The more I talk to theists, the more I find myself convinced that there is an enormous, possibly impassable barrier between the religious way of thinking and the nonbeliever’s approach. It mainly concerns how we choose which things to believe and which things to disbelieve — which things we call “true” and which things we don’t.
I have heard theists defending the truth of their religious beliefs with statements like:
- Belief in x makes me feel at peace in my soul.
- Belief in x gives me hope.
- Belief in x is more beautiful than belief in not-x.
- Belief in x is a cultural tradition — x is what my family has always believed, and traditions are important to me.
- I just can’t imagine a world where not-x is true, so I believe x.
- Belief in x motivates people to be good.
- Belief in x gives us a straightforward rubric we can use to tell whether we’re being good.
- Belief in x is inspirational.
- I believe in x because I have faith that x is true.
- Well, x may not be true for everybody, but I feel that it’s true for me.
All of these basically amount to, “I believe this because I like to think that it’s true, regardless of whether it is actually true.”
This is just not what knowledge means. At least to me, as an atheist. We atheists like to get our knowledge from evidence — at least enough to provide the basis for a logical inference, acknowledging that full proof is difficult in anything besides mathematics. We recognize that “I want it to be true” is very, very different from “It is true.” I mean, seriously, I could write a thousand words on the spot on the topic of things I wish were true that aren’t. It’s just mind-boggling for me to imagine that anyone really operates on the principle that wishing makes it so. (When a six-year-old wants their bedtime to be midnight, that doesn’t change it from being 8 pm. Didn’t we all learn this lesson as kids?)
The final “justification” in that list above adds another layer of complexity to this schism. Not only is it claimed that liking some idea makes it reality, but also that each of us can like different, mutually exclusive things and we can all have the realities that we want. This is such a different conception of what “reality” means, I hardly know where to begin. Religious beliefs generally include factual claims that are akin to physical laws. How could they be true for you and not for everyone else? In your reality, the universe was created in six days and on the seventh day God rested, but for everyone else, who knows, could have been the Big Bang? In your reality, an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and all-loving deity definitely exists, but for everyone else — meh, whatever? Don’t we live in the same universe?
I think Bertrand Russell explained it very concisely in this 1959 CBC interview:
I’ll transcribe two snippets for you, with my emphasis added. One beginning at about 0:19 —
Interviewer: Do you think there’s a practical reason for having a religious belief, for many people?
Russell: Well, there can’t be a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. That’s quite — at least, I rule it out as impossible. Either the thing is true or it isn’t. If it is true, you should believe it, and if it isn’t, you shouldn’t. And if you can’t find out whether it is true or it isn’t, you should suspend judgment. But you can’t — it seems to me, a fundamental dishonesty, a fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true.
and another beginning at 1:55 —
Interviewer: You were brought up, of course, as Christian. When did you first decide that you did not want to remain a believer in the Christian ethic?
Russell: I never decided that I didn’t want to remain a believer. I decided that — between the ages of 15 and 18, I spent almost all my spare time thinking about Christian dogmas and trying to find out whether there was any reason to believe them. And by the time I was 18, I had discarded the last of them.
How can we get past these colossal differences in how we understand the concept of truth, how we think about what makes something worth believing? I don’t have a simple answer to this (yet?), but I know it’s something that any atheist interested in interfaith dialogue or debate has to come to terms with.