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Disbelief in belief: On the cognitive status of supernatural beliefs

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Religious people seem to believe things that range from the somewhat peculiar to the utterly bizarre. Or do they? According to a new paper by Neil Van Leeuwen, religious “credence” is nothing like mundane factual belief. It has, he claims, more in common with fictional imaginings. Religious folk do not really “believe”—in the ordinary sense of the word—what they profess to believe. Like fictional imaginings, but unlike factual beliefs, religious credences are activated only within specific settings. We argue that Van Leeuwen’s thesis contradicts a wealth of data on religiously motivated behavior. By and large, the faithful genuinely believe what they profess to believe. Although many religions openly embrace a sense of mystery, in general this does not prevent the attribution of beliefs to religious people. Many of the features of religious belief that Van Leeuwen alludes to, like invulnerability to refutation and incoherence, are characteristic of irrational beliefs in general and actually betray their being held as factual. We conclude with some remarks about the common failure of secular people to face the fact that some religious people really do believe wildly implausible things. Such incredulity, as evinced by Van Leeuwen and others, could be termed “disbelief in belief.”
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Keywords: Analytical thinking; cognitive attitudes; disbelief in belief; doxastic commitment; illusion; religious belief; supernatural; theological correctness

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Philosophy, Moral Sciences, Ghent University, 2: Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago,

Publication date: May 18, 2016

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