Unsettled Belief

Reasons for Belief | Pagan Tuna

Some beliefs are inherently pleasing to the believer: the belief that I am intelligent, talented and modest; a belief in a just, well-ordered universe; the belief that the sun will rise again tomorrow.

This is something that I run across a lot when reading things by atheists and pagans, the notion that “belief in a just, well-ordered universe” is pleasing or somehow comforting. It’s another one of those notions that just doesn’t make sense when I check it against my own outlook. I suppose I have a faith that the universe is well-ordered, and that ultimately there is a kind of justice (two unrelated ideas, really), but it is not pleasing to me. It’s more like a kind of fatalism.

I think people who would be pleased by a well-ordered justice system are people who imagine that it aligns with their own personal preferences. However, if order or justice comes from a source outside of oneself, particularly a source which one does not magically control, then it is rather unsettling to contemplate.

There are many situations in which the assertion of the likelihood of some future state of affairs may actually help to bring that state about.

This is cited by the author as a rationale that does not “tend to support a belief in God.” However, there is a rather old concept of God that explicitly asserts this. I’m referring to the ideas of Tillich and Bultmann, and even Kierkegaard.


6 thoughts on “Unsettled Belief

  1. Regarding Reason #9, self-fulfilling prophecy – isn’t this the theory of Peter Pan? “I do believe in fairies, I do! I DO!” In the UK, child audiences are actually encouraged to shout this.

    Beyond the application to religion, #9 might be an example of Skinnerian operant conditioning. By believing in the result, you make it more likely to occur, which makes it easier to believe the next time, and so on. Don’t, say, golfers do just this – till they get the ‘yips’ and it goes into reverse?

    I looked through the list for something like “need”, but it figures only rather pallidly in Reason #2 which you highlight: “to please oneself”, e.g. by belief in well-ordered universe, cosmic justice, etc. However I should have said that need, often emotional need, is a strong factor in many beliefs; e.g. “She really loves me”, “my son did not commit that crime”.

    A more mundane example, but one unfortunately familiar to myself, is the “belief” that a quoted company is in reality a sound business proposition, despite abundant evidence to the contrary reflected in a sharply falling share price – and that yet another precipitous drop is in fact a heaven-sent buying opportunity! My belief stemmed from two needs: (i) I did not want to accept that I had already lost most of my investment (my practical need not to go broke); (ii) I did not want to admit I had made a mistake (my emotional need to be right). Thus, my “belief” was quite explicable, but also contrary to reason and counter-productive in its effect.

    For a sceptic, the most creditable reason for belief is #7, working hypothesis: “I believe Napoleon died because of arsenic fumes from his wallpaper” (there is circumstantial evidence for this, but better evidence might disprove it). This shades into #4, avoiding confusion: “Always have a plan, but remember the plan will change”.

    And I’ll just state it as my belief (I know, I know) – religious belief, in particular, stems from need, most likely emotional need.

    I also, of course, believe that I am a brilliant writer and that my novel will be a runaway success – well, I’ve got to, haven’t I?

  2. I would say that a belief is the expression of a conscious choice to accept something as true. To the extent that anything is a conscious choice, it fulfills an emotional need (if not other needs as well). The notion that a belief is necessary–for example, that the existence of God is necessary, and thus necessary to be believed in–is a superstition and an evasion. It is an evasion of responsibility to state that a fact is necessary, or that a belief is necessary, or that a fact can be known without “belief.”

  3. I suspect most people don’t self-examine to the extent of setting up their beliefs as subjects for investigation, to be consciously chosen or rejected. For those who do, they may well say “I don’t have proof of this, but I don’t have disproof either, and anyway I’m happy with it”, or some such – accept that it meets an emotional need and leave it at that.

    It still leaves the question of where the belief came from in the first place. If it’s a religious one, there could be all kinds of sources, but one has the impression it is often some kind of personally experienced revelation – that is, one is familiar with the proposition, maybe in some detail, but there is that special moment of knowing, seeing, believing or whatever.

    The most famous example being Saul on that road to Damascus – struck blind for three days! Actually the account (in Acts 9 particularly) comes across as quite psychologically convincing. Jesus shows a sophisticated understanding of behaviourism in his metaphor of “kicking against the pricks” (the ox reacting to its goad). He acutely diagnoses Saul’s condition as a defence mechanism: Saul has been posing as a zealous Jew, persecuting the deviant Christians, but his actions are really an expression of inner rebellion. It is “hard” for him to admit this, even to himself, so he has displaced his anger on to the Christians.

    Sorry for the flippancy, but I actually believe this (that word again). The episode has been interpreted as a TIA (transient ischaemic attack), and that is plausible to me, having witnessed such things and even possibly experienced one. However that is not to dismiss it, insofar as it was a genuine resolution of an inner conflict.

    I’m still puzzled by your insistence on “responsibility”. It sounds like there is some kind of value system here, which I wouldn’t necessarily object to – but responsibility for or to what?

  4. I would not suggest that most people self-examine deliberately, or that they purposefully set up their beliefs as subjects for investigation. Nevertheless, self-examination and investigation occur.

    I suppose the term “belief” is problematic because it is associated with πίστις, which is commonly translated “faith”; but I consider this an error, both in translations of the Bible and of Plato. Or, perhaps the error is in the confused thinking of the readers, or in those who do not read at all.

    My use of the term “responsibility” does not imply moral obligation as such, but rather accountability in a broader sense. If one is an individuated and unified self (not simply part of an undifferentiated flow or mass), then one can account for one’s actions, including speech-acts. It seems self-evident to me, yet many people would prefer to attribute their actions to objective causes and pretend that they themselves are non-corporeal.

    Rather, I suggest that they respond to objective stimuli, and their response identifies them to others. This response is contingent on both the stimuli and the needs of the self that responds, so it is not necessary in a teleological sense.

  5. Well, my translation of the Republic (Desmond Lee, Penguin) does give πίστις as “belief” – the distinction with knowledge (επιστήμη) is made quite clear, though I am far from agreeing with the use Plato makes of these concepts.

    Thanks for the explanation of “responsibility”. You did, after all, account for your use of the term! I’ve a sneaky suspicion it is the sort of thing Socrates would have insisted on, and I would hate to cast myself in that role either. Thanks again – I’ll leave it for now.


  6. Jowett translates it as “faith”, as do most Bible translators. I suppose my complaint is with the confusion of belief and faith, which correlates with the development of a formal statement of doctrines that one is expected to accept without question. Thus, the list of “beliefs” is required to be accepted by “faith”, and the “believer” is defined as one of the “faithful.” No wonder people hate the Church.

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