Monday, May 21, 2007


"Atheist literature" (a scandalous term in my opinion- sounds like "revisionist literature") has been thriving in the last few years. Sparkling critiques of The Supreme Fascist, his cronies, and religion have been appearing, penned by stalwarts such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet, and most recently, the outrageously provocative Christopher Hitchens.

All critiques have been controversial, but love them or hate them, all of them deliver devastating broadsides to the whole edifice of religion and faith. All four writers have been asked almost the same kinds of questions in public settings: Don't you feel you are hurting the sentiments of many? (Hitchens: "I don't care. It's the truth"). Don't we need God for some kind of moral code in life? (Dawkins: "Take a look at the bible abomination upon humanity", Dennett: "Look to moral philosophy"). Aren't these barbs really directed at 'extremists', which are really abnormal growths in a largely benign paradigm? (Harris: "It's this 'benign' framework that nourishes the roots of extremism")

But one favourite question that is always asked, and which seems entirely reasonable is, "What harm does it do if a person keeps his religion to himself?". And all the authors more or less give the same kind of answer to this question, that while they personally don't believe in it, it would be largely all right if people keep their religion, prayer and faith to themselves. But some people have even gone to the extent of saying that denying this right to personal faith is treading on fundamental rights as enshrined in Constitutions.

There are many critical answers to this question, but I keep thinking of one particular point that has nothing to do per se with religion or politics; that doing something like this is just not psychologically possible. Think about it. Is it psychologically possible to believe wholeheartedly in something, and also to believe that it's not true? It sounds downright self-contradictory to me: "I believe in the green toad-faced gnome. I pray to him. I eat with him. He grants my prayers. Of course, I understand that he is not real". Can this happen?? You are believing something, but you are also believing that it does not exist.

Hitchens says that religion is like a toy. You are free to play with your toy, but don't insist that me and my wife and my children also play with the toy. Don't barge into our house and force us to play with the toy at gunpoint.
But this is precisely the problem. Especially if it's a toy (such as God) that does not exist, it becomes even more important to become convinced in the existence of the toy, and to cling to it with your life. It is not too hard to believe in a toy that exists (although not forcing others to play with it still very much stands put) but it takes a lot of faith indeed to believe in a toy that is made up. And then it becomes even more of a compelling reason to invite, convince, and then to obstinately force others to believe in that toy and play with it. Even if someone does not do it himself, he is much more likely to at least tacitly support someone else who does it.

That is the reason why, even if having personal beliefs and faith may seem perfectly reasonable, in my opinion, having those beliefs and not forcing them or at least trying to convince others to have them, is largely a self-contradictory condition. A person who has those beliefs and still believes that only he believes it and that it does not exist at all, needs to have a schizophrenic paradoxical mentality of believing and not believing in something at the same time, as harsh as it sounds, based on simple reason. Or as Richard Dawkins says, someone like that would be rather easily called delusional. This is not at all a personal attack on anybody, but an objective definition of this self-contradictory condition.

This is a very unfortunate state of affairs, because I surely would like everyone to have their own faith if they keep it to themselves. I just don't think that such a situation can exist. Not because of intolerance, not because of some inner obduracy that people would have, but because of a simple psychological inconsistency that I see in it. For those who believe it does exist and soundly practice it, I enormously respect them, but would like to look at the results of an MRI of their brain. No offense, seriously.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

don't know about others, but Dawkins believes in God. I think he's a deist.

8:33 AM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

We all live with some kind of a belief system ingrained in us, it will not be possible to live peacably otherwise. I agree with your argument about the apparent lack of consistency which religious people have to contend with. However,generally speaking, I "believe" it is possible to live deeply believing in something and not worry about whether others share that belief. I believe in democracy and capitalism, may be because I have benefitted from it because the system has been good to me. However, I do not worry about whether people in middle east or China believe in it or not. Their respective systems have been good to them so they probably have an equally valid reason to believe in their systems. Personal experiences shape beliefs and therefore, beliefs are largely personal. If people realise this and do not go about militantly touting their beliefs then world could be a much better place.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Vivek, but do you believe unequivocally in capitalism and democracy as perfect systems, without agreeing that they have their own problems? I am sure you don't, and that you also think thoughtfully about both these frameworks based on other people's criticisms of them. And of course it goes without saying that democracy and capitalism have good evidence in favour of their viability.

But religious belief is different isn't it. Since you believe in something which needs no evidence, you can always mould that asbtract concept to overcome any possible criticism of it (eg. "I don't take the Bible literally" or "But this isn't MY interpretation of the Bible").

Being a capitalism or even a democracy fanatic indeed could be quite bad, but still not as bad as religion, because counterexamples or at least arguments against can exist.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

Yes, I agree with you on religious belief. Continuing to have faith in an archaic idea on the face of some monumental evidence against it is clearly delusional, there is no other word for it. However, I wished to make a point about beliefs in general. In many matters of practical importance we have to let our intuition guide us because the logical answers are not clear-cut or there is just not enough time or motivation to form a well thought out opinion. Moreover, a clear rational argument may also be flawed in ways which we may not even conceive. Communism grew out of a very well-formed intellectual framework and look where did it lead the world to. The argument for capitalism or democracy is not as slam dunk as it is for evolution (even though evidence is strong) so rightly or wrongly some amount of faith in these ideals is certainly required.

My point is that one can form a tentative or even strong belief based on his intuition and experience and this is justified because we need structure or a framework to guide our actions. However to consistenly refuse to reevaluate one's position when the opposing evidence is very strong is clearly living in a state of denial. Religion does have that effect on people and world is worse for that.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

You are right on spot about communism, and I completely agree with your general premise; that many times we do need some kind of a belief system to guide us in the absence of established logic. In fact, I guess all of us without exception live life within some belief system. But, as you said, to cling to that belief system in the face of obvious counterevidence and harm that it is engendering is really delusional (as for both communism and a lot of religion)

1:35 PM  

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