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Entry 110, on 2005-01-05 at 19:49:32 (Rating 3, Comments)

I just read a paper by University of Maryland philosopher Georges Rey. His basic hypothesis is that people who are outwardly religious in fact know that their beliefs aren't true and are practicing a form of self-deception. His arguments came from a more commonsense than deeply philosophical perspective. In fact, he suggests that the arguments of many great philosophers of the past (Descartes, Aquinas) are strangely weak, and that if the subject had been anything other than the existence of god they would not have been taken seriously.

I don't want to sound like I'm claiming these ideas as my own, but if I was going to write an essay on the subject of religious belief this is just about exactly what I would have written, except that (because of my science background) I would have concentrated on more empirical evidence, and I probably would have been a bit more critical of religious believers!

Some of the key features I particularly related to are the following. First, belief in god is ridiculous. There is absolutely no worthwhile objective evidence to support the existence of god. In my experience this is true - having talked with many theists I have yet to hear a single argument that stands up to any sort of scrutiny whatsoever. Scientific "belief" is based on repeatable experiment and observation and inter-links with many other fields. Religious belief is more subjective and is separate from other fields of knowledge.

Second, he claims that religious beliefs enjoy a sort of protection from criticism from society as a whole. This is undeniably true. If a person practiced the standard acts of religious person without the protection of the religion they would be labeled as psychologically unstable. If someone claimed they would allow their son to be killed to save the rest of the world he would be locked up for his own protection, yet Christians believe this (or say they do).

Third, there is a suspicious lack of detail in religious belief. If we want to examine the accuracy Big Bang theory we can check thousands of tiny details, including exact timings of events, exact percentages of material expected, temperatures, etc. If we examine a religious theory there is no detail. When exactly did the creation of the world happen? How hot was it? What effects of the creation should we still observe today? Nothing is known. In many ways the religious explanations are like a work of fiction - maybe because that's exactly what they are.

Fourth, Rey points out that self-deception isn't limited to religious people and isn't even necessarily a bad thing. Everyone practices a certain amount of it in order to make their lives more tolerable. The difference is that only in religion does it occur in such an organised and large scale way.

There were many other interesting points made and I hope I have done the topic justice in this short post. To read the paper yourself download this: http://www.pefri.hr/novosti/MetaAthF3F!.fin.505.rtf.

Link at: http://www.pefri.hr/novosti/MetaAthF3F!.fin.505.rtf


Comment 1 (260) by rational ahmand on 2006-10-13 at 15:14:52:

Yep, that is my prof! He is a really, cool guy and an amusing lecturer.


Comment 2 (261) by rational ahmand on 2006-10-13 at 15:51:21:

Although, by the way, I should point out a few things for correction. One, if it's true that many avowed believers are misled by self-deception, then by definition they probably aren't consciously aware of this.

Second, to be fair, "belief" is belief. All things equal, it's better that people arrive at their beliefs by virtue of having supporting evidence. However, a "religious" avowal or belief isn't that different in kind from a "scientific" one (or any other, for that matter) - only by matter of degree. That's why we need extra-evidential reasons - simplicity, generality, refutability, etc. - to arrive at coherent and reliable beliefs.


Comment 3 (262) by OJB on 2006-10-13 at 17:00:04:

He's your Prof.? You are lucky. I can't remember too many lecturers in my career at University who I remember being too impressed by. The few who did impress me really changed my way of thinking and perspectives though.

Yes, I don't think most people are aware they are deceiving themselves. If they were aware of it, they wouldn't really be being deceived! I think that for most they have occasional doubts but there belief system is probably strengthened again by friends, church, etc.

I don't agree that religious and scientific beliefs are very similar. In this context the belief I'm talking about is faith based. Science requires independent objective support. Isn't that qualitatively different from religious belief?


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