A/Theism: Which takes more faith?

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.

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11 Responses to A/Theism: Which takes more faith?

  1. agnophilo says:

    I’d rather pursue truth than believe what I want to believe.  If I were going to do that I’m sure I could dream up a delusion more pleasing to believe than reality.

  2. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @agnophilo – I too have a great love of truth, and find that as a result, my beliefs are often disturbing to other people.  I’m sure you’ve encountered that as well.Of course, we’re still believing what we want to believe.  It’s just that what we want to believe is whatever we find to be true, and we’re willing to accept a lower emotional payout to have true beliefs insofar as we can determine what those happen to be.  I happen to think it’s a price worth paying, but that’s probably just my confirmation bias talking.

  3. First, a compliment. You’ve accomplished an incredible feat here, in that you’ve thoroughly and concisely explained an issue that could be discussed, examined and explained in book form, and you mananged to do it in relatively few words. It’s great writing, and I applaud you.Second, a question: Is there, in your opinion or belief, any absolute truth? (That’s not the ambush question that an intelligent mind will find it to be, I’m asking more as a curiousity than a trap.)Third, while Theists are more likely to connect with an emotional relevance to their desired beliefs, there are exceptions to every rule. While the atheist “holds to reason” and the theist “holds to conviction”, there are contrasting truths. It’s not solely the right of the atheist to claim a search for, and a dependence on truth. Many of the positions I hold to regarding my worldview are positions my nature is against having, but I’ve found them to be true and therefore I yield to them…again, sometimes against my will.Thanks for the visit, and the rec, by the way.

  4. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @AgainstTheWind1 -First, many thanks for the compliment.  It’s greatly appreciated.Second,it is my opinion that there are propositions that are true insofar as our limited faculties can allow us to possess truth, and that some of those propositions are true regardless of whether or not we assign truth value to them.  That’s as close as I can get to answering your question without an essay.Third, I’m not sure that there are exceptions to every rule.  If the rule “there are exceptions to every rule” is true, then we can conclude that there are some exceptions to that rule, which would make the rule false.  That said, I agree with your point about atheists not having a sole right to claim a search for truth or dependence on truth.  I’m not an atheist, and I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time and effort on that search.You’re quite welcome.  The rec was well-deserved.

  5. agnophilo says:

    @Nous_Apeiron – True, though we can want and not want something simultaneously because the mind is modular.  But yes as I think twain or shaw once said, correct vision is often seen as cynicism by those who have not got it.  Bierce defined a cynic as “a blackguard who sees things as they are and not as he would like them to be.”

  6. agnophilo says:

    I also would like to clarify that atheism doesn’t require faith, nor was that the point of my blog.

  7. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @agnophilo – Of course it doesn’t, and of course it wasn’t.  The whole idea that “faith” is at issue when it comes to the accuracy of a person’s beliefs is just a red herring anyway.  Sadly, almost no one wants to have an honest discussion about how they came by their beliefs, because it would mean admitting that we’re a lot alike in the way we build our worldviews.  And wouldn’t that make it much more difficult to judge each other for our beliefs?  Wouldn’t that make it harder to hate others for what they believe?  That would just be really inconvenient for the folks who like to claim the moral/ethical high ground when it comes to belief.

  8. agnophilo says:

    @Nous_Apeiron – At this point in time most atheists actually questioned and abandoned “their” beliefs (those they were made to believe through indoctrination) and most theists did the reverse.

  9. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @agnophilo – I like that you qualify your claim with, “At this point in time…”  It will be interesting to see what happens as more and more young people have access to the internet and are able to learn about the wide array of belief systems available to them.  I suspect the number of atheists who reject theistic concepts initially because of [insert home religion] will decrease, and the number who reject theism initially because of reason will increase.  How do you see that playing out?So when you suggest that most theists did the reverse, do you mean that they questioned but did not abandon their beliefs, or that they did not question and did not abandon?  What percentage do you think had serious questions about their beliefs?

  10. agnophilo says:

    @Nous_Apeiron – “I like that you qualify your claim with, “At this point in time…”  I doubt the tenth generation atheist will be quite the same as the first generation simply because demolishing a worldview and building it back up makes you re-examine all of your assertions and is I think a very positive experience.”It will be interesting to see what happens as more and more young people have access to the internet and are able to learn about the wide array of belief systems available to them.  I suspect the number of atheists who reject theistic concepts initially because of [insert home religion] will decrease, and the number who reject theism initially because of reason will increase.  How do you see that playing out?”The vast array of faith-based belief systems I think makes people doubt the validity of any of them.  I maintain that religion is basically a psychological phenomenon, and going from a situation where all your peers are x religion to one where you’re exposed to many cultures will probably make some question their own culture, and radicalize others and make them nationalistic, defensive and obnoxious.”So when you suggest that most theists did the reverse, do you mean that they questioned but did not abandon their beliefs, or that they did not question and did not abandon?”  The latter.  Almost every theist believes the religion of their parents and culture, I think about 90% of theists believe due to the psychological effects of indoctrination.  The mystical claims of christianity seem reasonable if you grew up with it and silly if you didn’t, just as holy cows and household deities seem silly to westerners – in iceland apparently people believe in fairies the way people in the US believe in ghosts.  Even cannibalism seems normal if you’re raised on it.”What percentage do you think had serious questions about their beliefs?”Well to be fair I don’t think most people seriously think about much of anything.  Atheists (again at this point in time) tend to be more intelligent, educated etc on average not because atheism makes one superior necessarily, but because by definition anyone who calls themselves an atheist has almost certainly put a lot of thought into it and is almost certainly skeptical of their beliefs.  I think it’s the putting thought into it and being skeptical of one’s beliefs that is the positive thing, not what conclusions you reach.

  11. Nous_Apeiron says:

    “I doubt the tenth generation atheist will be quite the same as the first generation simply because demolishing a worldview and building it back up makes you re-examine all of your assertions and is I think a very positive experience.”I quite agree.”The vast array of faith-based belief systems I think makes people doubt the validity of any of them.  I maintain that religion is basically a psychological phenomenon, and going from a situation where all your peers are x religion to one where you’re exposed to many cultures will probably make some question their own culture, and radicalize others and make them nationalistic, defensive and obnoxious.”Out of curiosity, do you see the rejection of traditional religions as NOT being a psychological phenomenon?”The latter.  Almost every theist believes the religion of their parents and culture, I think about 90% of theists believe due to the psychological effects of indoctrination.  The mystical claims of christianity seem reasonable if you grew up with it and silly if you didn’t, just as holy cows and household deities seem silly to westerners – in iceland apparently people believe in fairies the way people in the US believe in ghosts.  Even cannibalism seems normal if you’re raised on it.”I’m certainly not disputing the effects of confirmation bias.  I just wonder how you account for the number of conversions to various forms of Islam and Christianity across the globe throughout history.  Obviously, some of those conversions were at the point of a sword or to gain political advantage, and yet many were not.  What do you think might prompt these conversions aside from coercion and self-interest?”Well to be fair I don’t think most people seriously think about much of anything.  Atheists (again at this point in time) tend to be more intelligent, educated etc on average not because atheism makes one superior necessarily, but because by definition anyone who calls themselves an atheist has almost certainly put a lot of thought into it and is almost certainly skeptical of their beliefs.  I think it’s the putting thought into it and being skeptical of one’s beliefs that is the positive thing, not what conclusions you reach.”I too strongly value putting a lot of thought into my beliefs and being willing to challenge them.  Being raised by scientists probably helped with that.  And I agree that the issue is not the conclusions that are reached in the process of belief formation.  In addition, there are certainly a number of people in this world who for various reasons are not able to cogitate quite so voraciously as I do, and I certainly don’t wish to hold them to an unfair standard.

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