In his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon Daniel C. Dennett contrasts belief in god with ‘belief in belief.’ Some people believe in a god. Some don’t, but they believe that they should believe in a god. Hence ‘belief in belief.’ Dennett discussed this idea, and others from his book, in his talk at the AAI Convention (see video below).
I think many Christians are like this. They no longer hold the beliefs outlined in the Bible. However, they ‘believe in belief’ and therefore go through the motions – they pray, attend worship and in most ways convey the impression they hold the Christian beliefs of the Bible. New Zealand’s Bishop Richard Randerson is an example. He declared himself an agnostic, believes in a god as the personification of love, rather than the literal biblical God. Yet he will carry out ceremonies of worship and prayer which assume the literal biblical belief!
Dennett described “Concorde beliefs” as one form of ‘belief in belief.’ Here people give lip service to beliefs, long after becoming aware that they were no longer viable – a bit like supporters of the Concorde supersonic airliner. A similar situation existed with Communists in the former USSR – they went through the lip service of communist ceremony and dogma while being aware that their economic and political system was floundering. This probably explains why the political change that occurred with the collapse of communism was relatively peaceful – there were very few communists who actually held their declared beliefs sufficiently strongly to fight for them.
‘Belief in belief’ may be quite common in religion and politics. But just imagine how messy it would be in science, which really does want to understand and describe the world. Imagine chemists retaining a nominal belief in phlogiston theory, because it was the respectable thing to do, and only admitting they really believed in oxygen when pressed. Richard Dawkins gave an eloquent description of this sort of phenomena in his book Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder:
“Sophisticated theologians who do not literally believe in the Virgin Birth, the Six Day Creation, the Miracles, the Transubstantiation or the Easter Resurrection are nevertheless fond of dreaming up what these events might symbolically mean. It is as if the double helix model of DNA were one day to be disproved and scientists instead of accepting that they had simply got it wrong, sought desperately for a symbolic meaning so deep as to transcend mere factual refutation. ‘Of course,’ one can hear them saying, ‘we don’t literally believe factually in the double helix anymore. That would indeed be crudely simplistic. It was a story that was right for its own time, but we’ve moved on. Today the double helix has a new meaning for us. The compatibility of guanine with cytosine, the glove-like fit of adenine with thymine, and specially the intimate mutual twining of the left spiral around the right, all speak to us of loving, caring, nurturing relationships . . .’ Well, I’d be surprised if it quite came to that, and not only because the double helix model is now very unlikely to be disproved.”
‘Belief in belief’ may appear relatively harmless – paying lip service to a scriptural god through prayers and ceremony while privately conceding that their real beliefs are different. However, this lip service encourages the very things that lead to evil in the name of religion – blind faith and scriptural literalism.
Daniel C. Dennet AAI talk. Part 1 (38 min)
Daniel C. Dennet AAI talk. Part 2 (38 min)
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