Don’t believe everything you hear about belief.

February 14, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

A few months ago the RSA and New Humanist magazine tried to move along an important discussion that had become a little tired – New Atheism: What now for the Science Religion Debate? 

It seems that many are a little fed up with the tired exchanges that take the approximate form: “You Believers are deluded wishful thinkers and scientifically illiterate (or at least scientifically challenged) vs You Atheists are soulless and methodologically blinkered, with little philosophical nous and no imagination.” And so it goes on. Lots of heat and very little light.

The event featured a few promising notes, but my overall impression is that we probably didn’t move the debate along a great deal. Indeed, Religious commentator Mark Vernon wrote as much in the Guardian the next day.

Perhaps the reason this ‘debate’ seems stuck, and each side appears to be talking over the other, is that there is a lack of a shared ontology. Words like ‘faith’, ‘belief’, ‘God’, ‘reason’ and ‘science’ are bandied about without sufficient pause to consider the assumptions on which such big terms ultimately rest.

To take one example, ‘belief’, what it means to believe something depends upon broader assumptions about human culture and cognition. There is a tendency, I think especially on the atheist side, to view belief propositionally i.e. To believe is to unproblematically endorse a factual state of affairs e.g. ‘God exists’.  So “I believe in God”, on this account, means something like I(isolated reflective agent) believe(think/ascribe/accept) in(I opt into the idea)God(a personal deity with certain divine properties).

However, there is a strong argument that belief is not like this at all. The whole premise of Social Brain, as unpacked in our reports is that we need to move beyond simplistic accounts of individual rational agents, and think of what follows from the idea that we are fundamentally social creatures, by which I mean that we evolved through and for social interactions, such that our thoughts, feelings and actions are constituted by the myriad of relationships in which we are invariably embedded.

Professor Gordon Lynch, FRSA, has developed this idea in his scholarship, including the following series of thoughts from Object Theory: Toward an Intersubjective, mediated and synamic theory of religion, in the book: Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief.

“The unquestioned status of propositional models of belief within the sociology of religion arguably reflects a lack of theoretical discussion within this field about the nature of the person as a social agent. A common default is to emphasize the autonomous, reflexive individuals striving to construct their own religious belief-system and lifestyle which becomes a centre for their way of acting in the world (…)”

Why is this default problematic?

“An emphasis on individuality fails to recognise the ways in which our lives are embedded and negotiated through a network of relationships with family, partners, colleagues and friends, as well as through face-to-face, mediated or imagined relations with other communities or groups.”

What follows?

“The exercise of choice-removed from the commitments, emotions, memories, possibilities, aspirations and constraints associated with these relationships- is a rare phenomenon. We are-quite literally, in developmental terms-relational beings before being autonomous, and whatever autonomy we experience in our lives is always nested within our relationships.”

And so what?

You are not going to bulldoze your way through belief with rationality, because it is not ‘rationally’ constituted. That said, there is a huge difference between belief being supra-rational(transcending rationality), or perhaps a-rational(not related to rationality), than belief simply being ‘irrational’(non rational) which is the charge that is most often made.

The argument that belief is socially constituted is philosophical in nature, but it is scientifically grounded, and might help to advance the discussion on belief.

So what now?

Well, maybe that’s one promising way to try to re-set the Science-Religion debate.


  • Jayarava

    Thanks for this. As an atheist Buddhist I find I can barely join in the discussion about religion/secularism because both sides accuse me of being an idiot and/or evil. I’ve recently taken heart from Alaine de Botton’s approach though he’s also attracted a lot of criticism. 

    As Antonio Damasio wrote more than a decade ago (in Descartes’ Error) when facts are disconnected from the emotions that give them value or weight (as when the ventral medial prefrontal cortex is damaged) we are rendered incapable of making decisions. We suffer from what I think of as a saliency dificiency. Facts do not have equal value. And in any situation we do not just assess the truth value of information, we assess the context dependent saliency of it, i.e. the value of information is connected to our emotional response to it. Without emotions we cannot reason, because we cannot decide which of many facts are the most important or relevant to our situation. The facts never speak for themselves!

    When scientists present their theories to other scientists the idea seems to be to remove as much emotion, and to make the ideas seem as bland and unexciting as possible. Facts must be as divorced from human values as is possible. And this is the approach they tend to take with lay people because they (blindly) believe facts exist in a vacuum. They value a particular mode of communication which does not involve invoking empathy or making a human connection, i.e. scientists act as though they are autistic. 

    Religious teaching (as noted by Botton) takes the opposite approach – religious teaching is couched in terms of values, the first thing it declares is why you should care, and it seeks to create an appropriate emotional response in the hearer (and more often than not they’re looking for a positive response these days). It then gives you a social context where the values are reinforced and the information repeated constantly. So even when religious belief is factually incorrect, it seems more salient to the the believer because it comes in an emotional context that gives it salience. 

    So if scientists understand this much and more about reason. emotion, belief, and about how all these work; plus your observations; plus all the observations about the importance of empathy and establishing a rapport in human communication: why do we still batter 
    religious people with boring, irrelevant facts in a rude and disrespectful way and expect a change? And then proceed to become irrationally angry *at them* (which creates a kind of negative saliency around the angry persons words). Secularists and scientists clearly lack the courage of their convictions and continue to do the same thing over and over despite always getting the same result. Why is that? If you prove your null hypothesis wrong you’re supposed to come up with a new one. At least that’s how I learned to do science. 

    My immediate suggestion is to take all the funding that Richard Dawkins gets and give it to Dr Alice Roberts. 

  • Linus Kagali

    “Don’t believe everything you hear about belief” It could be better to say ,”don’t believe anything from anyone who tell others what to believe, listen your inner-self.”

    • Jayarava

      Thank you Brian of Nazareth ;-) “We’re all different…” 

      The trouble is that we aren’t all individuals, we’re all social, hierarchical apes who actually want someone to tell us how to think because we’re confused about what the hell is going on. 

      Furthermore as Philosopher Thomas Metzinger and Neurologist Antonio Damasio have demonstrated, we don’t have an “inner self”. In most cases what passes for our inner self is the bundle of unconscious prejudices and biases we inherited from our parents and peers, loosely held together with a name and address.

  • Pingback: Beyond ‘belief’ : “The tepid confusing middle ground” ? : RSA blogs