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On Believing

A chapter in Daniel C. Dennett’s new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is titled, “Belief in Belief.” In it, he cites what we might call meta-belief: the belief that believing something is valuable in itself, regardless of the object of belief. The most obvious example of this for me is the biblical injunction implied in the Book of John, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, That whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” In order to be saved, one must believe. Believing that this is true is the meta-belief. It’s not the same kind of believing as believing my lover’s protestation of her undying love.

But maybe it is; I may be convinced that, to protect the relationship, my believing is necessary. If I profess my belief enough, I may come to actually believe, even if initially I had moments of doubt.

Dennett points out that most of us also want to believe in certain principles or institutions. Democracy, for example, works only if most of us believe in it. Even though few of us as individual citizens know enough about the actual, detailed workings of our government, we trust that it will be to our benefit to support it. Science is another institution that depends for its existence on the belief by its practitioners that it is a valid enterprise. This is what he means by believing in belief.

Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, urges the end of belief-centered religions (for example Christianity and Islam) for, he says, beliefs that are not based upon real evidence can be dangerous to society. Obviously, he does not believe in belief. He also says that many people in our society who consider themselves “liberal” actually help to perpetuate such belief-based religions. These people, in a misguided attempt to be socially tolerant, avoid criticizing anti-social aspects of certain religions.

That his position is also based upon belief—a belief that science is the best arbiter of truth—seems to escape him. Science may well be our best potential source of information about reality, but it certainly has a long way to go to describe the entire universe. Whether it proves to be the best (or the only reliable) method remains to be seen. But for Harris, science alone holds the keys to human progress.

If one allows for conditional belief—that is, belief that is open to be repudiated by further study or events or circumstances—perhaps critics like Harris might be mollified. But belief in conditional belief rather negates the whole idea, doesn’t it?

Or does it? That’s what a belief in science means—to accept the possibility that a new discovery may eventually prove to be wrong. On the other hand, if one believes that the Christian Bible is literally the word of God, there doesn’t seem much room for the possibility that future discoveries could change its status. And the proposal that we ought to believe in that belief would not seem very convincing.

Most people, I suspect, don’t pin things down this tightly. We recognize that we don’t know everything about everything, and things change so quickly and so often in our world these days, it’s hard to be sure of anything. Last year’s miracle drug turns out to cause more problems than it cures. The politician we voted for at the last election turns out to be less than what he’d convinced us about earlier. Still, we try to hang onto our basic beliefs, for example, that most people are good and the world is a reasonably safe place for us. And—and this is crucial—our belief is part of what makes its safety real.

We believe in science because we have so much invested in its benefits. Nobody needs to urge us to believe in it. If we’re urged to believe in something less measurable, such as the authorship of the bible, it’s usually a gut feeling that convinces us one way or another.

Perhaps that is the key to this whole question. We can be persuaded of the truth of something, but the thing that locks it in for us is how it feels to us. Maybe belief is more emotion than reason. We identify with a point of view not simply because of its logic (although logic and rationality may lead us there) but because it fits into and reinforces our existing world view. Everything I’ve learned about science so far is stored in a kind of room in my mind. It all seems to fit together. When I encounter a new idea, I have to find out how it fits with the system of categories I’ve developed over the years. The weight of my conviction says something about the levels of meaning holding it together.

For me to believe in believing in something, I need it to be a package, a self-evident truth. A scientific “fact” may be in my mind a tentative fact, subject to change. I may profess my belief in its truth without having a lot of me invested in it. But my belief in science, in the process which has produced that (probable) fact, is not only firmer but is tied up with my emotional commitment. It would take a lot to break that commitment, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

Sam Harris (I don’t know why I keep picking on him, other than his voice has goaded me more than other iconoclasts I’ve read lately) acknowledges the emotional power of belief, but he wants to combat it rationally. As I’ve written before, his diatribes against belief are more apt to harden the opposition than change it, because reason is not nearly as strong as emotion. Organized religion has had eons to solidify beliefs in beliefs; they aren’t likely to dissolve after the publication of a few books.

The thing is, beliefs are a part of the human repertoire. They are part of the glue of history and of individual psychology. It’s important that we learn to tease apart these concepts and the personal dynamics that give them meaning. Belief in beliefs may not “make sense” in one way, but it carries a lot of emotional charge, and we need to learn to deal with it.

Donald Skiff July 26, 2007

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