Believing in Belief in God

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In his book Breaking The Spell, philosopher and noted atheist Daniel Dennett discusses (at some length) the difference between “belief in God” and “belief in belief in God”.

This may sound like some philosopher’s tedious exercise in hair-splitting, but the fact is, this is actually an interesting and important distinction. Over the years I have been puzzled by the way quite obviously un-religious people feel it is necessary to protect the notion that God exists – even if they themselves are not believers.

The idea seems to be that as a society – as a species, perhaps – we need a belief in God to insure that we don’t get too cocky, don’t collapse into chaos, don’t all of a sudden, en masse, start raping and murdering each other.

In effect, belief in belief in God – belief that we need this mythology to hold us together – is a version of Plato’s “noble lie”. This is a condescending concept. It suggests that there are myths that we should pretend are true, even if we know they are not.

The underlying (erroneous) assumption is so admirably summed up by the Jack Nicholson character in “A Few Good Men” when he famously said, “You can’t handle the truth.” The arrogance and condescending attitude summed up in that famous scene is so typical of people who are sure they know better than we do.

Can’t handle the truth? Really? Try me.