Must We Believe in 'Something?'

In their book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander remind us that the way we view the world is necessarily limited by the constraints of our language. 


The way we carve the world up with words and phrases seems to use the right way to view the universe—and yet it is a cliché that each language slices up the world in its own idiosyncratic manner…“the right way” to see the world depends on where and how one grew up. 

A friend of mine, who happens to be an atheist, recently visited his parents in London. While they have been active in interfaith dialogue for some time, they kept reiterating one idea: it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in something. This remark resonated, as it is something I have often encountered when people learn of my own atheism. Apparently what you believe is not as relevant as that you believe—a very odd argument in promoting or justifying faith.

Firstly, what you believe is of dire importance to many religious followers. How else could we explain the increasing number of anti-abortion bills bouncing around Congress? What type a person you are or how you live your life is irrelevant in these invented debates; what matters, apparently, is whether or not you have the power to decide how to handle your private affairs. Exploring the blatant hypocrisy of Texas legislators’ current pro-life agenda while maintaining—even celebrating—the death penalty seems useless at this point.

This matter, like the other hot button issue, marriage equality, is completely dependent upon belief. I have yet to hear one credible secular argument against either. By default, both of these agendas are created to some doctrine penned by a higher power. To these people, what you believe is extremely important.

What if you remove the metaphysics from the conversation? Is this even plausible in a country in which 79% of the population thinks that humans evolved by divine guidance (or were placed here as-is)? Why is believing in something—anything—more important than acting in a manner that creates the least harm and promotes the most good in society? Wouldn’t that seem to be a more ‘spiritual’ way to exist?

In the English language, ‘belief’ is one of those linguistic and therefore cultural constraints pointed to above. The notion that one can exist without it seems impossible. The neural pathway connecting the vastness of the universe with some tampering by invisible hands (does God even have hands?) seems a given. As Jeffrey Tayler points out in one of the best pieces I’ve read on the topic, this stems from a complete sense of bias.

Tayler writes about Larry Alex Taunton, the executive director of a non-profit organization that publicly defends Christian faith, and his research stemming from interviews with a variety of college students who had ‘lost their faith.’ Taunton wanted to better understand the reasons why the younger generation was not as bedazzled by the spectacle of the Absolute as he…and he wanted to get them back.

His findings revealed that priests going soft and other personal disappointments were the true reasons why they had abandoned their starry-eyed gazes. The way to win them back, obviously, includes more Jesus as bloodslayer! That religion and science fiction and fantasy share many similar qualities were obviously lost on Taunton.

The students, as Tayler observes, were treated as objects of psychoanalysis, not human beings with actual intellects. Taunton is stuck in the language conundrum: he simply cannot imagine how someone wouldn’t feel the same way as himself about the universe.

He does not seem to understand that this is a deeply patronizing way of recounting the free decisions of these students to leave the church because—again, as a number of atheists apparently told him outright—they just don’t believe its teachings…Taunton’s analysis amounts not to an objective assessment of their words, but pseudo-diagnosis presented in a way that skirts what they were really trying to tell him.

Is a truly objective philosophy even within the realm of possibility? Given the constraints of language and culture, it is certainly a challenge. Taking someone else at their words without running them through the filter of your own beliefs is not only a daunting prospect, it’s impossible to comprehend if you don’t even recognize that you’re doing it. Given that Taunton’s aim was conversion (or reconversion) to begin with, this was certainly no double blind study.

As Tayler expresses,

And as an atheist, I would argue that, if anything, it is the journey to belief that needs to be studied.

Such an undertaking would require a massive reengineering of neural patterns. But it is possible. To initiate a true interfaith dialogue for the modern times, we could focus not on how our metaphysics can get along with one another, but how to wipe the slate clean of any magical thinking and see what sort of foundation can be built from there. 

Image: Lisa F Young/shutterstock.com

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the Sperm

Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.

popular
Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.