Monday, October 30, 2006

Why believe in God?

A couple of posts ago, I promised a discussion of what I felt were legitimate reasons to believe in God despite the lack of scientific usefulness in the concept. However, on reading my own archives, I realised that I'd already covered a lot of what I wanted to say. However, I would like to recap briefly, to put these things in the new context of usefulness.

Before I start, I'd like to make a general statement. A lot of these reasons for believing in God appear at first glance to be extremely derogatory. They're not. They're useful. The reason that people look at them and think "oh, you're soooo mean" is that it's been drummed into them for years that these other forms of usefulness are intrinsically of less value than scientific usefulness.

My feeling is that this is the cause of a lot of grief, and of travesties like Intelligent Design. People believe in God for these other legitimate reasons, but feel slightly silly for doing so and thus try to validate that belief in terms of scientific usefulness, which only causes unnecessary confusion.

Use 1: happiness

Conserved component: anything that makes one immediately happy is (in general) useful.

Many religious beliefs certainly fall into this category. The reassurance that these beliefs provide can be an incredibly powerful force when an individual is feeling out of control of their life. Read Sara Robinson on fundamentalism for further discussion of the connection between stress and religion.

Use 2: motivation

Conserved component: anything that makes one more motivated is (in general) useful.

Although in this area there's nothing special about religion per se, for some individuals it appears to be very motivating - certainly qualifying as useful for them (although not necessarily for humanity as a whole).

Use 3: mental efficiency

Conserved component: anything that makes one more efficient is (in general) useful.

Let's face it: there are some things that it's not really worth wasting a lot of time discussing. You'll never figure out an answer to the meaning of life in an online debate, so why waste that time when you could be off making the most of said life?

However, this is harder than it sounds because humans have built-in drives to seek out new knowledge (and, I suspect, to argue incessantly about it...). The statement "Goddidit" is useless from a scientific perspective because it works in every possible circumstances - but, from an action-based perspective, closing off those channels of thought can be extremely useful, and God makes a wonderful cork to keep these particular genies in their bottles.

I suspect this is what Ken Miller means when he says "I find that the hypothesis of God helps me to make sense of life and of the world around me, and I find that hypothesis congruent with science, not dependent upon it", although he would almost certainly disagree with my characterisation. Religion can provide a useful framework in that it helps one to focus more tightly on individual issues without being distracted by the scenery.

Use 4: socialisation

Conserved component: anything that makes one more easily able to gain the respect of one's peers is (in general) useful.

For this particular subset of usefulness, it's not actually necessary to believe in God, only to give the appearance thereof. And this is certainly what many people do... However, in many of the more evangelistic communities, it's getting ever harder to just pretend - eventually your mask will probably slip. In this sense, the belief itself, rather than merely the impression of it, could be considered useful.

Use 5: transmission of wisdom

Conserved component: accurate guidelines for effective living are pretty damn useful.

This almost certainly used to be one of the major reasons for religion, as anyone who's read Psalms can guess, and for many religions it's still a key component. However, in an age where any idiot can give advice, it's hard to give a good reason why merely having existed for a few thousand years means scriptural advice will be any better than that from other sources. I guess that selective effects would be expected to weed out some of the dross, though.

Thanks to the good folk at the interfaith society for pointing me towards this use, which I honestly hadn't really considered before. Maybe for some traditions it's even true.

So what's with the atheism?

So, if there are all these convincing reasons to believe (and I'm sure I've just scratched the surface), why do I not believe? Well, my feeling is that, as of now, the price is not right. I'm not in major need of comfort, I seriously doubt that belief in God will get me off my ass, I have no hopes that I could satisfy my rampant curiosity with "Goddidit", and my social life is actually doing quite well on its own (the main limiting factor is ineptness rather than beliefs!). Whilst I'm certainly in need of wisdom, I have doubts that the Abrahamic religions would be good teachers for me. Possibly I should try Buddhism, but that's completely compatible with atheism.

To my mind, the negative usefulness conveyed by religion's lack of scientific usefulness easily overwhelms these marginal advantages. Not particularly because I think the small reduction in predictivity would be a deal-killer, but because I worry that it wouldn't stop there. Religious belief can eat rationality alive. And that gives rise to a fundamental paradox which... but that's a post for another day.

I'll leave you with another reason for religion, which I couldn't quite figure out how to work into the preceding list. Say hi to the cutest religion analogy ever!


John said...

Hi its John again. This essay "explains" why people believe in one or another self consoling god idea---which is quite understandable of course.


Plus an essay on Real God


This essay discusses the essentially childish self serving nievity of the parental "creator" god.

Lifewish said...

Just read the "Real God" essay. Would I be right in classifying your position on God as broadly Taoist?

The God that can be told is not the eternal God;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.