On Belief In Belief

Dan Dennett raises a good point at CiF:

Today one of the most insistent forces arrayed in opposition to us vocal atheists is the ‘I’m an atheist but’ crowd, who publicly deplore our ‘hostility’, our ‘rudeness’ (which is actually just candour), while privately admitting that we’re right. They don’t themselves believe in God, but they certainly do believe in belief in God.

I am particularly unimpressed by those who proclaim the loudest; they demonstrate by their very activism that they fear the effect of any erosion of religion, and they must think that erosion is likely if they don’t put their shoulders to the wheel.

This is what gets me about the pro-faith crowd. Their position is: It’s not that we are religious ourselves – the very idea! But the masses need religion to give meaning to their poor struggling lives, and who are you to take that away?

Baggini calls this the social version of belief in belief, and explains it as: ‘whatever doubts the powerful cognoscenti may have, it is important that they foster belief in religious belief, or all hell will break loose.’

If you think I exaggerate have a look at this piece from Madeleine Bunting, with her condescending imagery about migrants returning from a nightshift cleaning offices, with ‘a well-thumbed Bible or prayer book to read on their journey.’ Or Theodore Dalrymple in the NS: ‘Though I am not religious, I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible for us to live decently without the aid of religion.’ Even Baggini adds the caveat that: ‘This view is often accused of being elitist (which it is) and patronising (which it may not be). To treat someone as though they were less intelligent than they are is patronising; to treat someone as though they were less intelligent than you, when they are indeed less intelligent than you, is not. That is why we do not patronise small children when we talk at their level.’

The pro-faith tendency loves to quote that beautiful passage from Marx – ‘The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness’ – which they interpret as: No arguments about FGM until we’ve established the workers’ state. Yet there are less honourable historical antecedents for its views. The neoconservatives believe in faith as a noble lie. This is Irving Kristol:

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.

Like Bunting and Eagleton, Kristol disdains illusion himself while being happy to let his social inferiors struggle under their illusions in the name of social cohesion.

Aside from its inherent contempt for the common man, this theory doesn’t even work on its own terms: Dennett references a study claiming the secular social democracy of Denmark to be ‘the sanest, healthiest, happiest, most crime-free nation in the world.’

He adds: ‘We should certainly hope that those who believe in belief are wrong, because belief is waning fast, and the props are beginning to buckle.’



One Response to “On Belief In Belief”

  1. David McGrogan Says:

    Dennett references a study claiming the secular social democracy of Denmark to be ‘the sanest, healthiest, happiest, most crime-free nation in the world.’

    As if it boils down to such a simplistic schematic. You’ve got to love Dennett: a fearsomely intelligent scientist/philosopher with a keenly critical mind…except when it comes to studies which confirm his own biases.

    I mean, it couldn’t just be that Denmark is a happy country because it is very wealthy, with a pleasant natural environment, good health care, social security, quality education, relaxed attitude to work, and small size, could it? No, it MUST BE BECAUSE IT’S SECULAR!!

    Japan’s a social secular democracy too (and much more secular than Denmark), but it came in at number 90 in the happiness list. So what does that prove? Exactly: nothing.

    Dennett needs to get a grip.

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