Faithlessness, Skepticism

Reasons for Believing: Are They So Hard to Understand?

The marvellous Sara Mayhew asked a question on twitter earlier today:

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Judging by her next response I will assume the question was rhetorical, as I think Hayley Stevens gave her a perfectly good answer given the restrictions of twitter :


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I like the way Sara Mayhew thinks and speaks (and of course she was just letting off steam on twitter like we all do but please indulge me for a little while) but in this case her response made me wince a little. It is a fairly typical example of how frustrated atheists will approach that sort of question; we already know the answer to it. This blinds us to valuable insights that we could really do with. Insights that would help our cause, I believe.

The answer given to Sara was not special pleading, it was a twitter version of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell in which he explores religion as the natural phenomenon it is. The kind of religious faith some humans have really is a product of the environment and culture they grow up in.

In this book he gives many versions of Hayley’s twitter answer as he carefully looks at all of the facets of religion’s influence on human minds. Here is just one:

What apparently grounds the widespread respect in which religions of all kinds are held is the sense that those who are religious are well-intentioned, trying to lead morally good lives, earnest in their desire not to do evil, and to make amends for their transgressions.

There seems to be far more to consider when answering the question “Why do people believe in God?” than when answering “Why do people believe in ghosts?” (In western society, anyway). When religion has a cultural presence that matches Dennett’s  description, it will have a great many paths available through which it can infiltrate minds and then nestle safely within them, protected there forever by walls of culture.

To turn Sara’s question on its head, imagine we lived in a world where for two millennia people have attributed incidents in their lives to the influence of the mischievous ghosts that created the universe and who hold our eternal destiny in their hazy, capricious hands. Ancient books give examples of supposedly eyewitness accounts of orbs of coloured light drifting over the land, making floors creak and whispering prophecies into the ears of psychic mediums. In that world, those things were accepted as fact for centuries, taught to us in schools and churches and by our parents too.

In such a world Sara might ask “Why do ghost-believing skeptics believe in ghosts but not in the ridiculous sky-god of christianity?” And the answer would be the same: Culture. Personal experiences. This is just a statement of a fact; not a request for special pleading on behalf of Christians.

Elsewhere in the book, Dennett says:

People who study religion often do so with an ax to grind. They either want to defend their favourite religion from its critics or want to demonstrate the irrationality and futility of religion, and this tends to infect their methods with bias.

The glib assertions that we atheists make about religion betray a certain insincerity when it comes to our pursuit of truth. We all lose our patience and lash out from time to time, but lashing out with clumsy bias is not the way to convince the faithful of the value of skepticism. We can do better.

When we hear reasons for believing, it is easy to throw our hands in the air, exclaiming “I just don’t understand” when the truth is that we either reject the validity of the given reason or we have no sympathy for it. Our understanding of the concept goes without saying. If we really are expressing a lack of understanding, that is not something that fans of intellectual pursuits should be proud of. Such an apparent inability to understand demonstrates either that we are just too damn stupid (to coin a phrase atheists use against believers all the time) or that we are too lacking in empathy.

Which is it? Are we too stupid to understand simple reasons or are we just devoid of empathy?

We are neither. Of course we technically understand how faith in God comes about, it is not hard to grasp. And of course we will readily empathise; Empathy is at the heart of our godless morality. We need to show people this whenever we can.

It is almost as if we are embarrassed to admit that we comprehend reasons for faith. Comprehending something does not mean we agree with it. Understanding things is easy if we are sincere in our desire to understand the world. Apparently that is what we do best, so let’s embrace that ability – make it our very own – and speak as if we are pleased about it.


  1. April 19, 2013    

    Thanks for this Simon – I’ve chiopped in to the discussion on my blog here

  2. Phil playfoot
    April 19, 2013    

    First Simon, let me say that it is not true that I don’t welcome the post. My sincere apologies if it came over that way. I wasn’t making an “accusation” simply bringing a comment that the idea that culture is the determing factor in what we believe, from my perspective (formed by culture?), is based on a particular paradigm of what truth is and how we come to believe what that truth is. I am actually grateful for the continuing insight into the mind of skeptics. It helps me to continue to reflect on what I believe and why.

    What strikes me is that atheists often speak in a way that suggests their worldview is rational, objective and scientific and the “religious” worldview is not. My comment was that both worldviews are faith positions. Phil

  3. April 18, 2013    

    If your impression of this post was accurate or fair, I’d agree with you Phil. That’s why I referred to culture rather than to any specific reason. Culture refers to the activities of humans and the aspects of these activities that we experience, deliberately or by accident. This includes all of the things you have experienced; all of the ideas you came across; it is simply the environment in which human brains grow and it is different for each of us. This is important. The culture/environment that you grew up in included the source of your received hostility to religion and your reasons for awakening from it. It includes your friends who believe despite their background; it includes their influence on you and yours on them. These interactions are culture and they form us.

    My point was that there are all sorts of reasons why people come to faith and that atheists would do well to appreciate that. I then pointed you in the direction of one book that elucidated this.

    To accuse me here of being sweeping and simplistic is pretty sad. I don’t see why you don’t welcome this post. Please explain so I can understand.

  4. Phil playfoot
    April 18, 2013    

    The claim that people who believe in God do so just because of culture or personal experience is a very simplistic and sweeping statement and does not fit the reality of how many have come to that position. I was brought up in home/school/friendship group which was decidedly skeptical and hostile to belief in God and I despised Christianity and the church in particular. However I later became a Christian primarily through intellectual conviction. I know of many others who have become Christians despite not because of their background. Phil

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