Do you believe in God? Why or why not?
I’ve always imagined that this would be the kind of essay question you’d receive from St. Peter when you arrived at the pearly gates. He’d give you one of those little blue essay booklets from your college days, a couple of No. 2 pencils, give you about an hour to write a thousand words – and all of eternity would depend upon your answer.
Like most people, you may think there are really only two ways to answer this question; either ‘yes’ and support your beliefs with information from the Bible, church history, and the like (much easier to do if you were actually sitting at those gates), or ‘no’ and appeal to science, philosophy, empirical evidence, etc.
Dan Dennett has discovered yet a third way to answer – belief in belief. In a lecture given at an Atheist Alliance International conference, Dennett discusses some of the reasons why some may continue to attend church and worship God, even though they may not believe that God exists, or disagree that he exists in such a way as the church believes and teaches.
He begins by saying that there are, of course, many good people in the US and around the world today who believe what the priests and preachers tell them. Their religion and worldview fit together rather nicely, their world seems to be working out fine just the way it is, and there’s little reason to go upsetting apple carts. These are the people who have bumper stickers on their car that proclaim, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” They are too busy with the everyday affairs of their lives to question the system of beliefs that has held sway in the West for the last couple of centuries.
However, he thinks that there are many people sitting in the pews on Sunday who can’t really be described this way. They are what he calls ‘reflective’ Christians, meaning that they do take the time to think about the claims that the priests and preachers make. These folks often find that they have a problem – but they probably don’t confess as much to their religious brethren. Reflective Christians realize that the Bible seems to have some errors and inconsistencies. They may doubt that the words attributed to Jesus were actually said by him. They may have problems believing that miracles every occurred. Some may have decided that the virgin birth, the resurrection, and other events critical to Christian dogma simply never happened.
Yet these Christians still go to church every Sunday, still actively participate in church, still ‘believe’. Why? Dennett examines several possible reasons – reasons to believe in God, even if you’re not 100 percent sure.
First of all, of course, is fear. Most Christians can tell you that fear is the beginning of wisdom. It doesn’t matter how convincing Richard Dawkins might be, you’d better continue worshiping God – just in case. If God is really as vengeful as he’s described in the Old Testament, you’d be a fool not to hedge your bets.
This line of reasoning was popularized by Blaise Pascal, and is often called Pascal’s Wager. It’s only a good wager, by the way, if the God of the next life is indeed our Judeo-Christian one; if he’s Muslim or one of any of the hundreds of others cultures around the world have believed in, then too bad – so sad. People who worship God for this reason aren’t actually making one single bet; they are actually doubling down on that gambit a number of times – wagering that God exists, that this God is the one our particular culture believes in, that the Bible is indeed the blueprint for how to worship him, and finally, that he’d not be angry with people who were fearful bet-hedgers, not true believers.
Others aren’t worried about facing a vengeful God so much as they fear what Dennett calls a ‘catastrophic collapse of consensus.’ This is perhaps part of what’s driving religious interference in politics. People who fear this may have a nostalgia for what they remember as a simpler time, when it seemed being American meant the same thing to everyone, that it included being Christian, middle class, trusting of government, etc. There is a some validity to this fear. We can see a number of failed states in the world today – Afghanistan, Somalia, and others – and part of what contributed to the un-winding of these states, as it were, was a sharp division in religious belief. People who think this way may not even want to discuss religious issues with non-believers, as that in itself undermines consensus. I don’t agree with the proposed remedy – that we need to get God back in the schools and in the halls of government, but I do see the driving force behind the fear.
Love is another reason to continue believing, even when you have serious doubts. Who wants to hurt their parents, friends and family by admitting that they no longer – or never did – believe? Some have suggested that Charles Darwin postponed the publication of his Origin of Species for many years, so that he would not aggrieve his wife. We might follow our hearts to places our heads advise us against. While I personally could never serve God out of fear of punishment alone, I see love as a valid reason, on several levels. I continued going to church services long after I got anything out of them at all because I didn’t want to hurt my friends and family. And while I think that we as Americans need to build a consensus that isn’t a Christian consensus, I too am terrified of some of the trends I see in this country.
I haven’t mentioned all of the reasons Dennett talks about – including the Concorde Fallacy; I have to leave you some reason to click on the video below and watch for yourself!
What do you think of Dennett’s ideas? And, going back to our original question, do you believe? Or do you believe in belief? I’d love to read your comments.