, they could with some reason reply that the world must be destroyed so that their deity will return. New Heaven, New Earth, and all that.
    Fundamentalism is necessarily consistent whereas goo goo religion is not.

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