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.)