BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, chpt 10
The one thing I’ll pull from this last chapter is Dawkins suggestion that few religious people seem really to believe. Or, if they do, it’s hard to understand why their reaction to death is as it is.
“I can’t help wondering how many moderate religious people who claim such belief really hold it, in their hearts. If they were truly sincere, shouldn’t they behave like the Abbot of Ampleforth? When Cardinal Basil Hume told him he was dying, the abbot was delighted for him: “Congratulations! That’s brilliant news. I wish I was coming with you.” The abbot, it seems, really was a sincere believer. But it is precisely because it is so rare and unexpected that this story catches our attention, almost provokes our amusement…Why don’t all Christians and Muslims say something like the abbot when they hear that a friend is dying?”
There are two main criteria for what someone believes – what they do, and what they say.
Sometimes, these criteria come apart. Bert says, in all sincerity, that he believes black people are as able as white, but whenever he has to choose between black and white candidates for a job, he chooses the white. What does Bert really believe?
If you want to know what he really believes – look at his behaviour. The truth is Bert doesn’t believe what he sincerely believes he believes!
Could the same be true of many religious folk? They say they believe. They even sincerely believe they believe. But their behaviour tells a different story, perhaps?
The moral is: even if you in, all sincerity, believe you believe, that doesn’t mean you believe. Have a look at how you actually behave, and ask yourself – do I really believe what I think I believe about eternal life, about doing God’s will, and so on?
POSTSCRIPT 12TH NOV.
Thanks for the comments. Here’s a further quick thought – we might try to put the failure of Christians’ behaviour to match their professed beliefs down to (i) weakness of the will (they succumb to temptation to be selfish, lazy, sin, etc. rather than do as God bids) (ii) the fact that they will miss loved ones who have died (so are still concerned about them dying).
(i) does not apply to their response to death. You can’t explain why Christians appear to fear death as much as atheists by saying they are giving in to a temptation or sin of some sort (except of course, the sin of not believing!)
(ii) does not apply to your own death, particularly when your loved ones have already passed away. Do Christians in this situation face death (even a painless death) in a relaxed way – even looking forward to it (thinking they will actually soon be meeting their lost loved ones)? I think not (very rarely, I’d guess)! This strongly indicates they don’t really believe what they believe they believe.
So it seems to me these two replies aren’t really up to the job of explaining why so many Christians respond to the threat of their own death as they do [I might add that (ii) also accounts for the wrong emotion – it would explain why people are upset at prospect of dying soon (they will miss their loved ones) but not why they fear it. Moreover, if a divine, heavenly existence is atemporal, as many Christians believe, they won’t get to miss their relatives at all, for they won’t have to “wait” a period of time for their relatives’s arrival.]
POSTPOSTSCRIPT NOV 12TH.
John Pieret suggests (in comments below):
(iii) the fear of death is a perfectly reasonable instinct (evolved, for theistic evolutionists, or installed by a loving God, for others) to keep humans from accidentally or thoughtlessly throwing away their lives. That faith survives in the face of that instinct is evidence of its strength and value.
I think that’s the most promising answer to what does otherwise look very puzzling. But perhaps it concedes too much?
This case might be a good analogy – people can have a phobia of snakes despite saying they believe this snake we are showing them won’t harm them. They physically recoil anyway – they can’t help themselves.
The Christian’s fear of death is like that, you may say. At one level, they believe that while death might be the end for birds, bees and bears, say, human animals get to continue on. It is not to be feared. But their instinctive dread remains.
Problem for you (or this suggestion) is – what does the snake-phobic person “really” believe about this harmless snake we show them?
At one level they believe the snake is harmless (they say they accept it is), but then at another, more gut, level they strongly believe it’s harmful. Their behaviour manifests this “gut” belief.
So then presumably we must say that, despite denying it, at a more gut level, Christians do believe death is the end.
So you seem (or this move seems) to be conceding the point that at a gut level Christians do indeed believe death is the end.
The Christian will say, perhaps, that, like the snake-phobic person, they have good grounds for supposing their gut belief is wrong.
But they don’t (or, if you think they do, provide them).
POSTPOSTPOST SCRIPT 12TH NOV.
Actually, now I think about it, there’s a more obvious rejoinder to Psiomniac’s point (that a Christians negative emotional response to death can’t be called a “belief”), which is that the belief that death is dreadful is actually articulated by Christians.
That’s really Dawkins’s point. Christians have a sort of schizo attitude to death. One the one hand they say death is defeated, Christ is risen, no more pain or fear – just eternal life! On the other hand, when they hear of a young life cut short they say: how appalling, how tragic, what a waste. And notice they say this even if it was an unwanted orphan who died painlessly whom no one will miss and who will miss no one.
My point is: what people say and do can come apart and what they do is often a better indicator of what they really believe (or believe in their “gut”). Christians say death is defeated etc. but their behaviour doesn’t really reflect that at all. It manifests fear, dread, etc.
These are complimentary points, of course. Fact is Dawkins is right – there is a weird schizo attitude actually verbally expressed by Christians. Acknowledgement of the fear and terror and tragedy is verbalized. But then so is an entirely opposite set of attitudes and beliefs.
If we look at their behaviour, it suggests that the deeper – if you like, more “real” – belief is actually the pessimistic one.
I guess what this all brings out, at the very least, is what an extraordinarily inconsistent and emotionally confused set of attitudes and beliefs many Christians have about death.