Monday, 23 November 2009

Good Reasons for Bad Belief

Readers of this blog will know that I am often puzzled and troubled by that common phenomenon by which otherwise sane and healthy people also happen to go after one or another of religious belief. That is, beliefs in the unnatural powers, belief in stuff for which there is absolutely no proof. It's just insane: no one believes a real estate agent, yet most people believe lies of a much greater scale.
Troubled by this contradiction, I often go out of my way to point at the rather shaky rational foundations for religious belief. Yet no one listens to me (and the majority of the world’s population doesn’t listen to people who say the same but in a much better way). Why is that?
To the rescue comes philosopher Dan Dennett (who has frequented my blogs before). In a lecture presented by The Richard Dawkins Foundation, Dennett offers what seems to be a very sensible explanation to the problem of why people contrive to believe despite their said beliefs' lack of rationality. Essentially, Dennett provides a list of rational reasons for declaring belief; none of those hold water, as he quickly points out, yet they seem rational enough for enough people to happily settle with them.
I recommend watching the video despite its length. Note it starts with a long introduction that is not directly related to the topic at hand, since Dennett’s lecture is actually a reward acceptance speech. However, that introduction is quite illuminating by its own rights – especially if you have a thing for goats:



Now, the reason why I have found the video to be quite illuminating is its practical approach to belief. It provides an excellent explanation for the way the believers I am familiar with “work”. Take, as an example, my parents and my parents in law: both believe in the faith their respective accidents of birth got them to (Judaism and Christianity), yet both don't follow their faith beyond the realm of performing rather pagan rituals that work on their sense of belonging to an elite club (say, circumcision and christening, respectively). When questioned about their beliefs (an act that requires persistence as they don't like the shaky foundations of their belief to be tested for weight) they will both do their best to avoid the discussion, thus revealing exactly what Dennett is saying in the video: they don't really believe in all the bullshit; they just believe in believing.
And on a personal note, I couldn't avoid noting how my own attitudes towards religion had to contend with the same challenges posed by society's defense mechanisms for religion that Dennett is mentioning: from being shy about my skepticism, as if to avoid hurting anyone's feelings, to being outspoken about it. Today I take pride in the fact that from the internet to the office I work on, no person that knows me can say they don't know what my opinion on religion is.

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