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On what belief means

When I was a boy of about sixteen or so, I had a conversation with my godmother, a Canadian lady of great warmth and generosity. She was a Christian and she asked me, having not met me face to face for a year or two, whether I was also. I said: No. She said: Why not? I said: Because it isn’t true. There is no God, Jesus was not his son, there was no virgin birth, and so on. Her answer to my atheistical declarations stuck in my mind, because it seemed then to be and seems still to have been such a very odd one. She said that I might want to consider being a Christian on the grounds that Christianity was, potentially, very comforting. In adversity, it is nice to believe that there is a God who is looking out for you and who is on your side.

The oddness of this comfortingness argument for Christianity is that it suggests that you can decide what you believe, or to put it another way, that you can be comforted by deciding to believe something that you did not believe until that moment. But belief – surely – doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t mean that. What you believe is what you believe. If you do not know what you believe but are curious (perhaps because someone else has asked you), then you face a task of discovery, not a decision. You need to study the claims being made about the alleged truth in question by others. If you already know about these claims, to the point where you are able to identify what you believe about them, then you need to look inside your own head to see what is there. But you don’t decide what is in your head. And you certainly do not decide what you “believe” to be true merely by thinking about what you would be comforted by if you thought it was true, but which you have no other reason to think is true. Truth is one thing. What would be comforting if true is something entirely different.

On a closely related matter, it would be very comforting if the world always rewarded virtue, but most, me included, agree that it does not. So, say some Christians, Christians not unlike that godmother of mine, wouldn’t it be nice to believe that if the world does not reward virtue, God does? Well, it might be, if you really do believe this. But, I don’t, and my reasons for not believing that God rewards virtue are likewise nothing to do with how nice it might be if he did. What a very bleak world you live in, say the Christians. Maybe, say I, but you live in it also. You just don’t realise it.

My central point here does not concern the truth or falsehood of my atheist beliefs, or of Christian beliefs. I believe what I believe and you all believe what you all believe, and no amount of commenting here or anywhere is going to change any of that. Rather, I am making a point about the nature of belief, and it is surely a point that many Christians would agree with me about, because they too often speak of their beliefs having been discovered by them rather than merely decided. I didn’t decide that Jesus is my savour, they say. I realised that he is, and he is. (When people really do believe something, they often omit the bit where they might say “I believe”, because they are dealing with truth itself, their own belief in the truth being a somewhat secondary issue.) I didn’t choose my atheism as if choosing a bag of sweets in a shop, and Christians mostly don’t choose Christianity in that kind of way either.

It would seem, however, that some people at least really can and really do decide what they believe. (I recall a conversation with a religious believer who described having chosen his religion in exactly this sort of way, as if choosing a house.) Others believe what they believe about such things as politics in a similarly decisive way. They really do seem to possess the power of wishful belief, as it were. They really can decide what they believe. To me, this is very odd.

The above – somewhat strange – ruminations began life as an attempted start to a rather different Samizdata piece to this one, about the kinds of things I believe that got me writing for Samizdata in the first place, and about some of the other things I also believe, all of which things I also believe because I believe them, rather than because the truth of them is any great source of comfort to me.

64 comments to On what belief means

  • Richard Thomas

    The world does reward virtue, on average.

    The problem is that it’s not reliable and the non-virtuous can receive disproportionate reward.

  • Ian Macmillan

    Virtue is its own reward, the world must take care of itself.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    We are supposed to be virtuous because it is ultimately better for us and the world. A virtuous person gains a good reputation, and societies have people they can rely on. This is a long-term project, yes, but not to be ignored because of that.
    As for the woman who said she was a Christian because it could give comfort, that is certainly a peculiar argument. I wonder how many people treat religion like a blanket, just to make you feel warmer?

  • Michael Staab

    I’d say that those who can believe through choice aren’t really all that odd. I really don’t think “wishful thinking” does justice to those who believe through choice. I mean by this that we often become that which we pretend to be, (with credit to C.S. Lewis)and that believing either in something or that thing itself is all part of that process.
    That being said, it is quite certain that believing in anything by choice, and not the evidence for or against any of those choices, is a recipe for unintended, and mostly unwelcome consequences.
    Perhaps your godmothers faith and the faith of any statist share certain qualities. Your godmother found comfort through an act of her will essentially, and statists find comfort when their will creates your new reality, which reinforces their essential faith.

  • revver

    Your Grandmother’s declaration of Christianity as comforting struck me as a bit odd, being a believer myself. A God who punishes evil does instill comfort in so far as it appeals to my sense of justice; it does not comfort me to know that my own evil can also be punished (the central tenent of Christian faith being deliverance from sin via Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and that our *virtue* also comes from him).

    The post offers insight into not only faith, but how the concept of “choice” is viewed. Does believing in the concept of choice, make choice a reality for that person? Could choice/lack thereof be itself a source of comfort? I don’t mean to detour the thread into free will vs. determinism territory.

  • Here are my thoughts on the nature of belief systems:


    We talk of belief as if it were a single Boolean variable, but it is really two fuzzy variables, probability and commitment. Pascal’s wager isn’t that far off. We do take calculated risks.

    I also recommend Bryan Caplan’s _The Myth of the Rational Voter_. People evaluate how much trouble they will get in if they act on the basis of wrong ideas, and often conclude that it isn’t worth the time or trouble to buy down the risk by studying the question any further. He calls it “rational irrationality”.

  • I think, Brian, you are over-thinking the phenomenon of belief. We most certainly do decide to believe certain things, all the time. For instance, we go to a movie and suspend disbelief about certain elements of the plot. Or we marry a man who turns out to be a cad, but at the time, even in the face of mild evidence, we chose to believe he would be other than that. I believe (for example) that it is actually the rare person who, upon any given question, will say to himself, ‘I shall have no opinion until I have conducted a thorough examination of the facts.’ Most of us, I believe, make snap judgments about a matter and are perfectly willing to change that belief once sufficient evidence is thrust upon us.

  • Nathaniel Brandon made a comment in one of his books that some of the most important decisions we make are decisions about what to think about. The irrationality Bryan Caplan writes about is largely the result of deciding not to think about something, not to invest mental discipline (time, trouble, and risk of hurt feelings) in questioning preferred or “default” beliefs. It’s not irrational to have Bayesian priors. It may or may not be irrational to blow off thinking about them.

    My problem with Pascal’s wager is that it isn’t clear what Pascal’s “belief” means in the absence of a meaningful commitment, and it isn’t clear what a meaningful commitment would look like.

  • James Strong

    @ Darryl.
    I believe that most of us make decisions by a mixture of rational and irrational processes, and I don’t know which side carries more weight.
    The only example I can think of here at 6.20am is something a musician said to me just after I started playing my first instrument at age 45, ‘You don’t choose your instrument, your instrument chooses you.’
    As for being willing to change one’s beliefs in the face of the evidence: I wish that were generally true but I believe that most people are reluctant to change beliefs.
    And I can’t prove or quantify any of my claims here.
    Does anyone know of any rigorous studies about this?

    As for Brian Micklethait’s godmother: what she says is entirely understandable.
    I wish I was a Christian; I wish I could believe in the Virgin Birth, that Christ died for our sins and that there was a bodily Resurrection. Such belief would be immensely comforting.
    But wishing I could believe it can’t make me believe it.

  • Ljh

    Belief is about rational conscious choice to interpret the world in a certain way but it is unexamined assumptions that guide our decisions as if they were true. A real existential crisis is what happens when we discover these assumptions are false, rather like a floor suddenly giving way beneath us which whose solidity was never before questioned.

  • Paul Marks

    Brian – it is from William James and the American Pragmatists.

    The idea that there is no objective truth (and no objective right and wrong) – just whatever “suites you”.

    There was a time when the name of William James was more mentioned in “liberal” or “progressive” Churches than the name of Saint James. Although I doubt that your grandmother had been taught directly about William James (more likely the ideas were taught to her second hand).

    I am on the opposite side of the theological divide to you – but I despise (utterly despise) the William James defence of religion (the useful myth stuff he passed on to Sorel and Mussolini – accept they used in politics, to defend stuff they KNEW was untrue, not in theology).

    The position that “there is no such thing as objective truth – therefore what I am saying can not be objectively false” puts people right down in the gutter with the defenders of Northern Rock and so on.

    And, like William James, they normally hide their denial of reason (denial of Common Sense) with webs (vast webs) of words – technical sounding drivel.

  • Paul Marks

    If religion is false one must face the truth (that life is a process of physical and mental decay – ending in NOTHING) with what courage one can.

    Better (a thousand times better) the grim vision (in “The Meditations”) of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (that life is a struggle without hope – that one should carry on for reasons of honour) than the “comforting” deceptions of William James.

    I hope that Marcus Aurelius was wrong – that he found that the soul did not die with the body.

    However, if he was right – let us raise our swords against the dark evil (the utter meaningless) of the universe, and turn our despair into defiance.

  • 2dogs

    “But belief – surely – doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t mean that. What you believe is what you believe. If you do not know what you believe but are curious (perhaps because someone else has asked you), then you face a task of discovery, not a decision.”

    This would tend to go against the methods of theology. Theology should be understood as a decision making process, and in no way a science.

    For example, theology may ask what would be the consequence for the human condition if a certain fact were held as being true. If these consequences are seen as making human existence meaningless, then the fact is held as being false. This is definitely a decision, but there is a clear reason for it: the fact is either false, or the question of it is worthless.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Is it necessary to believe in Christianity to find it comforting?

    I find it immensely comforting to stand in a beautiful medieval building and sing the finest music ever written, in the company of a few people who (I assume) feel similarly.

    The fact that there is no God etc etc does not affect this very much; we are not rational creatures, I find.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    The problem with atheism is that the logic that tells us there’s neither need nor room for God also tells us there’s neither need nor room for our selves. And since we manifestly do exist, and are no different from anything else that exists, we can’t dismiss God (or gods) out of hand – au contraire, the universal existence of ‘personalities’ is the logical default position.

    And please – no animadversions about the Spanish Inquisition. This is metaphysics, not comparitive religion.

  • 2dogs, Brian is not talking about methods of theology but rather discovering what is or is not true. So when he says:

    If you do not know what you believe but are curious (perhaps because someone else has asked you), then you face a task of discovery, not a decision.

    That is because he thinks this is true. And I would say it is indeed true, self evidently so in fact. If the ‘methods of theology’ you mention are at variance with that, then said methods of theology can be written off as not being about the truth or falseness of things… which is to say, nonsense.

  • The post offers insight into not only faith, but how the concept of “choice” is viewed. Does believing in the concept of choice, make choice a reality for that person? Could choice/lack thereof be itself a source of comfort? I don’t mean to detour the thread into free will vs. determinism territory.


  • Lloyd Martin Hendaye

    “Nature’s God” [Jefferson] is not an all-powerful old man with white whiskers, dwelling beyond Space and Time, stirring the quantum pot with a relativistic finger.

    Philosophy and science both confront a fundamental question: Why is there something rather than nothing? As immemorial gnostic traditions aka “the Perennial Philosophy” universally attest, Anima or Spiritus Mundi exists as a self-emergent “distributed singularity”, a point-of-Order exhibiting an anti-entropic tendency to Light and Life vs. Darkness and Death.

    In our benighted individual context, “religion” in the sense of re-knitting spiritual bonds unites “Is with Ought” by attuning through human fate to Anima. Here “fate” is not pre-destiny or any canonical prescription, but the ineluctable fact that chance and necessity govern growth and change.

    As Robert Axelrod put it in his “Evolution of Cooperation” (a 1981 game-theoretical treatise bearing on the Prisoner’s Dilemma), and as his classic “Tit for Tat” makes plain, “default” is never a survival strategy. In reality, “belief” is but prevarication, at root a subterfuge: What you do determines not what you think but who you are.

    Here “giving” is the key. Facing the Lord of Karma, that is inescapable Memory which defines yourself, you will hear one question: Were you loved by a child? If so, much can be forgiven; if not, nothing else much matters. Be warned: As a judge of your own case, your own best friend/worst enemy, your answer will govern not material/physical but everlasting spiritual circumstance.

  • Laird

    “The problem with atheism is that the logic that tells us there’s neither need nor room for God also tells us there’s neither need nor room for our selves.”

    That’s a nonsensical statement. Obviously there is no “need” for humans (whatever that means), but the fact that we objectively exist demonstrates that there absolutely is “room” for us. And I don’t dismiss God (or gods) our of hand; I think carefully about it. But there is no evidence which convinces me of the truth of that proposition, so I agree with Pierre Laplace: “I have no need of this hypothesis.”

    As to Pascal’s Wager, I want nothing to do with a god which falls for such shallow sophistry.

  • GaryP

    Not to be insulting to the author, but I, as I get older and perhaps wiser, wonder more and more if our pride in our own intellectual independence is not more hubris than fact.
    We are more influenced by the belief “fads” of our day than we like to think. In my lifetime, an educated religious person has been considered a contradictions in terms, almost an impossibility. Since we (almost) all desire acceptance and adopt the fashions of our peers (without conscious thought, in many cases) in most aspects of life (our dress, what substances we ingest, sexual mores, the range of acceptable political systems, etc.) why do we think we, independently, arrived at our beliefs about God? It is hardly more likely that an “intelligent, educated” person can believe in God unreservedly in the modern world than they could wear Elizabethan clothes to work and not feel like they were in costume.
    I do not argue that there is no free will. We do choose, to some degree, what we believe but we are also strongly affected by the ideas and ideals of whatever group we aspire to be a part of. In the modern world, for the majority, the cool group is not the religious believers.
    Of course, I am no more immune to influence than I think most others are. I am an agnostic that would like to believe in God but cannot “feel” faith. I think that this is, at least partially, because of the patterns of thought that I absorbed from the group that I aspired to join as far back as I can remember (the scientists). I was successful in that aspiration but now wonder if what I gained was not at some cost.
    Scientific materialism is as pervasive in our society as religion was a 1000 years ago. It is extremely difficult to escape its influence. Perhaps you think that is good, perhaps bad. However, you are very lacking in self-awareness if you do not recognize that you have been influenced by these patterns of thought. The fact that we are not normally consciously aware of the atmosphere we breathe does not mean that hard vacuum is not the norm for the universe.
    Our reason, which is a product of and part of the natural world, cannot, I think, lead us to any dependable conclusions about the supernatural. Reason simply cannot make that leap. Only God’s grace (assuming God exists) can give us that most irrational of things (faith) that allows us to believe. I wonder whether my lack of faith is due to outside influences of the society I wished to be a part of or a perverse personal decision to reject God?
    Questioning our own beliefs is difficult and painful and the vast majority of mankind do not revisit these issues once they have, by whatever tangled process, established, to their own satisfaction, what is is they “believe.” That is probably efficient and enables us to get on with our lives but also, I expect, the source of most of the misery that we subject both others and ourselves to.
    I sincerely hope that God exists and that mercy will be the deity’s response to our follies.

  • Midwesterner

    Ljh hit the crux of the matter. It is not what one believes that is the problem, it is what one does when encountering contrary evidence. At that point one must either give faith or reason the upper hand. I discovered quite young that I do not have the capacity to believe something in the absence or defiance of evidence.

    James Strong points out the appeal of faith. There are many situations I wish I could do something about but feel helpless to influence them. Avoiding feeling helpless, without control or perhaps even influence, is one of the strongest human motivations. People of faith calm those feelings by praying. People of reason fret and prepare for the eventuality they fear.

    I find this table useful in discussions of belief systems.

  • Richard Thomas

    My experience with Christianity in the US is that it is more of a social club. This is true to some degree in the UK as well but there, the role is somewhat more shared with pubs and actual social clubs. The religion is, to some degree, secondary with people participating to a greater-or-lesser degree but being in the right church can lead to significant advantages and opportunities.

  • Richard Thomas

    Andrew, there is no doubt something about the trappings of religion that fulfill a human need. In consideration of this, I have given some thought to the viability of an “Athiest’s Book of Common Prayer”

  • A cowardly citizen

    Religious groups seem to be better at protecting themselves from bad times and perpetuating their values than atheists do.

    I suspect that those Syrian rebels who think bad people go to hell and the virtuous go to heaven are willing to endure more than they would if they were simply rational economic agents. They may lose. But only by being heavily out-gunned by the government that has logistical support from Russia.

    What’s the longest-lasting state founded on the principle that gods don’t exist? I reckon the USSR at 72 years, or one lifetime.

    What’s the longest any business that was founded by people who publicly stated their atheism as opposed to say, Quakers? I don’t know, but I suspect fewer than two generations.

    I’m not saying a business cannot flourish for several generations if it is run by (private) atheists. Or that religious business persons cannot be crooks. In fact, overt expressions of virtue are suspect in my view.

    However, on balance, I would trust my money with someone who really thinks – if he robs me – that HE faces a trip to hell to be gang-raped for eternity by fire demons. And I would be happy not discourage such a belief.

    If there is a pay-off for atheists to do business with believers, but some believers distrust or boycott atheists, that looks like a market advantage.

  • One does not go on a task of discovery unless one chooses to believe discovery is possible.
    Similarly, any decent experiment rests on a series of assumptions about the world that we choose to believe so that we can get about the business of the experiment to hand.

    But your grandmother’s reason to believe, comfort, well that does strike me as odd. I want my map to fit the territory, and I do think belief in Christ fits the territory better than the alternatives. But it would seem there is a feminine impulse to sacrifice the map’s accuracy for comfort.

  • I either believe, or I don’t.I may change my mind later but initially I go one way or the other without any conscious choice. I can’t imagine choosing to believe (or choosing to change my mind) any more than I can imagine choosing the colour of my eyes.

  • Ellen

    When contemplating Pascal’s Wager, remember it has more than one downside. Believing in the right god can indeed get you to Heaven — but believing in the wrong god is a sure ticket to Hell. And there are a lot of gods out there clamoring for my belief, if one is to believe their missionaries. How do we choose?

    I think I’ll hold off believing until some god makes more sense than the ones I’ve been told about.

  • Ellen, you can take a few steps back from it and ask yourself if you believe in perfection. There aren’t multiple perfections, perfection is one. Perfection is not the sort of thing we can achieve on our own, but it may, should we allow it, achieve us.

    I do agree that you have probably not been told anything sensible.

  • Jack Olson

    Of course people decide what to believe. That is merely making an assumption or drawing a conclusion. When you reason from clear, precise premises, you are able to deduce definite, clear conclusions. Unfortunately, in many questions, the evidence is vague or ambiguous. If one is to draw any conclusion about them at all, one must reason inductively. In other words, play the percentages and accept whatever errors this entails. When I conclude that the Bible really is the work of men inspired by a deity, I may be in error because the evidence is ambiguous. Yet, I still draw the conclusion because the question is sufficiently important to me to accept the risk of error.

  • Paul, you really don’t see the contradiction between your two comments?:-)

  • Brian, our capability of knowing the reality as it is, as great (and growing) as it may be, is undoubtedly limited – especially when it comes to things that, if they are/were real, are too distant from us either in time or space. Those of us who seek the truth inevitably reach a point where this limit becomes apparent to us, and we are forced to “go on faith” – in other words, we are forced to choose what to believe in. Your Godmother was very wise to have recognized this.

  • Laird

    Alisa, I don’t see any “wisdom” in choosing to “believe” in Christianity merely because it might give comfort. I understand that religion is a crutch, but to knowingly embrace it for that very reason seems, to me, the shallowest of possible motivations. Intellectual laziness, the antithesis of wisdom.

  • Straw man, Laird – read my comment again:-)

  • Alastair James

    I think it’s perfectly possible to choose what to believe at the most fundamental philosophical level. Indeed I think we have little choice but to do that.

    There are only two things I know for certain and I assume/believe that you all do too (see later). The first is that consciousness exists. It may only exist in me for a moment (my memories and sensory perceptions may all be false) but because I experience it directly I know it exists. A corrolary of this is that there is something rather than nothing. Trying to answer the question “why is there something rather than nothing” is a logical impossibility since any answer you give is a part of the “something” you were seeking to explain. So rationally you have no choice but to accept that something exists and you then have the choice whether or not to think about it. The most fundamental question you can ask yourself is “is there an objective reality beyond my immediate perception of my current self?”. There is no way of knowing but if you answer “no” then you have reached a dead end because there is no basis on which to ask or answer any further questions. I therefore assume that there is an objective reality as a pragmatic matter. And I assume it all the time, only thinking about it explicitly when making posts like this! I would therefore say I “believe” it to be true in the only semantically meaningful way I can conceive of that word. On similar logic I “believe” that my senses are reacting in a sufficiently consistent way to give me useful albeit imperfect information about that objective external reality (because if they aren’t then again I have reached an impasse) and I also believe that I have “free will” because if I don’t then all my efforts at thinking are actually just an observation of something happening too me. These three key assumptions are “beliefs” that I have consciously chosen and without them one cannot reason any further about the existence of the universe, about oneself nor about the other conscious creatures that appear to inhabit it. Brian could rightly counter that most people assume /believe these things without thought. But anyone who does consider these questions is choosing what to believe, because there is no basis on which to do otherwise.

    Having said that I agree with Brian that choosing to believe something because it is comforting is a logical step to far, but not an emotional one and a lot of people make their choices much more on emotion than reason.

    More interestingly (at least to me), I don’t find the idea of religion comforting. If my life is going badly I’m much more comforted by the idea that one day it will end completely. I’m actually mildly worried that one of these myriad gods people go on about does exist I might have upset his sensitivities about what I eat, what hat I wear, who I’ve slept with, etc. andI’m only mildly worried since I don’t see a shred of evidence that any of them do exist, but then my entire belief system is based on some assumptions which may not be true! Not comforting at all since most of these gods seem to be pretty mean if you have offended their petty sensitivities.

  • Paul Marks

    Alisa – I do not think there was a contradiction. One does not have to believe in life after to death in order to show courage and honour (indeed perhaps the person who believes that the universe is a hollow sham without hope – shows MORE courage and honour if they choose the path).

    Just as someone shows more courage by talking lightly and making a joke or two, whilst they are being tortured (rather than screaming as they have sexual organs hacked off and so on) than a person shows by talking lightly and making a joke or two – whilst going for a walk in the park.

    Nor is belief the same as PROOF – I would love to be able to prove the soul does not die with the body (but I can not do it). And where there is no proof there is always DOUBT.

    Certainly the Bible is by my bedside – but the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is right there also.

    Ellen – not so.

    As a Latitudinarian I believe that people of many different theological opinions go to Heaven (by the Grace of God).

    I would even go so far as to say that some people who do not believe in God end up in Heaven (by the Grace of God) – I do not think that belief is a matter of REWARD.

    Of course a lot of religious people would disagree with me.

    But as I am semi Pelagian heretic anyway….

  • Laird

    Not a straw man, Alisa. I was merely responding to your last sentence as it relates to Brian’s original post. Apparently I misunderstood what you meant, but if that’s the case I still do.

  • Laird, you are probably correct, and I apologize: ‘straw man’ implies an intentional fallacy, whereas this seems to be a case of simple misunderstanding. I said that Brian’s Godmother was wise to have recognized the fact that she, like the rest of us, chose her faith. I never said that she was wise to choose that particular faith for that particular reason.

    That said, seeing as faith must take place where reason cannot be applied (a point that even the most thoughtful and rational person is bound to reach), how do we judge the wisdom of any particular choice of belief? Or the reasons for that particular choice? It seems to me that the obvious measure for the former is morality, and for the latter is practicality. From that vantage point, the lady’s choice of belief is nothing but benign, and her reasons are quite sensible.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    August 23, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    “The problem with atheism is that the logic that tells us there’s neither need nor room for God also tells us there’s neither need nor room for our selves.”

    That’s a nonsensical statement. Obviously there is no “need” for humans (whatever that means), but the fact that we objectively exist demonstrates that there absolutely is “room” for us.

    By ‘need’ and ‘room’ I’m referring to purely physical requirements: since materialism provides us with an explanation for everything without reference to God, there is no ‘need’ for ‘Him’; and since everything is already accounted for, no ‘room’ either. But we don’t see in each other any non-material processes, either, and so the evidence for the non-existence of God is the same as the evidence for the non-existence of you-all. Conversely, if I want to believe that you exist then I have to conclude that God may also exist. Indeed, since I observably (to myself) exist and am no different from anything else that exists (to an outside observer), I have to conclude that God, or something approximating my own mind writ large, does, too.

  • Richard Thomas

    PFP, that a god /may/ exist is not enough to conclude that it *must* exist. In fact, if anything, our scientific study of the universe would seem to imply that one could not since the laws of physics would seem to deny many of the aspects that would be required of a god. I’m not going to rubbish belief in the supernatural but I’ll say you should have some pretty direct personal experience if you’re going to start believing in it (I don’t).

  • Laird

    PFP, I still disagree with your statements. First, I don’t claim that there is any “evidence for the non-existence of God”, merely that there is no sufficient (to me, anyway,) evidence for such existence. I’m not trying to prove a negative, merely to dispute that there is sufficient evidence for the positive. Big difference.

    Second, your statement that “if I want to believe that you exist then I have to conclude that God may also exist” is a logical fallacy. You are certainly within your rights to conclude that god exists, but that has nothing to do with my existence (or, for that matter, my non-existence; for all you know I’m a Turing machine). God may indeed exist, but my existence neither proves nor disproves that hypothesis.

    Finally, as to your assertion that materialism leaves no “room” for God, I also disagree. Materialism may provide us with an explanation for everything, but we can’t objectively know that because we don’t know everything. And even if it did, that would still leave “room” for a god in Spinoza’s sense of a “first mover”, i.e., the initial cause of everything. Indeed, I have no objection to that particular god hypothesis; to me, there’s not a whole lot of difference between saying that the universe was created by God or that it came into existence via the Big Bang. I consider that to be essentially a semantic difference of no practical importance. Where I part ways with theists is in the assertion of the existence of an anthropomorphic god which takes an interest in human affairs. That strikes me as simple projection, if not outright hubris. (I also find the manifestations of that anthropomorphic god, as asserted by most religions, to be manifestly unsatisfying and generally unworthy of godhood, but that’s a side issue.) As I said earlier, I have no need of that hypothesis.

  • Veng

    Alastair , in the discussions here do the various gods you speak of that people go on about come from different western monotheistic faiths? If they do, it is my understanding that they are really speaking about the same god. Given the incentives the various flavors, especially Protestant ones, have to keep the flock in the ‘faith’, the penalties for straying are portrayed as severe. Islam, though not Protestant looks from the outside like one of the more severe in that respect. The shaman business is interesting to look at.

    But similar to Paul I am a semi-Pelagian though non-Christian heretic anyway.

  • Veryretired

    Late to this one, but I am compelled to point out that all belief system,s are comforting at some fundamental level—that’s why people believe in them to begin with.

    Human beings seek answers and patterns with which to understand the world around them, and, hopefully, get some hint about what might happen next.

    We are also mostly accepting of the general belief system our particular culture teaches, even if we migh disagree with some elements of it. Even here, in this forum of contrarians, there is a great deal of acceptance of the overall western cultural narrative.

    When humans moved from instinct and perception to concept and cognition, they were motivated by both their emotional and intellectual systems to seek some explanation for the reality they faced, and even more when that reality changed drastically and challenged their survival.

    If you ever look at the bizarre and bloody history of the human race and wonder why it happened that way, look at the belief systems under which we have operated—irrational and oriented toward another world or reality, and dismissive of this one.

    We get the reality we believe in, and in the current era, we’re going to get it good and hard.

  • Sean

    For me “Let There Be Light” just sounds better than “The Big-Bang”.

  • Peter Whale

    A bit late to this but enjoyed the comments so just a small offering.
    What I believe and what you believe has no bearing or influence on whatever the truth is. The individual mindset is exactly that it is made up of the conceptions and missconceptions that we filter everything through. The search for what is true is entertainment at the highest level and always rewarding. Kind regards to all.

  • Trofim

    The state of mind in which an individual feels close to death often induces people to believe in God. Personally, on the rare occasions when people ask me whether I believe in God, I say “Sometimes”, and I don’t say that to simply stimulate discussion – my belief does vary, and it seems quite natural to me.

  • Bill Reeves

    Your atheism is perfectly compatible with Christianity. Christianity argues that only God can save – we have no role in our salvation other than acceptance. It is consistent with Christian theology and perfectly reasonable for you to have ‘discovered’ that you do not believe in God because – in effect – God doesn’t believe in you.

    Perhaps belief and cosmic status are correlated?

    I really don’t know but it’s interesting.

  • Paul Marks

    “we have no role in our salvation other than acceptance” – well atheists do not accept (believe) so if this view was true then atheism would still not be compatible with believe in God (whether in the Christian form or other forms). I would say that it is obvious that atheism and theism are not compatible – but some philosophers claim that moral responsibility is compatible with all actions being pre determined, and many economists claim that banks lending out more money than they have (indeed more money than even EXISTS) is perfectly compatible with sound finance (such credit bubble banks are “really” just lending out real savings, even though they are NOT).

    In such a demented world one has to make the point that belief in God is not compatible with an active belief that God does not exist.

    By they way – justification by faith alone is false anyway, at least according to Holy Scripture. For example….

    The Letter of James.

    If “good works” do not go with “faith” then it (faith) is “quite dead”, and….

    “This is the way to talk to people of that kind: “You say you have faith and I have good deeds; I will prove to you that I have faith by showing you my good deeds – now you prove to me that you have faith without any good deeds to show. You believe in one God – that is credible enough, but the demons have the same belief, and they tremble with fear. Do realise, you senseless man, that faith without good deeds is useless”.

    The reply of Martin Luther? Well he did take some time off his death-to-the-Jews ranting to make a reply to Holy Scripture – his reply was that the Epistle of James was an “epistle of straw” (ditto anything else in Holy Scripture that cast doubt on his justification by faith alone position).

    Both Luther and John Calvin broke with a Church (the Roman Catholic Church) that was too influenced by Augustine – and created churches that were even MORE influenced by Augustine.

    Augustine a man whose ignorance of both Greek and Hebrew (the languages of the scriptures) was trumped by his political alliance with Bishop Ambrose – “but Paul you can not read Greek or Hebrew either”, I am not a wealthy 5th century Roman (such a person could have easy access to these languages – IF they cared to), my formal education was basically just years of torture (some physical some mental) it was not a opening to the world of learning. Nor do I claim be a major theologian and demand that everyone believe what I believe WITH THE THREAT OF FORCE.

    Using force in religion – Augustine did a lot of the work to justify that. And Predestination (the absurdity I touched on above) – that was one of his as well.

    There you are boys and girls – you are used to my political (and economic and philosophical) ranting, now you have had the experience of some theological ranting from me. No doubt unfair to Augustine – but in theological debate it is traditional to attack the weak areas of an opponent (not their strengths).

    Have no fear – I will stop here.

  • Lefty

    I find that any time I try to evaluate the evidence, I end up without a firm conclusion. In fact, it seems to me that the evidence for God’s existence and against it is pretty much of equal weight. Which then puts me in the position of deciding which set of evidence I chose to believe.

    Another way of putting this is that if God exists, he necessarily stands outside the process of evaluation of evidence, because that process is itself a function of the will of God. You have to choose your premise, and in making that choice, you choose your belief.

    Personally, I don’t think that God, if he exists, cares about what you believe. I think that what he cares about is what kind of person you are. It’s pretty clear that nonbelievers can be godly, and believers can be evil. So I think that when atheists and believers talk about proof of God, they are discussing an irrelevant question. In my experience, belief or non-belief doesn’t much affect who a person is, although it can make him a nuisance.

    So I’m with your godmother. You get to choose, and it’s probably a good idea to choose to believe something that might bring you some comfort down the road. Unless, of course, you find that sort of comfort uncomfortable…

  • hennesli

    Free will or agency is a transcendental or religious belief that is incompatible with a materialist and rationalist conception of the universe; yet even in a largely secular West we still choose to believe in free will because it it is central to our sense of self and our moral intuition. the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets…so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion. Yet humans will always need the fiction of their own agency, that is, their transcendental separation from a universe determined by physical laws.

  • Paul Marks

    Ralph Cudworth loved the argument that a materialist view of the universe (one that had no God) mandated determinism – i.e. a denial of agency (free will).

    As this would mean not that free will did not exist – but that the materialist (Godless) view of the universe was obviously wrong (obviously – as the “I”, agency, most certainly does exist – indeed nothing is more certain than the existence of agency, it is far more certain than the existence of the universe – it is, literally, “self evident”).

    Sadly a materialist view of the universe does NOT mandate a denial of agency – the soul (the agent) may well die with the body.

    By the way – on the line about who we choose to believe in free will.

    Without “free will” (without agency) there is no “I” and there is no “choose”.

    Although (and here I agree with Cudworth) the “chopping up” of the mind by Scholastic terminology (into “will” and “reason” and so on) is profoundly misleading.

  • Yet humans will always need the fiction of their own agency, that is, their transcendental separation from a universe determined by physical laws.

    Personally, I don’t see it as fiction at all. In theory, a human brain can be actually taken apart and studied thoroughly enough to control it to the point of eliminating any practical distinction between a human and a robot. In practice, this can even be achieved today through the use of various chemical substances – either by force or even by the individuals themselves (the latter is in fact quite common). IOW, free will can be made less free or even eliminated entirely – but that in and of itself does not negate its actual existence. Free will is simply that part of our ‘will’ (i.e. our power to make decisions and act upon them) which is not currently controlled by others. There’s nothing mythical or unphysical about it at all.

  • Laird

    I think hennesli’s argument is essentially a version of the “clockwork universe” theory: that because the universe runs on physical principles (such as gravity, etc.), theoretically if one knew the starting position and momentum of every particle one could predict with perfect accuracy the entire future of the universe and everything in it (humans included). Unfortunately, that has already been disproven, thanks to such things as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and quantum mechanics. There is so much randomness underlying the universe that it is theoretically as well as practically unpredictable. That applies to our brains as well, which disposes of hennesli’s argument. Of course, this doesn’t prove that free will actually exists; it merely disproves that particular argument against it.

  • Indeed, Laird. But even a “clockwork” universe does not preclude the existence of free will – it merely makes its possible elimination easier.

  • hennesli

    The idea of a relationship between quantum indeterminism and human free will is not credible. If free will was reducible to quantum indeterminism, then human choices would be a product of chance (since quantum mechanics is governed by a dynamic of probability, which is the opposite of freedom of choice. Its akin to making a decision based on the flip of a coin (the film ‘No Country For Old Men’ comes to mind). This is not freedom to choose.

  • Midwesterner

    The compulsion to believe in free will and reject determinism is a result of desire to assign moral attributes to other people. As an individualist, I don’t propose or pretend to know the content of their soul, only the consequences of their deeds. Whether I am attacked by a tornado, a grizzly bear, or a human with a knife, I will defend myself without bothering to consider the moral merits of the attacker. Whether they are a determinist “meat puppet” or a free will moral crusader or a random cyclonic pattern in the local weather makes no difference to me.

    As for my own actions, whether they are determinist or not is unknowable from my own viewpoint. Certainly I perceive choice. I rationally know that not choosing is itself a decision. I observe in others that choosing to renounce choice (fatalism) is existential suicide. Whether my preference for life advancing and extending choices is predetermined or not does not alter the fact that I am the one making my choices. They are me.

    The obsession with stipulating answers to untestable questions (is there a creator/god?, is there free will?, etc) is driven by the desire to morally judge – and therefore dictate to – others, not by the desire to better live one’s own life. While I may personally judge their conduct by my moral standards, my moral code cannot be the basis for their actions. That is collective personhood. Imposing my moral standards on others renounces individualism. As an individualist, I can only guide and contract my external interactions by the consequences things and people have on me and my values. Why they do what they do, whether predetermined or by free will, is outside my purview short of forming a collective identity with them.

    I prefer contracts of association that do not stipulate moral justifications for their specific terms of association. If I like the terms offered, I will accept them without your moralizing. If I don’t like the terms offered, your moralizing is pointless and irrelevant.

  • Paul Marks

    If determinism is correct there is no “I”.

    That is why David Hume (whether seriously – or out of a sense of “fun” that takes “naughtiness” to a level where it is not sensible to go) used his intelligence (specifically his skill with words) to try and discredit the concept of “I” (by such arguments as that a thought does NOT mean there is a thinker).

    As for supporting totalitarian philosophy (determinism) while clinging to libertarian politics – this is an effort to try and have philosophy and politics in different boxes (to treat people, in politics, as if they were beings – whilst denying, philosophically, that humans are beings).

    Ordinary people (such as myself) were profoundly moved by Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” – academics did not tend to be so moved, as they noted (privately – but quite correctly) that in his more “intellectual” works Hayek made it clear he did not actually believe the things he said in “The Road to Serfdom” (specifically about rights, natural law, moral choice, and so on – although no actual lying is involved as Hayek, in “The Road to Serfdom”, never actually uses such language as “I believe…..” he says things like “traditionally liberals believed in……”).

    In reality Hayek accepted the fashionable totalitarian philosophy he has been taught – but he tried (desperately tried) to make it not lead to the totalitarian politics he came to oppose.

    His efforts failed (as his socialist opponents noted). For example, the denial that determinism destroys moral responsibility (indeed the whole concept of a human being, a person) is just wrong – flat wrong.

    If people such as Thomas Hobbes and (if he was serious – rather than playing games) David Hume are correct in philosophy, then libertarian politics is a nonstarter – liberty is dead (indeed it was never alive).

    In my youth I tried to avoid such matters – for fear of “dividing the movement”, I now believe myself to have been mistaken to avoid them.

    If determinism is correct (if all actions are pre determined) there is no I – there is no freedom, there is no morality.

    Totalitarianism would not be evil – for freedom would not exist anyway (not in any moral sense – “freedom” would be like water after a dam has been blown up, or a rabid dog let out of a cage), and totalitarianism could not be evil – because there would be no such things as good and evil.

    If one accepts the philosophy of the “intellectuals” opposing their politics is vain.

    To support the politics of (for example) Alfred Roberts (the father of Mrs Thatcher) in opposing totalitarianism (and “totalitarianism” is the word that Mr Roberts in his talks attacking Fascism, National Socialism and Marxism in his talks in Grantham back in the 1930s) one must support the basic philosophy of people such as Mr Roberts – that good and evil exist and it is possible for humans to CHOOSE between them (that humans are beings).

    That is what Hayek appears to do in “The Road to Serfdom” (although, I repeat, no lying is involved – if one reads very carefully…..) which is why ordinary people (such as a young Margaret Roberts and, a few decades later, a young Paul Marks) warm to the book. But he does not mean it….

    And one can not base a political philosophy on a foundation of giving a false impression (even without formally lying). Not a political philosophy that is going to defeat the totalitarians (especially of the instalment “Nudge” variety) – for, if one shares the basic philosophy of the enemy, the success of the enemy is (in the end) assured (one might almost say “predetermined”).

    “As if” WILL NOT DO.

  • Mr Ed

    So why do determinists bother advocating anything? If they work for the State, or are funded by it, why not abolish their State-funded jobs? The lack of free will would mean that it would not be wrong, and for them to object is vain, as it would not mean anything, as it would be a pre-determined action.

    See what they do then, how they act. There is no evidence for pre-determinism, there was a time when the idea was not around.

  • Midwesterner

    Mr Ed,

    You are conflating determinists with fatalists. Fatalists don’t bother advocating anything. Determinists acknowledge that their advocacies may be the consequences of prior events.


    Physical determinism is a theory of physics, a debate on whether actions result from prior actions or contain a randomizing element (most often invoked through quantum uncertainty). Fatalism is a moral philosophy. I recommend anyone considering the implications of a determinist construct learn more about chaos theory. Some things (very many common things in fact) can be determinist and yet utterly defy prediction. I recommend this lecture by Clint Sprott.

    Addressing human will, it is impossible to not-choose. The only way you can make the assertions you do, Paul, is by making the false claim that determinism negates choice. Physical determinism (if true) does not negate choice, it only contains the outcome in a way that defies any hope of foreknowledge.

    No one can avoid making choices. Fatalism, the refusal to make choices, is in fact a choice one has made; it is not an understanding of determinism.

    If one cannot avoid making choices (and we cannot) and simultaneously we can have no foreknowledge of what our choices will be then, even if the decisions we make are determined by prior events, we still must make them blindly.

    When an event occurs, it cannot be both not-determined-by-prior-events yet at the same time, not-random. If you face a situation where your decisions “take on a set of possible different values, each with an associated probability” then your decision is a “random variable“. An action is either controlled by prior events, or it is random. There is no third option.

    If it distresses you to accept that everything must be either random or not-random and that there is no third option, you may be interested to know that you are not alone in your distress.

    What nobody seems to understand is that whether the future is the certain consequence of prior events or instead the result of a variable not controlled by prior events is irrelevant to the actor when the future is unknowable. The requirement of making choices is not a train that you can get off of.

    I remain agnostic on the question. Since I cannot know the future including that of my own mind, I must continue to make my choices and live with the consequences. Even if life is a movie, I can only experience it one frame at a time. Every day is a new unknown. Every day I exercise my will. Whether it is free or determined I don’t know, but since I don’t know what I will do or what the outcomes will be, it feels free to me.

  • Paul Marks

    Mid – I fully admit I have a rotten cold (and this, like so many other things has an effect on the mind and temper – an effect that can be overcome but only with great difficulty), but I will not stand for “false claim”.

    Either actions are predetermined (which is what “determinism” means in philosophy) or they are chosen.

    Determinism and agency are NOT compatible.

    I must stress that I am not interested in “discussing” this matter – or any other matter of basic logic.

    Basic principles are the foundations of discussion – if they are (in violation of reason) disregarded (either in the brutal matter of Thomas Hobbes, or in the stylish way of the word webs of David Hume) further discussion is pointless. One either walks away – or responds as Dr Johnson did.

    It is no surprise that libertarianism is doing so badly as a political philosophy – as so many important libertarians (or neo libertarians) do not even accept its philosophical foundations (i.e. that humans are beings – they are agents capable of choosing between good and evil, with this choice being a REAL one, not an “illusion” of choice).

    As Hayek puts it in “The Constitution of Liberty” – liberalism (classical liberalism) used to be tied to certain philosophical opinions. Accept he was wrong about “used” – it is tied to these philosophical principles (inescapably) if these philosophical principles (that humans are agents – that all actions are NOT predetermined) are wrong, then liberalism is absurd.

    The enemy know this perfectly well – and their philosophy is in harmony with their politics.

    It is an important reason for their success.

    The collapse of philosophy in the 19th century (for example the replacement of the Common Sense School in the United States by the Pragmatists and others) made the political events of the 20th century (otherwise baffling) much more likely.

    Even in the 18th century – philosophy (and theology) was far from just a “theoretical” matter.

    The support for slavery by George Whitfield and the opposition to it by Wesley and Wedgewood is directly connected to their philosophical (and theological) opinions.

    It one chooses to use the excuse of predetermination (and predestination) the keeping slaves (and other such conduct) is not one’s own fault – as one could not have chosen otherwise (keeping slaves, like all other actions – is predetermined by a series of causes and effects going back to the start of the universe).

    It is perfectly true that some writers (for example James McCosh) have argued that predestination (in theology) does not mean predetermination (in philosophy) – but as for the idea that predetermination and agency are “compatible”…..

    That is like saying (indeed it is saying) that predetermination is compatible with predetermination not being true – it is a contradiction (a flat one).

  • Paul Marks

    By the way…..

    The idea that CHOICE is either “random”, or predetermined – is absurd (as pointed out by Ralph Cudworth more than three centuries ago).

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Ed – there is an answer to your question, but it is not a good one.

    George Whitfield was asked why he bothered with his vast religious conversion campaign – going round the (then) colonies organising event after event…..

    After all, if who was to be saved was decided (by God) at the beginning of time – what was the point of all this?

    The answer?

    Well God had also decided that George Whitfield would run round (from colony to colony) doing his endless events…..

    I did warn you it was not a good answer.

    Although it violates the nonaggression principle – I am tempted by the view that George Whitfield needed a good kicking, at least when he came out with his attack on the ownership of Wedgewood china.

    Owning Wedgewood china was an evil luxury you see.

    The fact that Mr Wedgewood was a noted anti slavery campaigner (prepared to send his anti slavery china figures, FREE OF CHARGE, to any fellow believer) and Mr Whitfield was in bed in the slave owners (even helping overturn the anti slavery provisions of the Founder of the Georgia colony) was nothing to do with it….. (honest……).

  • Midwesterner

    The idea that CHOICE is either “random”, or predetermined – is absurd (as pointed out by Ralph Cudworth more than three centuries ago).

    Cite his proof please, so I can comment on it. I presume this is the same Ralph Cudworth who proved the existence of God? The same Ralph Cudworth who said:

    The true knowledge or science which exists nowhere but in the mind itself, has no other entity at all besides intelligibility; and therefore whatsoever is clearly intelligible, is absolutely true.”

    The same neoplatonist Ralph Cudworth who used “astral bodies” to fill the gaps in his belief system?

    I must stress that I am not interested in “discussing” this matter – or any other matter of basic logic.

    If your assertions cannot withstand logical analysis, then “basic logic” is at best a misnomer. You are the master of argument from authority. I certainly do not dispute that. But do not call something logic if you cannot logically defend it and must resort to repeating the assertions of others. If the way to truth is name dropping, then you win. Your beliefs are based of faith and intuition, not reason. How you go about choosing what to believe is your own business, but don’t pretend you are providing rational defense of your beliefs. Your belief system rests on an immaterial spirit that is not governed by the laws of physics. You cannot sustain any of your proofs without, like Cudworth, resorting to a spirit that is separate from the physical world.

  • Paul Marks


    All actions being predetermined is not “compatible” with some actions not being predetermined – being CHOSEN.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Dale Amon posted an interesting “Toward a Taxonomy of God” a few years ago: