In the pre-Substack days I registered my complaints with Jonathan Haidt’s belief-in-belief and the concept of the “God-shaped hole.” At the time, I wrote this.
belief in belief is belief in delusion - worse, in other people's delusion. It is one thing to argue that religion is true or is not true. It is another to say “it isn't, incidentally, but go on pretending, it's good for you.” In the inherent condescension of that attitude I see something worse than Christopher Hitchens ever unleashed against the faithful. Whatever Christianity is, it is not worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Judaism is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Islam is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. And in fact if you take the precepts of those religions at all seriously, you can see praying to the God-shaped hole for what it is: idolatry.
I was saying this in light of the whole Weird Catholic/“trad Cath” thing that still bubbles around. That movement, if we can call it that, is so cloaked in irony and performativity that it’s impossible to pin down who believes and does not believe what. But to the extent that it has a public face, it’s a consequentialist one - people like the baubles of Catholicism, the gorgeous cathedrals, the incense, the ceremony, the sense of tradition stretching back into antiquity. The Sistine Chapel. People speaking Latin. The vestments. The cool shit. The trouble is, all of that was built on the back of authentic belief, however complicated it might have been; people did not toil for generations to build those cathedrals because they wanted to fill a God-shaped hole but because they believed that there was a deity watching down over him and that, through their faith and their works according to his catechism, they might be saved from an eternity in hell and instead spend eternity in paradise. And if you’re some Manhattanite hipster looking to borrow a little of the peace and order that such belief might have granted them, you can’t get there just by wearing the uniform. You’ve got to believe. The alternative is to understand that at the moment of your death you will cease to exist, and that in no time at all everyone who ever knew you will cease to exist too, and if that’s the case why not sleep in on Sundays?
There’s a new wrinkle to all of this: nowadays I frequently encounter people online who not only say that postmodern religion (post-belief religion) is good, I regularly hear that there has never been another kind. That is, I am told that, according to an extremely tendentious and evidence-light perspective, pretty much nobody ever believed any of the supernatural claims in religious stories - not the burning bush, not water into wine, no splitting of the moon, no siddhis, none of the supernatural events common to Mahayana Buddhism. In this telling nobody, or almost nobody, has ever believed in transcendent extra-material deities or their magical works in the world of man. Do these people think Jesus’s apostles never really believed that he died and rose again - not metaphorically, but actually, in the physical and literal realm - but went out to spread his gospel anyway? Unclear! Haidt cited St. Augustine and Pascal as two people who spoke to his idea about the god-shaped hole. Neither of them professed any belief in belief as such, any belief in belief with no actual divine referent.
This is projection on a whole other level, to me. People find that they can’t summon belief in the supernatural, but they want what people who can summon that belief have. (What they imagine them to have, anyway.) They want the peace and stability they presume True Believers have/had, but they resent those True Believers for their apparently superior belief. They therefore undermine the very concept of sincere belief and assert that every other believer is just like them. I find that simply wrong as a matter of history and theology. I also think that, like postmodern belief in general, this version is unlikely to actually instill any long-term relief from the weight of modernity and of knowing that we all must die. What is the comfort of worshipping relics that have no connection to a transcendent consciousness that establishes the order and meaning people are looking for? None, I imagine. Such behavior might, however, inspire a few more years worth of Instagramming Sunday mass.
I'm not out to tell anyone to stop worshipping - do your thing - and I'm not going to slap the bible from the hands of the people celebrating the God-shaped hole. I'm merely suggesting that while you can struggle with faith and still find comfort in it, I don't see how you can feel that the question of faith is settled in the negative and still find that comfort while practicing faith. (While playacting faith.) Because that unreality well always be there with you.
If you want to say that belief in the supernatural elements of religion has always been complicated; if you want to say that at least some doubt in the existence of God is common to lived religious practice; if you want to say that it’s all more complicated than I’ve laid it out here - fine. But I continue to find belief-in-belief to be a dead end. I cannot for the life of me understand why you’d engage in religious practice without any belief in the actual transcendent claims on which religion is based rather than simply participating in moral philosophy. It is admittedly difficult to craft a transcendently/objectively true moral philosophy without some conception of a deity that determines right and wrong, but people have been working on it for a couple thousand years. I also understand the desire for the community and fraternity that religion can engender, but surely these are possible without religion, and our Bowling Alone present (the death of communal life in contemporary times) is a bigger and separate issue. The basic question remains: why bother with the bric a brac if you know that the crucifix you pray towards reflects only a deluded carpenter who tried and tried and finally got Rome’s attention? There are many pretty buildings in the world. You can eat your own bread and drink your own wine. You can burn your own incense. It’s all available to you.
Except for authentic belief, which anyone can have but which no one can choose.
Perhaps it depends on the religion, because Jews do this all the time. My family of atheists and agnostics just sat in synagogue and fasted for 24 hours because that's how we reflect and atone and close the chapter of the last year. While I enjoy incense and wine and book clubs, I don't think they can really substitute 5,000 years of accumulated tradition, philosophy, language, literature, music, etc., that tie you to a hundred generations of forebears. Of course, there are plenty of people who find all this unsatisfying, but it works for a lot of people. Jonathan Haidt is Jewish and I expect is speaking from this perspective.
(We call it observance, not playacting.)
This is beautifully written, and you make some good points, but I feel like I can only half agree with you here. I do the Christianity stuff because I believe it to be true, and the Apostle Paul’s on your side (“If there is no resurrection of the dead, we are of all men the most to be pitied,” etc.)…but at the same time, it seems like there’s something entirely reasonable about saying, “I don’t believe God is real, but I *do* believe evolution has left me with a need for supernatural belief, and I have to satisfy that need however I can.” In that sense, practicing religion is no different from eating Splenda or whatever (“Evolution gave me a sugar craving, but the modern world has made sugar more dangerous than helpful, so I’m fulfilling the craving the safest way I know”).
It’s true that, if there’s nothing beyond the grave, religion is ultimately pointless, but then…so is everything. We’re all just here playing a game that everyone, eventually, loses.