I met with S. N. in Tempe yesterday for philosophy and chess. While we were talking about overbelief, it occurred to me that Romans 1: 18-20 is another good example of overbelief. Now there is an issue that the budding theologian S. N. made me aware of, an issue that the philosopher in me desires to set aside, namely, the question whether St. Paul is speaking in his own voice in the passage in question. That is indeed an interesting question, but my concern is with the argment that the passage embodies, regardless of who is making it. I will write as if Paul is speaking in his own voice. If you disagree, substitute 'pseudo-Paul' for 'Paul.'
I will first give my reading of the passage, and then explain how it connects with William James' notion of overbelief. (I understand that the term 'overbelief' surfaces first in Matthew Arnold who supposedly derives it from Goethe's use of Aberglaube. My concern is solely with James' use of the word.)
The Pauline Passage
Rather than quote the whole of the Pauline passage at Romans 1: 18-20, I'll summarize it. Men are godless and wicked and suppress the truth. What may be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them. Human beings have no excuse for their unbelief. "For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen,
being understood from what has been made . . . ."
Paul's claim here is that the existence and nature of God are evident from creation and that unbelief is a
result of a willful turning away from the truth. There is no excuse for unbelief because it is a plain fact that the natural world is divine handiwork. Now I am a theist and I am sympathetic to Christianity. But although I have one foot in Jerusalem, the other is planted firmly in Athens. And so I must point out that to characterize the natural world as 'made' or 'created' begs the question in favor of theism. As begging the question, the Pauline claim about the evidentness of the world's being created offers no support for theism. It is an analytic proposition that there is no creation without a creator. So if the heavens and the earth are a creation, then it follows straightaway that a creator exists.
But is the world a divine creation? This is the question, and the answer is not obvious. That the natural world is a divine artifact is not evident to the senses, or to the heart, or to reason. Of course, one can argue for the existence of God from the existence and order of the natural world. I have done it myself. But those who reject theistic arguments, and construct anti-theistic arguments, have their reasons too, and it cannot fairly be said that what animates the best of them is a stubborn and prideful refusal to submit to a truth that is evident. It is simply not evident to the senses that the natural world is a divine artifact.
I may be moved to marvel at "the starry skies above me." This was one of two things that filled Kant with wonder, the other being "the moral law within me." But seeing is not seeing as. If you see the starry skies as divine handiwork, then this is an interpretation from within a theistic framework. But the datum seen can just as easily be given a nontheistic interpretation.
If the atheism of some has its origin in pride, stubborness and a willful refusal to recognize any power or
authority beyond oneself, or beyond the human, as is plainly the case with many, it does not follow that the atheism of all has this origin.
It is all-too-human to suspect in our opponents moral depravity when we cannot convince them. The Pauline passage smacks of that all-too-humanity. There are sincere and decent atheists, and they have plenty of excuse for their unbelief. The best of them, if wrong in the end, are excusably wrong.
Overbelief in the Pauline Passage
Here is my working definition of 'overbelief' based on my reading of William James: an overbelief is a belief arrived at by reading out of an experience more than is contained within it.
We experience the world as existent, as beautiful, and as orderly. But we don't experience the world as divine handiwork any more than we experience it as the work of Satan contrived to fool us into taking it to be real when it is not, and seduce us with its beauty and order. That the world is divine handiwork is therefore, by the above definition, an overbelief.
That is not to say that it is false. It is to say, as S. N. pointed out yesterday, that the belief is undetermined by the experience. Overbeliefs are undetermined by what we actually and literally experience. (Admittedly, it is a tricky question what exactly we literally experience: do I see my car, or only the front of my car? Do I touch my cat, or only the fur of my cat? I see a green tree, but do I see that a tree is green? Do I even see a green tree? I see an instance of greenness and an instance of treeness, but do I see that the two property-instances are compresent?)
That the world is divine handiwork is an overbelief. That doesn't make it false or even unreasonable. Indeed, overbeliefs are unavoidable. As James writes,
These ideas [overbeliefs] will thus be essential to that individual's religion; -- which is as much as to say that over-beliefs in various directions are absolutely indispensable, and that we should treat them with tenderness and tolerance so long as they are not intolerant themselves. As I have elsewhere written, the most interesting and valuable things about a man are usually his over-beliefs. (The Varieties of Religious Experience, Penguin 1982, p. 515, orig. publ. 1902)