Thursday, October 14, 2010

Beliefs Don't Matter (as much as you think)

We atheists spend a lot of time and energy addressing the beliefs of religious folks. But many people are religious, or at least go to a church or synagogue or mosque or something, not because of beliefs, but for reasons that we could call "social."

Jerry Coyne of Why Evolution Is True discusses an article by Philip Kitcher, a Columbia philosophy professor:

Kitcher distinguishes what he calls the “belief model”—the form of faith that is initially built on truth claims about God, Jesus, Mohamed and the like—from three other forms of what he calls the “orientation” model: the forms of faith that begin with a person identifying secular goals and beliefs that he shares with others, and then choosing a faith that properly frames these goals.

I think this is an important point that is often missed: as someone said, you can't rationally argue someone out a belief they weren't rationally argued into. (Or something like that.) And for most people, this must be the case. Most people follow the religion they were brought up in - it is a cultural issue, not a rational one.

It's an easy mistake to make, I think, because we are so used to thinking of religion in terms of beliefs. If you learn that someone is a two-seed-in-the-spirit predestinarian Baptist, you immediately ask, "What do they believe?"

But if we broaden our view and look beyond Western Christianity, we find there are many religions that are more interested in what you do than in what you believe. Strangely, in talking about non-Christian religions we often implicitly acknowledge the fact. We have no problem with the idea of "non-religious Jews," or people who are "culturally Jewish" without being "observant." When was the last time you heard of a "non-religious Christian"? Or heard someone say, "I'm culturally Christian, but I'm not observant"?

So, while New Atheist-type books and blogs may be very valuable in reaching a certain segment of the population, they may be missing an even larger segment. We need more secular versions of what the churches offer: communities with shared goals and values. Some existing groups - Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, and Ethical Societies - are based more on shared values than on shared beliefs, though of course the first two still involve some elements of religious belief. How do we build secular versions of these communities?

It's an interesting and important discussion, and I encourage you to read about Kitcher's article at the link above and at Russell Blackford's blog. (I linked the first post in a series: you can find the rest of the series in his sidebar.)

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