I Believe Because They Believe and Vice Versa

The Fifth Carnival of the Godless is posted. And I’ve been meaning to point out this post at Normblog for days. He points out what seem (from the available evidence, e.g. what the article reports) like rather dubious bits of reasoning in an article about the possible evolutionary basis for religion.

There is one quite convincing comment in the article though. It gestures at something I often think.

Childish belief is one thing, but religious belief is embraced by people of all ages and is by no means the preserve of the uneducated. According to Boyer, the persistence of belief into adulthood is at least in part down to a presumption. “When you’re in a belief system, it’s not that you stop asking questions, it’s that they become irrelevant. Why don’t you ask yourself about the existence of gravity? It’s because a lot of the stuff you do every day presupposes it and it seems to work, so where’s the motivation to question it?” he says. “In belief systems, you tend to enter this strange state where you start thinking there must be something to it because everybody around you is committed to it. The general question of whether it’s true is relegated.”

Exactly. We’re often told some variation on the theme ‘Millions and billions of people have believed this stuff for thousands of years, so there must be something to it.’ But that just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, doesn’t it. Everybody looks around and says to herself, ‘By golly, everybody for miles around believes this crap, so there must be something to it, so I’d better shut up about the fact that I think it’s all fairy tales.’ We don’t have a clue how many people would have believed it without the shoring-up effect of all those millions and millions, so the argument isn’t worth much, is it.

Or to put it another way, if everyone believes because everyone else believes, then it could be that everyone believes only because everyone else believes, and no one believes independently of everyone else. No one believes because she already believes and would believe even if she’d been raised by wolves. So then why should anyone believe? Eh? I mean, what kind of argument is that? ‘Well all those other people believe!’ ‘Yes, but that’s only because people like you have been telling them “All those other people believe,” and pointing in this direction.’ It’s hollow. ‘Isobel believes because you believe.’ ‘Oh dear – but I believe because Isobel believes.’ ‘Err…’

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