Friday, 12 November 2010

What have you got to lose?

Some people just can't understand why people refuse to believe in their god. Andrew Brown, in the Guardian, is effusive in his praise for William James, who he believes
simply annihilates the evidence daleks.
Daleks? Is this a reference to the gang of robotic atheists who go around, monotonously shouting "show-us-the-evidence"? Please. Give us some credit.

Anyway, he reprints some of James' essay The Will To Believe, in the assumption that it's some kind of debate-killer. Far from it.
A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted.
But trust, in the actions of another human being, or group, is not the same as a blind faith in an intangible god. I trust my work colleagues to carry out their tasks because we've all done it hundreds of times before. Evidence! It's nit faith, it's knowledge.
A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted.
There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming. And where faith in a fact can help create the fact, that would be an insane logic which should say that faith running ahead of scientific evidence is the "lowest kind of immorality" into which a thinking being can fall. Yet such is the logic by which our scientific absolutists pretend to regulate our lives!
That's a bold assumption, that each individual would be brave enough alone to take on a gang of gunmen. But James' assertion that faith is required for a fact to come into being misses the point. Should these imaginary passengers believe that they would all rise as one against their attackers, then that also is a fact - and so a fact gives rise to a fact.

So proceeding, we see, first, that religion offers itself as a momentous option. We are supposed to gain, even now, by our belief, and to lose by our non-belief, a certain vital good. 
Secondly, religion is a forced option, so far as that good goes. We cannot escape the issue by remaining sceptical and waiting for more light, because, although we do avoid error in that way if religion be untrue, we lose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve.
This sounds remarkably like Pascal's Wager. James accepts the possibility that religion may be incorrect, but decides that it's more prudent to take the chance that it's right, just in case he loses "the good", as he describes it.

And what good does come of faith? Social mores like those expressed in the bible? Child murder, gang rape, ethnic cleansing? What exactly are we gaining? If the entire population of the world suppressed their disbelief and knuckled under to a religious dictatorship, then I suppose we'd have order, if nothing else.

But for religion to succeed in its aims, it has to stifle debate. You can be happy, just our version of happy, they say. Religion is the triumph of an ideology over all others.
It is as if a man should hesitate indefinitely to ask a certain woman to marry him because he was not perfectly sure that she would prove an angel after he brought her home. Would he not cut himself off from that particular angel-possibility as decisively as if he went and married some one else?
Here we go back in time to a land where people didn't cohabit before marriage, and your spouse truly was an unknown quantity. Nowadays, we take the time to get to know each other before we commit to a relationship. Isn't it all more sensible, that we work out whether we want to share our life with a partner, rather than marrying them on the off-chance that they might prove to be an angel?
Scepticism, then, is not avoidance of option; it is option of a certain particular kind of risk. Better risk loss of truth than chance of error,—that is your faith-vetoer's exact position. He is actively playing his stake as much as the believer is; he is backing the field against the religious hypothesis, just as the believer is backing the religious hypothesis against the field.
Risk - again Pascal's Wager. Yeah, sure, I risk eternal damnation and hellfire should I cop it, and end up at the pearly gates having to explain my disbelief in god, and my errant assumption that dinosaur bones were real. Yeah, sure, if I just bite the bullet and believe, then I insure myself against that possibility.

But I'd back the hare of evolution and atheism in a race against the tortoise of religion any day. And atheism is a position based on logic and reason, which can adjust itself to accept new realities, unlike religion, which sits perfectly still in its insistence that god exists, has always been there, and will always be there, regardless of new evidence. So it would make sense for the tortoise to be upside down.
Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear?
I think James sounds unsure of himself. Too many references to religion as dupery, and untrue. Better to just get it over with. We don't need god to be good. Come on, embrace atheism! What have you got to lose?


  1. So... If I'm religious, it's okay to rob trains?

    James also seems to rely solely on altruism for his arguments, and ignores the role of deception and selfishness in society (but then, that would probably be an evilutionary argument).

  2. I think the main thrust of his argument is that society gains from faith in a god, regardless of whether that god exists or not. In which case, why bother with god in the first place, if your faith's only going to fall at the final hurdle?