What’s the Harm in Belief?

Sometimes I get mail and the other day I got a Facebook message asking me about this post. Now first of all I have to say YAY I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU PLEASE TALK TO ME AND ASK ME THINGS.

But second I wanted to respond to this message because it asked some great questions and was wonderfully thought-provoking. If you’ll recall, that post in particular was about the fact that I find philosophical questions deeply important and that they are driving forces in my life, therefore I would appreciate it if others would not mock or deride people who care about those questions.

So here are the questions that were posed to me.

1. How is it that I have managed to care so deeply about philosophical questions and not fall into religion/supernatural/spiritual answers? Many other people who deeply explore the world and who are driven to find certainty and understanding look to god. Why didn’t I?

2. Would there be anything wrong with choosing to believe in the supernatural if it made me/a hypothetical person with the same intellectual drive as me feel better?

The first one of these is obviously personal so I’ll only touch on it briefly, but I think the second one is something that creates a fairly large rift between the religious and the non-religious. Many atheists have a lot of bitterness towards religion and sometimes that rubs off on their feelings towards any belief in the supernatural. Many people who do believe in the supernatural don’t think they’re hurting anyone and don’t get why anyone would want them to change if they get comfort from their beliefs. These are both valid points of view, but there are a few other elements that I’ll touch on.

So, question one.

There have been some times in my life where I wished I could just believe in a god because it would make everything so much simpler. I was raised in a Catholic school and for some time I thought that it was the right thing to do to believe in God, but I just really wasn’t convinced. I never felt any presence like other people talked about, and when I became old enough to dissect the logical arguments none of the reasons for God’s existence made any sense for me. I might have felt a yearning, but it seemed clear to me when I looked at the evidence that God didn’t exist.

I suppose I could liken it to daemons. In the Golden Compass series, everyone has a little animal companion who acts something like their conscience. When I first read the series I desperately and deeply wanted daemons to be real. I wished I could have one. It seriously caused me some loneliness because I so vividly imagined what it would be like while reading the book that it felt like someone had ripped my daemon away from me and left me empty and alone. But no matter how much I wished that daemons might be real, I knew they weren’t. God was exactly the same for me. I saw no evidence that he existed, no signs of his presence, no reason to believe he was there. I didn’t even want God as much as I wanted a daemon, I really just wanted some sort of certainty so I sought it out in logic, philosophy, and science instead.

I deeply want truth and in my mind I have already examined the hypothesis of God and found it wanting. Therefore it’s not truth and not what I want. That’s the best way I can explain my atheism and why spirituality didn’t do much for me.

So question 2: what might be wrong with choosing to believe in God if you think it would make you happier? I think this is a really good question. Some people believe that truth and accuracy is the most important value in the world. I disagree. I’ve mentioned before that I think truth is an instrumental value: there’s nothing about accurate perception in and of itself that’s really super great but truth and accuracy are extremely important when it comes to creating a happy life, to being healthy, to having good relationships, to being safe and secure…really any other value you can think of you can only achieve if you have an accurate perception of the relevant parts of the¬†world.

So because I don’t value truth for itself, I do think that there might be some times and places where it’s ok to let yourself believe something that’s not true or to do something that goes against the facts you know, but generally under controlled circumstances wherein you’re fairly in control of the situation.

The problem with making yourself believe in God seems to me to be twofold. First, I don’t think it’s really possible to choose to believe in God in this way. It’s like trying to convince yourself that unicorns exist because it would be really a nice thing. You could surround yourself with unicorn believers and read unicorn scripture and avoid anything that questions unicorn existence and spend a lot of time trying to feel the unicorn presence each day. But when you get right down to it, there will probably be a part of you that never believes, that sees the evidence against unicorns, that is just waiting for someone to mention anti-unicorn arguments so that it can pull down your carefully built facade.

And that would suck. Losing belief is often a painful process. If you force yourself into belief it seems pretty likely someone could force you out again, and then you’ve lost your worldview and possibly a community and you have to start fresh, now with a loss of certainty just behind you. That hurts and it’s confusing and it’s frustrating. It also means you’ve spent a lot of wasted time arguing with yourself, trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe, and trying to silence a part of yourself. Rarely if ever does telling a part of your mind to shut the fuck up make you feel happier.

But the second problem is that you’ve built your whole life around a lie. I’m not even going to touch on some of the moral problems of organized religion, so let’s assume for now that you don’t join an organized church. But let’s just think about creating a whole set of morals, values, beliefs, and knowledge around something you don’t actually think exists. This seems like it would be pretty ineffective and would probably collapse at some point. Trying to incorporate one premise into an already created worldview also seems like it would require some mental gymnastics.

As an example, I’m pretty much a materialist. I suspect that there’s probably a physical and scientific reason for just about everything, and I’ve built most of my life around that viewpoint. Imagine trying to stuff a god into that. How would it function? What would it do? The paradigm would probably have lots of inconsistencies and would require me to change other things that I hold as true or else hold a lot of cognitive dissonance. And if I changed things, that would lead to other problems, like the fact that I was now acting based on lies I tell myself in order to support my believe in God.

Particularly when it comes to moral questions, I would hope that everyone in the world attempts to be as truthful as possible with themselves when it comes to creating their moral system. Generally a god comes with a morality built in or affects your morality in some way, as metaphysics and ethics are pretty closely linked. If there’s an afterlife it will change how you act in this life, if everyone is interconnected in some way, it will affect how you act in this life, if things are supposed to be the way they are, it will affect how you act in this life. That means god affects morality. If you’ve lied your way into a god, then you’ve built a lie into your morality. This seems deeply bad to me.

This is not to say that every religious moral system is deeply bad because it includes god, but rather that if you don’t actually believe the foundation of a moral system it seems that it would be vulnerable to adjustments that are not actually very moral and that it would likely not actually be the most moral system available.

In addition, I think there would also be a lot of cognitive dissonance. If you had come to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist in your life already, there would probably be reminders of that everywhere, things that don’t fit into a religious worldview for you, evidence in your mind of the materialistic nature of the world.

The person who posed this question included gods like Poseidon as a fanciful example of something that might make you feel more comfortable to believe. I’m going to go along with that theme and look at Zeus. So imagine convincing yourself of the existence of Zeus, the all powerful god and creator of lightning and stuff, and then going out in a thunderstorm. You look up and see lightning. “Evidence of Zeus!” you exclaim, but in the back of your mind you can’t help but think of the fact that you know scientifically how lightning works and that it is not in fact caused by Zeus. Imagine all the time and energy you’d spend fighting with yourself and trying to convince yourself and probably feeling kind of crappy that you can’t actually make yourself believe. Cognitive dissonance is a horrible feeling. It’s confusing and frustrating. It’s almost maddening. I would not want to make choices that increase my cognitive dissonance.

I would also worry that it would make you more likely to accept other falsehoods, perhaps more dangerous ones, in the future. This is a bit of a slippery slope argument and on its own I don’t think it would be enough to discourage people, but in conjunction with some of the frustration of the other reasons, I would suggest it would lead to a decrease in good behavior and in happiness. Think about the process of constantly reteaching your brain to believe something that you think isn’t actually true. This is a skill, and the more you do it, the better you become at it. Think about making a choice to believe a lie in order to feel good. These two things combined seem like they might get a little bit engrained and would lead you to keep convincing yourself that your comfort and happiness is more important than external reality. This might be an extreme portrayal and I doubt anyone would just abandon all morality, but I wouldn’t want to set the precedent of choosing lies.

Now it’s possible that some people manage to convince themselves to believe in God and not have any of these problems, never experience any cognitive dissonance, have a really sound and fantabulous moral system, and never let themselves believe anything else that they actually know not to be true. It’s possible that there would never be those stabs of doubt that make you really miserable, or a moment that it all falls down and leaves you feeling even worse than if you had never believed in the first place. It’s possible you wouldn’t waste any time retraining your brain. If that is the case I can’t really see anything wrong with choosing to believe in a God you don’t actually think exists in order to satiate a deep desire for certainty and understanding. I just suspect that practically speaking it wouldn’t work and would really leave you feeling more confused and frustrated than you started out.