Belief in Belief

29 Aug
This is a post from the blog of awesome, Less Wrong:

Depending on how your childhood went, you may remember a time period when you first began to doubt Santa Claus's existence, but you still believed that you were supposed to believe in Santa Claus, so you tried to deny the doubts. As Daniel Dennett observes, where it is difficult to believe a thing, it is often much easier to believe that you ought to believe it. What does it mean to believe that the Ultimate Cosmic Sky is both perfectly blue and perfectly green? The statement is confusing; it's not even clear what it would mean to believe it – what exactly would be believed, if you believed. You can much more easily believe that it is proper, that it is good and virtuous and beneficial, to believe that the Ultimate Cosmic Sky is both perfectly blue and perfectly green. Dennett calls this “belief in belief”.

And here things become complicated, as human minds are wont to do – I think even Dennett oversimplifies how this psychology works in practice. For one thing, if you believe in belief, you cannot admit to yourself that you only believe in belief, because it is virtuous to believe, not to believe in belief, and so if you only believe in belief, instead of believing, you are not virtuous. Nobody will admit to themselves, “I don't believe the Ultimate Cosmic Sky is blue and green, but I believe I ought to believe it” – not unless they are unusually capable of acknowledging their own lack of virtue. People don't believe in belief in belief, they just believe in belief.

I think this might explain a curious sociological phenomenon around the middle of the 4th century; and might be a weapon that the “New Atheists” can use against their antagonists.
I think it was Rodney Stark who did a study on the growth rate of early Christianity. He said something to the effect that at the turn of the 4th century (c. 300 CE) the Roman Empire only had about 15% of its population comprised of Christians. After Constantine converted to Christianity, it became acceptable to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. Afterwards, about 350 CE a staggering 50% of the Roman Empire called themselves Christians.
I think Dennett's belief in belief might have been one of the triggers for this (as well as a bunch of other Roman Empire specific situations).
Since human beings are social animals, it seems as though we are at a similar point in history in regards to atheism and other non-believers. About 15% of the US is made up of atheists/agnostics/freethinkers/etc. While I don't think that having a President or some other national figure openly declaring his or her atheism like Constantine would have a comparable effect, I think a similar thing might happen. If it becomes virtuous to believe in non-belief – and it also becomes a vice to believe in belief (like what 4th century Christians did to their pagan neighbors) – then we might see a drastic increase in non-believers in the next couple of years.
If belief in belief becomes something that – unconsciously – people start rejecting as something to be admired, then rates of god-belief would probably fall drastically. It seems like something like that is already happening anyway.
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Posted by on August 29, 2011 in cognitive science


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