Sunday, March 21, 2010

Belief in "Belief in Belief"

In Elizabethan England, the word "atheist" was used to indicate any deviation from religious orthodoxy, more a charge of noncomformity than actual metaphysical rejection of God. Most people of this time just did not want to know the details of someone's apostasy, whether it be Deist, Gnostic-Hermetic, or some other freaky-deaky thing. It was the deviancy that mattered, not the content of that deviancy. Reject just one of the terms of orthodox Anglicanism (or Catholicism; it was the Jesuits who first called Ralegh an atheist) and you might as well reject the whole package, a time-honored mode of alarmism we see today when Republicans brand any attempt to regulate markets as "Communist."

Something of spirit pervades the writings of the neo-atheists, whose attempts to enforce a Christian doctrinal purity I have been loosely chronicling here over the last few months. Both Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have had strong things to say about who may really call themselves a true Christian, and now Daniel Dennett, as part of his effort to demonstrate the evils of "belief in belief," has chimed in with the results of a pilot study profiling five "non-believing" clerics currently preaching in Protestant churches.

In his report on this study, posted from his pulpit at the Washington Post's "On Faith" panel, Dennett allows from the outset that such a project is hampered by the difficulty of what, exactly, a "believer" is supposed to believe. He describes a continuum, one far pole of which would feature a god few people have believed in (In the Judeo-Christian tradition, at least) since the days of Jacob: a fully anthropomorphic God "existing in time and space with eyes and hands..." On the other pole, pure atheism, lacking even an abstract "Ground of Being." Moving along this continuum, from left to right, where can we properly say we have left "belief in god" behind? Two of Dennett's study subjects, both evangelical, are able to draw such lines in the sand (helped no doubt by the implicit hermeneutic of their own fundamentalism), and self-identify (privately, confidentially) as atheists. They each consider themselves hypocrites, and are looking for a way to leave the church. Assuming they are able to do so, these two would not seem very tightly bound by the "trap" Dennett goes on to describe. Their story would seem to be the more straightforward one of people who change their mind about the world, and make changes accordingly.

The bulk of the moral quandary, then, is assumed by the other three subjects (each Mainline Protestant), who consider themselves believers by their own lights, but are concerned that these lights illuminate a much more symbolic realm that that embraced by many of their parishioners. They would like to "come out" and explicate their more subtle understanding of God and scripture, but fear they cannot for the effect it would have on their ability to preach. Some are concerned they would lose their jobs outright, others that focusing on what is signified by doctrinal terms would just get in the way. Dennett quotes one pastor named "Wes":
Well, because on the pulpit, on a Sunday morning, you get people in all different stages. And if I laid that out there, then again, people would not hear the point of the sermon.
Dennett means for all of this to support his idea that there is a conspiracy of lies enshrined by our culture's tacit respect for faith that he calls "belief in belief." Because we are not allowed to examine certain cultural values marked off as "sacred," we end up absurdly perpetuating them with institutions which long ago abandoned any claim to real conviction.

It's a compellingly chilling story, one that might lend itself to dystopic science fiction. But is it true? Does Dennett's preliminary data support it? And to the extent it is true, is it uniquely true of religious values, or is this a dilemma that involves anything a society might value, including freedom, justice, progress, self-sacrifice, or even rationality itself?

In his On Faith column, Dennett writes that his working hypothesis, which emerged out of writing Breaking The Spell, was how often ordained clergy "didn't believe a word of the doctrines of the faith to which they were devoting their lives1." Even of his own small and self-selected sample of "non-believers" this is too strong a statement. At least three-fifths of his subjects believe in Christian doctrine in a meaningful, allegorical way. They don't think they are telling lies in their pulpits; they think they are offering vehicles for truth expressed non-literally (which would seem to be legitimate according to the continuum earlier proscribed). Of the two atheists he describes, one has taken the role of "worship leader," avoiding sermons. The other admits to play-acting, and that he doesn't believe "in what I'm singing in some of these songs." But while Dennett has shown what anyone might have guessed (especially anyone who has read Victorian literature), that some percentage of clerics have lost their faith, or part of it, he falls short of convincingly arguing that this rises to the proportion he originally speculated on.

To the extent that closet atheist clerics do exist, though, as they clearly do, can we attribute the etiology of this phenomenon, as Dennett would, to the success of religion in keeping a firewall against rational inquiry? I think we have to ask if there are any parallels pointing to a more broad phenomenon.

Let's imagine a secondary school teacher in mid to late career, once full of zeal for opening the doors of possibility for classroom after classroom of eager students, now jaded into thinking that it's of no consequence whether or not children grow up learning history, math, economics, geography, and biology. The world keeps getting worse; today's children invariably end up as tomorrow's suck-ups and sell-outs. Our cultural experiment in betterment through public education has been a failure. But perhaps it's not all bad, in that it keeps the kids off the streets and out of the sweatshop. Best to go along with the charade. And besides, after 20 or 30 years, what else is a trained teacher, with no savings and only a meagre pension, to do?

Now imagine another pedagogue, this time a college professor of literature. Throughout grad school this professor sustained herself by fantasizing about future seminars and workshops where she would introduce students to the practice of literary analysis, and, indirectly to moral philosophy and the examination of their own souls. Instead she has found, even after securing tenure at one of the nation's most renowned colleges of arts and science, that the vast majority of her students want to be lectured to. They want her to tell them what the important themes of the great books are, and are inordinately concerned with what's "on the test." Attempts to exercise greater control over curriculum and grading policy have only led to increased friction not just with her students, but also with her fellow faculty members, and with administrators, forcing her to modulate her teaching style. She still tries to engage her seminars in discussion, but resiles to lecture format much more than she would ideally prefer, resigning herself to the thin hope that special students will seek out more engagement during office hours.

Are these two instructors also not held in a type of "trap"? We could construct similar analogies featuring scientists, politicians, industrialists, soldiers, environmentalists, filmmakers, poets, building inspectors--indeed it is hard to imagine a vocation that is not prone to disillusionment, in which one could not one day stop believing, for better or worse, in its foundational values. Religion would not seem to suggest any sort of special case on this account. In a separate On Faith column, Richard Dawkins begs to differ, calling the religious case a "singular predicament," and revealing the ideological impediment that keeps him from treating this matter thoughtfully:
Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs.
Farmers losing faith in farming as anything but an instrument of destitution, and yet having to carry on, is such a commonplace in literature and folklore, that I can't imagine how Dawkins can bring it up with a straight face. For modern, factual examples we can look to Michael Pollan, for example, who in The Botany of Desire chronicles one potato farmer who will not eat the produce from his own field for its saturation with pesticides. Another potato grower he profiles uses organic methods, and as a result cannot farm the potato (the Russell Burbank) that the biggest customers--makers of fast food french fries--want to buy. As for doctors, the dwindling number of medical students willing to become general practitioners tells a story we could flesh out in a series of posts each as longwinded as this one.

As someone who cannot imagine losing faith in his principles, Dawkins is perhaps one of the lucky ones. But such certitude serves as an impediment against his having clear insight into this aspect of human nature, in which conviction can fail, and it is not easily known whether this failure is an indication that it's time to move on, or to re-up. Is our marriage doomed, or are we just not trying hard enough? Has our child-rearing philosophy gone awry, or do we need to double down? Is our chosen career wrong for us, or are we always too quick to give up when the going gets rough? Is our argumentative style in business meetings an efficient way of getting results or just a needless source of hostility? Of course empirical facts must play a part in answering these kinds of questions. But facts alone cannot make our important moral decisions for us. The defining feature of human agency is the leap of faith. (Always, notably, subject to later revision. If even the conservative Christians of Dennett's study find themselves capable of rejecting their once-sacred beliefs, perhaps the iron-grip of the faith-meme has been over-sold). Looking taxonomically all known traps, surely there is a greater risk that when we make faith in every circumstance an emblem of evil, we make war with ourselves.


1(That this was more than just a hypothesis, but more like an article of faith, is suggested by a comment from December, 2008, on a Guardian post by Andrew Brown stating affirmatively that "The seminaries and churches are full of atheist clergy who live their own version of this paternalism" [where religion is defended as being good for people, even if false].)

32 comments:

branemrys said...

In reading Dennett here I felt myself wondering (as it seems I often do when I read many New Atheists) whether Dennett has even heard of Unitarian Universalism or its history; he always seems to imagine there is some fundamental hypocrisy if clergy drift UU-ward.

I was charmed by Dawkins's claim that "we believe what we believe as a result of evidence"; to make his point this has to apply to just about everyone on just about every subject, which is a startling optimistic assessment of human reason.

branemrys said...

In reading Dennett here I felt myself wondering (as it seems I often do when I read many New Atheists) whether Dennett has even heard of Unitarian Universalism or its history; he always seems to imagine there is some fundamental hypocrisy if clergy drift UU-ward.

I was charmed by Dawkins's claim that "we believe what we believe as a result of evidence"; to make his point this has to apply to just about everyone on just about every subject, which is a startling optimistic assessment of human reason.

underverse said...

Brandon,

In New Atheiostan anything to the left of Jonathan Edwards is apostasy. Dennett loves calling panentheist Christians "atheists" (sort of like a toddler, newly introduced to the outdoors, who calls every four-legged creature "doggie.") In January Hitchens had a conversation with a Unitarian (not UU) in which he called her "in no meaningful sense a Christian," and said that Tillich's Ground of Being was in the set of "statements that have no meaning--at all."<span><span> </span></span>

Wandering Internet Commentator said...

If Dawkins (hypothetically) were to change his mind about science (I mean, coming to the opinion that it was boring, tedious, and a chore as opposed to a ~*wonderful thing everybody should be excited about*~), wouldn't they have kicked him out of his position as the Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science? That's one example off the top of my head I can think of where a "mere change of opinion" results in you getting booted out of your job.

prasad said...

"Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs. When decisive evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe came to hand, astronomers who had previously espoused the Steady State Theory changed their minds: reluctantly in some cases, graciously in others. But the change didn't tear their lives or their marriages apart, did not estrange them from their parents or their children."

It's pretty clear from context Dawkins is using 'I believe in X' to mean 'I believe X exists/is real/is true', not 'I believe X is valuable/meaningful/trustworthy' That doesn't invalidate your point about farmers/teachers etc, but he isn't saying anything so idiotic as you make him out to say!

underverse said...

Prasad,

If that's a defense Dawkins wants, he can have it. It is trivial that a thing is true if it does not matter. I could devote a life's work to the lint in my belly button. (Semester One: The composition, quantity, and ionic charge of my belly button lint. Semester Two: all the things that are not in my belly button. Semester Three: The distances of each lint molecule in my belly button from the starts of the visible constellations. Semesters Four through Ten: A brief history of each molecule of lint in my belly button, from the time of Julius Caesar. Semester Eleven: New evidence that challenges some of my statements from Semester Two.) What difference does it make to a farmer if the soil, factually, is such and such a pH, or that such a yield can be expected from x bushels of seed, if the enterprise itself is either doomed or immoral? 

What the majority of Dennett's study subjects are grappling with is the moral question of whether it makes sense to go on preaching when one's congregation has such a (putatively) different interpretation of sermon and scripture than they do. It's the meaning of the content of Christianity that is at issue, not the facticity. I don't know whether I'd say the failure to make this distinction is "idiotic" or not, but it makes the Dawkins/Dennett analysis rather orthogonal to the very questions *they* raise about how we evaluate the moral and metaphysical aspects of our culture.

underverse said...

W.I.C., for the win. Wish I'd thought of that example.

underverse said...

Actually, Brandon, I edited the lede to play up this angle.

Jim Harrison said...

I'm unclear as to what warrants your statement "The defining feature of human agency is a leap of faith." If you mean that wherever you are, you're someplace and that thinking always awakens in media res, I certainly agree. The leap-of-faith bit, however, seems to be considerably more specific than the general fact that action and thought always have presuppositions. Far from being universal, the leap-of-faith language has a decidely modern flavor about it—Kierkegaard, William James, Karl Barth, Heidegger. Doesn't its pathos depend on a specific historical situation. Isn't the complaint against liberal theology and secularism precisely that these manifestations of shallow and lukewarm modernity dispense with the dark moral grandeur of existential decision? Do you really think that giving yourself to Jesus or Hitler is the same sort of operation as deciding to become (or remain) a farmer or, for that matter, a Unitarian? Seems like a paralogism to me.

I'm not sure how Dennett defines the concept, but if belief-in-belief is construed as something characteristic of our situation instead of as a universal feature of religion, the phrase cacches something important. The practical challenge of the Enlightenment did have the effect of inspiring a novel form of ecumenicalism. Believers suspended their normal hatred of each other out of an even greater hatred (or fear) of the atheists. An exceedingly peculiar common front. "Worship at the church, synagouge, mosque, sacred grove, or blood-soaked sacrificial altar of your choice, damn it, but worshipsomething!" it's as if all the monarchists decided to form a political block and not worry that they couldn't decide on which dynasty to back. What we have here, it seems to me, is something like a metaphysical teaparty movement that is united by its dislike of the enemy more by any principle of unanimity over and beyond a perfectly abstract and contentless demand for unanimity itself. This sort of thing produces an immense body of apolegetics in search of something to apologize for, an endless call for belief in belief.

Which raises a question for you: do you really disagree with Dennett about the salience of belief in belief or is it just that you approve of it whereas he doesn't?

underverse said...

<span>Do you really think that giving yourself to Jesus or Hitler is the same sort of operation as deciding to become (or remain) a farmer or, for that matter, a Unitarian?</span>

Yes.

They are in each case moral acts, relying upon an exercise in judgement, which uses (among other things) faith to fill the gaps necessitated by the incompleteness of data.

<span>Do you really disagree with Dennett about the salience of belief in belief or is it just that you approve of it whereas he doesn't?</span>

I regard it an inescapable fundament of moral agency. So, the latter, I guess.

Jeb said...

I think it may have been heresy that the Elizabethan age was a bit freaked out by. Move from an emphasis on the seven deadly sins to the 10 comandments (rather big on idolitary) in both Protestant and Catholic faiths at this period.

The diffrence between the symbolic realm of the preacher and the views of the masses preached at being diffrent is nothing new. I think it can view it as a form of social snobbery and a means of making a difference with regard to class, educational background etc.

I think social snobbery is an important force with regard to the decline of belief systems or their re-badging as folklore. As much as reason is.

prasad said...

"<span> It is trivial that a thing is true if it does not matter."</span>
What do you mean by this? Surely things can be trivially (and/or uncontroversially) true or false.

"<span>it makes the Dawkins/Dennett analysis rather orthogonal to the very questions *they* raise about how we evaluate the moral and metaphysical aspects of our culture."</span>

No. You may think that, certainly, but it's wrong to think Dawkins thinks that, more so to insist that *his* argument on *his* terms depends upon it. Dawkins et al invest these questions with no moral significance whatsoever. Dawkins thinks - and has said repeatedly - that many of the questions addressed by religions are also questions of the sort scientists or anthropologists or carpenters answer. He thinks it should be approximately as non-fraught (emotionally, socially and intellectually) for a person to decide that Jesus didn't rise from the dead as it is for someone to decide a minimum wage is counterproductive (or not). Hence his invocation of closet imagery, for example.

prasad said...

"<span>Dawkins et al invest these questions with no moral significance whatsoever."</span>

To clarify if it's not clear, I'm saying he thinks the truth value of pretty much every doctrinal point of Christianity decouples from ethics. Obviously the ethical acceptability of a situation where one covers / pretends to believe what he doesn't, and either risks or doesn't risk social sanction is very much something he cares about. His view is, religion makes purely factual and otherwise innocuous matters improperly acquire a moral tinge. For him the situation of a priest pretending to believe is analagous to that of, say, a left-handed guy pretending to be right-handed in a state-approved club that thinks the Great Pumpkin has enjoined everyone to use their right hands only. Someone who thinks the religion club is a bad thing is unlikely to view such scenarios favorably.

Vicki Baker said...

<span>"The practical challenge of the Enlightenment did have the effect of inspiring a novel form of ecumenicalism. Believers suspended their normal hatred of each other out of an even greater hatred (or fear) of the atheists. An exceedingly peculiar common front. "Worship at the church, synagouge, mosque, sacred grove, or blood-soaked sacrificial altar of your choice, damn it, but worshipsomething!" </span>

Do you have any evidence for this? I don't think the typical "worship as you please" ecumenicalist has any special hatred for atheists. I've even heard an "Emergent" Christian pastor say that many atheists follow Jesus' teachings better than most Christians.
If you have this impression, do you think you might be mistaking simple disagreement or heated debate for hatred, just as some fundamentalist religious folks do? I think the typical fundie hates and fears the "worship as you please" believer as much as, if not more, than the atheist-- as Chris points out, during the worst of Europe's religious wars, heterodoxy and atheism were pretty much equated.
Furthermore, the idea of religious tolerance emerged before the Enlightenment, as a *religious* idea. Read about Roger Williams and "The Bloody Tenet of Persecution".

Vicki Baker said...

BTW, I found the new threading and back-to-frong order kinda confusing. You young people and your newfangled notions!

underverse said...

Vicki, if threading were customizable on Echo I'd have it old school, single threaded, oldest on top. But it's still better by leaps and bounds than the blogger resident comments.

underverse said...

<span>Dawkins thinks - and has said repeatedly - that many of the questions addressed by religions are also questions of the sort scientists or anthropologists or carpenters answer. </span>

That's fine. But I am responding to a much broader claim here (and in previous posts on this same topic.) That broader claim is that religion reduces to this set of "many questions," which it quite obviously does not. In order to maintain such a position, the neo-atheists must declare any non-scientific religious statements as "wooly-headed" or "obfuscation." This takes us down a very boring recapitulation of the Courtiers Reply and all that it entails. The point is that it is an exercise in theology to say that all religious statements are logical propositions, and that Dennett's and Dawkins' theology is in conflict with much of the last 1500 years (though they find some overlap with modern fundamentalists).

underverse said...

<span>For him the situation of a priest pretending to believe is analagous to that of, say, a left-handed guy pretending to be right-handed in a state-approved club that thinks the Great Pumpkin has enjoined everyone to use their right hands only. Someone who thinks the religion club is a bad thing is unlikely to view such scenarios favorably.</span>

For three-fifths of Dennett's subjects there is no evidence of any "pretending to believe." For the other two-fifths, there is an imperative to get out of the trade. So I think this would be a very poor analogy. 

This situation, by the way, bears a strong similarity to the one introduced by Jerry Fodor when he insisted that "Darwinists" must believe X, Y and Z. In some limited cases he has a point (where Darwinism encourages a-priori adaptationist thinking). But note the response by just about everybody in the community: I'm a Darwinist, and I don't believe all these things Fodor says I must. Maybe he should read some actual evolutionary biology beyond the high school level. Sound familiar?

Jim Harrison said...

I quite agree that the Fundamentalists are down on worship as you please, but the common front I referred to is pretty ubiquitous among the others, though there are certainly exceptions.  Atheists may not be hated, but in my experience the consensus of the believers is that they are merely to be tolerated because they don't subscribe to any religion whatsoever and the loving kindness of believers is often indistinguishable from hatred. That atheists are treated very differently than believers is pretty obvious: nobody gets excited that the Baptists advertise their ideas on buses. Meanwhile, I don't know how many poisonous emails I've read from various Christians that consigned me and my kind to hell and yet signed off with a pious "yours in love."

I'm well aware that various religious figures were involved in the emergence of modern tolerance, though even people like the Christian Locke, who gets a lot of credit for his support for tolerance, was one of the early proponents of "everybody but atheists." You can look it up. The earliest defense of the notion that individuals (as opposed to particular churches) have the right to their own beliefs and non beliefs is, so far as I know, Spinoza's Theological and Political Tractate of the late 17th Century.

underverse said...

<span>The earliest defense of the notion that individuals (as opposed to particular churches) have the right to their own beliefs and non beliefs is, so far as I know, Spinoza's Theological and Political Tractate of the late 17th Century.</span>

Not Julian the Apostate? Or Asoka? Did Roger Williams not extend tolerance to atheists and non-theists? And he was preceded in his own tradition by Castillio and Coornhert (though he was probably not familiar with them). I think that John Locke is something of a red herring on this topic.

Don't forget that Dennett's "belief in belief" hypothesis is precicated on a non-existent conspiracy: "Sometimes I wonder if even 10% of the people who proclaim their belief in God actually do believe in God." That's what this study is intended to explore. But out of five preliminary subjects, he has found none which satisfy his defintition. The two outright atheists have no interest in condoning belief. As soon as they can get new careers, they will put theism behind them. They hardly seem interested in furthering the illusions of the hoi polloi. The other three aren't actually faking. They just have a different definition of what it is they believe in than Dennett think they are supposed to.

I don't deny that atheists are generally mistrusted in the US, if polls are to be believed. They suffer from the same prejudice that most minorities have faced in history. Different=suspect. Luckily they/we live in a time when they/we are constitutionally secure in their right to believe as they choose. If there is a "front" that opposes atheism in a more organized and specific way than basic human xenophobia then let's see some evidence for it. In the meanwhile I've always supported the efforts of the neo-atheists to advocate for normalization of atheism. But for this we don't need to invoke a non-exisitent philosophy that says that the rubes should believe in supernatural beings for their own health and safety.

In a more general sense, we all believe in belief, as Dennett admits in the Guardian essay I quote above. Sooner or later it's turtles all the way down for each of us, and metaphysical naturalists are no exception. Why this fact should be used as ammunition against theists alone is a mysterious thing.

amanetti2000@yahoo.com said...

The issue with regard to religion is apostasy, not merely boredom or disillusionment with the job itself.

If a minister no longer accepts the tenets of her religion, that's a legitimate cause for defrocking.  An equivalent non-religious case would be a scientist who decided to endorse Creationism or Intelligent Design.

amanetti2000@yahoo.com said...

As I read the Dennet piece, he was discussing the dilemma of clergy who no longer accept the tenets of a particular religion.    It's not that they have become Atheists in the commonly accepted meaning of the word.

I am aware of many Catholic clergy who harbor beliefs not in accordance with the Magisteria on doctrinal issues such as artificial contraception and who are compelled to keep silent under threat of sanction.  Heterodoxy in the Catholic Church carries severe penalties.

Jim Harrison said...

It is not the case that we all believe in belief, at least in a univocal sense of the word belief. It definitely requires a leap of faith to believe that "<span>"the defining feature of human agency is a leap of faith." As I wrote above, it is merely a propaganda technique to use the word belief in two different senses in the same argument, especially when you are addressing people like me who don't believe in God but also don't think that not believing in God is much of accomplishment. One can make a faith, or atleast a sect, out of atheism--the atheistical groups tolerated by Asoka, for example, were religious since even the materialists of his time, not to mention the Buddhists, aimed at a sort of salvation. That doesn't mean, however, that not believing in God is necessarily a religious act. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. To claim otherwise is similar to the familiar theistic bit about how it is impossible to be an atheist.</span>

The historical question of who first proposed tolerance for individual belief is, like every historical question, not susceptible to easy answers because the meaning of terms depends on their context:I can go along with Roger Williams as a possible precurser to Spinoza--some of this public utterances do sound rather like Tom Paine. For the others, I think it rather anachronistic to think that they could conceive of the question of tolerance as we do. Heck, it is witten in the Koran that "there is no compusion in religion," but that didn't keep atheism from being punishable by death under Islamic law.



I

Wandering Internet Commentator said...

<span>Are there really no 'secular' versions of apostasy, at least besides the Creationism or ID examples? Just as a Catholic priest would lose his position if he merely had the wrong opinion about the virtue (or lack thereof) of contraception, for instance (as you astutely mention below), it would be easy to imagine, say, the chairman of the Ludwig Von Mises institute to lose his position if he merely had the wrong opinion about the virtue of the unrestricted free market or the evil of government intervention. If he truly had doubts over the veracity of libertarian economic theory, the head of the Mises Institute would be encouraged to keep silent about them, just as the heterodox Catholic priest you mentioned below. Now, the Mises guys may be crazy libertarians, but I believe the same analogy could apply to a variety of other secular economic institutes/think-tanks etc., yet I haven't heard Dawkins (or anyone else) moaning about those.</span>

underverse said...

Antonio, I agree. But Dennett explicitly calls them "atheists" (here and elsewhere), and mounts (here and elsewhere) an argument that they are pretending to have spiritual beliefs because our culture valorizes such beliefs. He has yet to provide any interesting evidence for this claim, which -- admit it -- has a strong whiff of paranoia to it. 

If his point was about heterodoxy, it might be well-taken, but then it wouldn't do much to further his belief-in-belief hypothesis, since apostasy is an equal-opportunity offense (as WIC observes above).

underverse said...

Jim, I'm not using "belief" in two different senses. I'm noting that Dennett attenuates between religious belief and the more general sense as it suits him, and that one is a subset of the other. 

We all "believe in belief" in the general sense. This is a logical observation that I hope doesn't need spelling out. We all extend belief, sometimes called faith, beyond where evidence can reliably point us. We believe in our ethics and our metaphysics, and our politics, and sundry other ideologies. There is no shame in this, nor is it meant to direct anyone back to the sanctity of traditional religion. Nor is it meant to belittle <span>metaphysical naturalists. It is meant only to show that Dennett is on a fool's errand here, for reasons I won't pretend to understand.</span>

About religious tolerance, Vicki's point was the modest one that it was invented by religious thinkers, not secularists. This is undeniable. Roger Williams precedes Spinoza whether Spinoza had ever heard of him or not, and Williams was preceded (by almost a century) by the doctrine of freedom of conscience developed by Castellio, a theologian. Furthermore if you want to apply a purity test to atheists, such that those who Asoka or Julian tolerated fail it, then Spinoza probably fails it too, since he was more of a pantheist or panentheist than what we would call today a naturalist-materialist. 

Anyway, we agree on the virtue of tolerance. if we can also agree on the general principle that everybody with frontal lobe activity has some kind of sacred values they adhere to, then it will be a great day for the internet.

Jim Harrison said...

It's your site so I''ll leave it at this. So long as you are claiming that "everybody with frontal lobe activity has some kind of sacred values," I'm not going to agree that you aren't cheating the meaning of belief. Sacred? Phooey! Note, however, that I'm not in the business of defending Dennett since he seems to think that believing in belief is some sort of ahistorical universal characteristic of religion just as you think that tolerance always means the same thing. I'm simply more of a historicist than you are.

Vicki Baker said...

<span>"I'm simply more of a historicist than you are."</span>

OK, perhaps you'd like to explain how the Enlightenment spawned "a novel form of ecumenicalism" in which" believers suspended their normal hatred of each other" to hate on atheists. I'd say ecumenicalism -the effort to extract common truths of religion and bring them into a context that supercedes any particular religious commitment - is itself one of the Enlightenment projects for religion. Not that it interfered with the sideline project of giving established Protestants more ammunition to hate on Catholics.
I think it's pretty darn historic to identify Enlightenment anti-clericalism with modern atheism. As you yourself admit, it is a relatively new phenomenon to be able to disbelieve in god w/o any conscious effort or decision.

underverse said...

Jim,

You haven't by any means worn out your welcome, but arguments like "Phooey" make the baby Bertrand Russell cry, so let me know if you'd like to elaborate. I'm using "sacred" here not in opposition to "profane," but in the sense of "not instrumental." I think it amounts to the same thing. And for anyone that frequents this site, as you do, this should be clear from the context.

Are secular values like freedom, honesty, truth, justice, equality, altruism, and reason not sacred--in the servgice of nothing but themselves--to those who hold them (which is pretty much all us to some degree)? Do we not fight wars in defense of these principles? Do we not imprison those who violate them in their legally encoded form? 

That's not to say that these values can't sometimes be questioned or criticized. (Though there is an obvious logical problem with criticizing critical inquiry itself.) The point is just that everyone has ends which hold the means together. Again, this is just a logical necessity arising from the exercise of symbolic forms. 

Jim Harrison said...

"Sacred" "Leap of Faith," these are terms that suggest that profundity is in the vicinity. I don't feel any obligation to regard with piety whatever presuppositions I'm currently using. It strikes me that the logic here is rather interesting. Just  one of the traditional argument for the existence of God depends upon the rejection of an infinite regress of causes, your argument in favor of sacred presuppositions seems to depend upon the notion that one has to settle on a single end to make sense of the means For example, for the moment I care about the literal truth of propositions.  I'm perfectly aware that it is impossible to justify a taste for veracity in some absolute way; and If my current project doesn't work out, I'll change my project, assuming that my libedo sciendi isn't as pathological as an obsessive preoccupation with shoes. To use an expression you used a while back, it's turtles all the way down. The difference between us may come to this: I note that it is turtles all the way down and don't expect it to stop being turtles all the way down if I make a leap of faith anymore than I think it's justifiable to assert that because every event must have a cause, there must be an uncaused cause. It seems to me an objectible form of vanity to expect such miracles. Ergo the phooey.

And Vicki. I appreciate what your saying, but I don't think I've got enough energy to reply to your comments thoroughly or fairly right this minute, though I am working on it.  My thoughts on the Enlightenment and the modern version of ecumenciallism are based on a recent encounter with the works of Jonathan Israel and Zev Sternhell, historians of the period who spend a great many pages anatomizing the Enlightenment and its internal and external enemies. That encounter got me re-reading Spinoza, Pierre Bayle, Diedrot and other members of what Israel calls the radical Enlightenment whose outlook differs quite drastically with the moderate Enlightenment of Voltaire and Montesquieu. I quite agree with you that Enlightenement figures indeed had a lot to do with "extracting common truths of religion."  The issue for me is, which Enlightenment do you buy into. By the way, I've got no problem at all in recognizing the contribution of religious thinkers. Since virtually everybody operated inside a religious framework before three centures ago, anybody who rejected Christian or Muslim or Jewish writers would pretty much have to dispense with any thinking that took place before 1650. I think about Christian philosophy in much the same way I think about Marxist philosophy. I mean I'm not a Marxist either, but I think many of the people in that tradition had something useful to say, not only in spite of but because of a perspective I don't share. And I certainly don't agree with the Village Atheists that religion is the root of all evil: I just think that all the propositions asserted by the religions are false, a very different thing.

Vicki Baker said...

Oops, I typoed "historic" when I meant "ahistoric" above. But I think you got my drift. Sounds like an interesting reading list, Jim. I'd be interested in hearing more at some point.

underverse said...

Jim,

How you regard your presuppositions is your own business. I've said many times before I'm not selling any particular brand of "piety." My argument is not about your stance, it's about what follows from using language, for all of us. I don't mean that you (or anyone) are making a leap of faith in an intentional, conscious way, but that the leap is there whenever we anchor a conclusion to a premise. I don't mean for any particular "profundity" to follow from this. All I mean is to question the rationalist assumption that reason can exist in a belief-free space. Even if those beliefs are provisional, they are doing significant work. And who can say that religious beliefs are never provisional? Obviously everyone in Dennett's study finds himself equipped to criticize received wisdom. And theology is essentially a 2,000-year exercise in such criticism, however unfavorably it may compare to non-theistic metaphysics.

The point is that the standard fault lines, where ideology belongs to religion and reason and critical thinking belong to irreligion, are misleading. We all operate in the realm that is blended from the two. Dennett is engaging in a projection of massive proportion, it seems to me, when he tries to make belief into something only his foes sanctify. It's a little bit like pretending to be a breathatarian. I don't think he is aware of his error--that is, I don't think he is being consciously deceptive. But it is such a wide-spread dogma that atheists don't trade on belief that it seems worth remarking on, even repetitively.