How can you believe something so stupid?

I have recently been having what you might call “doubts”. It all started on our lab Christmas outing – as usual, I was closely questioned about being a Christian from all angles. I enjoy the questions about theology and so on, and I think I answered them fairly well, but the question that really stung boiled down to this:

How can you believe something so stupid?

At the time I talked about how yes, my beliefs are arbitrary in some sense – I can’t say why Christianity is true but Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and others aren’t, but I argued that atheism is arbitrary too, and that it goes against the weight of history – the overwhelming majority of people have believed in the supernatural. I held my ground ok, although I don’t think I convinced anyone!

It was only afterwards that I realised I had been knocked sideways by this question. It wasn’t intellectual content of the question that was the problem, it was the weight of the opinions of people whom I know to be intelligent, open-minded and sensible. How can I believe something so “stupid”?

I guess my first realisation was that I do believe it. It’s surprising how much one conversation can shake the foundations, but I was left still believing it, but wondering why I do.

Another thought I had was the fact that on issues like this, science (my collegues are scientists) is just as old-fashioned as Christianity. We both try and argue from an early 20th century position – using certainties and “facts” as if they are undeniable. The argument from the position that atheism is obviously true is dying out rapidly. Several of my collegues are struggling themselves with the fact that they are just as unsure as the rest of the world. One describes herself as “an atheist with a bit of wikka” (i.e. earth-mother hippie stuff) and another probably doesn’t believe in God but if he did he’d be a Quaker. People were really interested in what I had to say, not just as a curiosity.

So maybe their opinions weren’t all I should listen to. And, in a typically our-generation attitude, I turned to my feelings for some evidence.

And I found some.

Basically, it makes sense. When I look back at my life, I see God working in it. If I assumed God didn’t exist, lots of things just wouldn’t make sense.

I hate it when you hear a testimony where someone had some awful problems and then they were sorted out, and now they’re telling you about it. This article is starting to sound a bit like that, but that’s not really how it is. I am recovering from being knocked sideways, and I am feeling better, but that question hasn’t gone away. I know if I were in their position I would ask the same thing.

Yesterday I thought about it like a marriage. I have promised to my wife that I’ll stay with her no matter what. Even if I go off her completely, I have promised to work for her good – to love her in the practical meaning of doing things. Similarly, I’ve promised to serve God, and if I doubt he exists I want to stay faithful to my promise for as long as I can. (Of course, if I really decided he definitely didn’t exist I couldn’t go on with this indefinitely.) So I’ll go on, trusting my “experience” or “feelings” or whatever, and see if I can find something more reassuring sometime soon.

10 Replies to “How can you believe something so stupid?”

  1. Hope you don’t go off your wife!

    And a lot of what you said makes very much sense to me. And that’s all I have to say about that. (m)

  2. It’s the intangibility that makes it different to the promise you made to your wife. It is also that the impact in terms of you marriage affects two people not just you. I, like many of your friends, would not call myself an atheist. But I would not call myself a believer either.

    I think something you said to me a long time ago about Schrödinger’s cat and why people have a hard time in deciding what they believe has a lot of truth. God exists and doesn’t exist to me. Until I open the box I don’t know which is true and so do not want to believe either.

    It sounds like the question really knocked you sideways and I respect the fact that a) that happened – it is good that you still question yourself b) you shared it here for me and everyone else to experience.

  3. If God exists (which is the assumption I’m working under) then it affects 2 people here too. But anyway I don’t accept that there being 2 people is the crucial factor.

  4. Mmm, this comment from your lab-mates reminds me of the wiki article
    http://guiltyexpression.org/wiki/index.php?InDefenceOfHypocritesBigotsAndUnthinkingPersons

    Presumably when they say your beliefs are stupid, they mean they can’t imagine how any thinking person can believe them. The problem is, lots of beliefs, some people are convinced of and others can’t imagine believing them – and people can cross over from one side to the other. When so many apparently sane people believe something you find incredible, you must be very sure of your superior judgment to be able to state that it’s “palpably false” (as Stephen Pinker, the Richard Dawkins of linguistics, does with belief in the supernatural).

    So when confronted by you and your beliefs, they shouldn’t just wonder how an intelligent person can believe something so stupid. It should make them question how people’s sense of what’s believable can differ so much, and (as you did) what we can rely on to judge what’s true. I hope they gave good reasons for believing what they do.

    Do they believe we’ve got the free will to choose what to believe? If so, why do they believe that? Because we seem to have free will? But can we rely on how things seem to us? Things may seem obviously true to us, but so have all sorts of things to different people, particularly according to when and where they lived. Why should we 21st century Westerners be special?

    Do they believe the truth will feel right and satisfying, that it has ‘the ring of truth’? Why? Do they think the truth will be comfortable, understandable, acceptable? Do they say “I can’t believe in a god who does X”? If so, why should reality be what they’d like to believe? Is something true if it makes us happy or confident?

    Do they believe we ought to believe something sensible? Why shouldn’t we believe whatever we want? I know someone who says he used to be a Christian but then realised how incredible it was (he thinks Paul invented it), and decided that if he was going to believe something ridiculous it might as well be interesting, so he decided to become a pagan. But even then, people can’t help talking about what’s really real. People who follow reconstructionist religion such as revived Norse beliefs, or other such things, often believe there is a deeper reality behind the surface concepts / gods of their beliefs.

    Do they believe we’ve got any chance of deciding correctly what’s true and what isn’t? If so, why? If not, we still have to live by some set of beliefs, so how do we choose what to believe in? And do they really believe their beliefs have no truth in them?

    A lot of the time, people are quick to question what Christians or others believe, but they don’t stop to question their own assumptions, because they seem so obviously true that no sensible person could doubt them. But it is these “self-evident truths”, these presuppositions, that most crucially need questioning.

    I think Christianity can give answers to all these questions, and some Christians spend a lot of time thinking about them. Otherwise, there’s always this way to decide:

    http://forums.1stopwrestling.co.uk/viewtopic.php?t=2025

  5. Hi Midge, great points. You seem to be writing a manifesto for something I would call “confusionism” where you just admit that you have no idea about everything and then either:

    a) sit in a hole or
    b) carry on as if nothing happened.

    Interesting link. What’s weirder, talking about how we feel agonised in an existential way about being a Christian or talking about wrestling? Shall we wrestle for the answer?

  6. Thanks! I hope you don’t think my posting represents all I’ve got to say about belief – that I’ve only got reasons to doubt my own beliefs and everyone else’s, and anyone’s ability to put any confidence in anything. I was going to go on and explore the positive reasons I have for believing what I do, and post it on the Bulletin Board, but my head was starting to spin.

  7. I guess I see it as only one person until we die. Then, I guess, I/We will find out…

  8. You know, I’ve been “knocked sideways” from these questions and doubts just as badly as you have – better to say I’ve been “knocked flat on my face!” O.O And I understand that it’s usually not the intellectual aspect of others’ ridicule of Christianity that bothers me; it’s the fact that my intelligent, respectable peers are railing against the religion at ALL. For some reason that bothers me the most, as if I expect everyone to be a Christian or at least have a healthy belief in a Higher Power. Moreover there’s the fact that sometimes I don’t even think my OWN beliefs are holding water, and I keep modifying them ever-so-subtly to appeal to the non-believer/atheist/secular humanist; and so they won’t see me as a “one of those Fundie Bible-thumpers.” I’ve just realized that this is the wrong way to go about forming one’s beliefs, however, and knowing that frustrates me to no end (because I’ve got to set up my beliefs based on their own merits as WELL as my own experiences)! >.Eh, didn’t mean to go off on a tangent there. This isn’t my thread, after all. lol

    Peace,

    ~ Mana k

  9. I know what you mean – I spend a lot of time feeling unhappy about my beliefs and thinking “if I don’t feel great about them, how can I ‘sell’ them to other people?” particularly when they seem so convinced about what they believe. We’re told we shouldn’t be embarrassed about our beliefs – plenty of other people aren’t by theirs.

    But then I still stick with my beliefs as I’m not convinced enough by any others to change.

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