Haidt’s belief in belief

Jonathan Haidt:

“I think of myself as an atheist, just meaning I don’t believe that there is a God, but it’s not a part of my identity that I think that,” Haidt said. “Here’s what I would say to go along with that: I’m an atheist who believes that religion is part of human nature, is generally a good part of human nature, and an essential part of who we are and how we became a civilized species.” …

“It’s very clear that if you’re part of a religious community [in America], you generate more social capital, you’re more prosocial,” Haidt explained. “I guess I’ve fallen into a role of an atheist who is the opposite of a New Atheist. In fact, I got into some arguments with the New Atheists because I was defending religion against some of their charges.”

Haidt has been invited to speak to various Christian organizations and universities and has “found a point of commonality.” “I’m always up front that I’m an atheist,” he explained, “but I say to them: I agree with you that there is a God-shaped hole in everyone’s heart.” That line reflects the sentiments expressed by Saint Augustine, and Blaise Pascal in his Pensées. “You and I disagree on how it got there. I’m a naturalist; I believe that we evolved to be religious. A part of being human is believing in gods and worshipping and having a sense of the sacred. And I think we have a need, we have a hole in our heart, I believe it got there by evolution, it got there naturally, and it is effectively filled by God for most people. It can be filled by other things. But I think it needs to be filled by something—and if you leave it empty [people] don’t just feel an emptiness. A society that has no sense of the sacred is one in which you’ll have a lot of anomie, normlessness, loneliness, hopelessness.”


I am, myself, not a “New Atheist,” but then again I have little idea what such an appellation could mean at this point. Being against the New Atheists at this point is like being against ISIS: you risk nothing in doing so, because your target is so incredibly unpopular, and anyway, they’re pretty much defunct. Certainly I am an atheist who has always been against evangelical atheism, and I think that the notorious atheist demagogues of our time have done little to further the interests of atheists. Then again I have for a long while now felt alienated from the reform atheists of Haidt’s bent too.

Well, if I can’t argue about category I can argue about ideas, and let me tell you that belief in belief is belief in delusion – worse, in other people’s delusion. It is one thing to argue that religion is true or is not true. It is another to say “it isn’t, incidentally, but go on pretending, it’s good for you.” In the inherent condescension of that attitude I see something worse than Christopher Hitchens ever unleashed against the faithful. Whatever Christianity is, it is not worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Judaism is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Islam is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. And in fact if you take the precepts of those religions at all seriously, you can see praying to the God-shaped hole for what it is: idolatry.

I feel very similarly about the whole Weird Catholic/Trad Cath/Twitter Catholicism thing. Young people feel that their lives are bereft of meaning and go looking for it in the church. In that they are little different from worshipers from centuries past. But there’s an extra layer, a knowingness to the trad cath tendency that seems to me to jeopardize the whole project. If you know you are pursuing faith not because you authentically believe in the stories the faith traditions tell, but rather because you believe that the trappings of religion will make you feel better, the journey will be an aimless and likely short one. Religious practice often finds its fullest flower when the fight to maintain faith is the hardest. But who would go through those dark nights of the soul to maintain fidelity to an abstract conception of community, to a God who isn’t there? I do not see how consequentialist religion can be called religion at all. Postmodern Christianity undermines the very foundations of faithfulness by instrumentalizing God, turning God into a means and not an end. But everything I know about Abrahamic religion tells me that God is meant to be the ultimate end.

I posted this video in this space before, and I’m posting it again because when I read about this new breed of Catholics that’s what I think of. The irony and solipsism of contemporary youth culture is the swamp in which authentic religious belief does not grow. We can substitute the God-shaped hole for the sun.

I have tremendous sympathy for the young people who yearn for meaning. We all do. To contemplate the meaninglessness of life without God is to experience a kind of moral horror that I can’t put into words. But you can’t fool yourself. You can’t fool yourself. If your belief is motivated by something other than belief, it will always catch up to you. I myself became an atheist as a college student and even then did not truly understand, for a long time, how radical and destabilizing God’s nonexistence is for the human animal. Only the French existentialists comforted me because only they seemed capable of combining an iron nonbelief with an apprehension of just what that nonbelief meant. That was courage.

The tagline of that Times piece reads “Modern life is ugly, brutal and barren. Maybe you should try a Latin Mass.” Modern life is indeed ugly, brutal, and barren. And some people handle that by getting very deeply into Star Wars. Sometimes too deeply. There too they find community, and there too they find stories that (they feel) help order and explain the world. This belief can be deeply destructive, as can religious belief. But it offers some people an identity, a lifeline in the vacuum of meaning. I take it that most religious people would see their religion as something categorically different from devotion to Star Wars. But if Haidt is correct, the only difference between them is in their effects, in whether or not the proper (sociologically researched!) positive outcomes are observed.

Look. Billions of people pine for the afterlife. They do because it is cruel that people we love should be taken from us before we die and because it is cruel that we were born without our consent and then forced to die. This desire for the afterlife is not belief in belief. It is not that people yearn for the afterlife because they think that believing in a nonexistent afterlife will cheer them up. No, they yearn for heaven because they don’t want to die, to stop existing. Because they want to see those they loved who died again. Because they want to meet God and Jesus and all the Bodhisattvas. They don’t want to feel some way about it while they are still living. They want it to be true. And that’s been, from my admittedly uneducated eye, a big part of religion historically: that to believe in it means to believe it is actually true.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain. I have come to think that this is how atheism “wins,” for lack of a better term: not through confrontation, but through abstraction, the abstraction of religious teachings into meaninglessness. For religion to become so far divorced from its intellectual and spiritual foundations that it becomes whatever you would make of it, for Christianity’s teachings to become a pure canvas onto which one can paint whatever one feels like in the moment. Already decades of declining religiosity has brought us ostensible believers whose daily lives betray no particular orientation towards the question of God, despite the fact that to believe in God is to believe that his existence is the single most important fact in Creation. Perhaps religious violence horrifies us so deeply because it is a reminder that some people still take this stuff seriously. Perhaps the final victory will not come when everyone marks their surveys with “None,” but when those who don’t can’t remember why.

Update: To make it perfectly clear – I’m not saying that all Christian religious belief is insincere, that most is insincere, that all recent converts’ beliefs are insincere, that everyone who calls themselves tradcath or Weird Catholic or whatever is insincere, or any such thing. I am saying that people who traffic in Christianity because of social or personal benefits that are ancillary to actual religiosity and are indifferent to the question of actual belief are people who are going to end up disappointed.

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