Sunday, January 06, 2008

Tony's belief

Sue Blackmore

Tony's belief

Our former prime minister seems happy to believe in all manner of things without reason or evidence.

reposted from:
Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes
Sue Blackmore

On the roof of our house we have a stone gargoyle. It has stubby wings, like a deformed angel, and an evil little face that looks ever upwards. We call him Tony. He's been looking for weapons of mass destruction for several years now, and we're sure he still believes in them.

That's the thing about believing without evidence. You can go on and on and on. If you believe strongly enough, and if you have the backing of lots of other people who believe strongly enough, then you can get away with ... well murder, warfare, and much else besides - and all without evidence or any rational justification.

So Tony's namesake has now found his rightful home. In converting to Catholicism, as Ann Widdecombe reminded us, Tony must have pronounced: "I believe everything the church teaches to be revealed truth".

And what does it teach?

That Jesus Christ was a man but also a God; that his mother was a virgin; that he died physically but came alive again, and even now, and forever, is the Lord of everything; that he will come again one day and judge everyone; that the Pope can speak infallible truths, and that (in spite of appearances and evidence to the contrary) we are not just physical beings, but have souls that can look forward to an eternal life in either heaven or hell. Really! (and for a summary, see the Nicene Creed, or listen to the discussion on "In our time")

Conceivably some of these things could be true (at least the ones that make enough sense to be testable) but the point of the "Catholic faith" is that you believe them, not because they are rational or reasonable, not because historical evidence supports them, not because modern scientific evidence supports them, but because they are "revealed truth". That is, you have to believe them because other people tell you that God told someone else they were true, and you must go on believing them even if they turn out not to be true by any normal standards of evidence.

The Catholic church doesn't allow its members to pick and choose which bits they believe; as a convert, you must sign up and believe it all, or not be admitted.

This is, I suggest, one reason for its continued success in Britain. In his analysis of religions as memeplexes, or viruses of the mind, Richard Dawkins explained how the whole meme-package works.

The ludicrous central beliefs, which would never be accepted on their own merits, are protected by the enticing stories, the alluring promises of goodness and heaven, and the horrible threats of hell and damnation. So if you allow people to pick and choose, as Anglican churches often do, the power of the memeplex is lost. And if threats and promises aren't enough, there is the added meme that says that faith is good and doubt is bad. So you can go on believing things - even harmful and dangerous things - and still be convinced that you are good.

So Tony is at least being consistent. He is announcing to the world that he is happy to believe in all manner of things without reason or evidence - just like our Tony, who's still up there hoping.

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