Thursday, May 30, 2013

Belief: Important, though grossly over-emphasized

I often remind people (theists, atheists, allies, assholes, anyone who needs reminding really): You know I'm an atheist. But, now that you know that, how much do you know about me? Exceedingly little.

Anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God, musters the same point in her guest column for The New York Times titled "Belief Is the Least Part of Faith":
If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.
Luhrmann calls it the problem of belief, and I agree that belief is a problem, though not just because it represents a barrier toward a feeling of community or unity among persons of different ethical and doctrinal commitments -- as a believer in materialism and rationalism, I think it is ethically urgent that we cultivate as widely as possible the practices of skepticism, irony, and empiricism, so as to fortify our culture and body politic against attractive but untrue and dangerous memes.

However: Luhrmann's purpose in his column is not to problematize belief, but to problematize the emphasis on belief as a sticking point of contention between believers and secularists. I agree fully with her perspective in this regard, and would offer this as a take-away:

The epistemic position any person stakes out on the question of theism (or any question of doctrine) is a small aspect of the much larger and manifold state of identifying with a particular worldview tradition. Far more important than what is believed, is how the belief is arrived at (a measure of warrant); whether the belief is consistent with other beliefs held by the believer (a measure of rationality); and which behaviors are engendered by that belief (a measure of moral merit). There are a great number of beliefs I as a staunch atheist hold, which are utterly unrelated to my view on existence of divinities.

My ethical commitments, in other words, like those of believers and nonbelievers of all sorts, have a relationship TO my faith outlook... but cannot, and should not, be reduced TO the fact of my belief or nonbelief. The human epistemic machine, with all its moral and philosophical sub-systems, is far too complex to be so reduced.

These facts should be known widely, since they have direct bearing on the way we interact with persons who identify with faith or philosophical traditions other than our own.


NB: Luhrmann notes "As the comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out, when the King James Bible was printed in 1611, 'to believe' meant something like 'to hold dear.'" Quite so. Etymologically, the Germanic verb "to believe" can be thought of as "to be-love": "to love so as to live by." This word-fact should douse the torches of all those atheists who decry "belief" as an act of intellectual weakness. (Though the worst of the rhetoric is focused tightly on the intellectual treason of "faith"). Let the warning be: Semantic arguments may by semantic means debunked.