Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Keeping the Faith

My Christian friends tell me, often accusingly, that I do not want to believe in God. As an atheist, my first instinct is to say that belief is not a matter of choice. One cannot just choose to believe something for which there is no real evidence. For example, I cannot choose to believe that I have a billion dollars in my checking account. That would be a pleasant thought, but I would get into trouble if I actually believed it and tried to live as if it were true.

I am no longer satisfied with that first instinct. Belief is more complex than just having evidence to back up beliefs. The fact is that most of our beliefs are acts of faith. I believe that there is no atmosphere on the moon, but I have never been to the moon to check that out. I believe in the existence of molecules and that water molecules consist of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, but I do not have never seen, heard, or touched a molecule. It is easy to see that people lose consciousness with brain trauma, so I believe that they lose it permanently when the brain dies. I have no proof of that, however. Finally, I believe that there are no gods, but I certainly don't have any way to prove that negative claim.

So how do I keep faith in science, but not in God? I have made a choice to believe in science and a choice not to believe in God. What drives those choices? In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett goes into great detail about such choices in his chapter entitled "Belief in Belief". He points out that most of us probably believe in Einstein's famous equation E=MC², but most of us haven't the faintest idea of the mathematical proof or even how to go about justifying such a belief. But there is an important difference between faith in science and faith in God. Faith in science does not require elaborate effort to maintain. We do not pray to science to help us believe in it, nor do we go through elaborate rituals of bowing, kneeling, and standing in the service of that belief. Perhaps that is because we know how to verify our scientific faith to our satisfaction, but there is no satisfactory method of testing faith in God's existence.

Belief in a religious doctrine is expensive. It requires a great deal of time and effort. Faith maintainers cannot devote that time to other activities that might please or benefit them. It intrudes on their lives and the lives of those around them. It often requires them to give up some of their hard-earned wealth and to sacrifice for the benefit of others. Why go through all of that? I probably don't need to explain why. Faith has many benefits. It provides one with social approval, and it promotes cooperative social behavior. Churches usually engage in charitable services to the community, and they help people cope with their daily difficulties. Sometimes strong religious faith can even cure illness. So there is a return on the investment. There is a strong motivation to maintain religious faith, just as there are benefits to be received from maintaining faith in science.

So why don't I just choose to believe in God? That would allow me to reap the same benefits that so many of my relatives, friends, and acquaintances reap. Perhaps it has something to do with never feeling all that comfortable in crowds. In my case, though, I think there is something else other than mere standoffishness or love of iconoclasm that drives me to shun that choice. It has to do with the self-consciousness of the effort. If I could choose to believe in God, then I could choose to believe in anything. That is, I could choose to believe I was a billionaire. I could go through elaborate rituals to make myself believe that my bank statement was somehow mistaken or an effort by the bank to steal my wealth. But knowing that I could cheat my belief system in that way would undermine and cheapen all of that enormous amount of faith I have built up in everything else I believe about the world. If I could believe just anything I wanted to, then I would lose confidence in all my beliefs. To put it in Dennett's terms, I would no longer believe in belief.

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