Doing and believing

Alerted by Norm, I find myself reading Richard Norman’s defence of the new atheism here.  This topic is not new territory for Vukutu, as seen here and here.  There is little point in repeating my prior arguments, but something in Richard Norman’s argument requires a response, since (like so much of the new atheism) it seems to derive from ignorance of religious practice:

Of course it’s true that a religious community is not a debating society, and a religious service, with its prayers and hymns and rituals, is not an academic seminar whose business is to assess and defend theories. But the key phrase in the passage from Cornwell is “only partly”. The asserting of beliefs may not be the main preoccupation of religious activities, but it is still essential. Without the beliefs, the practices make no sense. Prayer is meaningless without a belief of some kind, however vague, that there is someone, a person, who is being addressed. Hymns of praise and adoration are meaningless without some kind of belief in a deity who is worthy of adoration. And there is accordingly no evading the question of whether these beliefs are true.”

Norman is profoundly wrong here.  When he says, “Without the beliefs, the practices make no sense,” he means, “Without the beliefs, the practices make no sense to someone wedded to the idea that actions have to be informed by prior beliefs.”    Most prayers of most people may have the syntax (the external form) of supplications, but that is usually not why most people pray most of the time.  If that were so, then why would intelligent, rational people keep on praying in the face of the repeated failure of their supplications?    Only a literalist (and, my goodness, aren’t there are lot of those among the nouveau atheists!) would imagine that the syntax of an utterance represents the full extent of its possible meanings or uses.   Indeed, one could view the last six decades of research in the philosophy of language as seeking to refute just this single idea.

Rather, most people who pray or chant or sing hymns or attend church do so in order to commune with what they consider to be (or which might be) a non-material realm, the divine.  In particular, people can feel drawn to interactions with such a realm (in the form of prayers or meditation, or through the reading of scriptures, or by attendance at religious ceremonies, etc) for reasons or motivations or experiences that they themselves do not fully understand or that they cannot even put into words.    It is possible, but not becoming, to mock these motivations, as Norm does here.  But mockery, although historically the standard  approach of scientists faced with phenomena they can’t yet explain (from magnetism to meteors to new planets), does not make the underlying experiences any less real nor the evidence any less compelling for those who have had the experiences or felt the motivations.

As I have said before (and many have said before me), belief can be what comes after one practices spiritual activities long enough, not necessarily what leads one to practice them.   I suppose it can be great shock to a professor of moral philosophy that intelligent people may act without first having a well-grounded belief to justify their actions, but that is what most of us have done, in most cultures, most of the time, for most of human history.  It is surely ironic that the new atheists attacking religious ideas and practices should be so firmly in the grasp of a meme – that beliefs necessarily precede and inform actions – whose origins are in the Confessing Protestant ideas of the Christian Reformation, and one which is historically and culturally an aberration, even within Christianity.

POSTSCRIPT (2009-11-14):  Norm has responded to this post, here, and Martin commented here.    And here are my views on the meaning of rituals and religious practices.

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