Archives for posts with tag: belief

You can’t tell me I don’t have this belief. It’s in me, not you. You don’t feel it; I do. I feel it in my soul. When I say that I believe in God, I mean just exactly that, and obviously I am the best qualified to know!

This “argument from introspection” relies on two assumptions: first, that you perceive infallibly the events taking place in your “soul”; and second, that you have correctly identified one specific “feeling” in your “soul” as the belief we are trying to discuss.

To the first assumption: I do not deny that something is going on in you when you say that you believe. On the other hand, I have no reason to trust that you know exactly what it is; nor do you. I mean, are you an authority on exactly what belief tastes like? Very few scientists or philosophers will agree that you are that kind of expert on your own thoughts and motivations. Introspection is not an exact science. In general, when we look in there we have no idea what we’re seeing – and usually, we don’t even look.

It seems likely … that … ordinary people in their daily lives, do not even attempt to interrogate their memories about their cognitive processes when they are asked questions about them. Rather, they may resort in the first instance to a pool of culturally supplied explanations for behavior of the sort in question or, failing in that, begin a search through a network of connotative relations until they find an explanation that may be adduced as psychologically implying the behavior. Thus if we ask another person why he enjoyed a particular party and he responds with, “I liked the people at the party,” we may be extremely dubious as to whether he has reached this conclusion as the result of anything that might be called introspection. We are justified in suspecting that he has instead asked himself Why People Enjoy Parties and has come up with the altogether plausible hypothesis that in general people will enjoy parties if they like the people at the parties. [Nisbett RE and Wilson TD. Telling more than we can know: verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review 84:231-259 (May 1977).]

It is a commonplace that speech does not require that the speaker know what she means by her words, or why she is saying them. We have all asked ourselves at some time, Why did I say that? We have all nodded in agreement with someone, after not hearing what they said. We have all expressed in words a thought we had not known we were thinking; or, contrariwise, failed to utter a truth that we were certain must be voiced. We have seen ourselves reiterate a lie and start to believe it. And those of us who are parents have heard ourselves repeat, to our children, a catchy slogan our own parents used, though we have despised it for 20 years. You are just not that knowledgeable about what makes you tick. To insist that you “feel it” does not tell us very much.

To the second assumption: when I say that you don’t have a belief, you insist that you do; and then you testify about a feeling you have. This is odd, because feeling and belief are different categories, different experiences, different phenomena. Most importantly, feelings are by definition non-verbal. You can have a thought that (for example) “god is merciful”; this is a concept, which cannot be expressed without a specialized vocabulary. You cannot have a feeling that “god is merciful”. Feelings don’t work that way.

Feelings are notoriously resistant to verbalization. To make a sentence out of a feeling you have to run it through a language-dependent thought-process. The original, non-conceptual feeling is interpreted according to the rules of the conceptual framework(s) to which you happen to have access; the output is made of words, not feelings. The same feeling (if we can say such a thing) will be described differently by different people. One will speak of it as mercy, another as benevolence, another as peace, presence, Jesus, Krishna, the Buddha, and so on. The feeling itself carries none of these post hoc labels.

‘Feeling’ and ‘belief’ are different linguistic categories; they have different grammatical roles. A belief is a commitment to a proposition. You can’t have a commitment to a non-proposition.

Imagine that we ask someone: “After you made that promise, Ted, what did you do then?”, and Ted says, “I lifted it.”

We’d be like: “What?”

“Oh, yeah. I physically lifted it over my head.”

We now have no idea what Ted is talking about. He said he lifted a promise over his head, but that is not possible, because a promise is not a physical object – not the sort of thing that can be lifted. You cannot use that class of verb with that class of noun. The combination is so empty of sense that we may start to wonder whether Ted is speaking English. We might replay just the sound of his speech in our minds, thinking that maybe those raw phonemes would start to mean something if we took them as being in, say, Finnish.

Just as you can’t lift a promise, you can’t believe a nonsense-phrase. To insist that you are doing this is to make a statement with no meaning. It is, quite simply, a misuse of language: specifically, in this case, your sentence contains a transitive verb but lacks an appropriate object. You cannot form a meaningful sentence that way.

It may be hard to swallow, but the conclusion is unavoidable. Your impression that you believe profoundly in certain religious propositions is an illusion. Here is a tentative outline of what you’re going through. First, you have certain words in your mind that sound deeply meaningful (but are not). Second, in your daily experience these words are tightly associated with strong feelings that arise through social interactions and commitments. This combination of events you interpret as a deep commitment to the ideas that the words represent. But the words do not actually represent ideas, so you cannot actually be committed to them. Your interpretation, even though it is of your own experiences, has to be wrong.

“I know that Jesus loves me.”

No, you don’t.

“How can you say that? I feel it in my heart.”

Wait, do you know it or feel it? Those are different things. Knowledge (or belief) is different from feeling (or emotion).

When challenged about their professed “beliefs”, folks often reply with what sounds like evidence from introspection. They say things like, “I feel it in my heart.” But a feeling is not a belief. A feeling is a direct, non-verbal, bodily experience; a belief is a commitment to an idea – as Thomas Jefferson put it, “the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” You had a feeling, which was originally non-conceptual, and then you connected that feeling with a concept – that of ‘god’. This association in your mind, between a warm feeling and a fuzzy concept, is then presented as the answer to whether you have a belief in god. But neither the feeling, nor the concept, nor the connection between them, constitute a belief.

If you diligently practice any of various styles of meditation, you will eventually have the kind of experience that many people refer to as ‘transcendental’. In fact, one of the reasons you meditate is that you’ve heard reports of this kind of thing and you want to experience it for yourself. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So one day you’re sitting and this thing happens to you, and it’s amazing. It’s like – it’s like – how to describe it? Words are such feeble things compared to this thing, or place, or idea you’ve just seen, or felt, or understood!

Well, that might be true. But I know something that is definitely true. There are words waiting for you. They’re all around you. They’re literally in the air you breathe. People say them all the time. You can choose the ones you like. You had a ‘transcendental’, or ‘spiritual’, or ‘enlightenment’ experience. You reached ‘nirvana’, or ‘satori’, or ‘the Void beyond awareness’. You ‘became one with the Universe’. You ‘saw the face of God’. Take your pick; there are hundreds of them.

I’m not even saying that any of these descriptions is necessarily incorrect. That’s not the point. (Nor do I mean to suggest that such experiences should not be sought, or enjoyed, or valued.) The point is that if you’re old enough to have this kind of experience, you’re old enough to have heard the words for it – that is, the descriptions favored by the culture where you grew up. You can’t have the experience without having been ‘primed’ by that terminology. While in that exalted state you might be able to push aside such thoughts – this being a special aspect of such experiences – but not afterwards, when you’ve returned to not-so-transcendental consciousness. Then you’re going to call it what you’ve heard it called. If people around you tend to call it ‘higher awareness’, that’s what you’ll call it; if they say ‘cosmic consciousness’, that’s what you’ll say too. And if they call it ‘seeing the face of God’ or ‘feeling Jesus in your heart’, not only will you call it that; chances are it will feel like that.

But it isn’t that.

Again: I am not saying you shouldn’t do it. Quiet meditation is a Good Thing. I’m just pointing out that meditative states are frequently misdescribed. “I had a beautiful experience” is one thing; “I saw the face of God” is another. The former report may be accurate; the latter cannot be.

How do I know? Well, ultimately I know because I have noticed that the very concept of ‘god’ is incoherent, so not only are there no gods, but the idea of their existence is not even a coherent proposal that deserves careful rebuttal. But we don’t have bring out the big guns. We can observe, much more modestly, that feelings and beliefs are different things.

When you meditate (or in whatever circumstance it occurs), you have these feelings. They are powerful, special, beautiful and interesting. They do not come with a serial number, barcode, or owner’s manual. They are utterly non-verbal. For thousands of years, adepts have assured us that trying to convey such experiences with words is pointless. We have thousands of pages of such disclaimers – and attempts, by the same authors, to convey their experiences.

By the way, I am not convinced that the reason meditative states are so hard to describe is that they are so sublime. It may be simply because they are essentially non-verbal; they are feelings, not knowledge. All feelings are hard to put into words, even the everyday kind. Can you put into words exactly how you feel when you’re stuck in traffic? Could you make someone understand it who had never endured it?

In any case, feelings are, by definition, wordless. We have feelings, and on the other hand we have names for them. The original experience was wordless. That’s part of why it was so great. So, I can call my spiritual experience ‘touching the Void’ (for example), but I know that this is a label, added after the fact – that even the word ‘spiritual’ is a label, for something that originally had nothing to do with words.

Well, I should know this. But it’s easy to forget, especially in religious contexts. Because the churches have great cabinets stocked with words for us to use. And churches are more interested in our words than in our feelings. Tell your friends and neighbors in your local Baptist Church about a feeling you had this morning, while praying, of “a kind of warmth or welcoming or safety – sorry, it’s hard to put into words,” and you’ll get some half-hearted smiles. But if you say, “I felt Jesus’s love in my heart,” well, Glory Hallelujah, you’ll be a star.

Feelings are non-verbal. You can interpret them as meaning something specific, but it’s always going to be an interpretation. If you have a feeling that you attribute to the love of God, or the awareness of the Universe, or whatever, you are going beyond the data of experience and proposing a theory about what caused the feeling. Now if you hypothesize a physical agent, you can get some traction. Maybe you’ve ingested certain substances; or practiced certain psychological exercises; or you have epilepsy. Physical things can cause you to have certain experiences. Non-physical entities that don’t exist, except as words, cannot. If your theory involves an immortal spirit or a transcendent reality, no conceivable data will support it. Once you postulate an immaterial cause, you’re in the unfortunate position of trying to find an immaterial effect. You’ve painted yourself into a corner. You’ve sawed off the branch you were sitting on.

(Don’t get hung up on the idea that thoughts and emotions are “mental” rather than “physical” events. People say things like, “Love can have overwhelming effects, even though it’s not physical.” This is not correct. Mental-versus-physical is a false dichotomy. But clarifying this point is beyond the scope of this book. Try the first half of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.)

As another reason that your feelings cannot validate your religious beliefs, let me reiterate the point I mentioned in passing, a few paragraphs back. You cannot believe an incoherent proposition. No matter how much you want to, you can’t. Belief does not work that way. Just as there are no socks without a place to put your foot in, because if there’s no place to put your foot in it’s not a sock, so there are no beliefs that are not about some proposition, because if it’s not about a proposition it’s not a belief. Someone who says “I believe that bibble bobble beeble” is using the word ‘belief’ improperly. This is because bibble bobble beeble is not a proposition; therefore, the transitive verb ‘believe’ has no object; therefore, the sentence makes no sense in English. And similar considerations apply to all religious propositions. That’s how religious propositions are constructed. They are designed to be incoherent. Coherent (communicative) statements do not perform religious functions, and vice versa.

If the foregoing is true, then everyone who thinks that they can justify their religious beliefs, by any method at all, is mistaken, first of all because they don’t have any religious beliefs. No one does.

This is approximately the talk I gave on October 3rd at the Atheist Alliance International convention. You see, that presentation was not recorded; so I did it myself, a few days later, at home in Sacramento. Therefore, this video shows something similar to what you would have seen in Burbank. Here is an abstract:

As Wittgenstein observed, “one cannot mean a senseless series of words.” Religious propositions have no meaning, so they cannot be meant; and if they cannot be meant, they cannot be believed. One cannot believe a pseudo-proposition. “I believe in God” (for example) sounds like a report of an internal state, but that cannot be exactly what it is. What, then, is it, really? If the person making this statement it is not meaning or believing, what are they doing? Here at last is a question about religion that can be answered! Such “professions” are not reports of private mental states, they are public tokens of affiliation. Thus, the “sincerely held beliefs” paradigm used throughout our society (in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, for example) is wildly inaccurate. This has important implications for cultural debate and for public policy.

Interesting to see Dennett going a little farther into anti-theism than he did in Breaking the Spell.

I am confident that those who believe in belief are wrong. That is, we no more need to preserve the myth of God in order to preserve a just and stable society than we needed to cling to the Gold Standard to keep our currency sound. It was a useful crutch, but we’ve outgrown it. Denmark, according to a recent study, is the sanest, healthiest, happiest, most crime-free nation in the world, and by and large the Danes simply ignore the God issue. We should certainly hope that those who believe in belief are wrong, because belief is waning fast, and the props are beginning to buckle.

A national study by evangelicals in the United States predicted that only 4% of their children would grow up to be “Bible-believing” adults. The Southern Baptists are baptising about as many today as they were in 1950, when the population was half what it is today. At what point should those who just believe in belief throw in the towel and stop trying to get their children and neighbours to cling to what they themselves no longer need? How about now?

The folly of pretence | Daniel Dennett | The Guardian

Robert Wright: Why the “New Atheists” are Right-Wing on Foreign Policy

What the hell happened to Robert Wright? Nonzero was a really interesting book. Now he’s doing apologetics. His new piece in the Huffington Post is awful.

First of all, the title is simply a lie. P.Z. Myers responded very quickly: Uh, we aren’t.

Atheism has little intrinsic ideological bent. (Karl Marx. Ayn Rand. I rest my case.) But things change when you add the key ingredient of the new atheism: the idea that religion is not just mistaken, but evil — that it “poisons everything,” as Hitchens has put it with characteristic nuance.

Consider Dawkins’s assertion, in his book The God Delusion, that if there were no religion then there would be “no Israeli-Palestinian wars.”

For starters, this is just wrong. The initial resistance to the settlements, and to the establishment of Israel, wasn’t essentially religious, and neither was the original establishment of the settlements, or even of Israel.

The problem here is that two ethnic groups disagree about who deserves what land.

No, that is not the problem here. The Palestinians are an ethnic group. They are, by coincidence, from the area that has long been called Palestine. The Jews are not an ethnic group, they are a religious group. Their claim on the land is not historical but literary. Their excuse for living there is that G-d gave it to them. It is true that the dispute is not “essentially religious” — no argument is. Two tribes want the same thing, and they fight over it. One or both of them can give religious reasons for their position, but all religious reduce to “God is on our side”, which is false; therefore, there are no valid religious reasons. Logically speaking, there is no such thing as having a religious reason for your actions. You might believe, or say, that your motivations are religious, but this cannot actually be true. However, having said all that, the proximate reason for the establishment of Israel was that people wanted to do something for a class of people, the Jews, who used scriptural authority for the selection of their “homeland”. If there was not a religion called Judaism, there would not be a conflict over that land now called Israel. That is the notion behind Dawkins’s statement. It is just as simple and obvious as saying that in the absence of Islam no one would have destroyed the Twin Towers. Of course, there is always going to be conflict between human groups. But without religion, these specific conflicts — a “Jewish homeland”, an Islamic terror-cell — would not have occurred. I do not know why Wright wants to take issue with this trivial observation.

And of course Hitchens’s subtitle comes from the same place. This is one of the ways religion “poisons everything”: by motivating or rationalizing conflicts that might otherwise have been avoided. Wright rejects this, and adds a mean-spirited jab: “as Hitchens has put it with characteristic nuance.”

Of course, when religion is handy, special problems can arise. If there were no belief in paradise, there would be few suicide bombers. Then again, there might be less charity.

Oh, really? What an odd thing to say.

Whether belief in posthumous rewards has on balance done more harm than good is an empirical question whose subtlety Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens don’t exactly emphasize.

Another jab! Wright really doesn’t like these guys. Because they are too strongly against religion. What a bizarre development.

I think that this “empirical question” has been adequately tested. Like, for about 5,000 years. True, the experiment has not had a reliable control. But I see no reason to think that “belief in posthumous rewards” has done anyone any good, ever. The only people who think it might are the people who stand to benefit from it. And the only people who benefit from religion are the people who organize it: the imams, popes, and divinely-appointed kings. I think that’s what we’re really talking about here — isn’t it, Mr. Wright? You are an authoritarian. You like religion because it reinforces authority. Have you forgotten that it’s all lies, one hundred percent, from beginning to end? Is that really OK with you? Well, even if it is, please stop lying about us.

Agent SmithI’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to understand your so-called “religious beliefs” and I realized that they’re not actually beliefs. A belief is an idea about the natural world, but a religious belief is not. Religious beliefs are not ideas but memes: meaningless bundles of words, that move from mind to mind and multiply and multiply until every mind is consumed and the only way to avoid them is to move to Canada. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Religious “beliefs” are not ideas, they are a disease. Ideas are the cure.

Those jokers at the Pew are at it again, as reported today in the NYTimes under the headline Survey Shows U.S. Religious Tolerance. Here is the first paragraph.

Although a majority of Americans say religion is very important to them, nearly three-quarters of them say they believe that many faiths besides their own can lead to salvation, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

What does this mean?

“It’s not that Americans don’t believe in anything,” said Michael Lindsay, assistant director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University. “It’s that we believe in everything. We aren’t religious purists or dogmatists.”

No, Mike, that’s not what it means.

Look at that first paragraph again. A whole lot of people “believe that many faiths besides their own can lead to salvation,” the survey found. How did it find this? Well, it asked. Here are the survey instructions, copied from Pew’s web site. (From the page linked here, click Beliefs & Practices, and then Views of One’s Religion as the One True Faith).

Question wording: [IF RESPONDENT HAS A RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION, ASK:] Now, as I read a pair of statements, tell me whether the FIRST statement or the SECOND statement comes closer to your own views even if neither is exactly right. First/next: My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life, OR: many religions can lead to eternal life.

Does anyone really think that the way to discover someone’s sincere thoughts regarding “eternal life” is to ask them this question? The epistemological and phenomenological obstacles to such a determination are practically infinite.

Here’s one. If I consider “eternal life” to be a real thing, I will probably have to admit that I am far from being able to understand its nature or how to get there. So I will probably have to trust my pastor to give me this information. I still won’t understand it–how can a poor sinner understand the deep structure of the Divine Plan?–but at least I’ll have some words I can say to people who ask. In this scenario, the Pew interviewer is getting a pastor’s opinion, recited second-hand, through the mouths of the congregation. I wonder how many of their respondents behaved this way. A third? Five eighths? Nine tenths?

Here’s another. There is no eternal life, so anything you think you understand about it is wrong. A person cannot have a coherent opinion about the requirements for the attainment of eternal life. You can’t find out anything, you can’t know anything about this topic, so if you say anything either you made it up, or you are repeating what someone else made up.

Why does this matter? Because Pew’s methodology reinforces a dangerous myth: the myth that one’s religious beliefs are to some extent a conscious choice. If my beliefs are deligerately chosen, you need to take care when you challenge them. You need to let me at least try to explain them, otherwise you’re being intolerant. But religious beliefs are not consciously chosen. Religious affiliation is chosen, and people change their affiliations surprisingly often. And whatever your affiliation, your pastor will tell you what to think about eternal life, the age of the Earth, whether God is male or female, and anything else you want to know. But you didn’t join his church because you found its cosmology to be correct. You joined because his church is across the street, and your friend Grace goes there, and everyone seems so nice.

This means that when the Pew Foundation asks you about your doctrinal opinions, they are asking you about something that sounds important but that you seldom think about. (And if you do think about it, your thoughts are guaranteed not to make any sense.)

To emphasize people’s “beliefs” in a survey like this is to distort the discussion about religion, because that’s not what religion is about. Religion is about money and power. The central question about religion in public life is not whether people are interested in being “tolerant” but why they are happy to pay their pastors so much in exchange for nothing more than pretty words to parrot to the Pew.

Roy Sablosky, 2008.

~ 3,000 words.


So-called “religious” considerations have no place in any discussion of public policy. The reason is seldom mentioned but perfectly straightforward: there are no gods. Not even one. Therefore, no one’s “beliefs” regarding the opinions of their chosen deity are of any consequence. This much is obvious. Yet, we secularists are often remarkably tentative in our position that public policy in the United States must remain thoroughly secular.

Perhaps we hesitate because, though the gods are gone, people’s belief in them appears to be deep and sincere; and we are told that it is unseemly, or positively immoral, to challenge this special kind of belief.

In the crazy, mixed-up argument the American populace is having with itself over the role of religion in public life, from the Pledge of Allegiance to the teaching of biological evolution in public schools to the Plan B pill to the funding of “faith-based” organizations by the federal government, secularists have at least one serious disadvantage. We can be instantly stymied by talk of the “sincere and profound religious beliefs” on the other side. Even when we are certain that a given religiously-motivated proposal is morally debased, we are intimidated.

“You can’t withhold antibiotics from your child who is about to die from a simple infection like in the Dark Ages,” we say.

“But I have a profound conviction that X, Y and Z,” they say–and we wimp out.

“Oh, then maybe it’s OK… so hard to judge… political correctness… cultural identity… blah, blah, blah.”


In this paper I offer a possible corrective to this shameful timidity: the “sincere and profound beliefs” we keep hearing about are nothing of the sort.

Of course, even without such a finding we always were and still are justified in adopting a consequentialist stance, wherein it matters not at all what people believe in their minds, only how they behave in the world. But the Religious Right is ruthless and relentless. We need all the strength and will and intelligence we can gather. So this is the bit of intelligence I can bring today. It does not matter what religious apologists “believe,” because they don’t. I am hoping that this insight will provide an extra shot of courage or patience to secularists in their painful dealings with people who think that “religious beliefs” can justify the most appalling behavior.

In their recent, best-selling and delightful books Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris trounce every possible argument for the idea that religion is a good idea. Dawkins is both meticulous and funny; Dennett, a philosophical colossus, shines more light on the topic than it even deserves; and Harris provides a swift, no-nonsense defenestration. I really admire these guys, so it pains me to suggest that they are expertly solving the wrong problem. But if my hypothesis is correct, the whole program of disabusing believers of their belief is misconceived.

Here is the argument in a nutshell. First, ideas about deities are not incorrect but incoherent. That is, they are not ideas. And an idea cannot be refuted if it was never even proposed in the first place. Second, if an idea is without meaning–not really an idea–then no one can believe it. You cannot believe a concept that is not even a concept. I do not say you shouldn’t; I say you can’t.

The exposition that follows may seem abstract. But I would not have written it had I not believed that it might offer real help for real people. The “take-away” is that we should not bother trying to convince people to outgrow “religious beliefs” they don’t subscribe to in the first place. Let them have their so-called beliefs–but insist that in a public context such propositions become pseudo-rhetoric and will be ignored. People are free to express their “beliefs,” but cannot thereby justify any actions or policy, ever. In a public arena we want to know what people are doing or trying to do; religious considerations are simply and entirely irrelevant.

Epistemological considerations

Here is how the argument starts. Ideas about deities are not wrong, they are meaningless. All of them. Ayer said it this way:

Theism is so confused and the sentences in which “God” appears so incoherent and so incapable of verifiability or falsifiability that to speak of belief or unbelief, faith or unfaith, is logically impossible.

– Dennett, this way:

The proposition that God exists … is so prodigiously ambiguous that it expresses, at best, an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds–or billions–of quite different possible theories, most of them disqualified as theories in any case, because they are systematically immune to confirmation or disconfirmation.

– and Wittgenstein, like this:

You cannot mean a senseless series of words.

For example. Someone comes into the room and asks us, “Europe artichoke?” Why can’t we answer this question? Well, because nothing has been asked. It is not actually a question. It is a random string of words with a decorative curlicue at the end.

The question, “Does God exist?” has the same meaning–that is, none. So the correct answer is neither Yes, nor No, nor even “I don’t know.” Actually, we do know!–because obviously, a statement with no meaning has no truth-value, and a question with no meaning has no answer.

I will devote no more space to the defense of this one point. (See the References for more support.) I take it as established that religious propositions are empty of meaning. But the implications of this fact have been inadequately explored.

Here is the one I want to pursue.

As Wittgenstein points out, a nonsensical phrase cannot be meant. I want to add: if it cannot be meant, neither can it be believed. After all, what would be the content of such a belief? You believe… what?–a senseless series of words? How would that work?

The idea of believing a meaningless idea is itself meaningless.

Someone says: “I strongly believe that Europe artichoke.” But if “Europe artichoke” has no meaning, then what meaning can “I believe that Europe artichoke” have? And just so, if “God is perfectly compassionate” is an empty proposition, then “I believe in a perfectly compassionate God” must be empty as well.

Someone might say, “But people don’t know that the items in which they believe are incoherent. They believe in them as if they are meaningful. They might be mistaken about the content, but the belief itself is real and sincere.” No. The question is still valid: You believe in what? You can believe that the Earth is a conscious being, because after all the Earth is a real thing and consciousness is a real thing. As a theory this would be hard to test, but it would still make sense to say that you are entertaining it. But a proposition containing the word ‘God’ cannot be a hypothesis, because the word and therefore the whole sentence has no meaning. You cannot meaningfully say it, and you cannot meaningfully believe it, no matter how much you want to, because there is no proposition there that can be the subject of your attention.

All ideas about gods are incoherent. They cannot be meaningfully transferred from one person to another (except as rote verbal formulas); they cannot be productively discussed; and they cannot be believed. Dawkins and Harris see religious belief as inadvisable. I see it as impossible. It cannot be done. It does not happen.

But, if, when people say they “believe,” that’s not what’s actually happening, then what is happening instead? What are these people doing, and why? What is the activity we call “religious belief”?

The saying of it

We do know that they are saying things. Meaningless things, as far as we can tell, but they are speaking–that, at least, everyone can agree on! Let’s follow another suggestion from Wittgenstein.

Ask yourself: On what occasion, for what purpose do we say this? What kind of actions accompany these words? (Think of a greeting.) In what scenes will they be used; and what for?

For example. Here is a man saying, “I believe there’s a post office down the block from here.” We can picture him with his arm extended, pointing the way. Now, why did he say those words? Probably not to hail a cab, or to frighten away the pigeons. Almost certainly, someone asked him a question; his utterance is an attempt to answer the question.

Now here is a woman saying, “I believe God is good.” Why did she say that? We can easily imagine a plausible context: preaching, proselytizing, defending her faith to an atheist… and so on. And what would be the purpose of such a remark, in those contexts?

I hear words from someone’s mouth and I imagine that a thought is being transferred from her mind to mine. And so does she. But, in the case of “religious belief,” there is something very different going on.

Practical considerations

Is this too intellectual?–too much about thoughts? Let me cite a few supporting considerations of a more practical nature.

First, the more metaphysical sorts of religious claims, things like “God is One but also Three but also One,”–even if you can stretch your imagination to make them seem as if they mean something, have no practical implications. Almost by definition, they don’t inform or affect one’s behavior. If you are deciding whether to jump in the river to rescue a cat, whether God is Three or One or 42 does not matter. There is no point in thinking about it at that moment, or indeed at any moment except during Tuesday night Bible study.

Second, those few snippets of doctrine that might seem to be simple, understandable guidelines (“Do not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” for example) are generally ignored by everyone, including the people who constantly avow them.

Imagine that we ignored people’s words and tried to deduce the content of their beliefs from their behavior. Someone tells us: “These folks believe that adultery is punishable by an eternity of torture.” We watch for a while and say, “Jeez–it sure doesn’t look that way.”

Third, even when such guidelines seem to be obeyed, people can be following the rule because it agrees with them rather than the reverse. After all, other people might be “following” the same rule without even having heard about it. I believe that it’s wrong to kill other people. And that’s what it says in the holy books, but that’s not why I believe it. The book and the belief are independent–for me, and for everyone else.

You might still insist that belief is more a “feeling” than a “thought.” To this I would simply object that a feeling cannot be a belief. A belief is a thought, by definition. If you want to insist that the phenomenon in question is properly called belief, describing it as a feeling as well will not help you.

No, I don’t think any feeling or thought is or results in the avowal of “belief.” I think it’s the other way around. The avowal prompts thoughts and feelings, which become post hoc explanations for a speech-act whose true cause goes unnoticed by the speaker.

Phenomenological considerations

Sam Harris, speaking at the “Beyond Belief” conference in November 2006, brings up an interesting point but misses the big picture.

[T]he greatest problem with the rest of us–with secularists, and religious moderates, and scientists–is that we find it very difficult to believe that people actually believe this stuff. Secularists and religious moderates, almost by definition, don’t know what it’s like to be certain of God. To be certain of Paradise. To be certain that the book they keep by their bed is the perfect Word of the Creator of the Universe.

I’m not sure I know what it would be like to believe in an all-powerful deity. On the other hand, I’m not sure I see anyone doing it. Can you demonstrate, Mr. Harris, that people “actually believe this stuff”? Is there any evidence for this famous “belief,” besides their talking about it?

Maybe people don’t believe in deities, they just feel that they should say that they do. Maybe that’s what “being religious” is.

Maybe to be “religious” is to say certain words. The funny thing is, that when you say them everyone figures you mean them. Including you. As if the words are a report, a portrait, of your inner state. What if this assumption is wrong?

Wittgenstein again:

The paradox disappears only if we make a radical break with the idea that language always functions in one way, always serves the same purpose: to convey thoughts … .

When secularists ask whether you “really” believe, the answer seems obvious, so you don’t check. You don’t meticulously introspect to try to improve your understanding of the phenomenology of your own belief. That’s certainly not what your pastor and your congregation want you to do! They simply want you to say the word ‘Yes’.

What really trips us up–we “secularists, and religious moderates, and scientists”–is not that we can’t imagine that people believe in gods but that we do imagine that people believe in gods. What we can’t imagine is that folks would make strong public statements without first checking that they’re true or at least mean something.

Well, they do mean something–but something entirely different from what we or the speaker would imagine. “I believe that Jesus was the son of God,” for instance, is not a philosophical position. It is not about Jesus, or God, or belief. Though made of words, its function is non-verbal. It is a social gesture, like a smile… a handshake… a badge to pin to your lapel.

“Believers” and “nonbelievers” alike have misunderstood the phenomenology of “religious belief.” It is not a thought, feeling, opinion, intuition, mood, or desire. It does not take place in anyone’s head, but in their circle of acquaintances. Church attendance, Bible study sessions, public confessions and exhortations–even private prayer–these things are not done because people believe; they are what constitute “belief.”

Avowals of “belief” are tokens of mutual affiliation. You say certain words to identify yourself as a member of a group of “believers.” One of the requirements for membership is precisely that you say those words–those special phrases called “beliefs.” The name is misleading, because as propositions they are incoherent and as beliefs they cannot be held. But that does not matter to the group. The requirement is that you pronounce certain special verbal formulas out loud, not that you actually believe them (whatever that would mean).

The whole fabric is woven of public behaviors, not private thoughts.

The unavoidable conclusion everyone is avoiding

In practical ethics it doesn’t matter what you believe in your mind, only what you do out in the world. And this applies with extra force when you don’t believe it, but only say it a lot! The fact that religious “beliefs” are not, as is always claimed, “sincere and profound convictions,” but something more like club-house badges, should change the way we deal with those who claim “religious beliefs” as their motivation.

So, here’s what we should do. When someone says, “I’m building a shelter for snowy owls, because Freyja says I should,” we ignore the second clause and say, “How nice of you.” And when someone says, “I beat my children because Wotan says I should,” we ignore the second clause and say, “Well, it happens that here in California beating your children is illegal and you have to stop immediately.” Georges Rey nicely articulates the consequentialist view:

If you think some particular war is right, or some sexual practice wrong, fine; then provide your reasons for why you think so. But don’t try to intimidate yourself and others with unsupportable, peculiarly medieval claims about how the “Lord of the Universe” approves or disapproves and will punish people accordingly.

To which we can add the observation (tentatively endorsed by Rey himself) that people don’t believe that there is a Lord of the Universe, but only feel obligated to say so.

No matter how many times the claim of divine permission is repeated, it should be ignored. It should be as if the batterer had said, “I beat my children because rivers flow into the sea.” The former does not follow from the latter.

Don’t argue about religion. Refuse to discuss it, not because people won’t pay attention to secularist arguments but because there’s nothing to discuss. Ignore any claims of religious motivation or justification. Pretend you didn’t hear! Bring the conversation back to actions, not beliefs. What are they doing, or planning to do? How much will it cost? Who will it benefit? This would be the real separation of church and state.

Imagine what it would be like if we started responding to religiously-motivated initiatives on a purely consequentialist basis, just totally ignoring the religious rhetoric, every single word of it! Wouldn’t that be great?



A.J. Ayer, Language, truth, and logic. London: V. Gollancz, ltd., 1936

“Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival”. Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA, November 5-7, 2006. Video available at

Richard Dawkins, The God delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon. New York: Viking, 2006

Sam Harris, The end of faith: religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005

Georges Rey, “Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception”, in Martin, R. and Kolak, D., The experience of philosophy, 6th ed., Oxford UP, 2005

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical investigations, 3rd. edition, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003

One’s beliefs regarding the parameters of ethical behavior depend on one’s beliefs regarding the structure of the world. For example, if one believed that suffering in this world leads to pleasure in the next world, one would be that much happier to endure pain, and that much happier to inflict it.

Fortunately, no one believes this.

Read the rest of this entry »

Bill McKibben’s “The Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong” (in the latest Harper’s) is fascinating and wrong.

Christianity in America has gone bad, McKibben says. It’s concerned with the wrong things. It needs to return to its roots: the actual admonitions given by Jesus.

America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior. […] [T]here is nothing else that unites more than four fifths of America. […] That’s what America is: a place saturated in Christian identity. But is it Christian? This is not a matter of angels dancing on the heads of pins. Christ was pretty specific about what he had in mind for his followers.

The article proceeds to describe two specific ways in which people have strayed from the True Way. But, for all McKibben’s obvious intelligence and sincerity, this argument – that people aren’t doing it right; that real Christians wouldn’t behave that way – is threadbare, confused, and dangerous.

Here are just the few objections I see right off the bat.

  1. Bill McKibben does not know what Jesus actually said.
  2. Whether or not Jesus actually said any particular thing is not relevant to whether it has any utility for us here and now.
  3. Religious groups always say that other groups are doing it wrong. But there has never been a method for ascertaining whose claims might be “genuine.” Why? Because there are no genuine claims in this field. No one’s favorite flavor of total nonsense is more genuine than anyone else’s favorite flavor of total nonsense.

The only way to resolve the “paradox” of Christian “belief” is to recognize that belief is the wrong word for it.