Religion & Meaning

 If God made the world I could not be that God, for the misery of the world would break my heart. ~ Arthur Schopenhauer 

  1. Are Religious Claims True?

Religious beliefs (miracles, creation myths, life after death, etc.) often contradict ordinary reason and experience.  But are there other reasons to reject religious beliefs? There are. First of all the traditional philosophical arguments for a god’s existence in Western philosophy came under increasing assault during the enlightenment and the attack continues unabated to the present. Today the default position of most academic philosophers is disbelief. The most comprehensive recent survey revealed that about 14% of english-speaking philosophers are theists.1  (The percentage would undoubtedly be smaller in European and Scandinavian countries.) The contemporary philosopher Stewart Shapiro states: “among contemporary philosophers, the seriously religious are a small minority.”2 and the philosopher Dean Zimmerman, himself a believer, admits that “many of our colleagues still regard the persistence of religious belief among otherwise intelligent philosophers as a strange aberration, a pocket of irrationality.”3

Of course nothing follows about the truth of a belief from what the majority of philosophers believe or do not believe, but it is noteworthy that there has been a dramatic change in the proportion of believers among the highly educated in the Western world—from the Middle Ages in Europe where belief in a god was ubiquitous, to the present where it is quite rare, at least among the most highly educated. In light of these considerations, it is not surprising that many schooled in the intricacies of philosophical theology tend to have more doubts about the truth of religious claims than do the uninitiated.

Despite all this religious belief has a near universal appeal. The explanation may be that life is tough, comfort hard to find, and people are soothed by religion. If people find solace in such stories and do not try to force others to believe them, then so be it. Maybe it doesn’t even matter if beliefs are true, as long as the effect of such beliefs are good. If their effect is positive, if people find a refuge in them, if such beliefs make people’s lives go better, if they make them treat others better, then why object to them? Perhaps. Still, despite these concessions, we must point out that damaging results often occur when people begin with false premises. As Voltaire put it, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Furthermore, people not trained in logic often make backward inferences, assuming because their beliefs benefit them—they feel good believing in gods—their premises are confirmed—the gods are real. Moreover, such beliefs often incite violence and hatred toward those who do not share one’s treasured creeds.

So while religious beliefs may give meaning to our lives, those beliefs may still be false. But why then do so many hold religious beliefs? Perhaps there may be good explanations for religious beliefs besides their actually being true, independent of what form those beliefs take. If we can offer such explanations of religious beliefs, we will cast further doubt on their veracity, and the meaning they claim to support.

2. Explaining Religious Beliefs

In addition to the obvious biological basis for religious belief, there are numerous environmental explanations. It is self-evident from the fact that the religions of the world are predominant in certain geographical areas but not others, that where one is born strongly influences the religious beliefs adopted. Surely this is more than just mere correlation, and suggests that for most persons religious beliefs are accidental. Besides cultural influences there is the family; in fact, the best predictor of religious belief in individuals is the religiosity of their parents. In addition, there are various social factors effecting religious belief. For example, a significant body of scientific evidence now suggests that popular religion results from social dysfunction.4 Religion may be largely a coping mechanism for the anxiety and stress caused by the lack of a secure social safety net—hence the vast disparity between religious belief in Western Europe and the United States. In the former there is a strong social safety net and relatively little religious belief, in the latter the opposite is true.

Still, despite the arguments of the philosophers and the multiple scientific explanations offered for religious belief, most people accept some religious claims. Does this give us some reason to accept them? We think so. At least it gives us more reason to believe religious claims than if nobody accepted them. But does it give us sufficient or good reasons to accept them? We think not. People believe all sorts of weird things which are completely irrational—astrology, fortune-telling, encounters with aliens, telekinesis, and mind reading—and reject claims supported by an unimaginably large and overwhelming body of evidence from multiple sciences, biological evolution for example. More than three times as many Americans believe in the virgin birth of Jesus than in biological evolution, despite the fact that few serious theologians take the former seriously, and virtually no serious biologists reject the latter.5 I think it is clear that taking surveys of the public is no guide to what is true in such matters. As Bertrand Russell remarked: “The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” (Yes, what Russell says here is not literally true, but it is insightful nonetheless!)

In this regard consider that scientists do not take surveys of the public to determine whether relativity or evolutionary theory are true, they are assured of their truth by the evidence as well as the applied technology that results from them—global positioning and flu vaccines are reliable. If navigation systems and flu shots work, which they do, then the truth of relativity and evolutionary theories has been effectively verified, as they are everyday in laboratories around the world. (Of course these theories are verified by millions of other pieces of data as well.) With the wonders of science everyday attesting to its truth, why do so many prefer superstition and pseudo science?

The simplest answer is that people believe what they want to, not what the evidence supports. It is hardly controversial to state the obvious: In general people do not want to know; they want to believe. (This tendency itself arises from the propensity of the brain to believe easily, to find patterns amidst noise, to accept authority, to think anthropomorphically, and the like.) Quoting Russell again, “Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.” This tendency is the basis for so much poor thinking, and a costly habit for those who pay for the charlatan’s advice. Thus, religious belief is further explained by the general credulity of the human race. At any rate, we need hardly accept the claims of the general populace as a good guide in such matters.

3. Why Some Smart People Believe Religious Claims

Of course it is also true that some highly educated people believe religious claims. Why is that? We would offer a number of explanations. First, smart persons are very good at defending ideas that they believe for non-smart reasons. They want to believe something, say for emotional reasons, and they then become quite adept at defending those beliefs after the fact. It is not as if a rational person would say that there are better reasons or more evidence for creation science than biological evolution, but that the former satisfies some psychological need that the latter does not. How else to explain the hubris of the philosopher or theologian who knows so little of biology or physics yet denies the findings of those sciences? It is amazingly arrogant of those with no credentials in the sciences, and no experience in the field or laboratory, to reject the hard earned knowledge of the sciences—and from their office chairs! (I actually know a professional philosopher who doubts both evolution and climate science but believes he can prove both the existence of the Christian God and that this God must take a trinitarian form! No I am not kidding. Surely strong emotions must explain such obvious irrationality.)

Second, the proclamations of educated believers are not always to be taken at face value. Many do not actually believe religious claims at all, but simply think them useful. Without them, they fear, many will no longer have a basis for hope, morality, or meaning. They may be benevolent in their motives, believing that ordinary folks simply cannot handle the truth about life. They may feel it heartless to tell the parent of a dying child that the little one does not go to a better place, even though they believe this themselves. Instead they may believe in giving bread to the masses, like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.     

Or they may be more manipulative in their motives, using religion as a mechanism of social control, as Gibbon noted long ago: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.” Consider the so-called religiosity of many contemporary politicians, whose actions belie the claim that they really believe the precepts of the religion to which they supposedly ascribe. Individuals may also profess belief because it is socially unacceptable not to—they do not want to be out of the mainstream, or fear they will not be re-elected or loved if they profess otherwise. Thus so-called believers may not really believe the truth of their claims; instead they may think that others are better off or more easily controlled if those others believe. Or perhaps they may simply want to be socially accepted.

Third, when sophisticated thinkers claim to be religious, they usually have something in mind quite unlike what the general populace believes. They may be process theologians who argue that god is not omnipotent, contains the world, and changes. They may identify god as an anti-entropic force pervading the universe leading it to higher levels of organization. They may be pantheists, panentheists, or death of god theologians. Yet none of these sophisticated varieties of religious belief bears much resemblance to popular religion. The masses would be astonished to find out what many of these “believers” actually believe—how far such beliefs deviate from the theism with which they are familiar.

But we should not be deceived. Although there are many educated religious believers, including some philosophers and scientists, religious belief declines with educational attainment, particularly with scientific education.6 Studies also show that religious belief declines among those with higher IQs.7 Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins are not outliers, and neither are Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Surveys of scientists as a whole show religious believers among them to be quite small compared to the general populace, and surveys of the members of the national academy of sciences, comprised of the most prestigious scientists in the world, show that religious belief among them is practically non-existent.8

Compare all this to religious belief among the less scientifically educated populace where religious belief is nearly universal. Or consider the following piece of anecdotal evidence. Among the intelligentsia it is common and widespread to find individuals who lost childhood religious beliefs as their education in philosophy and the sciences advanced. By contrast, it is almost unheard of to find disbelievers in youth who came to belief as their education progressed. This asymmetry is no doubt significant; there is clearly something detrimental to religious belief posed by advancing education. All of these considerations suggest another part of the explanation for religious belief—scientific illiteracy.

4. Faith and Reason

Of course good explanations for the source of religious belief among the general populace, and the comparable lack of belief among the highly educated, do not by themselves demonstrate that religious beliefs are untrue. Yet such explanations do plant doubts about the veracity of those beliefs. If our nature and culture determine our beliefs, then those beliefs would have been different had we been born with different genes, in a different place, or if we had been better educated in philosophy and the sciences. Moreover, armed with good explanations for religious belief and the objects of those beliefs, we no longer need to posit supernatural phenomena to explain them—not miracles, religious experience, revelation, or the reality of gods. Surely to the extent that our beliefs are explained, their justification is partly explained away.

Now if we combine reasonable explanations of the origin of our beliefs and the disproportionate amount of religious disbelief among the intelligentsia, with the problematic nature of beliefs in gods, souls, afterlives, or supernatural phenomena generally, we can conclude that in general religious beliefs may well be false. Furthermore, in any discussion of the philosophy of religion, we must remember that the burden of proof is not on the disbeliever to demonstrate there are no gods, but on believers to demonstrate that there are. A believer is not justified in affirming their belief on the basis of another’s inability to show that there are no gods, anymore than a believer in invisible elephants can command my assent to such a belief on the basis of my not being able to “disprove” the existence of the aforementioned elephants. The believer must provide evidence for a god’s existence, and if they cannot, then we have no reason to believe in gods.

In response to the difficulties with providing reasons to believe in things unseen, combined with the various biological, environmental, and psychological explanations of belief, one might turn to faith. It is easy enough to simply believe something whether there are any good reasons to or not. Like the queen in Alice and Wonderland who “sometimes … believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” But there are multiple problems with this approach. First, if you defend such beliefs by claiming that you have a right to your opinion, however unsupported by evidence it might be, you are referring to a political or legal right, not an epistemic one. You may have a legal right to say whatever you want, but you have epistemic justification only if there are good reasons and evidence to support your claim. If someone makes a claim without concern for reasons and evidence, we should conclude that they simply do not care about what’s true, not that the fervency of their belief makes their belief true.

Another problem is that fideism—basing one’s beliefs exclusively on faith—makes belief arbitrary, leaving no way to support or distinguish one religious belief from another. It allows no reason to favor your preferred beliefs or superstitions over others. If I must accept your favored beliefs without evidence, then you must accept mine, even if I believe in the flying spaghetti monster. But is belief without reason and evidence worthy of rational beings? Does it not perpetuate the cycle of superstition and ignorance that has historically enslaved human beings? Might it not be profoundly immoral as W.K. Clifford long ago noted? “It is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”I think so.

The counter to Clifford’s evidentialism has been captured by a number of prominent thinkers like Blaise Pascal, William James, and Miguel de Unamuno. Pascal’s famous dictum expresses this clearly: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” At some point, one simply must believe. William James claimed that although reason decides certain issues, it cannot resolve all of them. In cases which it does not, we are justified in believing ideas which work for us. And Unamuno rejected the view that reason could solve problems such as the meaning of life. Instead he searched for personal answers to existential questions and counseled us to abandon rationalism and embrace faith. Such proposals are probably the best the religious can muster, but if reason really cannot resolve our questions it would seem that agnosticism is called for instead of faith. Moreover, there is something desperate about these responses. They spring from men who have given up prematurely, or who do not follow their thought to its logical conclusion.

In the end, faith without reason does not satisfy most of us, hence our willingness to entertain or actively seek reasons to believe. But if those reasons are not convincing, if we conclude that religious beliefs are untrue, then religious answers to life’s questions are worthless. You could get your meaning by believing that there are little green dogs in the sky that care for you, but such a belief is just nonsense, and so is the supposed meaning attached to it. Religion may help us in the way that whisky helps a drunk, but we do not want to go through life drunk. If religious beliefs are just vulgar superstitions, then we are basing our lives on delusions. And who would want to do that?


7 thoughts on “Religion & Meaning

  1. “So while religious beliefs may give meaning to our lives, those beliefs may still be false. But why then do so many hold religious beliefs? Perhaps there may be good explanations for religious beliefs besides their actually being true, independent of what form those beliefs take. If we can offer such explanations of religious beliefs, we will cast further doubt on their veracity, and the meaning they claim to support.”

    I am responding to part one of this article specifically (the above are the last few sentences which I intend on replying to).

    I’ve never known something more strongly than the existence of a God. From many other perspectives, I do not know this, I believe this. But in my mind, this is fact, this is reality, this is something that cannot be questioned. My faith in God is so strong, that even the tough parts of religion, the ones that challenge me and may make me bitter towards God at times, cannot turn me away from God. People ask me how and why I believe in God – and I look at your article in a similar manner, it’s asking me why and how I believe in God.

    I believe in science as well, in fact, in Islam God has told us to pursue knowledge, for knowledge is one of the purest things. Muslims have gone to great lengths to explore, discover and explain the worlds. God knows it all. God knows how the world works, and God wants humans to discover these truths as well. Some people do not agree with this. Some people wonder why the cruelties exist in this world, and it is because God gave us humans (we imperfect beings), free will. And free will can be and often is abused. What’s the beauty in God still then? What makes God someone to look to and turn to? God still loves us. God is the most merciful and the most forgiving.

    If you don’t believe in God because you haven’t directly experienced a miracle, or simply because it sounds like bullshit – God recognizes that too! He told Muhammad that the people who will follow Islam after his death, who will blindly believe in these truths without witnessing miracles, may be some of the strongest humans – and faced with the trivialities of today -I believe in that statement so strongly.

    It’s not easy for us to have faith, especially because faith does not have a universal meaning. People have different values and different spheres that influence their interpretation and relationship with faith. But it does not change the fact that faith still exists.

    I am learning to have faith. That’s what keeps me going. You ask why people believe in religion? For me, it is the truth. I know it is real. It is the best reality I have ever known and that I will ever know. I don’t believe in a religion for the comfort of my own soul (that’s just an added benefit) – I believe in religion because I know it is the truth.

  2. This is a sincere and heartfelt statement of belief. However any philosopher would say that the fervency with which one believes x doesn’t mean that x is true. Thanks for the comment.

  3. OK… “Some people wonder why the cruelties exist in this world, and it is because God gave us humans (we imperfect beings), free will.”

    Please explain the cruelties of birth defects, tsunamis, earthquakes and other God produced natural disasters. They have noting to do with free will.

  4. I wonder what Monseigneur Georges Lemaître would say if he were asked to respond to your article? Any ideas anyone?

  5. Wikipedia on Fr. George Lemaître, note how it says “his big bang theory.”

    It was Lemaître’s firm belief that scientific endeavour should stand isolated from the religious realm. With specific regard to his Big Bang theory, he commented: ‘As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question.’ Lemaître had always been careful to keep his parallel careers in cosmology and theology on separate tracks, in the belief that one led him to a clearer comprehension of the material world, while the other led to a greater understanding of the spiritual realm… …Not surprisingly, he was frustrated and annoyed by the Pope’s deliberate mixing of theology and cosmology. One student who saw Lemaître upon his return from hearing the Pope’s address to the Academy recalled him ‘storming into class…his usual jocularity entirely missing’.

    Mixing the two is not a wise choice. I don’t think Mr. Messerly got the memo.

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