Blog Post

More on different ways to believe

Jonathan Mayhew's response to my post last week challenged me to be more specific about how ways of believing can be different, as opposed to merely being cases of believing different propositions. He argued that without such evidence, the new atheist contention that moderates ultimately aid and abet fundamentalists remains strong. Vance Maverick's response about reciting the Apostle's Creed in church, and his thought that this may be evidence of his co-religionists believing in a special way, goes to the core of my argument. In my book I present a slew of instances of people who have strongly-felt metaphysical beliefs that would, if they were believed in the same way, come into stark dissonance with their practical or scientific beliefs. Van Harvey's invocation of Wittgenstein hit the nail on the head, as his On Certainty forms some of the philosophical background to this project. But to answer Jonathan's challenges while avoiding citing the entire chapter here, let me make three quick points: 1) Philosophically, it makes sense that similarly structured propositions function differently at a cognitive level and can be differently valued. Examples are legion, so just as Jonathan's co-religionists may well be doing something different when they believe that the son was "begotten, not made," and when they believe that "it's raining outside," I am pretty certain I mean quite different things by the word "believe" if I say, "I believe Mozart was born in Salzburg," or "I believe Mozart's music is the most sublime ever composed." This point is merely that "I believe that S is P" has a bewildering number of possible variants, and there is no evidence that we use them in a uniform way. 2) Recent research in the neuroscience of religion, including work co-authored by Harris himself along with more extensive work by Andrew Newberg, suggests not only that different areas of the brain are active when religious and non-religious subjects are asked to do similar tasks, but also that different regions are active in the same subjects when they are asked to focus on religious as opposed to mundane content and tasks. 3) Finally, there is no evidence whatever that moderate believers are aiding and abetting fundamentalists through their religious practice. Indeed, the only people who react more violently to moderate believers than atheist critics are the fundamentalists themselves, who recognize that the toleration that religious moderation breeds is anathema to the isolation that their movements feed on.

William Egginton's picture

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).