Religious beliefs as a house of cards


I have argued before that to sustain a belief in god requires one to construct an elaborate system of auxiliary beliefs to explain away the fact that no convincing evidence has ever been provided for god’s existence, even though there is no discernible reason why god is prevented from doing so. The very qualities that most religious people ascribe to god (omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence) are the ones that give the most trouble in explaining why the evidence is not revealed.

Since the sustaining of religious beliefs require such an elaborate construction of auxiliary beliefs, it is not hard to see that religious believers have essentially constructed an alternate reality that is divorced from the usual rules of logic and evidence that govern the rest of our lives. But alternative realities are tricky things. They are like a house of cards, with each card representing some unsubstantiated belief that must be held in order to support other beliefs. As long as no one seriously questions any single element of this structure, it may be possible for the creaky structure to remain intact. But take away any element and that whole edifice of belief collapses.

Something like that happens, I think, to every religious believer who becomes an atheist. At some point that person dares to take away a single card to see what would happen and the whole structure comes crashing down. For each person, the first card that is removed may be different but the end result is the same for all – unbelief. This is what happened to me when I started asking questions about where in the universe god existed and whether god was a material or non-material object. If god was a material substance, how come we could not detect him/her? And if he/she was non-material, how could a non-material substance interact with the material world?

These questions arose naturally out of my study of physics because questions about the nature of any entity and how its properties can be measured are standard ones in that field. To maintain the standard belief that god was a non-material entity that was able to avoid detection while interacting with the world required the construction of an elaborate set of auxiliary beliefs, each of which required yet other beliefs to sustain it. Giving up on any one of those beliefs resulted in the whole structure collapsing. Now I cannot imagine how I could have thought that that shaky house of cards was a solid structure.

Religious beliefs can only be sustained if there is a common understanding shared by believers that prevents such awkward questions from being asked or where glib and facile answers are treated as if they are deep arguments. When most people believe in something, and belief in that thing is important to them and fills some deep need, they unwittingly conspire to keep discordant facts from disturbing their faith. So maintaining those beliefs depends on having a community of believers who will sustain each other in their beliefs and this is where the common worship and ritual play an important role. Constructing elaborate and exclusionary rules and rituals involving food, dress, and behavior, necessarily results in non-group members avoiding contact, thus less likely to bring with them ‘heretical’ thoughts.

This explains why most religious groups seek to either increase their numbers by proselytizing and gaining new converts or at least maintain their numbers by indoctrinating their children at an early age. It also explains why the act of ‘blind faith’, normally not seen as a good thing, is so highly praised in religion, since it discourages questioning of core beliefs by implying that such behavior represents a reprehensible lack of faith. Seen in this way, it becomes understandable why atheists are portrayed in such a negative light, since that encourages religious people to avoid contact with them and they are thus less exposed to dangerous challenges of core beliefs.

In effect, religion is like a giant Ponzi scheme that requires new believers in order to perpetuate itself. Since there is no convincing evidence for the existence of god, people who hold religious beliefs and yet want to think of themselves as rational are forced to construct such an elaborate alternate reality, a house of cards.

By creating unwritten rules whereby questions of religion are discussed only in closed communities of shared beliefs, or if discussed publicly, ‘respect for religion’ and fear of causing offence are used to exclude questioning of core ideas, the shaky foundations of religious beliefs are prevented from being exposed. What is currently happening is that outspoken atheists like Richard Hawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger are encouraging more and more people to tug at the cards by looking more closely at what religious beliefs actually imply.

POST SCRIPT: Open Forum on Iraq

Topic: Bringing the War Home to Case: An open dialogue on the conflict in Iraq led by individuals with a personal connection

When: Friday, April 13, 12:30 pm-1:45 pm
Where: KSL Oval (Rain site Thwing Atrium)

Pizza and refreshments will be served.

Dan Moulthrop (WCPN Radio) will be the moderator of the panel.

Panelists: Paul Schroeder (Founder of Families of the Fallen for Change), Ramez Islambouli (Advisor to the Muslim Student Association), Joe Mueller (Member of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq), Erin Monroe (English grad student and spouse of a US soldier), Keith Schnell (Graduating senior and Army ROTC)

Co-sponsored by the Share the Vision Committee, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence, the Hallinan Project, Case Democrats, and Global Medical Initiatives (GMI).

Comments

  1. says

    Did you watch yesterday’s Simpsons? It was absolutely hilarious – dealt with a lot of biblical stuff: from genesis to rapture.

  2. Jared says

    Dear Mano,

    Drawing from my own experiences, I find your analysis of religious belief and deconversion to be insightful, and generally pretty accurate.

    However, I think it’s useful to point out that not “all” religious believers need to insulate themselves in some way or another to protect their beliefs. Though I am not one of them, I recognize that there are people out there that recognize that their beliefs’ are a house of cards, and simply choose not to throw them out for the reasons you gave above. While it’s open to debate whether this constitutes denial or whether it is logically rigorous or not, I don’t really have the space to write further.

    best,
    Jared

  3. says

    Arvindh,

    I missed the Simpson’s yesterday. They did something about the rapture sometime ago that I saw and I wonder if this was a rerun. In that episode, Homer sees a film and becomes a believer and does calculations as to when it will occur and waits on a mountain to be raptured. Is that the one? It was pretty funny.

  4. says

    Jared,

    I agree that there are people who realize that religious beliefs do not make sense but choose to believe them anyway, for whatever reasons. I have no argument against that. Who could?

    What I am challenging is the idea that it is as irrational to not believe in god as it is to believe in god. That is a false symmetry.

  5. says

    This episode is a different one. This starts with Marge and other members of the Simpson family falling asleep in Church, and, in their respective dreams they see themselves as part of different chapters in the bible!

    My guess is that this is a new episode. I hope you get to see this one sometime soon.
    The one you mention is also quite hilarious.

  6. Kevin says

    “House of Cards” description is very insightful. I myself am one of those former believers who later became an atheist when the “cards” began to collapse. In fact, I was a former Baptist Minister.
    For me the first card was the one about god changing people for the better. Some of the nastiest people I have EVER met I met at church! There is no fight like a church fight!

  7. says

    Kevin,

    Your experience as a former Baptist minister is very interesting. I had written an earlier post titled Is the Pope an atheist? in which I argued that I suspected that the levels of atheism among clergy and theologians may be quite high. I recently heard of a Methodist minister who also became an atheist and has written a book about other clergy who are closet atheists.

    I would be curious to your reactions to that post and the ideas in it.

  8. dbennett455 says

    Hi Mano,

    I enjoyed your article. From one perspective, religion provides an important fantasy life for believers. The average belief system offers a nice convenient punishment for their enemies and evil doers in the form of hell along with dominance and status for those who disagree with them in the form of a divine mandate of submission over non-believers. I’ve participated in enough conversations with individuals on-line that I have come to a healthy gratitude that people have these complex ancient fantasies to lean on. It gives them a nice way to non-violently end arguments using improvable and unarguable scriptural passages, a sound set of morals, and also provides a participatory community to a world struggling with increased (and sometimes dangerous) isolationism.

    Many of those who don’t have a traditional religion end up depending on more risky and less organized conspiracy theories such as UFO abduction and the 9/11 collection in an attempt to build their own mental tool to deal with their finite existence, injustice, and fear of death. Imagine what would happen if the no one had these mental pacifiers to help them cope with their daily lives? I shudder to think what the world would be like without these imaginary champions and punishers to lean on.

    On the other hand, when militant opportunists manipulate these belief systems to their own ends we end up with gullible believers strapping bombs to themselves and blowing up perceived enemies.

    It does seem possible to maintain a belief in a mystery creator that exists beyond our detectable spatial reality that wouldn’t require the normal baggage of flawed origin theory and the ancient militant beliefs that were designed to assist in empire building. The question then is; Are benign, non-violent creator fantasies really a problem?

    –Dave Bennett, Kansas City, MO

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