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The emotionality of belief

By Meredith Doig - posted Friday, 1 April 2011

A couple of years ago, a motorcycling friend and I were out for a ride one sunny Sunday. We'd ridden down to Gippsland in Victoria's east, and had been cruising the curves of the Grand Ridge Road that snakes along the top of the Strzelecki Ranges south of the Princes Highway. By one o'clock we were at Mirboo North and ready for lunch. There is a lovely little pub at Mirboo North that serves boutique beer and the best lamb shanks in Victoria.

This friend is one of those terrific conversationalists who has an incisive mind, a quick wit and wide interests. As we savoured our lamb shanks, I shared with him my recent reading of Christopher Hitchens's book God is Not Great.

Now I'm sure most readers will have had the experience of making assumptionsabout the way things are going to turn out in a conversation – about the way other people think. This was one of those times.


In summarising Hitchens's arguments about how "religion poisons everything", I quoted one of his famously pithy and rather amusing characterisations of religious believers: "Anyone who believes in God is just being intellectually dishonest". Well, to say my friend's reaction was vituperative would be an understatement.

I can't remember what he actually said because the strength of emotion in his voice was so overwhelming that I was completely taken by surprise. He spat out a passionate defence of those who believe, angrily attacked me for my pitiable inability to understand the role of religion in human life, and coldly concluded that my rationalist views were irrelevant and beneath contempt.

While somewhat gobsmacked, I did attempt a feeble rejoinder. I apologised: "Look, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you … I didn't know you were Catholic … I thought you'd enjoy Hitchens's humour …". I tried to calm him by saying that I understood how some people find strength and solace in the church, that I recognised that some religious people do engage in good works, that I didn't care what people believed in the privacy of their own minds. He wasn't having any of it. Further conversation proved futile and in the end, he got up and walked out. We didn't speak for three months.

This experience triggered my curiosity about the Emotionality of Belief.

Why is it that some who say they believe in God are so emotional about it? Why is it so hard to even discuss someone's faith in the supernatural?

Remember the old adage -- three things you never discuss at a dinner party: religion, sex and politics. Any one of these topics is likely to elicit heated debate, strong emotions and, horror of horrors, disagreement! We seem to have got over the prohibition against discussing sex and politics - but just why won't people talk about their faith? It's as if you've questioned their personal integrity, or impugned their family connections. As one person said, "Talking about God is like talking about one's parents …"


So what's going on here? I think it can be understood at two levels: the level of the individual and the level of the group.

At an individual level, what a person believes - in a religious or a philosophical sense - is very much tied up with how they see themselves and their place in the world. A believer associates their belief in God with being a good person, having good values, living a good life. They're likely to view those who don't believe in God as having bad values and living a bad life, or at the very least being misguided. Challenging their belief is like questioning their value as a person, and we all tend to get defensive if our sense of self is questioned.

We're also questioning the value of the group they identify with.

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About the Author

Dr Meredith Doig is President of the Rationalist Society of Australia. After a career in blue chip corporates, for the last 10 years or so she has had a portfolio of directorships on commercial, government and non-profit boards. She is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and a Moderator with the Cranlana Colloquium on Ethics and the Good Society. She has also been a passionate motorcyclist since the age of 18 and still rides a BMW 650GS.

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