I wish to spirit you away today to the rarefied realm of celestial metaphysics by having you respond to yet another reason why people believe in old ideas. This reason has nothing to do with your inciting the credulous into believing them, nor with how power elites promoted them over the centuries to advance their agenda, nor with our previous descent into the subterranean world of advertising that bamboozles millions of working-class Americans into embracing old ideas that will insure their destruction.
I'm talking about two ideas that go back tens of thousands of years, ideas that bring believers enormous comfort and great peace of mind. I'm referring, of course, to those ancient ideas of God and religion, ideas that if people didn't believe in them, they'd be unable to cope with their lives.
I'm of two minds on this question. I'm sure that there's a lot of truth in what you're suggesting. For some, the ideas of God and religion may well be conducive to their happiness and mental health, no matter whether these ideas are true or not. What's important is that they believe that they're true, and for these individuals a belief in God and religion would certainly be beneficial since life is difficult, and they may need to believe in whatever gives them the hope and courage to carry on. Whatever brings meaning and purpose is always a good thing.
However, there are others who view the ideas of God and religion as pointless distractions, since they believe that such notions only weaken their self-reliance by making them dependent on some Higher Being who could lighten their burden. The result is that they rely on God and religion rather than on themselves in solving whatever problems they have.
The problem is that neither view can be proven or disproven, despite the fact that each group believes that its view is right.
How do you see this being resolved?
Each side should inform itself about what the other side's saying, not to convert or be converted, but simply to understand how people of good faith can disagree on such important matters. Nothing breaks down barriers between people better than trying to understand one another and seeing the world through their eyes.
Each side can learn from the other, and as long as we're talking and listening to one another, we're making progress. We owe it to ourselves to see both sides of these questions, since each side sees what the other side doesn't, or can't afford to see. To do anything less is to close ourselves off from the light.
But returning to your original question, yes, I think that there's a lot of truth to your theory, at least for some people. The ideas of God and religion do appear to go back to the beginning of time, and although, as Gibbon suggested, religions in the ancient world were seen by the magistrate as politically "useful," many would have believed in them no matter whether the State had promoted them or not. On the other hand, there are others who get on quite well without the notions of God and religion and are perfectly happy.
Both views are right, and neither should be coerced by the other or by the State into believing or disbelieving.
I'd be interested in knowing your reasons.
Decisions about God and religion are too important and personal to be left to the State. When religion is brought into the public arena, it becomes trivialized as political theater as a means for promoting someone for office, or suggesting that a political party is the party of God. This gives rise to cynical opportunism, as embodied by that archetypal embodiment of religious hypocrisy, Tartuffe, the sanctimonious charlatan of Molière's play.
Ambition has many guises, not the least of which is religion as a political scam that cons the gullible unable to see through the billowing incense of holier-than-thou one-upmanship. Religion should never be a pretext for self-aggrandizement. Politics vulgarizes religion and the things of the spirit, and this is why many of the clergy are appalled by these latter-day Tartuffes who cheapen religion into a carnival act. When people drag God and religion into politics, it's done solely for votes and political power.
Nor should religion be used as a weapon against those who espouse the "wrong values"! No one should impose his or her religious views or values on anyone else, and if one does, it's no longer religion but religious tyranny.
Do you see this happening here?
Well, given today's political culture, anything's possible. If a group attains power and seeks to impose its religious beliefs on the nation, it's probably because it's unsure of itself and seeks to silence its doubt by banning dissent. Or if it uses its power to turn government into a religious theocracy, it's sowing the seeds for civil unrest. This is always the danger with zealots in power.
What about wanting to share one's viewpoint with others?
That's a different thing entirely. It's only natural to want to convince someone of one's point of view, but there's a world of difference between wanting to convince and wanting to convert someone. If you can't convince someone, that's the end of it. There are no hard feelings, and you continue as friends.
Whereas if you're trying to convert someone and aren't unsuccessful, but refuse to give up, then you're trying to violate that person's integrity. No matter how you try to disguise what you're doing, you simply want to coerce that person.
Converting others has no place in politics. No group has the right to impose its religious views on others because these views cannot even be proven. You may have an emotional preference for your view, but an emotional preference isn't evidence or a justification for forcing that view on another.
In fact, the degree to which your emotions compel you to impose your view on others is a sign that you're in the grip of something that has nothing to do with evidence and everything to do with subjugation.
I'd like to ask you a more pointed question about the truth of these old ideas themselves.
Well, clearly, some old ideas are true, but not because they're old, but simply because they're true and just happen to be old. As to how we can tell which old ideas are true from those which are not, it depends on what kind of ideas we're talking about.
For factual questions, it would simply be a matter of empirical verification. If something can be shown to be true empirically, then it's obviously true, whether we like it or not. The only criterion is evidence, not whether we want it to be true because it flatters our ego, promotes our interests, or inflates our bank account. We have to go where the evidence takes us.
If we're talking about questions that deal with value judgments, the answer will differ from person to person. Some will agree and others will disagree about the following value judgments: "The unexamined life is not worth living. One should observe moderation in all things. A society should care for its poor. Jack Dempsey was the best heavyweight boxing champion who ever lived." I may think that these four statements are true, but others would not. Who's right? It depends on the person you're asking.
If we're talking about explanatory hypotheses or theories, or causal explanations implicit in a question like why Rome fell, there are dozens of different theories, and you'll have an interesting debate about the pros and cons of each of them. However, you won't have agreement about which theory is right, but only a ranking of probable theories with varying degrees of probability.
Finally, we come to the kind of questions you're asking about, questions that cannot be proven or disproven one way or the other, metaphysical questions or statements that are beyond the realm of empirical verifiability -- the existence and nature of God, the nature of religious truth-claims, the afterlife, and so forth.
What are your thoughts on these metaphysical questions?
Well, I think that they can only be decided by each individual, since they've been debated since the Greeks with no agreed-upon answer. After informing themselves about both sides of these questions, some will decide one way, and others another. If it makes some happy to believe one way, they will, as will those of the opposing view.
There will be others who will want to keep an open mind, since they wouldn't think it necessary to choose since it's impossible to know either way. They might even think it a waste of time to worry about which answer is true, but rather savor the mystery until the moment they die when, as the old song says, "Que Sera, Sera, What Will Be, Will Be!"