Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Belief, bombs and bullshit

You can tell a lot about a person depending on whether they believe in religion or not. Polls after polls reveal a high religiosity in most societies. Even outside of the surveys most people say they believe in something supernatural. In fact religion is said to greatly shape peoples actions. We could then safely assume that with more religious people come more religious actions. 

But polls can’t tell us much really. So what can they tell us? In my mind, a tendency to be religious is synonymous with being superstitious. To them, the world crawls with beings unseen and oozes invisible forces. Propitiations go first to the deity rather than human accomplishments. Many religious folk speak with scornful distrust about human and their medicine and science. But when the conversation turns inevitably to religion, a sure-fire way to gain respect among the religious is to simply say you believe. No need to explain anything else, just say you generally believe and that’s enough to get you in circle of trust. So what is it about the claims of the religious that bothers me so much? It’s that they very clearly do not believe what they claim to believe whenever pressed to confirm it in some convincing way.

Many scholars and theologians assume belief, beginning with the presupposition that if a religious person says they believe then they are telling the truth, and not misleading the scholars or lying. Perhaps the proper state of religious belief is not so clear cut; maybe those who ‘believe’ in god or the spiritual world are simply bellicose and shrill, willing others to believe as they do, but not personally actually believing any of what they say they do. Taken for granted then that if people who believe in Christianity or Islam are telling the truth, could certain clear displays of such conviction could reasonably be expected to happen all around us? Of course they would.

Why don’t I use a common and useful - if a little extreme - thought experiment and try to get a grip on where to go with this question. Think for a moment what a Martian would reasonably predict to see in our cities if, prior to his arrival, he only had the two holy texts of the Bible and the Koran to go on. Our Martian has never read Pascal’s Penses or Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, nor any of the possible books about humans which would give them added context of humans outside of the holy contents. 

So what would the Martian visitor expect if they were told billions of people roam our streets believing in those tomes? I refer to true believers. That’s those who believe without doubt. Those people who believe in an afterlife far superior than any worldly life, greater than even the most opulent starlet or king could ever experience. I think the Martian would be quite surprised if he began to observe us. I suspect the Martian would have to sift very carefully to find anyone who truly believed.

Now, I know some people out there who believe for purely understandable reasons. Family tradition, emotional feelings, personal experiences, or coercion are all perfectly acceptable reasons for explaining why you’re religious, but not if you actually believe any of that stuff. 

I find it very hard to accept that anyone can believe even a fraction of religion, but they say they do. When pressed, it almost always comes down to an intuition: a feeling, emotion, personal experience, something they can’t explain but they’re sure it’s the Seventh Day Adventist God not the Anglican God and definitely not the Sufi God... 

Boil away the all fluff and the feathers of any doomed ‘proofs’ for god and this is ground floor for the religious. I mean how many times have you talked to someone who said they believed because they felt god’s presence? It happens so often that it’s almost a boring answer, totally predictable. But since everyone and their dog who’s even remotely spiritual (and I mean the broadest category) claims wholeheartedly to ‘feel’ god’s presence, this is by no means a ringing endorsement of any particular religion. 

If Jane the Taoist claims to feel absolutely that her religion is truthful because she ‘feels’ it is, while Jack the Christian contrarily retorts that nay, it is his religion which holds the truth, how exactly does one decide an answer? Both Jane and Jack draw from the same pile of evidence. There simply isn't an independent criterion or test to verify any of these claims to arrive at an objective truth. I suspect that even Jane and Jack don’t know either. Religious wars are not fought just because one side knows they’re right. It's more complicated than that. The godly do battle against those who they think are clearly wrong. Almost as a way of self-encouragement that they’re way is correct after all, a form of the notorious self-serving bias: “Once all the heathens are purged, then our religion will be correct by default!” Way-to-go guys, I still can’t see any real belief here.

In the same vein, religious people are often caught saying, “God I believe in you” or “God, how I love you”. This smacks to me of insincerity at best. Surely if you really knew something 100% why feel the need to keep repeating it to yourself and those around you. It’s what always struck me as so strange in all those hymns and the way we gathered around to sing them, or even in the way prayers were offered. It’s as if we need to be there to support each other and sing those words until we believe them, not because we actually mean them.

A conviction should be just that. Beyond doubt. The beliefs I know are those without any need of periodic reminders. I don’t meet other people on a certain day of the week to remind myself of the truth that two plus two equals four. I know it's correct because it’s something I can prove any time with rocks, sticks or even fingers. I can set items up on the desk right here and show you that two plus two equal four. I can keep trying to convince others of my belief that two plus two equal four, showing them my sticks and rocks, but once I personally pass the point to belief there’s no need to keep reminding myself of what it is. If I heard someone mutter to themselves or sing out loud with their mates that two plus two equal four I would begin to question their education, and probably suspect that if they said they believed that two plus two equalled four, they may actually be lying.

For this reason I don’t see the need for any distinction between one’s knowledge about mathematics and their ‘knowledge’ about religion. I disagree with Stephen Jay Gould’s assertion that science and religion are non-overlapping magisterial (NOMA). That is, religion and science occupy two realms of ‘knowing’ and getting at the truth. I think it’s quite clear that when religion makes claims about our world it regards itself as part of this world in the same way physics and biology does. To make the claim about believing some fact or theory about the natural sciences should require the same standard of evidence as any claim from religion. 

Scientists and those who respect King Evidence when determining truth have two options when confronted by contradiction. Either they run from it - stubbornly throwing up wall after wall in vain hope of warding off failure - or they comfortably accept their findings and rearrange their theories to reflect more accurately the new data. On the other hand, the religious rarely experience any actual need to test their beliefs. Finding themselves with a vague notion of belief they can’t help but proclaim is real. If this is the case there really is nothing to these beliefs. No substance, no rhyme, or reason just plain old habit.

I don’t want to be accused of setting up a straw-man here so I’ll ask the question before I get too far ahead: What is it that religious people are supposed to believe when they say they do? Well let’s take the Christian God for a start. 

The triune god of Abraham is an interesting idea. This deity is supposedly the biggest, baddest dude in the universe who apparently made everything. Quite a resume. This God’s knows everything you do and everything there is possible to know. Every human on the surface of the earth, and beneath it, is submitted to permanent and unending supervision. This God could easily convict someone of any crime; there is no possible way to hide from his administration. 

Resulting from this supervision appear the twin consequences of Heaven and Hell. If you do what the Christian God says is right and shy from what he says is wrong then you will go to Heaven. Otherwise a place of burning, torture, pain, suffering, crying and gnashing of teeth awaits you. How should such things affect the mind of the person who believes this? If believers gleefully proclaim their god is just. And if god can see and convict you at a 100% rate, (that’s this time and every time, no exceptions) then obvious signs of people who truly believe in this celestial judge should be apparent.

To show my thinking here, let’s take that earlier analogy of crime conviction. If you do even a modicum of research into crime deterrence factors you’ll see there are a number of legal processes to effectively cut crime rates. One of these is an increase in the percentage of crime convictions among cases brought before the court system. Basically, if criminals are being sent to prison on a more regular basis then new crime declines as a result. 

What does this tell us about the human mind? It shows that humans tend to respond to deterrence. In something like a classic carrot and stick experiment, criminals will rather not run the risk of going to jail for a measly few dollars from a petrol station. The successful conviction rate doesn't even have to go up too far. A small rise should do the trick (say 31.5% in June, up from 27.2% in February). But just being caught doesn't cut it. People must be sent to prison to instigate a feedback effect on society as a whole.

Now, what does this have to do with god and believers? The potentiality of a 100% conviction rate should render true believers as the best behaved humans ever to walk the planet. Seeing that the data suggests when humans are threatened with a conviction rate higher than previously anticipated, the crime rate responds by decreasing markedly. How much more would a person who believed every bad deed was watched try to be a good person? The people holding the deepest faith would be those occupying the lowest societal crime rates! 

But survey after poll after interview each find Christians just as likely to divorce, abuse, hate, discriminate, and fight as almost any other societal groups. Could it be that these people don’t actually believe nearly as much as they say they do? I think that's one appropriate explanation.

After all how could the meagre loot of a dairy owner really be worth an eternity of Hell? How could the loud street corner demonstration against gay marriage (as they casually consume seafood...) could really be worth condemnation to fire? Let’s not forget the futility of amassing piles of wealth stolen from credulous and trusting people if torment is all that awaits you? 

I hear you say that people willing to rob a bank are notoriously short sighted and they probably won’t take into account the threat of eternal torture when pulling on the smelly, sweaty balaclava and huffing and puffing to get the adrenaline flowing. But like I said above, this retort goes against all we know about how deterrence works.

Stephen E. Landsburg asks us to consider questioning a religious person if their religion were absolutely true. And that somehow - perhaps in a hostage scenario - the life of their child hangs in the balance, depending on their answer. Mr Landsburg predicts to hear the convincing answer of a freshly minted atheist. Because when the time comes to have their beliefs tested when they really have power over things that matter, one begins to see which beliefs one really considers true.

And this goes for all the religious folk who believe in an afterlife where everything supposedly gets better. The assurance of an afterlife could be said to be the ultimate insurance policy. Yet when was the last time you saw a Christian who refused to wear sunscreen, who didn't bother clipping in their seatbelt? Or who tries to hurry along a terminal illness rather than visit a doctor? Or who doesn't think twice about walking to work on the motorway? When was the last time you saw a Christian enjoying fitting their head inside a shark’s mouth on a Tuesday afternoon? None recently? Well, those claiming to believe in an afterlife are beginning to sound a bit like cheaters then, aren't they? 

Surely, no reason could possibly convince a true believer to stay in this life when such a perfect place awaits them after death? 

But perhaps the fact that there are some people who are willing to actually die for what they believe - like suicide bombers - is proof enough of the sincerity of some people’s beliefs? Alright then, consider for a moment all the suicide bombings committed by people of the Islamic faith. 

Now I know not all suicide bombers are Islamic in origin but I’ll come to that later. Muslims believe their religion is the sole true faith, that Allah is god and Mohammed is his prophet. As with the Christians, Muslims believe in the reality of their God and the assurance of life after death. And that some of them have a chance to enter wonderful Paradise. However, Muslims differ slightly from modern-day Christians. If you are a Muslim martyr your reward will be far greater than if you simply just believe in Islam. 

But if Heaven is so fantastical why is the amount of successful suicide and martyrdom so statistically low amongst believing Muslims? Consider that only a few thousand suicide bombings occurred in the past twenty years, while well over a billion Muslims are alive today. I think the best explanation is, again, that the vast majority of those claiming to be Muslim don’t actually believe in in fundamentals of Islam. They're tourists, just like the majority of Christians. 

Also, it’s fairly commonly known that among the bunch of guys who flew aircraft into buildings on 9/11, only a few were so devout in their beliefs they didn't plan anything beyond that fateful day. The rest were deviously told they would be coming home. They at least expected to return to their lives after the attack. 

If you believe that true belief is common in the world you've really got to ask yourself, why couldn't the world’s foremost Islamic terror organisation find a measly 19 devout boys who believed in the seventy virgins story? Instead they had to co-opt most of those men into the attack with lies and deceit.

I certainly wouldn't want to sit next to an average Muslim when they confront this ‘Allah’ after death (if they ever do). They’d have some pretty hasty explaining to accomplish to tell him why they didn't follow his Holy Book’s instructions and went to the movies on weekends instead. It would be a pretty awkward reception. 

I understand you don’t only need religion to blow yourself up, some people are motivated by politics. But even after boiling away these players you’re left with only a couple hundred (maybe) purely religious explosive idiots. This doesn't bode very well for taking seriously the claim that a billion Muslims are serious when the say their god exists. So what is it that these people actually believe?

To be honest, I can’t tell. There are so many sects and denominations in Christianity alone that I fear even the religious don’t know what they believe. 

One thing is clear, the vast majority of the religious can’t believe what they say they do. There are too many unfulfilled predictions and expectations of such beliefs. Instead there must be, as Daniel Dennet says, an instinct to religion rather than a belief in religion. Many people are religious because they're biologically tuned to be that way, not because of any objective belief. It is this idea that religion is an instinct, much like pattern seeking, that captures me and offers an answer. The people with the deepest feelings of god’s existence could only be experiencing an in-built and traditionally-nurtured idea of god and the transcendent. 

Perhaps the instinct to religion gets confused with the “truth” of religion, but the two are not the same. The instinct of religion lies only in the sense that the world is infinitely more complex than we humans can possibly experience. On the other hand, thinking there is actually a deity at the foundation of everything who cares about what you think is nothing more than solipsistic and anthropocentric narcissism. The transcendent is a real biological feeling, attributable to no god.

Very few people truly believe in their religion. True belief’s implications lead to expectations of certain behaviour and patterns in humans which we simply do not see. 

Religious people should commit fewer crimes if they believe in the consequence of Hell and assured conviction. But they don’t offend less. 

If one believes in Heaven - as almost 3 billion (if not more) humans say they do - then more people should take riskier and riskier chances in everyday life, not caring about the consequences. But they aren't taking these risks. 

Indeed, one can say what one wishes to the pollsters or survey administrators but I would bet that deep down, when people really assess their religious beliefs, they come up empty on a lot of things. One day, perhaps, the religious may look at themselves and wonder why those who commit some of the most terrible acts are professing to truly believe the very same religion as them. Perhaps this is why the so-called moderates are mostly silent on these events.

When pressed, the beliefs one supposedly holds as a Christian or Muslim are more likely to be discarded than not. It’s a pity this reflection doesn't occur often enough for most people and they waste the only life they know they have on what appears to be an ill-considered belief. But, such is life.


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