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Jul 06 2009

Why people believe in god-4: Darwin’s problem

In a previous post, I tried to pin down what people actually believe when they say they believe in god. Today I want to look at what goes into religious belief, using Charles Darwin’s own journey as an example.

Charles Darwin was encouraged by his father, a successful doctor, to study medicine and was duly sent off in 1825 to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, a leading place for such studies at that time. But Darwin found that he hated the study of medicine, especially the horrors of surgery in those pre-anesthesia days. When his father realized that this was not the field for him, he suggested in 1828 that he matriculate at Cambridge University, get a degree, and then become a clergyman. To get into Oxford or Cambridge University at that time one had to be a member of the Church of England (i.e., an Anglican), the rule being abolished by an act of parliament only later in 1871. Although Darwin had been baptized in the Church of England, his family tradition was nonconformist Unitarians and his father and grandfather were freethinkers.

Darwin felt that he should make a good faith attempt to see if he could honestly accept the doctrines of the Anglican church. In his autobiography Darwin says that he “had scruples about declaring my belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England; though otherwise I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted. It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible.” (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow (ed), p. 49, my italics.)

I think that the key phrase here is “persuaded myself”. I think most religious people deep down suspect that their belief in a god makes no sense, or at least know that they really don’t understand the things they are being asked to believe, but they are willing to persuade themselves, as Darwin did, to go along with the charade. The key question is “Why?” Why go to all that trouble to overrule an instinctive skepticism that arises from their natural logic and reasoning powers? Why does it never strike them, as it never struck Darwin until he was much older, how illogical it is to say that they believe in what they cannot understand and what is in fact unintelligible?

But there were limits to even Darwin’s youthful credulity. Even when he was a believer in the literal truth of the Bible, Darwin could not bring himself to actually rejoice in the contradictions, to make the ridiculous claim that some apologists do, that because the doctrines of religion seem nonsensical, that accepting them is somehow a sign of intellectual superiority, that it indicates that one somehow understands and appreciates deep mysteries. As he said, “I might have said with entire truth that I had no wish to dispute any dogma; but I never was such a fool as to feel and say “credo quia incredibile.” ["I believe because it is incredible."] (Barlow, p. 49)

As we all know, Darwin ended up being an unbeliever. He shied away from the label of atheist and called himself an agnostic, the former term being a little too strong for someone who hated confrontations, though it is hard to tell the difference in his case since he said quite clearly in his autobiography that although his disbelief crept over him at a very slow rate, it “was at last complete” and that he “never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct.” (Barlow, p. 72)

It seems pretty clear that most adults have no actual reasons to believe in god. They have not in their lives seen god or heard god or witnessed any acts that can be unequivocally ascribed to god. Those who claim to have witnessed miracles tend to ignore plausible alternative explanations. But they lack Darwin’s instinct to follow his thinking to its logical conclusion that there is no god.

Those who actually claim to have seen god or had god speak to them are presumed to be delusional and in need of psychiatric help or frauds of the sort who try to sell pieces of toast with Jesus’s image on it on eBay. The latest story that I heard of was someone who claimed that a rock fall suddenly revealed a ‘hand of god’ in a rock formation behind his home and he (naturally) has put it up for sale on eBay.

So why do people believe in god? This really consists of two related questions: Why did such beliefs arise in the first place? And why do those beliefs persist in the absence of any evidence in support of them?

I’ll examine these questions in the next post in this series.

POST SCRIPT: David Attenborough talks about god

The noted nature documentary filmmaker has made many people aware of the wonder of nature. He talks about why he does not believe in god. (Thanks to Machines Like Us.)

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