Self-deception, faith, and scepticism

From: Iain Strachan <>
Date: Tue Feb 14 2006 - 07:19:59 EST

Some while back I posted a thread on "skepticism - uses and abuses". Now
I'd like to examine the other side of the coin, concerning self-deception,
uses and abuses. [Note, also to our USA friends; my spelling of
"skepticism" has mutated to the correct version ;-) however as there are
more Americans than Brits, I guess Natural Selection will win out ...

What prompts the observation was a comment in the wikipedia entry on
self-deception that according to the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers,
a capacity for self-deception may present a selective advantage. I think
the article in argues that if we were brutally honest about
everything, we would be overwhelmed with depression.

Then a concrete example occurred to me, the British poet Philip Larkin.
Larkin was an avowed atheist, but in addition had the obsession that he
could never come to terms with death. In his last major length poem
"Aubade", he dismisses both ways of coping with the thought of death as
forms of self deception:

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die....

ie religion is self-deception - a way of pretending that everything is OK,
but he goes on further to look at the other side of the coin, and finds no
comfort there either:

.. and specious stuff that says
"No rational being can a thing he cannot feel,
Not seeing that this is what we fear:
No sight no sound, no touch or taste or smell
Nothing to think with
Nothing to love or link with
The anaethetic from which none come round.

Larkin sees the argument that you can' t feel it so you shouldn't fear it
also as "specious", because he knows that ultimately the fact of your death
means the total loss of everything you value and that means anything. In
another of his poems he describes life beautifully as "the million-petalled
flower of being here", but he never can come to terms with the fact that the
petals are going to drop off.

Larkin was too "honest" to indulge in either form of self-deception (as he
saw it), and the consequences were disastrous. He didn't propagate his
genes - he could never pick one woman and deceive himself that he'd picked
the right one (though he had numerous affairs and treated the women who
loved him abominably). And he never, ever came to terms with death - and
when, dying of cancer, he was carried out of his house to the hospital for
the last time, he was raving with fear.

The final song in Monty Python's "Life of Brian" ( "Got to look on the
bright side of life") shows us the necessity of self-deception. In one of
my favourite (but rather rude) rhyming couplets, the song says "Life's a
piece of S**t/ When you look at it". Ie if you're honest with yourself,
it's all pointless, so you have to deceive yourself by "looking on the
bright side of life" & pretend it's not a piece of s**t.

The point is that in order to cope with life, we all have to indulge in some
form of what might be self-deception. To an atheist, religion is
self-deception - to us believers, we cannot say it's self deception because
we believe it is the truth - though we don't have a shred of scientific
evidence to prove it, despite what creationists and ID'ers would have us

I wonder if the urge to have "proof of God" that Intelligent Design seems to
offer, is to do with our desire not to indulge in self-deception - concrete
proof of God would allow us to be honest and say there's no element of
self-deception. The certainty that ID promises is attractive, because we
instinctively think self-deception is a bad thing. But maybe it's not such
a bad thing. As Larkin and Monty Python both show us, in order to cope
without religion, we still have to indulge in self-deception. Perhaps if an
atheist told you that your religion is self-deception, a response might be
"Oh yes? And what form of self-deception do you use as your coping


After the game, the King and the pawn go back in the same box.
- Italian Proverb
Received on Tue Feb 14 07:21:19 2006

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