Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Many Motives for Belief

Here is an interesting YouTube video-- a panel discussion with the theme "After the New Atheism". (The popularity of bullish atheism does seem to have passed for the moment, which is something for which we should be grateful.)

The reason I found the video in the first place was because I was looking for videos featuring Roger Scruton, the only prominent conservative philosopher in Britain. (Scruton's contribution comes at 20:30). He describes himself as "someone who has come late in life to some kind of re-affirmation of very devious paths, and paths that are strewn with doubt and disappointment."

Scruton is a thinker for whom I have enormous respect, but I don't agree with his contention here-- that religious practice is based much more upon a desire for membership, and upon a sense of the sacred, than upon belief.

I could not be a Catholic if I was not strongly convinced that Catholicism was true-- true in an objective, factual sense, and not in some kind of metaphorical or existential sense.

My belief is based upon a whole range of considerations; from philosophical arguments for God's existence, to the history of Christianity, to the sublimity and coherence of the Catholic worldview, to the evidence for various miracles, and many more besides.

I have argued in many places and on many occasions for the rationality of Catholic belief. And I do believe that Catholics and Christians should be "ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you" (1 Peter 3:15).

Having said all that, I am also very interested in all the other motives for religious belief, especially Catholic belief. Sometimes, after all, it's impossible to make a stark distinction between a rational ground and an emotional motive.

In ordinary life, we don't form our beliefs upon syllogisms and logical deductions. We rely to a great extent on hunch and inspiration, on trust and pattern recognition, and on many other quasi-emotional considerations. Why should our religious beliefs alone be held up to a demand of pure rationality, with no admixture of emotion or imagination?

I think the motives and aspects of religious belief that are non-rational (and please note, I wrote "non-rational" and not "irrational") are an interesting topic for rumination-- and perhaps a fruitful one, too. "Know thyself" is as fine a piece of advice now as it was when the Oracle at Delphi was in business.

If there is a God, then it stands to reason that He would seek to reach us through our hearts and imaginations as well as our intellects. So I see no conflict between intellectual and emotional motives for religious beliefs.

I reproduce here something I posted on the Irish Catholics Forum. The whole thread (which I initiated) is worth reading. As, indeed, is the forum in general.

If it please the forum, I would like to start a thread about emotional or non-rational factors in Catholic belief.

We would all (I imagine) say we are here because, looking at life and the world, we have come to the objective conclusion that Catholicism is the Truth-- the way things really are, whether we like it or not.

Many others would postulate a plethora of non-rational (even irrational), emotional, aesthetic etc. etc. reasons for our adherence to Catholic belief.

I think few of us would contend that emotional factors have NO influence on our belief, though we would (probably) insist that the intellect has to give its ratification before faith is accepted.

So I thought it might be interesting to come up with a list of non-rational, emotional, aesthetic etc. etc. reasons for Catholic belief. I am throwing all of them in-- all the ones I've heard, all the ones that have occurred to me independently, whether or not I think they have any bearing on reality. I think self-awareness can only be a good thing. I am including motives for theistic belief in general as well as Catholic belief in particular.

1) Fear of mortality and desire for immortal life.
2) A guilt complex or sense of sin and desire to escape from this.
3) A desire to believe the universe is purposeful and ordered rather than random and chaotic.
4) The Kantian insistence that, ultimately, justice just HAS to prevail and that it obviously does not prevail in this life.
5) A desire to escape from ambiguity and uncertainty into dogma and discipline.
6) Ritualism-- smells and bells, vestments etc.
7) Medievalism, anti-modernity.
8) Sexual repression (usually postulated as an effect of religious belief but often as a cause, too).
9) Snobbery-- what might fairly or unfairly be described as the Evelyn Waugh brand of Catholicism.
10) Irish nationalism (and other forms of nationalism, like Polish nationalism).
11) A sense of duty towards our ancestors (not exactly the same thing as Irish nationalism).
12) Childhood exposure to rosary, Christmas carols, etc.-- nostalgia.
13) Islamophobia, the Church as a bastion against Islam.
14) Aesthetic Catholicism-- not quite the same thing as ritualism or snobbery.
15) A mystical experience.
16) The Marxist's belief that religion, and especially Catholicism, is there to prop up power structures and quell the Peoples' discontent with fairy stories.
17) Because the Catholic Church, for an Irish person, is the obvious spiritual homeland.
18) Togetherness, tribalism.
19) Ego-identification with the prestige of Catholicism.


  1. I've had a few coincidences in my life where I felt it was an act of God rather than an actual coincidence. I also like the Church's stance on sexual morality. I've always had a negative feeling about things like casual sex. Other than that, I can't say I have the speaking skills to go into a deeper discussion about the matter.

  2. 11) ... and specifically parents

  3. Antaine, I envy you those coincidences, since I don't think I've had anything obviously supernatural happen to me in my life. As for sexual morality, when I was younger (i.e., teens and twenties) I would have been very conservative in many ways but not at all conservative in sexual questions-- this was all theory rather than practice, since I was too shy and awkward to be a libertine. I was almost too shy and awkward to form any kind of relationship, let alone a sexual one. The idea of priests and nuns remaining celibate seemed like a form of self-mutilation to me.

    It was only when I reached my late twenties and thirties that I came to believe that you couldn't really have a society that was gentle, respectful, traditional and humane without sexual restraint, not only in deed but also in word and in thought. So the Church's teaching on sexual morality (including consecreated celibacy) makes huge sense to me now, but didn't at first.

    Mick, I am the same. I do feel a strong sense of loyalty towards my ancestors and parents, and that is a part of my Catholicism. But I'd like to think that I would have become Catholic even if my parents were atheists or Jehovah's Witnesses or anything else.