Believing in Unbelief

This is interesting, but I think HE Baber is making a vain attempt to hoist atheists on their own petard...as they say (hey, I'm suffering from jet-lag--don't blame me for stale metaphors today).

New Atheists believe in unbelief. For some reason they think it important to assure their followers in the village that religious belief is not merely false but uncontroversially false and that educated people who profess to be religious believers or claim that theism is compatible with science are out to dupe them.

I don't believe in belief. Beliefs about metaphysical issues, including the existence of God, are inconsequential. In the aggregate, religious believers are no better or worse than atheists and, historically, societies that have embodied strong religious commitments are no better or worse than those committed to atheism.

I would be very interested in hearing why the New Atheists and their followers believe, with such manifest conviction, in unbelief.

Baber is alluding to an argument from Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell -- the one about how our religious society "believes in belief." We think it's admirable to remain a believer, even if you doubt. Doubts are like the temptations that a husband or wife might resist to remain a faithful spouse. The effect--Dennett argues--is to valorize irrationality--turning away from arguments and evidence that foster doubt instead of following them where they lead. Baber is trying to pin a similar sort of irrationality on atheists--except she claims they believe in unbelief. But do they?

If atheists believe in unbelief, it's in nothing like the sense in which theists believe in belief. Atheists don't feel tempted by theism. They don't reinforce unbelief in each other by stressing the virtue of unbelief. They don't ignore arguments and evidence for theism; they pay attention and find it all lacking. Let's face it--the epistemic situation of the theist and the atheist are very different. Believing in "things unseen" is hard; disbelieving in them is easy!

So no, atheists don't believe in unbelief in the sense in which theists believe in belief. But do they believe in unbelief in some other sense? We speak of believing in X when we think X is really important, or central to our lives, or worth promoting, or worth giving additional influence. You can believe in people, or concepts, or "isms" in that way. I believe in my kids, and democracy, and moral realism (the view that there are moral truths) in that sense.

I think some atheists believe (in this sense) in atheism--particularly the crowd that's often labelled "the new atheists." They are excercised by the continued existence of religion in the world, and would like to get rid of it--even the liberal, non-literal variety. I'll leave it to those folks to answer the question Baber asks at the end, because I can't say I'm in that camp.


Faust said...

Welcome home?

"They don't reinforce unbelief in each other by stressing the virtue of unbelief."

Well maybe not quite that way. What they do stress is more like the following:

(P) You should not believe in anything for which you can not provide good evidence, or for which you cannot provide "good reasons."

You mentioned in the past that you are a moral realist but that you couldn't offer any conclusive evidence or proof for such a position. Don't you in this sense believe in belief...don't you believe that it's better to be a moral realist than a moral irrealist despite a lack of evidence that there are "moral truths?"

Suggestion for an irrealist bus campaign:

"There probably is no Moral Truth. So stop worrying and enjoy your life."

P.S. I got Mark Johnston's book.

s. wallerstein said...

The phrase "believe in" can be used in two ways, and I think that HE is playing on that, perhaps consciously, perhaps unconsciously. For example, the phrase "I believe in God" is very different than the phrase "I believe in Obama" or "I believe in my favorite soccer club". Now, the new atheists don't believe in unbelief in the sense that religious people believe in God, but they often seem to believe in unbelief in the sense that I believe in my favorite soccer club.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Yes, back on "the mainland" as one says when in Hawaii. We are acclimating. No more jaw-dropping beauty every day!

I'm tempted to order the book. I wish they had a "look inside" at amazon. I want to know if it looks readable or painful. What's your assessment?

Alright, so we have two meanings of "believe in belief/ubnbelief" one having to do with suppression of doubt (that's what Dennett is talking about), and the other having to do with commitment and centrality. You might be right that I believe in moral realism in both the first and second senses. Possibly I do engage in a bit of suppression of doubt (don't tell anyone). It's a first class question whether that's always a bad thing....

But in any event, I don't think atheists, new or otherwise, are doing it. I don't think atheists struggle to maintain their outlook the way some theists do. They find it easy to be atheists, unlike religious folk, some of whom (Mother Teresa even!) find it hard to keep believing that God exists.

I think there are a bunch of people around who are trying to insist that believing in God IS like believing in a soccer club. It's a matter of commitment, not endorsement of propositions. I think that's part of the Karen Armstrong line. She's getting a drubbing over at B&W, but since reading her memoir I can't help but like her. She's so likeable and readable that I might actually have to read her new book, even if I expect not to agree.

s. wallerstein said...

Whatever the merits of Karen Armstrong, a lot of discussions about belief do get confused because the verb "believe" doesn't just have two separate meanings as I first affirmed, but a whole scale of nuances ranging from "I believe in God" (that he exists), through "I believe in God" (I trust in Him)to "I believe in rock and roll" (the lyrics of some old song) with many points in-between.

Faust said...

Part of the problem is that Dennet's "belief in belief" idea is a bit oversimplified here. "Suppression of doubt," only covers a small portion of the idea that Dennett is trying to get across. Certainly some people who believe in belief are trying to suppress doubts and are going for what basically amounts to "the power of positive thinking." Though in this case we can say that they aren't merely suppressing doubts but are also emphasizing that belief can produce very positive results. To class it as "doubt suppression" is just one half of the coin. They are also saying "being confident in the face of doubts will make you more effective in the world." To maintain our parallel with Moral Realism, it would be something like "entertaining forms of relativism will sabotage your capacity for being moral, so even if we haven't quite gotten to a robust realism that will convince everyone...have faith!"

But it goes quite a bit beyond this even. Some people believe in belief in the sense that that they simply think that intentional objects are important because all you need to influence someone is to put an intentional object "in their head" so to speak. In other words "Sherlock Holmes" surely "exists" in the sense that we can have a detailed conversation about him, and God "exists" in this sense as well. Dennet thinks that people who are enamored with this kind of approach are being disingenuous, pulling a kind of fast one where the history of an important intentional object gets granted a kind of ontological status that it doesn't deserve. This is a conflict that is really between "realism" and "postmodern" kinds of thinking, because people who are enamored with narratives and stories over and above "realistic descriptions which correspond to reality the way it really is" think the latter description is just "one more story," whereas Dennet thinks we can have "faith in the truth" (see his essay by the same name) in a way where "faith" functions in an entirely different way.

To sum up: there are at least two layers to belief in belief. The "power of positive thinking" and when it is "legitimate" to engage in it, and what kind of ontological status we should accord to intentional objects that are inextricably tied to our current historical situation via the cultural history we share.

Faust said...

Johnston's book definitely goes the route of exploring God as an intentional object. Or rather, he spends a good deal of the book [bracketing] the question of God's final ontological status, and explores the phenomenology of God as he was experienced in the texts of monotheism.

I think the book is quite readable and probably worth the read IF you are interested in natural theology. I found most of the ideas in the book to be quite familiar, and it pretty much went the route I thought it would go (winds up at a form of Pantheism). I could definitely offer some criticisms of it, but I don’t want to go “all in” on a review unless that’s what you want me to do. I posted a link to its table of contents in the first thread you posted so you can look inside that way if you want to.

One thing that the book suggests very strongly (it is sort of the thesis of the book) is that supernaturalism IS idolatry, and I had not seen this idea presented quite in this way before, or at least not so explicitly. So on that level it was pretty intriguing.

The conflict between “liberal theologians" and atheists that find liberal theology lacking is interesting to me because they want very badly to deny the kind of move the liberal theologians would like to make…i.e. purging “religion” of “supernaturalism.” If you can hold onto “religion” without “supernaturalism” then there is no more critique to be had, at least as far as the current lines of attack are concerned. That is why Dawkins goes out of his way to set up “Religions worthy of respect” in his first chapter and then ends by accusing Einstein of “intellectual high treason” for calling his neo-Spinozaistic Pantheism a kind of purified religion. Of course it is entirely true that “intellectually sophisticated theology” is NOT what the laity practice and “supernaturalism” remains what most people are thinking off when they use the world “religion.” On the flip side, what most people think “science” is probably wouldn’t make scientists too happy either.

Jean Kazez said...

OK, well I emphasized the "suppression of doubt" aspect because that's what Dennett finds so reprehensible, and because it's really quite absent from the atheist state of mind. Believing in belief also includes thinking there's positive value in the specifics of religious belief. The person who believes in belief doesn't believe in all beliefs (and all doubt suppression) equally, but thinks it's good to believe in God.

Not sure about the "intentional object" business. Even if Sherlock Holmes is an intentional object, the state of mind of the story-reader is very distinctive. We get all excited about fictional characters and follow their exploits, but don't expect them to do anything for us. Religious folks really do expect God to have an impact on them. Liberal watering down of religion just ignores this inconvenient fact.

Re: Mark Johnston. The idea that supernaturalism is idolatry is intriguing. As for the rest, "hmm"! I can't see how there's anything wholly natural that's worth calling "God". Dawkins & Co are not being naive when they make that same point...I think they're being right!

But anyhow. I'm intrigued enough to have a look.

Faust said...

Well here is the thing about stories...they really can have an impact on you. For example, I love the play "Hamlet." I've read it many times, seen all film versions, read scholarship on it. You could say Hamlet has influenced me...shaped my life. And yet "Hamlet" is just a fictional character. I don't expect Hamlet to DO anything for ME and yet it is not nonsense to say "Hamlet has had quite an impact on me."

Those of us inclined to "sex up" our atheism by painting the universe with rouge and lampblack are mystified by those who don't see what we do. Perhaps just as mystified as music lovers are by people who have no signifcant interest in music. As Rorty put it about himself "I am theologically tone-deaf."

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm...it seems nonliteral when you say that Hamlet (the person) has influenced you. Isn't it really the play that's influenced you?

I'm not really theologically tone-deaf...I respond to religious stuff, but just exactly in the way I respond to literature. The bible does speak to me, but in same way as the Iliad and the Odyssey.

faust said...

It can be read either way, but that's more due to the fact that the play itself is called Hamlet. If the play was called "Time is out of joint" then the reference would be unambiguous. And, of course the reference can be tightened up to make the name "Hamlet" refer to the character and not the play, e.g. "Strange as though it may seem I find in Hamlet's speeches and actions a mirror of my own predicament."

I concur that theology is "just like" (or at least a lot like)responding to literature. The "just" of course betrays an evalution, namely: that literature is "merely" fiction. "Just" a story. "Only" words. Not robust and meaningful like facts, and propositions that "correspond to the way things really are.

s. wallerstein said...

Certain fictional people are as real to me as real people, that is, real people whom I only know from reading about them. Lear (Lear makes more of an impression on me than Hamlet) is as real to me as Obama; Marcel (Proust's character) is as real to me as Nicolas Sarkorzy; Raskolnikov is as real to me as Lenin. The thing is that I only know both Lenin and Raskolnikov from books. People whom I know personally are realer.