No, Really, I’ve Deceived Myself

I re­cently spoke with a per­son who… it’s difficult to de­scribe. Nom­i­nally, she was an Ortho­dox Jew. She was also highly in­tel­li­gent, con­ver­sant with some of the ar­chae­olog­i­cal ev­i­dence against her re­li­gion, and the shal­low stan­dard ar­gu­ments against re­li­gion that re­li­gious peo­ple know about. For ex­am­ple, she knew that Morde­cai, Es­ther, Ha­man, and Vashti were not in the Per­sian his­tor­i­cal records, but that there was a cor­re­spond­ing old Per­sian leg­end about the Baby­lo­nian gods Mar­duk and Ishtar, and the ri­val Elamite gods Hum­man and Vashti. She knows this, and she still cel­e­brates Purim. One of those highly in­tel­li­gent re­li­gious peo­ple who stew in their own con­tra­dic­tions for years, elab­o­rat­ing and tweak­ing, un­til their minds look like the in­side of an M. C. Escher paint­ing.

Most peo­ple like this will pre­tend that they are much too wise to talk to athe­ists, but she was will­ing to talk with me for a few hours.

As a re­sult, I now un­der­stand at least one more thing about self-de­cep­tion that I didn’t ex­plic­itly un­der­stand be­fore—namely, that you don’t have to re­ally de­ceive your­self so long as you be­lieve you’ve de­ceived your­self. Call it “be­lief in self-de­cep­tion”.

When this woman was in high school, she thought she was an athe­ist. But she de­cided, at that time, that she should act as if she be­lieved in God. And then—she told me earnestly—over time, she came to re­ally be­lieve in God.

So far as I can tell, she is com­pletely wrong about that. Always through­out our con­ver­sa­tion, she said, over and over, “I be­lieve in God”, never once, “There is a God.” When I asked her why she was re­li­gious, she never once talked about the con­se­quences of God ex­ist­ing, only about the con­se­quences of be­liev­ing in God. Never, “God will help me”, always, “my be­lief in God helps me”. When I put to her, “Some­one who just wanted the truth and looked at our uni­verse would not even in­vent God as a hy­poth­e­sis,” she agreed out­right.

She hasn’t ac­tu­ally de­ceived her­self into be­liev­ing that God ex­ists or that the Jewish re­li­gion is true. Not even close, so far as I can tell.

On the other hand, I think she re­ally does be­lieve she has de­ceived her­self.

So al­though she does not re­ceive any benefit of be­liev­ing in God—be­cause she doesn’t—she hon­estly be­lieves she has de­ceived her­self into be­liev­ing in God, and so she hon­estly ex­pects to re­ceive the benefits that she as­so­ci­ates with de­ceiv­ing one­self into be­liev­ing in God; and that, I sup­pose, ought to pro­duce much the same placebo effect as ac­tu­ally be­liev­ing in God.

And this may ex­plain why she was mo­ti­vated to earnestly defend the state­ment that she be­lieved in God from my skep­ti­cal ques­tion­ing, while never say­ing “Oh, and by the way, God ac­tu­ally does ex­ist” or even seem­ing the slight­est bit in­ter­ested in the propo­si­tion.