Concorde religion

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!

Concorde communism

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.

Concorde science?

‘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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11 responses to “Concorde religion

  1. Yet another attempt at a comment post…


    Sorry for the delay, was in Wellington Thursday-Sunday…

    Quickly, I would push back (again) against the language of ‘confirming’ the development of the universe… As I outlined in an earlier post on my blog (,
    I think such statements should be balanced. The further back we look in time, the more theories pop up to explain the wonder of all wonders – the origin of the cosmos. We’re not simply ‘on the verge’ of explaining/confirming things once-and-for-all, quite the contrary, we find our most basic ideas about reality being stretched and tossed about as we try to imagine how it could have happened…

    1. I too have changed/shifted/re-nuanced many of my beliefs, and I continue to do so. Such is life!

    2. I would be interested to hear more about the “attribute for the order implicit in the universe” that Einstein expressed (and which Dawkins ‘accepts’ and you see as having at least some ‘credibility’). I’d love to hear more about how you (or Dawkins or Einstein) would define, explain or describe this ‘attribute’. It seems pretty cut and dry already, though. We observe implicit order, and the ‘attribute’ is a logical/rational part of that observation, no? That would seem to fit with your ‘evidence first’ request, no?

    Further, at what specific point(s) would this kind of ‘attribute’ differ from general modern ‘Deist’ (not theist, but deist) notions?

    Cheers, hope all is well.



  2. Sorry about the problem, Dale. Found your comments in the spam. (Often find my own comments there too!) I should check spam more often.

    A lot of things about the universe are confirmed – that’s just the nature of acquiring knowledge. Just because things at the boundaries of knowledge are inevitably speculative we shouldn’t degrade (or demote) the knowledge we do have (this is always being refined because of new evidence anyway). Just think of how much our knowledge of the solar system has changed, evolved and become more concrete since 1960.

    The order implicit in reality is almost an axiom or assumption behind any attempt to investigate reality. Why investigate if we assume reality is basically capricious? (I imagine that could be a problem for those who believe in miracles).
    I guess many people feel a sense of awe or sacredness about not only the wonder of reality itself but also about its underlying order and our own attempts (and successes) at investigating this and achieving understanding of it. Dawkins writes very eloquently about this. And I like these two statements of Einsteins:

    “If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it”

    “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

    I suspect “Deism” assumes more that this – I don’t like names because, for example, one person’s deism is probably not the same as another persons deism. I also think it is silly to call this assumption or axiom a god because:
    a: the word god means something completely different to most people (who can’t agree on the concept anyway) and this leads to misunderstanding and misrepresentation (I often see theist claiming Einstein was “on their side”);
    b:the prevailing god concepts seem to me not only inappropriate but inadequate, even demeaning, as a description of this awe. I just don’t think any of the religious stories measure up to the reality of the universe and the picture that we now have of the development of the universe and the formation and evolution of life.


  3. Thanks Ken,

    A quick note about Einstein…

    Considering the following quote, I, for one, can have sympathy for those who would suggest that he was not on the athiest ‘side’…

    “In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.”

    I would not be so silly as to suggest that Einstein was a garden-variety, young-earth, fundamentalist, evangelical ‘Christian’, but it does seem that he (firmly?) wished not to be thought of as an atheist, no?



  4. I don’t know what Einstein specifically thought of the description “atheist.” I guess this is an example of how names can confuse – it’s always best (and less likely to lead to misunderstanding) if one discusses content rather than names. But, Einstein is treated as the generic scientist and therefor often used to give respectability to ideas. Of course, science should never be like this – we have heroes not prophets or saints. And, in common with all other scientists, Einstein was often wrong (about scientific matters, let alone social and philosophic matters). We should think for ourselves on these matters, and be wary of selective quotes to reinforce our own positions.

    Still, it’s clear Einstein was not a fundamentalist, as you say. But he also made it clear that his “religious” beliefs did not include a personal god.:
    “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious conviction, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but expressed it clearly. …… I do not believe in the immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no super-human authority behind it.”

    I have no problem identifying with those thoughts. But I would not use the term god to apply to my feelings of awe about reality and our understanding of it. I think Einstein was silly to use that term and it has caused misunderstanding, and opportunist (actually often dishonest) use of his popular authority to try to support beliefs which he didn’t have.


  5. Thanks Ken,

    I think ‘thinking for ourselves’ is actually a very unhealthy notion that you (looking back on what was no doubt a casual remark) would yourself not follow too far… We all, quite rightly, rely on the thoughts, observations and conclusions of others in making our own sense of things. Einstein and others may get misrepresented by various ones, no doubt, but it’s not silly, of course, for either of us to quote them – provided we do so with integrity.

    I can fully appreciate the frustration with ‘names’ and how things can quickly get confusing, etc. This is, of course, one of the limitations of language. But, in the same way that we don’t let the limitations of science keep us from using science, we still must use words (even names), but use them better.

    As for a ‘name’ or ‘word’ for the ‘thing’ that Einstein seems to have believed in (if it is right to put it like that), I would suggest that the ‘name’ or ‘word’ –> ‘deity’ could be used with full integrity. The most basic brand(s) of ‘Deism’ have seen this ‘deity’ as being the detatched, dis-interested, dis-involved ‘thing’ that explains the existence of the universe, and the order implicit within it. In this context, I don’t think it’s silly to say (as many do) that ‘Einstein was a deist.’

    Now, of course, let us not use that as some kind of lasso to rope Albert into a specific brand of full-on Theism (Islamic, Judeo-Christian or otherwise). It simply says that he thought it logical and rational to believe in some kind of ‘thing’ behind it all. Also, I don’t think his use of the word ‘god’ to describe this ‘thing’ is really the problem, but rather the dis-honest quotation of him is…



  6. An interesting difference in interpretation. You see Einsteins “god” as an entity responsible for reality and its order whereas I interpret it as naming the order inherent in reality. (Dawkins clearly interprets it in the latter way too. However, I can’t really comment on the interpretation used by many other scientists when they talk about an “Einsteinian god”). This is the problem, I guess, when people use words like this, or use them metaphorically as in “God does not play dice”. Metaphorical use of these sort of names and terms is extremely common even for the most atheist of us – it’s part of our common culture.

    Despite the interesting question (it’s also relevant to the answers given in the UMR survey I think) it is an aside. My quotes from Einstein were only to clarify my own beliefs – a response to a specific question of yours. I am NOT saying I believe what Einstein believed, whatever that was. I am saying my beliefs are consistent with:

    “If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it”

    “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

    Einstein may have called that “god” – I wouldn’t – because of all the cultural connotations and the willingness many people have to interpret that wrongly.

    I guess this rules out “deism” (as you describe it) for me.

    A related aspect is the way Stephen Gould used the term “religion” in his concept of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) (Science has its own field of expertise but questions of ethics and morality belong to the filed of religion). Gould actually does state that he means “religion” in a very broad way (certainly not in its standard use) which includes humanist and atheistic philosophical positions. However, NOMA is ALWAYS interpreted as giving a Special role to religion (in its standard meaning) in ethics and morality. Gould was silly (or even malicious) to use that term and his reputation (and that of many other scientists who repeat the mistake) has been used again and again to justify a special role for religion that it doesn’t deserve (but of course willingly accepts and endorses).

    My concern about the latter positions, of course, is one of human rights because it continually is used in a way to deny a role for the non-religious on these moral and ethical questions. In fact, we all (whatever our religious and philosophical beliefs, scientific or non-scientific porofessions) have the same skills (or lack of skills) in these areas.


  7. Thanks Ken.

    I suppose I just wanted to ensure that you agreed that Albert was likely to be a ‘deist’, and also I wanted to highlight the rather large distinction between ‘deism’ and any of the various types of Theism, etc. Good to see we agree here…

    Your closing comments could shift the focus onto another rather interesting area of dialogue – morals & ethics. Contrary to popular Christian expression, my personal interpretation of the Bible is that all humans have a responsibility to think-over, contribute-to and act-out their ethics and morals. Far from ethics and morals being a private, secretive thing, they are most neccessarily to be a very public thing.

    I’d be very curious to explore your views on the formation, maintenance and development of morality/ethics…



  8. My current view is that Einstein was not a “deist” (as you defined the term) – but I am open to changing that view with further investigation. However, I really don’t want to be diverted into looking at the subtle aspects of the religious views of famous people. So, I’m not sure we agree about his views. But clearly there is a whole spectrum of beliefs which people do give the description “god” to and we don’t find that out from census figures.

    I made some comments on NOMA and the question of morals and ethics in Morals, values and the limits of science. However, I might make some further comments as a result of watching a video of a progressive Christian minister criticising US government policy. I felt outraged by this. It seems to me that the discussion around the NZ Statement on religious Diversity did exactly the same thing.


  9. Thanks Ken,

    I hope to see that post on ethics/morals.

    Quickly, on Einstein again…
    Surely you don’t think he was an atheist, do you? The quote I referenced above seems not only to indicate his pondering how some come to that conclusion, but it also clearly expresses frustration at those people using his words to demonstrate their conclusion…

    So, if he was not an atheist, and not a theist (personal, involved god), then there aren’t too many other categories to put him in? Pantheist? or perhaps ‘Pan-deist’???

    Cheers for now,



  10. That’s the problem with names, isn’t it. A lot of people I could define as atheists (just meaning they don’t believe in a god) would not want that term applied. Just as I object to being called an agnostic, although you might have thought it was appropriate. I can certainly sympathise with Einstein objecting to people with their own agendas “claiming” him for themselves, or attributing beliefs he didn’t have by “naming” him. All I can say is that my beliefs concur with those implicit in the statements I have quoted. I am happy to define myself as atheist or non-theist. (However, I must say that even that extremely minimal term is being demonised – suddenly I am responsible for the Stalin terror is some peoples’ eyes!) The problem is that naming gets in the way of truly identifying facts and beliefs.

    My understanding is that Einsteins beliefs were more pantheist, more like Spinoza. But again that means different things to different people. It’s best to stick with what Einstein said and wrote.


  11. Cheers Ken,

    We all often are quite frustrated by semantic issues, I find them ever important to work through… Doing this with Einstein has been fruitful.

    Must run…

    Till next time,



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