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We all practice Belief, and it Matters

August 10th, 2014 · Posted by Hugo · 4 Comments

Daniel Dennett famously criticized “belief in belief” in the past: he pointed out that there are many things that many of us no longer believe, but that we still believe it to be good to believe in those things. Consider a series on The Guardian on the question of Should we believe in belief?

But are things really that simple? The Dennett position can be criticised on two grounds. The first is that societies do need myths, as indeed do individuals. Take away their organising beliefs about their purpose in the world and both individuals and societies disintegrate: the belief that societies can function without myths, or rather that they should and will in the enlightened future, is itself a myth, and not a very helpful one.

What brought this to my mind today, is a podcast episode on A Point of View on BBC News Magazine: Why not caring about anything is only for the young. This article cites Dostoyevsky, and explicitly defends belief in belief:

It isn’t, I believe, the content of our beliefs that really matters, so much as the practice of believing itself. […] By contrast, religious beliefs continue to offer many people genuine succour, and they do this, I think, as Dostoevsky realised, not because of the specific concepts they appear to enshrine – such as an afterlife or eternal judgement – but because they place the human individual in a universal context, and thereby give her life meaning.

I share this view: I believe belief is necessary. And I believe all good people carry “beliefs”. If you are a secular humanist, valuing rationality and rejecting all superstitions, you still hold onto a belief in a “greater good”, a belief that ethics and morality matters, a belief in a future, after the end of our own lives, that could be better or worse, more heavenly or more hellish, and that this future does depend on what we choose to do with our own lives. From here, then, a source of meaning in our lives.

For this reason I sometimes provocatively call secular humanism a “religion” – because there is a particular idea I try to communicate with that label. Humanists attempting to convey another aspect of the Humanist philosophy prefer to call it a “life stance” (Wikipedia: Life stance).

My own interests lie in identifying and understanding the beliefs people hold, beliefs that are not the result of empirical scientific experimentation, and seeing how these fit together and how they build our present and our future, as well as how they built our past. And my progressive nature is interested in how we can evolve our beliefs from views that have become untenable, towards views that look more sustainable.

(No-nonsense mp3 download of the podcast is found at the link I shared above: A Point of View. It contains a little bit more content than the text: the mp3 reaches the end of the text at 7:45, then continues for another 100 seconds: a paragraph or two.)

Categories: Lifestances
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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jacques // Aug 28, 2014 at 12:36 am

    I typed up a very long and detailed response to your post however my browser crashed and there is no way I am retyping the massive paragraphs that I previously had, so I would just like to touch upon a few areas. You say, “Belief is necessary”, and this is something irrefutable. I could say, “I believe it will rain tomorrow”, and this can be based on a weather report. An issue that is more central to debates that include religion is how that knowledge is obtained. All religious knowledge is obtained through faith and one needs faith to believe in the teachings of a holy book. The important part here is what faith means. Faith is a belief in something without any evidence also referred to as, “believing in thing you don’t know.”

    I feel that whilst people do gain comfort from believing in a religion (a look into neurotheology would be interesting. Andrew Newberg has great books on the issue.) it would be arrogant of me to say that people cannot handle the truth which is that there is no man in the sky.

    Skipping over a section discussing the effects of religious dogma and the absurdity of religious texts, I’m moving onto your claim of referring to secular humanism as a religion. I understand how religion shapes the life stance of most people yet I do not believe there is any need for the use of the word religion other than to mess with people. Your statement that it’s a religion is completely wrong by definition since religion is officially defined as having a belief in a god/gods. Source of meaning does not equal religion, having kids would be a source of meaning in life and that would certainly not be a religion.

    I am a strong atheist though not quite gnostic so I’ll understand if perhaps you disagree with me on certain nuances.

  • 2 Hugo // Aug 28, 2014 at 1:49 am

    I’m sad about the loss of your long and detailed response. 🙁

    In any case, my main interest right now, if you’re keen on the conversation: to learn more about your “beliefs”, in the context of sources of meaning. 🙂 Do you consider yourself a Humanist? (“Reason and compassion” being the two-word summary, you’re clearly keen on reason, so I guess I’m asking how important you consider it to strive for compassion, as a lifestance?)

    I certainly disagree with your definition of religion, case in point that I consider Buddhism and Taoism to be religions too 😉 — but I’m not particularly into nitpicking these days, so this entire paragraph I’m busy writing is a bit of a drag. (When I write adjectives like “sometimes provocatively” in a post, it’s usually with careful consideration/deliberation, assuming I wasn’t rushed for time.) I’ll just end off with Wikipedia’s first sentence on the topic, for what it’s worth:

    A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.

  • 3 Jacques // Aug 28, 2014 at 10:07 am

    With your definition of a religion I would back certainly back calling Secular Humanism a religion. The Oxford dictionary fails to properly define a religion in this case.

    I find myself agreeing with nearly all aspects of the secular humanist world view, however I am not too certain about the moral relativist aspect of secular humanism. I believe in certain moral principles such as the golden rule, which is to treat other the way you wish to be treated. This leads me to condemning organisation such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. A moral relativist would say their beliefs are just as valid as mine and I disagree with that. A belief system that supports the stoning of raped girls is merely too backwards for me to hold it equal to other belief systems.

    If the moral relativist aspect of secular humanism is not a prerequisite then I would classify myself as one. However if it’s necessary then I wouldn’t be a secular humanist. However, I in all honesty do not know that much about secular humanism. I’m usually more than happy to merely slap the lable of atheist on myself since I hold no belief in a supernatural creator. Sam Harris goes further and says that he dislikes the word atheist since there is no word for not believing in unicorns or santa.

  • 4 Hugo // Sep 16, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    Pardon the delay in responding, life’s got me tied up at the moment. 🙂

    I’ve bumped into people disliking “humanism” on account of their impression that it places humans on a pedestal above other animals. 🙂 I’m not convinced that’s necessarily the case, but “humanism” is also pretty broad. (There is also “religious humanism”, and parts of the Sermon on the Mount could be cited as examples of humanism in Jesus’ teachings.)

    I find your impressions of secular humanism interesting too. I didn’t have the impression that it embraces moral relativism. Peeking at Wikipedia, again, to see what it mentions, I find these bits relating to the golden rule and moral relativism:

    Secular humanism affirms that with the present state of scientific knowledge, dogmatic belief in an absolutist moral/ethical system (e.g. Kantian, Islamic, Christian) is unreasonable. However, it affirms that individuals engaging in rational moral/ethical deliberations can discover some universal “objective standards”.

    We are opposed to absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation.[32]

    Many Humanists adopt principles of the Golden Rule. Some believe that universal moral standards are required for the proper functioning of society. However, they believe such necessary universality can and should be achieved by developing a richer notion of morality through reason, experience and scientific inquiry rather than through faith in a supernatural realm or source.[citation needed]

    Arguments for the “moral relativism” risk in Secular Humanism came from an American Evangelical theologian:

    Starting in the mid-20th century, religious fundamentalists and the religious right began using the term “secular humanism” in hostile fashion. Francis A. Schaeffer, an American theologian based in Switzerland, seizing upon the exclusion of the divine from most humanist writings, argued that rampant secular humanism would lead to moral relativism and ethical bankruptcy in his book How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (1976). Schaeffer portrayed secular humanism as pernicious and diabolical, and warned it would undermine the moral and spiritual tablet of America.

    I think the lack of “solid foundations/fundamentals” in reason-based ethical systems seems quite apparent to anyone that comes from a more fundamentalist background: deconverting from a religion in which one believes right and wrong are right and wrong “because God says so”, leaves one recognising that there is no absolute authority in reason – “reason, experience and scientific inquiry” does not dictate that it must be so. I guess one needs a more pragmatic approach to ethics when one aims for this “richer notion”.

    “Atheism” as a label is indeed not a very good way of labeling one’s lifestance, being about something one doesn’t believe, rather than about what one does believe, what one structures one’s life around. (Even “strong atheism”, in the sense of “belief that there isn’t a God”, is not something that provides any guidance, unless one is indeed a nihilist or perhaps an absurdist, where “belief that there is no God” could be interpreted as “belief that there is no fundamental meaning in life”.)

    I don’t think I bump into absurdists or nihilists very often. 🙂 So usually there should be some kind of answer to the question “from what do you derive meaning in your life?” – as opposed to disagreeing with the assumptions in the question. 🙂

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