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"People Believe In Belief Of God"
Philosophy professor Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea has pretty novel ideas about believers. He talks to Robert Wright on Slate:

I have a feeling that not that many people actually believe in God. Many people believe in belief of God. That is, they think it's a good thing, and they try to believe in God, they hope to believe in God, they wish they could believe in God and they say they believe in God, they go through all the motions, they try very hard to be devout. Sometimes they succeed and for some periods of their life they actual do, in some sense, believe that there is a God and they think they are the better for it. Otherwise, they behave like people who probably don't believe in God. Very few people behave as if they really believe in God. A lot of people behave as if they believe they should believe in God.

Wright: How would you behave if you believed in God?

Daniel Dennett: You would, perhaps -- and some people do this -- be prepared to take what other people would call suicidal risks because you believe God is going to be there to save you. You would be prepared to give away everything that you own because God commanded you to do it and so forth.

Wright: Although there you are talking about a specific conception of God.

Daniel Dennett: Yeah, right.

Wright: ...any conception of God that would make you think you could take risks without fear of death, and I guess that's ...

Daniel Dennett: ... that's one of the problems with belief in God is that it is so amorphous and undefined.

Wright: ... what I am saying is that there can be different definitions and they can also be amorphous but I'm just referring to the problem of there being many different definitions.

Daniel Dennett: Sure, many different definitions.

Wright: But, along those lines, are you rejecting the idea of any higher purpose of any kind?

Daniel Dennett: Higher than our purposes? Yes.

I'm with him. My life has meaning because I live it meaningfully. I don't see any evidence that there's anything beyond what we have here. (Neither, for that matter do any of you. No, wanting to believe, or being told to believe or having a strong sense you should believe do not count as evidence.)

My assistant and I were talking yesterday about all the people who don't have sex because they think it's "a sin." Ridiculous. These prohibitions against premarital sex in many religions are like the prohibition against eating pork in Judaism: created for a reason in primitive times, and idiotic now.

Eating pork, for example, was a really bad idea before we had refrigerators. Having a lot of sex was a bad idea before we had reliable birth control. Did this stem from evidence of "god" -- or was it about girls' daddies not wanting not to have eight knocked-up daughters on their hands?

Frankly, if there were a god, don't you think god would want you to have a good time?

Posted by aalkon at May 3, 2006 10:59 AM

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I think Dennett sidesteps the question about his definition of belief - and he is defining belief in god in a simplistic way. He seems to think that if someone looks both ways before crossing the street that means they don't really believe, yet belief in god doesn't need to mean that every little damn thing you do is determined. A sincere believer might say that that's why god gave you a brain, so He doesn't follow haven't you around all the time. You know "God helps those who help themselves".

I'm not a believer in god, and I don't really disagree with his point, but it often seems to me that most atheistic arguments against religion take the most simplistic potrayal of religion to argue against - say Pat Robertson's version. They rarely target the more subtle religious minds, like the Dalai Lama for example (though maybe that's a bad example).

Posted by: Todd Fletcher at May 3, 2006 9:58 AM

Someone recently lent me "Travelling Mercies" by Anne Lamott, which is filled with god stuff. Though I'm a somewhat militant atheist, I am rather touched by her descriptions of the role that faith plays in her daily life.

I guess I'm mentioning Anne Lamott as an addition to Todd's list of ORP (Okay Religious People). There's more to that crowd than Pat Robertson.

Posted by: Lena at May 3, 2006 10:28 AM

Of course God wants us to have a good time. That's one of Her big gifts to us. Thrive, love, and enjoy our human experience. That's all. That's it.

All those crappy rules were made by MEN in order to control people. God had nothing to do with it, except for endowing us with the free will to do anything we want to, including hurting each other and not recognizing Her even when she's in every breathe you take.

I agree with Todd. Well put.

Posted by: Harris Pilton at May 3, 2006 1:19 PM

I think Daniel Dennett is on the money. Up here in the Northern Bible Belt, somehow Jesus and God get worked into far too many conversations.

When asked, usually incredulously, if I believe in God, my only response is usually "I don't know. What is God?" In most cases I cannot get an answer.

God is everything, the Creator of the Universe I am sometimes told. When I try to put the scope of the size of our planet into perspective, then the solar system, then our little galaxy filled with hundreds of millions of other solar systems, and then the millions and billions of other galaxies out there, the idea of a God that knows the flutter of a sparrows wings seems sort of silly. As the universe gets bigger, we get smaller.

They sometimes say God is unknowable, which is fine. But if He wants to remain unknowable, why would you think he has any interest in us? At best, if there is something out there that fits Gods description, he is disinterested in us.

My only notion of God is nature, which is cold, impersonal, and wonderfully efficient.

Posted by: Eric at May 3, 2006 5:48 PM

I'm always amazed by these people who are so certain of all these things. A guy once told me I was arrogant for not believing in god. I simply see no evidence of god, and therefore, really don't worry about god at all...same as I don't worry about being mugged by a giant chartreuse bunny. To me, what's arrogant is "knowing" there is a god.

Far as I can see, the universe is a random place, and if you're in the way of a speeding bus, you're going to get flattened, no matter whether you're a sweet, innocent 4-year-old or a mean old SOB.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at May 3, 2006 8:33 PM

Amy - the world is not actually random. The number of permutations and combinations of events is just very, very large. Gravity, magnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces make some things happen the same way every time, so far as we can tell. The number of interactions is high also. Think very large exponents.

When people say the word "miracle", sometimes attributing what they are describing to a deity, they are actually saying they don't know how that happened; they are dismissing the event with regard to their cognizance because they have ego problems with admitting they don't know and won't study the event in question.

Your example of a speeding bus is a valid observation of the principle of cause and effect, which applies in some really obscure ways in cases. I find those fascinating.

Posted by: Radwaste at May 5, 2006 4:43 AM

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