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Jan 15 2010

Religious beliefs as a house of cards

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2010.)

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.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    healthphysicist

    Oh, no, you didn’t did you?

    “Richard Hawkins”

  2. 2
    Leslie

    Do you think it’s possible that there is a nonmaterial dimension that exists that we just haven’t figured out how to measure/observe? There have been times in science where something was believed to be absolutely true, only to be found completely false or different once science had a way to measure or observe the phenomenon.

  3. 3
    William Messenger

    Greetings, Dr. Singh. I am an 1982 Case grad in physics. Nice to hear from today’s faculty in my old department. Thanks for your clear and thoughtful blog entry. Your observation that no compelling evidence for the existence of god has been detected — even though the very qualities that make god god would make it easy for god to provide such evidence — is particularly worth consideration. And I very much appreciate hearing your own story.

    However, I wonder whether you might be creating an alternate universe in which all people who believe in god were indoctrinated as children, do not question their core beliefs, proselytize compulsively, discuss questions of religion only in communities of shared beliefs, and treat glib and facile answers as if they were deep arguments. I have met many members of my own faith (Christian) who fit those descriptions, but I have met a few who do not. I believe that a search of the observable universe would detect people who became believers as adults after serious research and thought, who constantly question their core beliefs, who respect others’ beliefs, who discuss questions of religion publicly among non-believers, and who reject glib and facile answers and engage in genuinely deep reflection.

    It seems a big jump from recognizing that your own faith was suffering from the deficiencies you mentioned, to concluding (contrary to evidence) that everyone’s faith must suffer the same deficiencies. This is no proof of god’s existence, of course, but if your postulates necessarily imply your conclusions about all believers, and there exist believers who don’t match your conclusions, then by syllogism either your postulates or your logic must be mistaken. This doesn’t mean that logically you must believe in God, only that it may be possible for others to logically believe in god. Even in the real universe.

    Thanks again for your though-provoking post. You’re right that far too much of religious discussion takes place only among people who already share the same conclusions (or delusions).

    Respectfully yours,
    William Messenger

  4. 4
    Mano

    Leslie,

    What you describe is possible. But in the absence of any positive evidence in its favor, it joins the infinite number of scenarios that the human imagination can construct. Just because it is possible to believe in something does not mean it is reasonable to believe it.

    I prefer the more rational approach of only taking seriously those things which we have good reasons to believe.

  5. 5
    Mano

    WIlliam,

    Thanks for your comments. I am indeed aware of the existence of many thoughtful religious believers of the kind you describe. They are among the readers of this blog and members of my friends, family, and colleagues.

    It is not the lack of proof for god’s existence that makes belief in god irrational, it is the complete absence on any credible evidence in its favor. Believers can construct elaborate scenarios where this lack of evidence is explained away, but the reality remains that people are believing in something because they feel a need to and not because they have any real reason to. The roots of that need must lie in their psychology.

  6. 6
    Mar Hanna

    You pose very interesting theories and statements. However, how do you explain the recent discovery of Bible scripts in Isreal that took back the first discovery of the Bible even few hundred years earlier? How do you explain such an order in this universe? From an atom? I do agree some religions doctorine their children and won’t allow any questioning of beliefs, I will say that most Christian denominations allow and encourage posing the difficult questions and admit many times they have no logical answers but faith (believing in the unseen).

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