In the Spirit of Collegial Inquiry...

updated: 5 Nov 98

Why Does Anyone Assert Belief?

WRW:   {Elsewhere in the universe} ... I hope there is intelligent life that is very tolerant and patient. However, I read in a book by, I think, John Allen Paulos, a mathematician, that there are theories among mathematicians that debunk the possibility of intelligent life, at least as the way we define it. He said what might be considered intelligent life may be more than gel-like globs or something of that nature.

Paulos also said that we should soon have the sophistication to produce a computer that could prove that our pure evolution could not possibly be the result of purely random selection...

EM:   Every once in a while I have seen a sign, "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." There is another one, in the same vein, under the picture of a sickeningly cute and wistful child with eyes like a bullfrog, "God don't make no junk!" Maybe God don't make any, but whoever designed that picture sure does...

JCC:   I want to thank Eric for calling to attention the article by Edward O. Wilson, "The Biological Basis of Morality" in the April Atlantic Monthly. I found this piece quite extraordinary, notwithstanding the appearance of the word consilience. {smile} Mr Wilson's article reaches out very much in the spirit I have termed paramythic, seeking a future-oriented spirituality drawn from our human history and biology. Quite a powerful statement there!

EM:   For about five years Julia and I were involved in producing the Baltimore Freethinker Journal. Contributors, with one exception, were limited to members of the i.q. societies. Freethinker, as used in the title of the publication, was in the broadest possible sense, not confined to anti-clerical, humanist, or traditional freethinker definitions. There was one question addressed, always and ever, "Why does anyone believe anything about anything?" This turned out to be a singularly difficult question for the correspondents to address.

What I found repeatedly was that I would receive protracted, at times painfully protracted, explanations of what an individual believed, without even touching on why the individual believed it. I note your closing comment, "I find that people very rarely want to really "talk", and I look forward to being able to do that in this society." Why should this be? And does it relate to my difficulty in getting correspondents, even wonderfully articulate ones, to address the issue of why any opinion or value is held?

LDL:   I don't think that there is one reason common to all people, in one sense. But if there is a common reason, perhaps it is because we think those opinions help us survive.

For some of us the quality of survival is more important than just surviving. The latter I think generates toward freethinking and skeptical thinking; a pragmatic view of reality, requiring evidence before holding a concept to be true, versus placing one's faith in a higher being and feeling safe and protected. The uncertain versus the certain, and some sources say the latter contributes to a higher survival rate... and yet, I wouldn't know how to believe if I wanted to try. It is unimaginable to me, a conceptual impossibility and I haven't the foggiest idea how anyone does it.

EM:   I found Baltimore Mensa collectively to be middle classy cautious, members reluctant to voice any opinion until they were certain, or fairly certain, of an expected response. Sort of like a garden party of suburban high school faculty, animated discussion of the host's rosebushes, but no expressed opinions on anything political, social, or economic, with the ultimate taboos, sex and religion. In such a group, there is a searching for status placement before any deeper commentary can be attempted. Among the very wealthy, or the very poor, this form of inquiry is much less prevalent. At the bottom of everything, I am persuaded, is the protection and enhancement of the individual ego.

In written discussion, I have at times, been accused of being dogmatic, pontifical, and confrontational. I plead slightly guilty on all counts, but only if I feel confident of documentation. I like to think that I'm open-minded, to the extent I will listen a reasonable time to any story from anyone, before making up my own mind. Making up my own mind may require a huge amount of supplemental reading and inquiry over an extended period of time, and in the process I may well develop a new viewpoint, not in agreement with my own prior one, or the one that I questioned.

LDL:   My heart goes out to a much abused teenager by the name of Elagabalus who was a short time emperor of Rome, Joan of Arc, Hypatia of Alexandria, to name but a few ... I feel their humanity flowing in my veins, a sense of connectedness and I like to think that, in some small way, the things I do may one day, in some form or another, survive to flow in the hearts and minds of others who are yet to be born. This is truth as I envision it, and beauty, and goodness ... it is all contained within the potentialities of our own species ... as I believe truth and beauty and goodness are contained within each individual to varying degrees. I may be a demented bigot because this to me is not prayer to any god, false or real ... and I do perceive that placing the power of truth, beauty, and goodness as external

FPP:   Now that's a name I haven't heard in years! Are there any easily accessible sources besides Gibbon? {Re...} Joan of Arc {and} Hypatia of Alexandria... Two Catholic saints there -- It pleases me no end to think that the latter is better known as Catherine of Alexandria, though the hagiographers fiddled with the dates and other details a bit. (Assuming that whether or not she was is a Christian is a mere detail!)

LDL:   Elagabalus is written of in numerous sources ... I love the web, you can do a web search and find all manner of information on just about everyone. Then comes the job of reading between the lines. Elagabalus became ruler at 14 ... and was derogatorily described as " hairless and immature. " What was expected of a 14 year old? This set the stage for figuring out a few things about " historians. " I have an article of my own about Elagabalus on our web site ... it is an interpretation unlike any other you might have read. I feel their humanity flowing in my veins, a sense of connectedness and I like to think that, in some small way, the things I do may one day, in some form or another, survive to flow in the hearts and minds of others who are yet to be born. This is truth as I envision it, and beauty, and goodness ... it is all contained within the potentialities of our own species ... as I believe truth and beauty and goodness are contained within each individual to varying degrees. I may be a demented bigot because this to me is not prayer to any god, false or real.

FPP:   Are you not describing an opening to that which must be called divine in humanity? The demented bigots are those who would deny you your experience. If we extend the meaning of prayer to encompass what goes on in a Friends Meeting for Worship, there are many kinds of human experience outside the normal bounds of organized religion which cannot be excluded.

LDL:   ...I do perceive that placing the power of truth, beauty, and goodness as external to humanity has, if not invariably, certainly consistently been problematical.

FPP:   Yes. Not external to humanity, but above the everyday ego consciousness. Though personally I see Mind, or something analogous to the human mind as in some way manifested in the order of the universe even prior to the evolution of our present species.

LDL:   I am not able to defer here ... there is no order in the universe. We are in the midst of a chaotic explosion. Worlds are smashing into other worlds, meteors crash into planets, suns go nova or burn out, one day the universe will be dead (does the universe have a soul? I think not!) and another galaxy is rushing down on and will crash into our own galaxy. Our planet can and will be destroyed, the only question is how and when. This is not order ... the perceived order in the universe is a human perception of something so monumentally large that the chaos is not readily seen until you look at the big picture.

Much as life is seen as orderly by some people ... yet there is nothing orderly about life. It must devour other life to survive. Savage! Brutal! And all life dies! Some people want to see order and system with such intensity that they can view savageness and call it a beautiful system of a wise deity. In fact, a seven year old with super powers, could design a more beautiful and harmonious system. A moment's thought and, assuming you had the power people grant deity, couldn't you have done better? Creatures that absorb energy from the sun, or that can eat rocks and absorb nutrients from inorganic matter, or pure energy beings that need not consume at all.

The argument to design is so far from the reality of the universe and life as we know it, that it is a wonder some still attempt to use it as support for their beliefs. But this is my view, and no one else is required to hold it. I won't pass laws to force others to see things as I do. GriN!

LDL:   I do believe there is place where believers and skeptics can come together and recognize similar feelings about life, connections, and consolations ... and each retain their own views of how those feelings come to exist within the human breast.

FPP:   Yes. That is the kind of community one looks for in the HiQ world but doesn't find there very often. As to retaining my own views, my kidney stones give me a dim view of the whole idea of retention! Even the act of expression does not leave thoughts unchanged, thank... Thoth?

LDL:   Not Thoth, thank Crom ... now that is a god to reckon with ... he has the biggest sword of anyone. (I always thought that was quite Freudian of Robert E. Howard. But then he was a little shrimp and " mama's boy " and after his mom died he offed himself.) Crom, the god who doesn't give a damn about people ... hmmmm, not such a different god from the others when one thinks about it. ...Actually skeptics and atheists don't reject gods ... that is a religious perspective which would claim the gods are real and that skeptics and atheists " reject " their reality ... skeptics and atheists, generally, have no conception of what a god would be or what the fuss is all about.

I have yet to have anyone, other than LDS, describe their god. The LDS believe in an anthropomorphic man, a real, but powerful, humanoid creature that keeps tabs on things using sophisticated equipment and a host of angels (also humanoids) operating the equipment. And no joke, the LDS god has a god, and that god has a god, and so on forever and ever, Amen! AND NO, I never wore the sacred underwear ... giggle! It would have been too itchy! Hey, I kid you not ... I went through the whole course right up to and including baptism. I, of course, was a fraud. I did it, as I have done with other religions, to know the face of my enemy. GriN!

KB:   Total chaos. Humans, simply clever, deluded, and vastly imaginative monkeys (yes I repeat a prior statement). Why do people obey laws created by other highfalutin' naked apes? We should do as Anton Le Vey preaches: do what you want. (G)god(ess) or people be damned? Science, too, seeks to prove order (Grand Unified Theory). Some of the most a-religious artists I know seek, through modern art, an orderly message (pattern) to miraculously spring forth from their randomness of applied media. I doubt atheists haven't any, " Conception of what a god would be or what the fuss is all about." Even chimpanzees come out in lightening storms to challenge the elements.

LDL:   I haven't any conception of what a god would be? I am an atheist, therefore, at least some atheist have no conception of a god. We obey laws in an attempt to get along, otherwise we do as we wish. Or would you deny me the right tell you what is in my mind? What a god would be is totally beyond my ability to envision? I wouldn't even know where to begin trying to conceptualize such a thing. From my point of view people are worshipping and believing in something for which they have yet to offer up a conception of what it is they are worshipping and believing in. Are you admitting that deity is the fearful response of the human animal to elements beyond their control?

EM:   Laura, you postulate " Does the universe have a soul?" I love galactic thinking like that, megametaphysical conjecture, hard to get any better than that. I once had a friend in Baltimore ever so much into astrology, karma, the occult, and diverse topics. He was a delightful gentleman, most enjoyable as a conversationalist. He held that cities, states, and nations had karma the same as individuals, also astrological projections and influences as well. Not much point in having karma without something for karma to act upon, ergo, cities, states, nations, and universes may be conjectured to have souls also. Is it the Hindu or the Buddha where we connect up with the Atman and we all meld together in a single universal soul? I have a keen animadversion to having my soul connect up with Monica or her henchpersons. I want a separate universe, thank you very much.

Kevin notes that Anton LeVey stated, " Do what you want." Aleister Crowley said it earlier and a bit more elegantly, " Do what thou wilt." As philosophy, do what thou wilt is OK, so long as what thou wilt does not entail too much pain, expense, or unbearable consequences.

LDL:   It is my opinion that people have, much as any other species, a need to gather together in like mind and heart to share their feelings, and their lives ... and this is at the heart of what people have called religious or spiritual. Unfortunately unscrupulous people see these feelings and needs as a means to siphon off money and or power and thus " organized " religion is born. Example: When Joan and I first came to Arizona she was still steeped in christianity. So we attended a small gathering of " gender diverse " christians in Phoenix. This group had no preacher, was only loosely tied to the MCC *the Metropolitan Community Church*, and it was an alliance of people. Each week a different person from within the group would lead the services and talk about their spirituality, their feelings. It was always moving and very personal ... even for a jaded old atheist.

Then the main headquarters issued an edict ... they had to have one preacher and he had to have a salary. They had to have a regular church and not just practice in donated space and they had to send their fair share to the main MCC ... or they would be kicked out of the MCC. I tried to tell them that they should drop out of the MCC and just continue as they had been doing ... but they didn't listen. Almost like turning a light switch ... people who didn't tithe, or didn't tithe enough, were looked down on. (Previously there weren't that many expenses so tithing was optional.) At one point they were passing the collection plate at the beginning and at the end of the service. One man became the preacher and he peddled the MCC line ... no variation, no expression of differing viewpoints, no sharing except through the perceptions of that preacher and not even his perceptions, but that handed down by the MCC. At first they rented an old dilapidated church, but in a short while they could afford the down payment on a better church.

Some of the people still had some of their feelings satisfied, still felt connected to their religious feelings through this process. Enough stayed and paid that the church grew and the preacher was paid and the main MCC got its share of the take. But the closeness, the sharing, the feelings, at the level they had been when it was an alliance were diminished ... not entirely gone, but far less than it had been. This is the sad thing about " organizing " almost anything. When money or power is involved, there is a predator/victim relationship that evolves. The organization becomes the main reason for the followers to give their energy, time, and money, more important than the spiritual feeling the followers hope to share. It becomes a spiritual feeling that is directed, organized, and regimented by the organization and for the organization. The form becomes more important than the substance. Anyone want to discuss better ways for people to come together to express their spiritual feelings? I am interested!

GLL:   That is a sad, sad story. I am pretty much an agnostic/atheist, but recently I've been feeling a spiritual gap that I'm not even going to attempt to fill with organized religion. I'm really not sure what I'm after and not sure at all how to find a connection with a group that isn't cult-like or connected to an established religious group. Now that that's cleared up!.... I also have a real ambiguous feeling toward religion, my graduate training was very scientific and, seemingly, at odds with blind faith. So are my close friends and family members. My seven year old son is just " not sure yet " about whether or not God exists and that's about the best I could offer him with a straight face. I am still plagued (since my stint at parochial school) by questions concerning the inconsistencies of religion and whose is correct -- they can't all be, can they? Just trying to " do the right thing " gives me a little satisfaction, but I want more and I'm still looking for answers... Anybody got any?!!

LDL:   In my opinion we, and other species such as wolves, have this need to be connected with others of our species ... that, to me, translates to the impulse to spirituality. I find, for me, it not necessary to do so through some conceptualization of a higher power, or a deity. I, with extended family members, have built a community of caring people. (I worry when some believers think belief in god is necessary to live a good life.) We have various spiritual beliefs, some pantheistic, some pure skeptic, but we all connect with each other. We talk about the famous people we admire from the past and from within our own families and friends, and about our own experiences. We take care of each other, are there for one another in emergencies as well as the good times. We share, we hug, we take baths together, we are close ... we are like a wolf pack. There is a sense of connectedness, purpose, and meaning in knowing that the community we have built is there, that it can and will survive the death of any individual, and that every individual will be remembered with respect, love, and admiration.

In this we have created our own spirituality, god not being central to it, and without the usual superstition, ritual, or hierarchy. Yet we retain all the emotional passion and sense of purpose. Our perspective allows those with religious inclinations to join with those without, eliminating the " organization. " Julia coined the terms " paramythic atheist " and I think it fits very well. We retaining the beauty of myth as myth, and history as mythological heroism, but hold neither to be objective truth. Animals, including human animals, have feelings and needs, emotional aspects of being alive, that demand expression. This expression has often been part and parcel of the religious inclination, belief in god, and hopes for eternal life. However, one has these feelings and needs whether there is or is not religion, god, or eternal life and there are other means to satisfy them. Without meaning to deny the possibility that others might be right and I might be wrong, my great motivator has been death. I may die now, at any moment, but ah, I have lived. I have experienced it all and loved every minute, good and bad.

That is the spirituality in my community, in the people here who are allied into one large family. For us, there is no place for a " personal " god, or eternal life, or religious regimentation ... it would just take away from time better spent loving one another and enjoying the wonder and beauty of it all. For some us, that beauty is the expression of a pantheistic form of god, for others, a lucky happenstance. The feelings are the same whether we do or do not believe in (or conceptualize) a deity.

EM:   ... There is within me something that doubts, something that always doubts. If I search deep within myself about what I most truly believe, it is that nobody knows anything really important about anything really important.

To attempt to rephrase this madness in another fashion, let me say that I do not think that any human, however clever by human standards, can know but a tiny amount of what there is to know. I may well be faulted for saying " by human standards " ... what other standards could there possibly be? I can imagine all manner of standards, none having a human frame of reference. I think that conceiving that the only standards that can exist in the universe are human ones is solipsistic hubris, and definitely suspect. I would suspect it, I know that.

LDL:   Try this for something really important to say about something really important ... it is the most important thing I know and it's not a rant. It is my deepest emotional attachment to the human species and I offer it reluctantly because I have yet to find anyone who comprehends it with the intensity it exists within my mind and heart. It is what I find when I search deep within myself.

Forget all the problems with religion and belief, all the harm that has been done in the name of religion, forget all the difficulties that religion creates for people living in this day and time, ignore and put behind us all the accusations and posturing. Here is my greatest fear and the reason not only religion, but belief itself is, in my best judgment, the greatest obstacle to the future of the human species.

If there is NO god, then we are alone on this planet, maybe in the entire universe. I think life is pretty damn special. I further think that human life is extraordinarily special. I wish to preserve my own life, and the lives of my loved ones, and, by empathetic extension, I have a desire to have my species survive. I want it to be the best, longest lived, and finest example of what it means to be a living thing.  

Religion and belief are the biggest stumbling blocks in our path.

People actually believe that it does no harm to believe even if there is NO god ... I believe it does harm to believe, even if there is a god.  " God, " believers say, " has a plan, god will take care of us! " An individual dies, it is a sad time, but nothing immense has happened.

Species die, that too is sad, but what the hell, it's god's plan! When I suggest our species can die ... no sweat, that's all god's plan too!

Our planet will eventually die, our solar system, even the universe will turn cold and lifeless. Can we do anything about what now seems inevitable?   And who the hell cares?

I care!

I have tentatively mentioned this thought a few times in my life. No one cares, no thinks that far ahead, no one I have met, none. That makes me crazy, because I do care. I can live with being that crazy!

I won't be here. I will be dead and gone and nothing will mean anything to me once I am dead, but while I live I care. Perhaps I love life too much, perhaps my love of life, not just my life, but all life,  human life, is an anomaly not shared in the same degree by anyone else. I am concerned that if we are to survive we need to be doing something to speed our passage out of childhood, out of our childish need for continued parenting.

It amazes me that those who believe in god can contend that life has no meaning, if there is no god.

If there is no god, no life after death, the meaning of life becomes far more important, not less.   If life is singular, a rarity beyond all others, the one and only shot,   then we are advancing toward rationalism at too slow a pace. Can we survive indefinitely? Are we of so little importance to ourselves that we don't care? Can we survive the monobloc? If it is possible to survive the end of the universe only we can do it! But we have to grow up first. We have to decide our survival is important. Indeed, we have to decide that there is something important we can be doing about something really important.

Is there a god? Not likely, but if there is, we would be better off without one. Until we get the idea of god out of our system we can not proceed into a future where we maximize our potential. Someday, if we believe in ourselves, love ourselves and life enough, we may become something far more incredible than the gods we postulate exist in this our infancy!

If you ever have wondered why the subjects of religion and belief are so important to me, now you know. In my own way I am spreading " the gospel ", the gospel of man, and I suspect I must appear every bit as fanatical as a zealous theist. The difference is I try to win using reason, rational discussion, and argument. I would pass no law to harm those who disagree with me. After all, in my mind, believers (not preachers though) are human children struggling to attain their maturity. One must give them time!

Now ... is any of this important to you? If not, why not? What else is there to get excited about? Who knows, some day we may become creatures of pure energy. Isn't the thought that, in some little way, our words, our deeds, our actions of today may contribute to that end, a fair replacement for the consolation one obtains from believing in life after death, and a parent god?

Carl Sagan, move over ... you weren't nearly as inspired by the immensity of it all as I am!

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