I’ve recently read a couple different pieces arguing that belief in God is less common that it superficially appears — many people who profess belief in God don’t really believe. George Rey has an article, “Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception”, in the book Philosophers Without Gods, where he argues that the reasons for atheism are “obvious”, the claims of theists are “mad”, and hence those people who say that they believe in God are deceiving themselves. And Daniel Dennett has a chapter in his book Breaking the Spell, called “Belief in Belief”, where he (in part) points out that some theists are happy as long as other people profess belief in God, but most theists don’t quiz others on the details of their religious beliefs, so as a result people can get by in society just professing belief in God, without having much actually worked out by way of their actual beliefs on God. Moreover, he says that

some people who consider themselves believers actually just believe in the concept of God. … They … think that their concept of God is so much better than the other concepts of God that they should devote themselves to spreading the Word. But they don’t believe in God in the strong sense. (p. 216)

In some ways, I find Rey’s strong position — that theists are self-deceived — more plausible than Dennett’s seemingly weaker position — that some people are just focussed on the concept of God, not the actual existence of God. I have trouble seeing how people could think that the concept is worth promoting, even if they really don’t believe in God, and are honest to themselves about not believing in God. But Rey’s position makes more sense to me. It helps me to think of a standard sort of self-deception story, where e.g. a husband is being cheated on by his wife, but the husband chooses to ignore the evidence of deception, and chooses not to think about the possibility of cheating. People who profess belief in God might be doing the same thing — ignoring the lack of evidence for God, just fitting into their social circle where their family and friends all profess believe in God too (on the occasions where the topic comes up). 

Ultimately, though, I don’t agree with Rey. Rey seems to be portraying most all theists as self-deceived, whereas I would say that there are lots of theists who aren’t. Perhaps non-philosophers who haven’t thought much about these issues are more likely to be self-deceived, but I know various theistic philosophers who have thought long and hard about these issues, and really think that there are good arguments for the theistic view. In fact, I think that there are some prima facie somewhat plausible arguments for the theistic view, even though I’m not ultimately a believer. Rey is being too uncharitable to the proponents of arguments he disagrees with.

That said, there are real issues about how to reconcile people’s behavior with their professed belief in God, issues that I’ve thought about long before reading Rey and Dennett. For example, people who say they fully believe in God, and fully believe that saved people are going to heaven, are nevertheless really sad when a loved one dies. Why? These theists should believe that the loved one, assuming the loved one is saved too, is in a much better place than Earth. The theists should be happy that the loved one is in a better place — just as I would be happy if my loved one got to go on an amazing vacation. Granted, it makes that the theists would miss their loved one, but why is there such grief and despair? The theists should believe that they’ll be joining the loved one before too long — it’s just a temporary absence. (And it’s especially temporary once one takes into account the theists’ belief that we’re going to live forever.) The grief and despair that some theists express makes me wonder if these people don’t really have the theistic beliefs that they profess to have. And that’s just one example of how theists’ beliefs don’t seem to match theists’ actions.

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