I Want To Believe (But I Can’t, Because It Doesn’t Work Like That)

Via PostBourgie, I see the incorrigible skeptic (he’s even a qualia skeptic!) Daniel Dennett has been collecting interviews with clergy members who have become closeted unbelievers. This exchange in the article is really interesting:

IDEAS: In the conclusion to the study, you compare the dilemma of the nonbelieving clergy member to that of a closeted gay person.

DENNETT: It’s striking, though they don’t have any “gaydar.” They suspect that lots of their friends and fellow clergy have exactly the same beliefs they have, but they don’t know how to test that. It’s dangerous, and the ploys that they fall back on are just exactly the same stuff: “I have an uncle who…,” “One of my parishioners says….” They need to maintain credible deniability and so they’re very careful about that.

I don’t want to belabor the analogy too much, but there’s another dimension here: both homosexuality and atheism are frequently perceived as “choices” by their detractors, and in both cases I think those detractors are committing a fallacy. Thinking of belief as a choice might be more understandable than thinking of sexual orientation in that way, but it’s still kind of ridiculous.

Thought experiment time! Think of a fairly reasonable belief other people hold that you do not. Now try to hold that belief. You only have to for a couple minutes! Just try really really hard. Except, you don’t even know how you would go about doing that, do you? I mean, for all this talk of choosing to not believe in God, it’s kind of hard to think of what steps you would take once you made that choice to obviate your belief.

Now look at an extreme example: Dennett’s clergy members. They have every possible incentive to believe in God, and yet they can’t bring themselves to do it. If these guys can’t will themselves into a particular belief, who the hell can?

Incidentally, this is why I’m not terribly optimistic about human free will. Presumably, people want to be free so that they’ll be able to pursue ends in accordance with their beliefs and priorities. But if they have little to no control over the beliefs and priorities themselves, then how is pursuing those things freedom in any meaningful sense? To the extent that true freedom is an attainable goal–and I think it is, in some very small, diluted doses–my sense is that it’s only possible through constant, intense scrutiny of, and skepticism about, your own most fundamental values.

That’s a lifelong mission, and it’s one that’s alternately excruciating, infuriating, and deeply isolating. And the funny thing, it’s probably impossible to figure out whether or not freedom is even worth it until you’re there.

UPDATE: I should stress that while I am, as I said, an atheist, nothing in this post is intended to express a value judgment about any form of belief or non-belief. Nor am I suggesting that I’m any more exempt from the various pressures that “choose” our beliefs for us than religious people. I could just as easily be a believer were it not for a number of different factors over which I had no control.

4 Responses

  1. Or maybe religious belief is about a general way of approaching the world more than a commitment to a certain set of metaphysical premises. Read Tillich and Hare.

    • I’m not sure if I follow. I read the Hare piece, and I still don’t get your objection. What in there or your response contradicts what I said about the difficult of shifting your own beliefs?

  2. Really interesting idea. I had a religious upbringing, and despite all my attempts to become an atheist I have so far been unable to obliterate the ‘God-concept’ from my mind completely. I still have this reference point to “God”, and I think that it comes back to mental programming (to be reductionist…) repetition of a statement to the point where it almost takes on a life of its own.

  3. […] fundamentally unfree and chained to that position. I’ve written before about the idea that we don’t “choose” our unreflective beliefs in any meaningful sense, which means that the only way to really make a choice on your own is to derive it from values and […]

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