Research What Are You Reading...On Belief

What Are You Reading…On Belief

Belief is both powerful and dangerous. It provides meaning to our lives and motivates great works, but when wielded unintelligently can be deadly. I’ve been reminded of this recently by two sources. One is a friend of mine who is very religious, and believes that the Bible is the literal truth. We were talking about this the day before Easter, and she said it was her faith that allowed her to come to China, to raise her children, and to maintain her happiness. While I’ve only gotten to know her recently, this statement fits what I know about her already. Yet I would argue it is this which has also made her reject ideas like evolution and to hold academic research at arm’s length.

The second source is a BBC documentary series on the history of Britain. The series is 15 episodes long, but the past four episodes (ever since King Henry VIII) have seen England consumed by violence as the Protestants and Catholics fight it out. Oliver Cromwell, for instance, is depicted as a man of deep religious conviction, without which he would never have succeeded in his revolutionary task but which also led him to commit mass murder in Ireland. This paradox of belief—it must be both embraced yet mistrusted—is difficult to navigate, and doing so requires more research into how belief operates. Here are some recent papers that explore that topic.


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  1. Check out the great docudrama about the reign of King Henry the 8th on Netflix, it’s called The Tudors. It’s a 40 hour series which covers the period in great detail, and in a very entertaining manner. A great introduction, especially for the non-academics among one’s family and friends.

    As to belief, while your post addressed only religious belief, atheist belief seems far more interesting because it is not usually recognized as belief. That is, it is a deeper belief.

    The atheist belief is that a single half insane semi-suicidal species only recently living in caves on a single planet in one of billions of galaxies is in a position to arrive at credible theories regarding what is or isn’t the most fundamental nature of all reality, a realm no one can yet define in even the most basic manner (size,shape etc).

    It’s just as much wild speculation as religious belief, but is typically considered to be the product of reason, even by many of the greatest minds among us. Now THAT is interesting, and it illustrates that belief is a truly human phenomena and not a property of religion exclusively.

    I’ve had this conversation many many times, and have discovered that atheists typically cling to their belief just as stubbornly and adamantly as any religious believer. It’s actually easier to get Catholics to question the divinity of Jesus, because doubt is a well established topic within their world view.

  2. Thanks for the video recommendation; I’ll check it out.

    I agree that atheism is also a matter of belief (especially if it is formulated as “it must be true God doesn’t exist”; I’ve met others who say that it is 90% likely that God doesn’t exist, which admits the possibility of being incorrect and thus isn’t as much a matter of faith). I’m glad you bring this point up, as it is important to recognize that belief in God’s absence can be just as dogmatic as belief in God.

    While this isn’t really a point of disagreement, only divergence, I will say that in my experience, people of faith are less likely to question the divinity of Jesus than atheists are to question the absence of God (there are some notable exceptions that I’ve come across, though). But I wouldn’t take that to mean anything more than that we’ve talked with different people; I certainly couldn’t say with certainty that the atheists or believers I’ve come across are representative of their respective communities.

  3. To help balance this page a bit, we might remind ourselves of another example of the power and danger of belief, 20th century communism. Just as there are examples of religious belief taken to murderous extremes, the same kinds of examples are available within the realm of atheist belief.

    This illustrates that the real concern is not theist belief or atheist belief, for the vast majority of people within both camps are sane and reasonable. The real concern is that minority within both camps who need the story they’ve chosen for themselves so desperately that they are willing to go to any length to promote and defend it.

    In theory at least, philosophy can be an effective medicine for treating excessive belief as it’s possible to rip any belief system to shreds, a process which can weaken the certainty which is a key element of the threat posed by belief.

    However, this assumes that we are interested in what the truth of a matter really is, which is usually not true. What we’re more often interested in is finding a story which fits comfortably within whatever flavor of mind we were born with and which helps us navigate through life. Once we’ve found such a story, no amount of reasoned analysis is likely to separate us from it.

    And there is a logic to this too. If all beliefs can be ripped to shreds in the right hands, why shouldn’t we just select a belief which makes us feel good?

  4. The need for story is so strong in human beings that our latest greatest invention, the Internet, serves largely as a massive story validation machine.

    So many websites are collections of like minded people who come together to validate their chosen story. An editor on another blog called this the “tribal nature of the net” which seemed an apt description.

    Outside challengers are often welcomed within such communities because pushing back against challengers helps the group further validate their chosen story.

    The one mortal sin a challenger must not commit however is to be an effective challenger. As soon as it is perceived that the group story is threatened the challenger must be ejected to preserve the purpose of the community. You know your challenge is achieving a level of effectiveness when the conversation starts to shift from the post to the poster, and the word “ban” begins to appear in the conversation.

    Philosophy sites are interesting because challenging is accepted and welcomed as a valid part of the “we are challengers” story. That is, unless one were to present an effective challenge to challenging itself, and then…


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