A blog by Barry Edelson

Why We Believe


"That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence."
— Christopher Hitchens



When someone says, "I believe," what exactly does it mean?

"I believe I was born for a reason."
"I believe everything in the Bible is literally true."
"I believe my soul will live on after I die."

At the outset we must confront the rhetorical peculiarities of the verb "to believe" in the English language (and others), wherein it may be used to express something other than a statement of faith, in the commonly understood sense of the word. For example, "I believe it's going to rain today" and "I believe the mail is here" are statements of opinion regarding verifiable facts or outcomes. The question under consideration here concerns instead an individual's acceptance of concepts — a creator of the universe, the transmigration of souls, the performance of miracles, and so on — for which no extrinsic verification exists, or is even possible.

The trivial, everyday use of the phrase "I believe" nonetheless sheds a useful light on the subject. Let us take a different kind of example: a prominent individual is standing trial, the details of which are extensively reported in the news media. It is common to hear people say, "I believe he's guilty" or "I believe he's innocent." For a member of the public who has no direct knowledge of the case, other than what he reads in the paper, this statement is a rudimentary expression of faith, in that his belief stems from information that is incomplete, not available to him directly and, ipso facto, cannot be verified with any certainty. No matter how much evidence is presented in court, and to whatever degree a consensus may form in the public mind concerning this person's guilt or innocence, by necessity a certain amount of doubt must remain.

This raises a central question: even in the everyday domain of life, exactly how many things do we truly know with absolute certainty? On the face of it, there seems to be little difference in discernment between the fundamental issues posited by the first set of questions — an individual's very existence, a relationship with the deity — than with many less profound aspects of human experience. Consider a different set of statements:

"I believe aliens from other planets have visited the Earth in my lifetime."
"I believe the government is secretly reading my thoughts."
"I believe I am the reincarnation of Napoleon Bonaparte."

Notwithstanding that religious persons would probably find the juxtaposition of these sorts of beliefs alongside the three presented at the beginning of this essay to be ridiculous or even offensive, they are the same in several important respects. In the first place, individuals who hold what are generally dismissed as "crackpot" beliefs are more often than not at least as unshakable in their faith as those who hold "conventional" beliefs. Second, neither religious tenets nor paranoid fantasies can survive long in the light of rational scrutiny, and yet they persist in the minds of their adherents despite, or even because of, the objections of reasoned discourse. Third, because it is impossible to prove a negative, beliefs in both of these categories cannot be effectively disproven. We can no more establish definitively that there is no God than we can that the government isn't reading your thoughts. The imperviousness of belief to scientific examination is, in fact, one its salient characteristics.

There are other kinds of belief, though, that are indeed susceptible to scientific evidence. These concern mankind's place in the natural world:

"I believe the sun revolves around the Earth."
"I believe dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans."
"I believe nutritional supplements are more effective than prescription medicines."

Each of these assertions can be tested to a fine degree of certainty, or uncertainty, as the case may be. It is possible through astronomical calculations to easily refute the first, through archaeological evidence to correct the second, and through pharmaceutical research to invalidate the third. However, in each case, the knowledge necessary for most individuals to ascertain the truth is not within their personal grasp or experience. Even to those individuals with expertise as astronomers, paleontologists or medical researchers, an idea passes from conjecture to knowledge through a lengthy and complex process of questioning, experiment and analysis, and is frequently accompanied by doubt. Others who have not been initiated in the difficult journey from a contested theory to an established fact are less likely to be convinced of its veracity. Laymen, especially, who are ignorant of the history of ideas, untutored in the scientific process and dubious of its outcomes, are often impervious to rational persuasion, particularly when such persuasion contradicts long-held convictions or suppositions.

It would seem to make little difference that the first two sets of belief statements are based on "subjective" judgments while the last set is predicated on "objective" information. Having not lived during the age of dinosaurs, no human being of the present day can provide personal testimony to the absence of reptiles the size of buildings during any past era. (Or to their presence, for that matter; this is precisely the intention of a Bible-inspired museum in the center of the United States which includes a display of dinosaurs and humans living together, presumably in harmony.) We rely instead on the evidence of nature as uncovered by our fellow human beings through generations of scientific study. The fossil record, carbon dating and a host of other chemical, biological and geological methods, which have themselves undergone a continuous process of review and refinement, provide an abundance of detail which leads us to a certain conclusion that dinosaurs lived many millions of years ago and that homo sapiens emerged from the protoplasm only recently. Mere statements to the contrary carry no evidential weight, yet they are indeed capable of sustaining the faith of those who hold opposing views.

This is the defining difference between scientific ideas and assertions of faith: there is no amount of evidence that can sustain a scientific theory that has been disproven beyond a reasonable doubt, yet there is no amount of proof of any kind that can alone dislodge a deeply held belief. Evolution, for example, will maintain its place as the best and most complete theory yet devised to explain the emergence of life on Earth, only until such time as a better theory comes along, also arising from the exploration of the natural world. However, a scientific exercise intended to prove the veracity of the Bible's account of creation, for example, will never convince any of its practitioners that these incidents did not happen. A conclusion that the Book of Genesis is a work of fiction is simply not an option, whereas the conclusion that evolution is mistaken is not only possible, but the very purpose of the scientific exercise. Science allows for any possibility; faith allows for only one, predetermined outcome. Just as no museum diorama can disprove a fact of nature, neither can centuries of study of the natural world separate some individuals from their faith in ideas that have been proven to have no basis in fact.

Why is this so?




"…the primary aim of human judgment is not accuracy but the avoidance of paralyzing uncertainty."
— Lewis Wolpert


It is apparent that there are reasons why people have faith, and that our powers of reasoning are largely irrelevant. Many of the recent books and essays by proponents of atheism go off the tracks a bit on this point, by suggesting that religious people are merely ignorant and/or delusional. The ubiquity of religious belief in human societies does not argue in favor of a deity, but it does suggest that faith is an integral part of the human psyche. Faced with a vast and bewildering array of information, with a uniquely capable but hardly omnipotent brain, and, like other creatures, constantly threatened with injury, illness and death, the human persona requires more than reason to navigate the complex natural and social world into which he is born. Faith bridges the divide between that which we know and that which we do not or cannot know. The veracity of any particular construct is not pertinent; belief in the truth serves as well as the truth itself. A child who cries for his mother, but is soothed by the sound of her voice in the next room, does not need to know if she is really there or if her voice is on a recording. Humans build foundations of security within which to live, with beliefs filling in the gaps where there is insufficient knowledge to support the structure.

Faith would appear to arise naturally, then, from a continuous state of missing information and uncertainty; religious faith is therefore on a continuum of human expectations and thinking, not an isolated case.

To those more inclined toward skepticism, it often seems as though "I believe" is an expression not of faith but knowledge. This is particularly acute when confronted with the words of those who are in the business of conversion. Conjure in your mind any television preacher of your choosing. Now try hard to imagine that that individual isn't absolutely convinced that everything he is saying is true beyond a shadow of a doubt. Indeed, the more unlikely the assertion the more assiduously the point is likely to be argued. The assumption of truth is an essential part of successful oration and integral to the speaker's ability to control and shape the views of his listeners. Like the child listening acutely for its mother's voice, the parishioner listens for his pastor's assertions of truth. Whether or not these assertions can stand the test of objective analysis is of no importance, and is indeed a threat to the security built with great care and mental effort. Whether or not the pastor himself is utterly sincere, or a charlatan who is thoroughly aware that he is manipulating his flock with an arsenal of untruths, half-truths and rhetorical tricks, is also of no importance to the faithful in the pews. Sincerity and honesty are not the same, but honesty is not the point of this human activity.

This point is elucidated further when we replace the word "believe" with the word "know" in the some of the statements of belief that we considered earlier:

"I know that I was born for a reason."
"I know the government is secretly reading my thoughts."
"I know the sun revolves around the Earth."

If we were to challenge any of these statements, or any other expressions of faith, with the simple question, "How do you know?", we would almost certainly elicit responses that combine elements of faith with elements of knowledge. "This is what I have always been taught" or "I can see it with my own eyes" are reflections not of blind acceptance but responses to what are believed to be empirically obtained evidence. Like the scientist who relies on the work of previous scientists to buttress his own findings, the faithful rely on the witness of earlier believers — saints, prophets and ordinary devout individuals — to stand in for their own senses. They tend to confuse the two processes, unaware that research conducted through dispassionate observation and written in a book is not the same as an account of a miracle in a religious book. But this is beside the point. One of the principal ways in which faith reinforces itself is by equating the processes through which believers acquire their beliefs with the way in which nonbelievers acquire theirs. If you ask random persons, "How do you know that the Earth revolves around the sun?", how many can give an astronomical explanation that is sufficiently cogent to convince the uninitiated? "That's what the experts say" or "This is what I have always been taught" are no more convincing in regard to a natural theory than to any kind of belief. The unassailable "I just know" is a poor excuse for knowledge; though, in the absence of other arguments, "I just know" or "I just believe it" is generally considered a plausible enough testament of faith.

The inclination of many of the faithful to prove their beliefs in a scientific sphere demonstrates that there is a dichotomy in the human mind between faith and reason. This is not to suggest that people would prefer to be all one or the other, that is, all spiritual versus all rational, if only they had the inclination for one or the information for the other. It does strongly imply that most members of the species are equally homo and sapiens, and are therefore equally susceptible to false but satisfying notions as opposed to true and verifiable ones. Our minds are unimaginably complicated and crave many different sorts of mental nourishment in order to survive and be fulfilled. Consequently, our need for security is often in conflict with our ability to reason. A priest who collects the relics (i.e., bones) of the saints, or an archaeologist who digs to find places and artifacts mentioned in the Bible, are both attempting to satisfy both sides of their brain: they may be comfortable in their faith but they are also comforted by holding something tangible in their hands. Thinkers from Aquinas to Mortimer Adler have spent a considerable part of their lives' work attempting to prove the existence of God through philosophical argument, an undertaking that would seem to defy both the logic that it seeks to employ and the theology that it desires to uphold. Nonreligious persons who are attracted to quasi-scientific, social or political theories of dubious merit, and propound them with a kind of religious fervor, are satisfying the very same need. They also seek evidence, not to determine whether their passion of the moment is real or imagined, but to validate a set of beliefs which they have acquired. In each of these cases, an accumulation of ideas, influences, prejudices, feelings and personal history combine to render different individuals susceptible to different kinds of beliefs in different spheres of human experience.

It is difficult to grasp what the novelist Gabriel García Márquez meant when he wrote, "Disbelief is more resistant than faith because it is sustained by the senses" — except, perhaps, as an expression of his own beliefs. It is more accurate to say that both disbelief and faith are sustained by the senses and by reason, though not in equal measure in all people at all times.




"Faith is an island in the setting sun
Proof is the bottom line for everyone"
— Paul Simon


It has been a widely held idea since at least the 19th century that liberal education, universally applied, would be a powerful and permanent antidote to ignorance and superstition. This reformist idea was predicated on two false principles: that individuals can live happily entirely on their faculties of reason, and that lessons learned in one generation are somehow transmuted to future generations in precisely the same form, despite the passage of time and changes in the social climate. To be sure, there are many fewer people today in well-educated populations who believe in witchcraft than in times past. Who among the living subscribes to the medical theory of "bodily humours" or believes that Zeus rules the heavens? On the other hand, there are many people living today in so-called developed societies who claim to believe in the devil, the intercession of angels, and the rapture. Which deeply held beliefs of the present day will not be mocked by humans of the future? Many nonsensical theories with thousands of adherents are currently ridiculed by much of the rest of mankind even now. The tenets of most entrenched religious traditions were considered preposterous at the time of their founding. The mass acceptance of an idea does not make it true, any more than the mass dismissal of an idea makes it false. The Earth has always revolved around the sun, regardless of what people believe. Still, mankind multiplied his numbers across the face of the planet, and made many substantive advancements for his well-being, while holding an entirely false view of the motions of the heavenly bodies.

The false promise of an educational "solution" to the "problem" of faith ignores the social, psychological and spiritual necessity of belief. As fundamentally social animals, human beings need outlets for this proclivity; faith, regardless of its foundation, provides one of the most powerful means of expressing it. Moreover, beliefs are generated and fostered within social contexts. Without the reinforcement of community, beliefs wither and die. There is a well-known 20th-century case study concerning a preacher of the apocalypse who led his flock to a particular spot on a particular day, at which place and time he had long predicted the end of the world. He had drawn enough attention to himself and his prophecy that many other observers, including news reporters, also lay in wait for the anticipated event. When it failed to materialize, the preacher's loyal followers did not feel betrayed or disappointed; the anticipated collapse of the group did not occur. Instead, they became more devoted to their leader and more cohesive than ever, accepting without question his explanations of the failure of his apocalypse to materialize. The psychologist Ernest Becker wrote, "When you put all your eggs in one basket you must clutch that basket for dear life."

Conversely, skepticism can be a lonely occupation. A communion of atheists is a contradiction in terms, except in so far as its members may gather to expound on their opposition to theism (notwithstanding the "four horsemen" depicted at the top of this page). This does not mean that nonbelievers are any less social creatures than believers, but that they must satisfy the social side of their natures through the formation of other kinds of communities. These other groups of course may also be predicated on beliefs of various kinds: political, moral, national, and so on. In this sense, all people are believers of one variety or another, even though they may not self-define their world view as a system of beliefs, and, more importantly, may assiduously seek objective evidence to support their beliefs.

"Spiritual" in this context is also an aspect of human socialization, as defined as an individual feeling connected in some meaningful way to the world and, in particular, to other living beings. It may seem to be a contradiction that some religious traditions promote intolerance and even violence towards nonbelievers, but that is only because we tend to confuse particular, enlightened ideas about human interaction with the loftier notions of religious conviction. Consider soldiers at war, motivated primarily not by hatred of the enemy but by love for their own country and their comrades in arms. We tend to think that religious orders which are predicated on homicidal obsession have somehow strayed from their proper course. But man's tribal nature enables him to embrace a community of like-minded persons to the exclusion of all others, and still fulfill his social needs. Decency is no more a prerequisite for religious belief than race bigotry is a disqualification for it. Indeed, universal notions of rights and compassion have only lately emerged in the sphere of human interaction, the history of which consists almost entirely of a never-ending and consistently violent struggle of all against all. People need faith, as we have seen, in order to construct a picture of the world that reason and knowledge are insufficient to complete. It matters little what content that faith contains, as long as its context satisfies the varied needs of believers.

We have examined statements of belief in the realms of man's relationship to God and his relationship to nature. How do statements of belief illuminate man's relationship to man? Consider:

"I believe white people are superior to other races and have a right to dominate them."
"I believe the Holocaust never happened, and that Jews made it up as part of their secret plan to take over the world."
"I believe the United Nations is part of an evil plot to subjugate free people."

We are offended by these statements, not because we know them to be untrue, but because they affront our already held convictions about what is right. In other words, they challenge our own beliefs about history and, moreover, how people ought to behave towards one another. For all of the advances of education, it has failed to eliminate these noxious forms of belief for precisely the reasons we have been discussing: because they have a purpose, and because that purpose is irrelevant to the truth of any particular conviction. In addition, the absence of absolute proof for almost any conviction allows even the most dubious assertions to share space in the marketplace of ideas with well-reasoned argument. Uncertainty gives credence to the implausible.

We could instead examine less provocative statements, but what would they teach us?

"I believe in the family of man."
"I believe God wants us to help one another."
"I believe people of all faiths share a common understanding of the world."

The truth of these beliefs of inclusion is as debatable as the truth of those hateful statements from which we recoil. More to the point, these beliefs have proven no more sustaining for their adherents than the exclusionary ideas expressed in the first set of statements have proven for theirs. There is more truth about the duality of man's social and selfish nature in W.H. Auden's mordant observation: "We are here on Earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don't know."




Conclusion: The Illusion of Choice

Each of us, however deeply rooted our world view may be in the traditions of enlightened thought, requires many leaps of faith to get through the day. Virtually every aspect of living entails risk, and we must make decisions constantly with the imperfect information available to us at a given moment. There are simply too many things we cannot know in order to avoid risk entirely. We have faith that the law will protect us. We have faith that our food is not poisoned. We have faith that other cars will not run through the red light. We would be paralyzed if we demanded perfect knowledge before making even the most humdrum decisions.

Nonetheless, there are great variations in the way we as individuals acquire our knowledge and beliefs. On the two extremes, we can either accept as received wisdom what we are told by our elders, or we can question every single assertion of truth. Most of us are neither entirely reasonable nor unreasonable, and find a place in the center. We may embrace the comforting sameness of ritual while still reserving doubt about some of its underlying precepts. We may respect the accumulated knowledge of human history while finding reason to challenge certain ideas which do not ring true with our personal experience. We may accept as a general principle that our world view is built upon supposition and illusion and therefore subject to revision or even outright dismissal, and still live confidently within the security of our understanding.

The falsehood of any particular system of belief provides no evidence for the truth of any other. But it is a delusion of equal proportions to believe that man has reached a level of pure knowledge sufficient to sustain him in his entirety. When so-called experts — whether scientists or clergymen, rationalists or demagogues — are found to have exaggerated their claims, they provide an opportunity for untested notions to gain currency. It is an insufficient explanation to say that people change their beliefs because nefarious individuals, seeking personal gain, exploit weaknesses in otherwise coherent arguments in order to sway the opinions of others. This is frequently the case, but the reason why opinions can be swayed in this way is because individuals fear uncertainty and gravitate to the most plausible alternative available. A more cynical view would be that people's convictions are not very deep, that they allow themselves to be manipulated by other people who have something to gain from changes in public sentiment. This is no doubt true as well, but how many of us have deeply held convictions about every issue that comes before the body politic? By definition, a deeply held conviction cannot be changed easily or quickly. In reality, beliefs are malleable precisely because they are often predicated on the thinnest of evidence, which is, counter-intuitively, why they are able to serve us so well in ever-changing circumstances.

Self-described nonbelievers in God and religion are keen to point out the irrationality, hypocrisy and credulousness of the faithful, but are reluctant to acknowledge the imperfect basis of their own convictions. Rational people take exception to the idea that their carefully constructed principles are in any way related to the superstitions of blindly religious people. It is in fact a largely untested article of faith that the pursuit of the actual, objective, scientific truth is more beneficial for humankind as a whole than the acceptance of spiritual truths for which there is no evidentiary proof whatsoever. It is undeniably true that we now live in a world of vaccines and healthy crops and indoor heating and a host of other advantages bestowed upon us by the rational quest for knowledge. Indeed, the devout and the skeptics alike go to the doctor when they are ill (for the most part). But for the purposes of human fulfillment, ideas derived from reasoned analysis are superior only in their reasonableness. The progression of knowledge would be impossible without a powerful strain of doubt, but it is also clear that the certainty of belief in one guise or another is an essential component of human existence.

To safely navigate the dangerous waters on which we find ourselves adrift in the world, we would wait in vain forever for a certainty that does not exist except by leaps of faith. However, such leaps need not be taken without examination. A stubborn insistence on nothing but cold, hard facts makes life impossible, but absolute adherence to unquestioned conjecture makes life impossible for everyone else.

July 8, 2010

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