February 19, 2008

"Because someone's out to get me."

That was Calvin's answer when Hobbes asks if he believes in God. A more serious inquiry trying to explain the phenomenon is being launched:

LONDON - University of Oxford researchers will spend nearly $4 million to study why mankind embraces God. The grant to the Ian Ramsey Center for Science and Religion will bring anthropologists, theologians, philosophers and other academics together for three years to study whether belief in a divine being is a basic part of mankind's makeup.

"There are a lot of issues. What is it that is innate in human nature to believe in God, whether it is gods or something superhuman or supernatural?" said Roger Trigg, acting director of the center.

He said anthropological and philosophical research suggests that faith in God is a universal human impulse found in most cultures around the world, even though it has been waning in Britain and western Europe.

"One implication that comes from this is that religion is the default position, and atheism is perhaps more in need of explanation," he said.

I have two reactions. I'm going to badly summarize William James by saying that he argued that any set of religious beliefs can be said to be true if they work for the believer. That is, if I draw a measure of comfort and structure and morality from worshipping Ba'al or Jehovah or Jesus or Gilligan of Gilligan's Island fame, then that belief is for all intents and purposes true because of its pragmatic applications. But this does not mean that the competing claims of Ba'al worship, Judaism, Christianity and Gilliganism can be reconciled. If any religion were objectively true (in the same way, say, that gravity is true), there simply wouldn't be any other religions. That doesn't diminish the Jamesian power of religion, but it does suggest that atheists have found a way to get along fine without all that rubbish.

More importantly, I'm not sure that religious belief can be put in opposition to atheism in any meaningful way. The Yanamamo believe in gods who punish the wicked, but they also believe their gods are gullible, easily tricked by humans, and that you can be quite wicked on earth and fool them into letting you into the Yanamamo heaven. Yezidis worship an inverted Satan, while Buddhists either worship hundreds of gods or none at all, since this reality is an illusion and their goal is to slip the bonds of this mortal consciousness, this material coil, for Nirvana. I would go on, but I hope the point is clear.

Posted by Ideofact at February 19, 2008 10:52 PM