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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Baggini on belief in belief

Julian Baggini, one of the contributors to 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, has written an interesting article on "belief in belief", a phenomenon that he condemns pretty much unequivocally (like me, he allows for exceptional cases where self-belief is necessary; in fact, I'd go a bit further in making these kinds of exceptions to strict epistemic probity or intellectual honesty).

There's a sting in the tale - right at the end, Julian reminds us that we all need to avoid weaknesses of intellectual dishonesty. Atheists need to be careful not to fall into a "belief in unbelief". I'm not sure who or what he has in mind here, but it's true that we need to avoid a knee-jerk atheism that assumes all ills will be cured if only religion will go away. Obviously, it ain't so simple.

11 comments:

WAT said...

That's the problem with you philosophizing types. You never give us pat answers that can be applied generally. Why can't I be a knee-jerk atheist and apply my dogmatic belief in unbelief willy-nilly? :)

Brian said...

WAT was me, didn't realize I was signed in to gmail. :)

Bet you thought you had a new crank for a moment....

Ophelia Benson said...

"Atheists need to be careful not to fall into a "belief in unbelief". I'm not sure who or what he has in mind here, but it's true that we need to avoid a knee-jerk atheism that assumes all ills will be cured if only religion will go away."

Well yes, but on the other hand it's very fashionable to say that 'New Atheists' assume all ills will be cured if only religion will go away, but in fact I don't know or know of any atheists who do think that, and I think such atheists are a great deal scarcer than the fashionable accusation would suggest. (I could be wrong of course; the fact that I don't know of any such atheists is hardly conclusive; but you would think all the throngs of 'New Atheist' haters would provide an actual quotation by way of evidence now and then - yet it's noticeable that they don't.)

There's a very straw version of the 'New Atheist' running around out there and it keeps turning up and turning up and turning up whenever anyone feels like lobbing the same old chipped battered brick yet again. (I know; straw, brick; never mind, you know what I mean.)

It's annoying, this stuff. On the other hand it makes people like me more obstinate than ever so perhaps it's worth it.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Ophelia Benson: "it's very fashionable to say that 'New Atheists' assume all ills will be cured if only religion will go away"

Well, most ills cured anyway. When we have atheists writing things like, "religion remains the last great prop and stay of arbitrary injustices and the coercion that backs them up," what do you expect? The implication is if that great prop went away, we'd have vastly fewer injustices.

(And yes, I finally read the rest of your book, and your previous conduct made it highly unsurprising that you wrote "But one human institution that has always cast its lot with the stronger side ... is religion [emphasis mine].")

Russell Blackford said...

We do see some people like that commenting in the blogosphere, and even PZ Myers finds them annoying, but (like Ophelia) I can't think of any significant player in the current debates who matches such a description. Presumably, Julian has a wider range of people in mind than I do ...

J. J. Ramsey said...

"Presumably, Julian has a wider range of people in mind than I do ..."

Probably. I doubt that he only has in mind one who, in your words, "assumes all ills will be cured if only religion will go away." I'd say that atheists who get emotionally caught up in their identity as atheists, especially if it gets to the point that they become irrational, might be described as having "belief in unbelief."

Russell Blackford said...

And, really, as we're discussing over on Ophelia's site, "belief in unbelief" would, by analogy, not only involve thinking that unbelief is very valuable or virtuous (such as thinking that it tends to cure the world's problems) but also thinking that expressions of belief should be discouraged, even you're inclined to believe yourself! I doubt that there's much "belief in unbelief" around if the analogy with Dennett's "belief in belief" is taken at all seriously.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Russell Blackford: "but also thinking that expressions of belief should be discouraged, even you're inclined to believe yourself!"

Errm, but don't many activists for atheism want to discourage expressions of belief, and prefer that believers keep their beliefs to themselves?

Russell Blackford said...

Really? I suppose can guess who you might mean, but I don't think the situations are analogous. In any event, my own view is that we all get to say what we think, and no one ought to tell us to shut up (though of course they should be legally free to do so).

We don't, of course, get to say everything we think without expecting argument. Also, we don't necessarily get to say it no matter what positions we hold. If I were a senior public servant, for example, it might well be appropriate, for various reasons, that I not involve myself in public debate about these issues.

J. J. Ramsey said...

I think I see what you're getting at, Dr. Blackford. Atheists want there to be less god-talk because they think it is false, and argue accordingly, while the believers in belief want the god-talk to go on because they think it is socially or psychologically beneficial, regardless of whether it is true.

That said, there is a long tradition of railing on religion for its ill effects, rather than on its truth or falsity. Think of, for example, arguments that religions have led to bloody wars, or the Inquisition, or misogyny. To be fair, these arguments are done by people who already believe that these religions are false, but the arguments can all too easily be made with the same lax standards for truth that the believers in belief use. (A certain book that proclaims in its first few pages that religion has always sided with the strong comes to mind.)

I suspect that Baggini's little dig at the end was aimed at atheists displaying the irrationality that they condemn in those they oppose.

Anonymous said...

"That said, there is a long tradition of railing on religion for its ill effects, rather than on its truth or falsity. Think of, for example, arguments that religions have led to bloody wars, or the Inquisition, or misogyny."

This might be the source of a lot of confusion. I don't know of any atheists who believe that religion directly causes the ill effects. For the most part, the atheists I know (including myself) see religion as a rather more sophisticated device for human oppression.

Essentially, I think religion is a bad thing because it promotes credulousness as a virtue, propagates lies in the place of history (and often science), and is used to mythologize the status quo, or often a "golden age" to which the adherents are supposed to return the earth. In short, it is a powerful lever by which the leaders of a church, traditionally wealthier and better-educated than the laity, can dupe people into pursuing goals that often are immoral. It is a means by which the powerful can exert control over the weak.

Religious belief is bad not because it leads directly to immoral behavior, but because it spreads lies in place of history (and science) and makes a virtue of credulousness.

In other words, I think you may be conflating atheists' contempt for religion with their distaste for religious belief.

-Dan L.