Belief in Belief

Daniel Dennett, at the Second World Conference...
Daniel Dennett, at the Second World Conference on the Future of Science, in Venice, 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, has offered what I consider to be one of the most intriguing arguments about the nature of contemporary religious belief. He suggests that very few people alive today actually believe in gods. But if that's true, why do we atheists often feel like we are surrounded by believers? Obviously, we feel this way because the majority of people around us claim to believe. But why would they do this if they don't actually believe? Dennett suggests that the vast majority of people today believe in belief in gods. That is, even though they do not actually believe in gods, they do believe that trying to believe, promoting belief, and telling others they believe are advantageous.

Dennett's suggestion that few people actually believe in gods certainly seems consistent with the observation many of us have made that most people who claim to believe in gods do not behave as if they believed in gods. As just one example, wouldn't the world be a vastly different place if people really believed in prayer? If religious believers believed much of what they claimed to believe, they would behave in very different ways from how they do behave. Again and again, their behavior betrays them as not really being sincere about their claimed beliefs.

The belief in belief argument initially seems difficult to grasp. If someone does not believe in gods, why would he or she cling to the idea that belief was beneficial? I suspect that part of the answer is that such a person is probably unwilling to admit the lack of belief. Such a person would minimize his or her doubts, try not to think about them, and continue to identify as a believer because of the many advantages of doing so.

I suspect many of us can understand how belief in belief might work through some of our own experiences with religion. I remember being dragged to church against my will when I was a child. When I protested that I hated it and that all forcing me to go would accomplish was to make sure I'd run from it the moment I was old enough, I was told that I had to go because it was "good for you." And when I pointed out that my family didn't seem to enjoy church either, I was told that we often have to do things we do not enjoy because they are good for us. As I look back, their behavior seemed to be far more consistent with belief in belief than it did with actual belief in gods.

Now that my most of my family no longer go to church, they have admitted that their primary reason for dragging me to church had little to do with their own god belief; they did it because they thought the experience was one I needed to have. They thought it was good for me to be part of it all. They still won't admit that they do not really believe in gods, but their attitude toward church and many other aspects of religion has certainly changed.

How many of us have known people who expressed a belief in gods long after they no longer believed? Why would anyone do this? Claiming to believe in gods offers many advantages in countries like the U.S. where the profession of god belief is widespread and associated with morality. God believers are assumed to be more moral than the rest of us. Who wouldn't recognize that as a benefit? Moreover, there are plenty of social advantages to identifying oneself as a believer. This is part of why breaking free from religion is so difficult for so many.

One of Dennett's most fascinating points about belief in belief is that many people are quite fearful of atheism because they suspect that a large scale loss of religion would be devastating to society. Our traditions, values, customs, morality, and practically everything would unravel without the anchor of religious belief. I've even heard variations of this argument from atheists. I'm not worried about this myself, but I can easily imagine why someone who was would be opposed to atheism and would seek to defend belief from any perceived threat.

When we atheists look around and wonder how anyone could possibly believe in gods today, we might consider the possibility suggested by Dennett. Perhaps most don't. Maybe they just believe in belief and are fearful about what might happen to them and others if they dropped the pretense.