Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Evolution of Belief

I've mentioned before that one of my current writing projects is a humor book about belief. I want to write this book because I get frustrated by people's tendencies to talk past each other when belief comes up in conversation. It's not always religious belief that causes problems--sometimes it's the more mundane stuff, and sometimes it's brought up as knowledge rather than belief. It's problematic and it's irritating.

I just finished reading Michael Shermer's book Why People Believe Weird Things, and while it was interesting, I finished the book thinking something was left undone. First of all, the book assumes that everyone uses the word "belief" in the same way--and that's not the case. Then it goes on to construct reasoned arguments about how people misuse reason in order to believe in notions like alien abduction, creationism, and even Holocaust denial. This is all valuable work, and I think Shermer's book is an important one, but the problems in communicating about belief in 21st-century America begin with the fact that not everyone means the same thing when they say they "believe" something, and very few people understand (or even recognize) the significance of a sound argument.

In yesterday's On Faith page at the Washington Post, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield addresses some of this confusion about "belief" in either creationism or evolution:

For now, I would settle for finding language that helps us end a needless 200-year-old cultural struggle, which helps nobody but the most strident ideologues. Rather than fighting against each other to determine which side is Right, we should find ways to learn from each other, precisely because we do not address these issues in the exact same ways. And to those ideologues whose vision of either science or religion is so narrow as to assume that no such learning is possible, we should say a pox on both your houses!

We can start with the phrase "believe in evolution," commonly used by so many including those reporting about the recent survey in England. Using the same word to describe faith in God and support for a scientific theory strikes me as foolish and
pernicious. It's bad for both science and faith, creating a false dichotomy between the two positions - one which serves nobody but a small group of culture warriors dedicated to making our public culture as stupid and ugly as possible.

How can one use identical language to describe the decision to follow a particular spiritual path which is necessarily beyond scientific testing, and the decision to rely on a theory which is the product of such ongoing testing? We may use the same word, but are they really the same kind of belief?

I don't think there's any serious doubt that they're not the same kind of belief, and Hirschfield is right to draw attention to this. In fact, the focus of my project is to do exactly that with the entire range of belief concepts--to highlight the nonsense embedded in our belief vocabularies. Including Hirshfield's use of the word "decision" regarding scientific beliefs.

Philosophers have done a good job of exploring knowledge, and those explorations have made it, to a certain extent, to the general public. Significantly less work about belief is as widely known. One of my struggles while writing this book is that I want it to acknowledge the serious philosophical work, but I don't want it to be serious philosophy itself. Also, I always start my work on this project by drawing an outline, and outlining is not humorous, so my zeal for the project wanes while I'm working on it.

Plus, I have several other stories and screenplays and essays to work on, and I'm busy, and I'm good at convincing myself that I'm busier than I really am, and I can be self-pitying and lazy. I guess I know what I need to work on.

No comments: