The Uselessness of Professing Belief

The other day I was asked about my belief in God. My answer is private, but the question led me to think about the futility of declaring belief in God or other higher powers.

I see no use in separating people into “believers” and “non-believers.” It is no more useful than, say, separating them into tall and short, blond and dark-haired.

It’s useful to separate people by affiliation, as affiliation is the result of a decision.

The problem is that “believing” is not a decision. The decision may be at best to “pretend to believe.” But “believing” (or not) is the result of an interaction between the information provided by the world, and the internal map that matches that information with our own conception of reality. This process is automatic, not a decision!

Imagine that I tell you, readers, the following: “The sky is green!”

The visual information available to you goes against what I just said. In the face of this conflict of information, your system defaults to your map to determine which source is considered most reliable: Luís or your visual processing apparatus. Depending on what your map declares to be the most reliable source, you will then either believe that the sky is green, or not. Nowhere along the way did you make a decision. You didn’t decide to trust your eyes more than Luís. You didn’t even think about that – it was an instant process.

You may, however, decide that you do not want to hurt Luís’ fragile feelings. So you decide to say that you believe the sky is green. But you don’t really believe it. It is a falsified preference, which you took up because it was the path to a desirable social outcome.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! Luís thanks you for your compassion towards his ego. But do not lie to yourself – you have not decided to believe. You have decided to say that you believe.

Therefore, when faced with the question “Do you believe in God?” I do not see how the answer can provide useful data about me and my thought process. Whether I believe in God or not is out of my hands.

I can lie about it for social benefit, but my belief or non-belief says nothing about the kind of attitudes I take,or the decisions I make in my life, because it’s not a decision. It is an automatic process.

A person whose inner map tells him that his eyes are a much more reliable source of information than Luís can never really believe that the sky is green, however much he wants to.

We could tell this person that if he just believed that the sky was green, the world would be magically free of cancer, poverty, and child mortality. Even better, the person in question would receive a trillion dollars. Who wouldn’t want to believe the sky is green under these circumstances?!

But they can’t. It is impossible to go against our internal map, however advantageous it may be for us. The “best” we can do is lie about our belief as needed.

What if we were to judge people by their decisions, not by the automatic processes that take place in their nervous system?