So I was reading one of the recent entries from #Agnophilo entitled The Faith of an Atheist, and it got me thinking about all the debates I’ve witnessed between atheists and theists, all the discussions I’ve had with members of either camp regarding their belief systems. It also brought up some issues discussed in various philosophy courses I’ve taken, particularly the related issues of belief formation and the ethics of belief. I’m going to try to avoid being overly technical, and please keep in mind that I will be discussing trends within the behaviors of groups rather than absolute laws which govern the behaviors of groups.
Belief formation tends to occur in the same way and result in similar structures regardless of specific conclusions at which a person has arrived in the areas of #metaphysics, #epistemology, #ethics, #theology, etc. We all have certain foundational beliefs that are necessary for healthy human functioning. For example, the belief that a world exists, and the belief that we exist within that world. (The nature of our existence and of the world’s existence, as well as the extent to which our existence is bound to the world, are of course issues of much controversy.)
In addition, most of us have the same basic set of perceptual mechanisms (i.e. the senses). In the process of using our senses, we gather a great deal of information and begin to build other beliefs on top of the foundational beliefs. We have a couple of distinct types of information that help us in adding to our beliefs. The first is direct sensory experience, and the second is direct sensory experience of communications from others, such as oral or written testimony. This distinction may seem trivial, but it is an important one for the ethics of belief.
Yet another commonality to human belief formation is the emotional experience that runs concurrent to synthesizing a worldview. For anyone who experiences what some might call “putting the pieces together” as it relates to our beliefs about our own existence and the world, there tends to be an increased feeling of security, a comfort in the feeling that one’s beliefs about reality match that reality. This feeling tends to increase as we assign higher degrees of certainty to particular beliefs. As a result, most people tend to hold on to a synthesized worldview once they have it, unwilling to give up that feeling of security and comfort associated with that worldview. Even people who do engage in a massive shift in worldview tend to resist that shift (#confirmation bias) and often do so because of a strong emotional attachment to something else, such as a commitment to a spouse, or to a particular form of logic, or to the value of equality. Building and/or holding on to a worldview always has what #Agnophilo calls an emotional payout.
So what is the difference between an atheist and a theist in terms of belief formation and the emotional payout that results from the formation of a synthesized worldview? There are some distinctions we can make, and I’ll leave it the reader to decide if those are trivial or not. First is the nature of the narratives that tend to be used by theists and atheists. Theists tend to have a more anthropomorphic set of narratives that are easier to relate to on an emotional level and seem to result in a larger emotional payout than the more abstract and impersonal narratives that atheists tend to prefer, which can lead to a somewhat stronger emotional investment in the worldview and a correspondingly stronger resistance to changing it.
Second is the way the ethics of belief are viewed with regard to revising and/or updating a person’s belief system to incorporate new information into their worldview. Atheists tend to be proponents of higher levels of skepticism with regard to claims that cannot be or have not been verified by their senses. Of course, in practice, atheists and theists both tend to believe claims that cannot or have not been verified by the senses if those claims are made by an authority or community or individual they find to be trustworthy. That’s just the human thing to do. And which authority or community or individual testimony we accept generally has a great deal to do with confirmation bias, so neither party really wins any points on this one.
In the end, theists are more likely to resist changing their beliefs than are atheists, and atheists are more likely to advocate skeptical responses to claims that are empirically unverified. That situation creates an understandable tension in the way that the two parties relate to each other, and may explain why they are constantly arguing.
And at bottom, we’re all human and the belief formation process doesn’t have that much variance because we have the same perceptual mechanisms and the same kinds of brains to process the perceptions. The variance we see in the conclusions at which people arrive after the belief formation process is due to variation in which values are of positive emotional significance to us, variation in the belief systems of those people who are of emotional significance to us, and which values are of negative emotional significance to us.
So go ahead, believe what you want to believe. That’s ultimately what we humans do.