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.
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.
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.
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?
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 http://thesciencenetwork.org/BeyondBelief/watch/
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