Thursday, August 22, 2019

More On Religion, Belief And Atheism


I'm an atheist myself, in that I don't have a literal, or what I've been calling empirical, belief in a divine being. And I don't doubt many, probably most, religious adherents do, or at least say they do. The distinction between what they say and what they actually believe has to do with the "problems of belief" that I started with -- i.e., that it's not as simple as many atheists tend to think. But, like you, I haven't read the big-name atheists you mention, and I'm not arguing with them specifically. 

Problems of belief start with the old notion (Coleridge?) of the "willing suspension of disbelief" that we are supposed to adopt in reading fiction, for example. From my own experience, that's not quite an accurate description, in that I don't feel that literal belief or belief in the empirical reality of the fiction ever arises, and so can't be suspended -- but it points to the distinction between "belief" in empirical realities, like chairs or trees or actual people or actual events, and our apprehension of aesthetic reality in general. in which "belief" just seems like the wrong word, the product of a kind of category error. In any case, aesthetic experience is universally accepted and more or less understood -- religious experience, whatever it may be, not so much. My suggestion was simply that it might be viewed as a kind of radical extension of aesthetic experience, in which the frame that defines art is widened to include the viewer, and in such a way that the frame seems to disappear altogether. The nature of the world within that frame varies as we see in the varied religions, but it's functionality depends on its ability to bring and hold people into a community that mingles imaginative and quotidian elements. In that world, "belief" generally takes on different forms. The naive form is simply to believe without question whatever one is told, whether about an event one didn't witness oneself, or about tree spirits. More sophisticated would be to believe events told in myths, but to distinguish them for ordinary happenings around the corner. Another form is belief as a kind of testament or assertion of commitment, and this often takes the form of explicit "creeds" -- the fact that people make such avowals about their religious world but don't about their empirical world is obvious evidence that they themselves distinguish the kinds of belief each entails. And more evidence is in the agony many experience when or if they are assailed by doubts about such beliefs, which can feel like the end of a world. All of which simply points to the fact that the single word "belief" has different meanings in different contexts. 

But all that said, I like Pinker too, and I generally buy his tale of progress -- what I doubt is that "problem solving" and the scientific method, good as they are, can really substitute for the rich imaginative and communal worlds that religion once built, and of which we're still living in the ruins. 


I don’t think Pinker’s positing problem solving and the scientific method as communal glue. They’re the means of the vital job of preserving and improving the community materially. He lumps in humanism as one of his enlightenment values and it’s there that he locates values and principles that can match what religion has done in being sticky. 

Belief(s), its nature, its manifestations, has a lot of variety and can house a lot of distinctions and variables. But in broad terms as you note there’s a basic difference between belief that’s in the nature of faith and a stance that wants evidence for what we believe in the sense of what we take to be so. 
Where I have a problem with what you say and is your main point is the, if I can call it that, the aestheticization of religious belief experience, or a perspective of religion that is “aesthetics plus 1.” I don’t see the helpfulness of seeing it that way save for understanding as is commonly understood that religion is a communal glue that binds its adherents by a common faith, that evinces values to live by and is cosmological in ultimate significance in that it gives the believers a story about the world they take as true. Short of that, what is the efficacy of the “aesthetic plus one” perspective, particularly in guiding atheists’ comprehension of religious belief, especially since we atheists disclaim that kind of faith and that story and fiercely disclaim the truth of the big story of any religion?

As for suspending disbelief when we take in narrative art, I think the phrase is more of a helpful characterization than an analytically precise account. After all, if we’re moved to tears or laughter we do in some telling sense believe and take in the literal story. We do believe in it even as we know it’s not more than a story. There is—oxymoronic alert—a perhaps unconscious willing of imaginative belief. And when we use adjectives like “compelling” to note how we’re moved or our sense of the force of a character, that measures the depth of our suspension. That’s why I never find solace in art. If stuff is troubling me, then I can’t come to the work with a clear, calm mind. It’s only with a clear, calm mind that I can really enjoy what I’m reading or watching or listening to or looking at. 

And comparing the experience of art with the experience of religion, the same point I made about clinical madness and intense immersive experience, religious, drugged out or otherwise holds here, I think. Art ends when it’s finished and we’re back to the regular world, which too, we’ve never really left because, I also think, experiencing art is ongoingly dialectical between our sense of real world and our sense of the work. When the immersive religious experience ends, the religious are still religious, though in between these experiences less intensely so, and there is no full understanding that the experience is just a passing thing bounded by the real world. For the religious, the immersive experience is continuous with their deepest, self defining beliefs. 

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