Jean has a post about belief at Talking Philosophy*. I find myself unconvinced, and I’m curious as to what other people think.

The idea is that ‘faith’ in the sense of belief without evidence is okay, and it’s belief in belief that is pernicious.

A person who was willing to believe nothing “on faith” would have a rather scanty store of beliefs. He or she would be missing some beliefs I take to be very important. For example—the belief that every human being matters. Exactly why does everyone matter? No doubt you could say a few intelligent things about it, but you’d soon find yourself not quite sure what the basis for the belief is.

I argued that moral commitments are different from beliefs about the world (and that I take belief that God exists to be a belief about the world); others argued that things are not so simple. I brought up Francis Collins.

I suppose I do think Francis Collins is blameworthy in some sense for interpreting his experience of the waterfall as a reason to believe in Jesus. I suppose my thinking is that surely he wouldn’t accept a non sequitur like that in genetics, so it seems blameworthy to accept it elsewhere, and especially blameworthy to try to use it as a public argument in a book.

Jean agreed with that, but considered it not relevant.

This is really about cognitive virtue and vice–how to manage your own set of beliefs, what to let in without full reasons, what not to let in. “Waterfall, therefore Jesus.” That certainly seems like bad mental self-management. Smart religious people surely have something a bit more intelligent going on in their heads. (In my experience there are tons of those…including some very smart, wise and authentic rabbis I know…)

But if so, what? Isn’t that the point? Not about their heads in general, of course, but on the subject of belief that God exists – the point is that some people just have a gut feeling that God exists and that that’s okay. But is there much of a difference between a gut feeling and ‘Waterfall, therefore Jesus’? Well there is of course the fact that Collins put that in a book, and I think the claim is about personal beliefs rather than proselytizing ones. But all the same…the problem with just assuming that smart religious people have something more than ‘waterfall’ is that that perpetuates the default respect for religion, and that perpetuates religion’s ability to keep on convincing people because it’s been going on so long and so everywhere that surely there must be something to it. It’s the Ponzi scheme aspect. We’re skeptical about new religions and cults, but the ones that have been around for centuries, that’s different, because, well because they’ve been around for centuries. But they’ve only been around for centuries because they’ve been getting away with it; so we keep letting them get away with it because they’ve been getting away with it. At some point that begins to seem like a not very good reason.

It’s not (of course) that I think people who just have a gut feeling that there is a God should be punished, but it is that I’m (obstinately perhaps) unwilling to agree that that’s cognitively okay or on all fours with other beliefs we have without being able to give good arguments for them.

*I wish I could contribute to Talking Philosophy, but I can’t; I’m not invited. The door is barred against me. The powers don’t want me polluting its crystalline purity with my – whatever: stupidity, probably.

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