what does it mean to hold a religious “belief”?

Lean Left links to this comment from Jay on The Dawn Treader (I couldn’t actually find the original but the link’s there for others to try). I liked this argument, and wonder: would this actually make sense to some people on the fence about how to think about science versus religion & ID?

But, back to the actual topic of the thread, epistemology, I have some thoughts on that too. Let’s assume there *is* no obvious natural explanation for a phenomenon. How do you proceed? You guys are right that the argument that “science might come up with an explanation later” is unfalsifiable and lame. I think a better argument is that invoking God is ad hoc and not very parsimonious. You are quick to invoke Him here because you want to believe.

Put yourself in a scenario where you would naturally be skeptical, be as honest as possible, and tell me that you would invoke God as quickly as you are now doing. You come home and your wife is gone. You worry, you call the police, the days pass, weeks pass, years pass. Finally, a detective closes the investigation and declares “God took her”. Whuh? God? You would demand that he reconsider that she might have been murdered. Or maybe you would assume she wasn’t happy with your marriage and she left. Or amnesia? A mafia hit based on mistaken identity, and a perfect cover-up. A tiger escaped from a zoo, ate her, bones and all, and returned to the zoo undetected. A troupe of psychotic clowns dismembered and made furniture out of her corpse. And so on, less and less plausible, but still technically possible. You wouldn’t say, “yeah, you’re probably right, God did it”, you would demand the exclusion of every natural explanation. Are you honestly subjecting your arguments to this same rigor before you invoke God?

I am certainly not denying that God exists, I am asking you whether you are pursuing scientific truth or just looking for any evidence of God. If this were a few hundred years ago, would you be halting scientific inquiry by arguing that thunderstorms are God throwing things? A few hundred years from now, is someone going to be using your argument as an example of how hastily invoking God obfuscates the truth?

… Can I leave well enough alone? No, I can’t. I like this illustration. It illustrates well that, when it comes to real things, things that are undeniable — like a missing person — people instinctively turn to, not religion, but science — the pursuit of knowledge. Sure, there may also be prayer. But given a choice between prayer and talking to a detective about the matter, who would actually choose prayer? On some level, people know which one is real — and which one is a hopeful fantasy. No matter what they identify as their “beliefs”.

Consider what happens when someone dies. People who profess a belief in heaven often console themselves by saying, “I’ll see her in the next world,” “We’ll be together again someday,” etc. That is, I’m sure, very comforting as a recitation. But I suspect that people don’t really believe it. Because the mourning process for people who ostensibly believe in a soul and an afterlife is pretty much exactly the same as it is for people who don’t claim to hold such beliefs. Grieving for a death feels different than grieving for someone you know you’ll never see again, but who (as far as you know) still lives. Because on some level people know what death is; and their “beliefs” in doctrines like the immortal soul and an afterlife look more like exercises in wishful thinking.

Defining “Belief”

What does this say about religious beliefs? I might describe a spectrum of different kinds of “beliefs”, ranging from beliefs on which one bases one’s actions; and beliefs in which one indulges as an intellectual exercise or an unquestioned but not particularly deeply felt assumption. Belief in an “immortal soul” and an “afterlife” start to look more like the latter than the former, if you consider the sorts of actions described in the two examples above.

This strikes me as right, somehow, even though it only addresses some kinds of displays of religious faith. There are plenty of other kinds of examples which it doesn’t explain: What about the millions of people who have risked or lost their lives for their religious beliefs? Sure, many of them had no choice and were merely victims of someone else’s “religious” war; or were coerced into fighting for someone else’s “religious” war. Still, some uncountably large number of people have died in religious wars. I suspect a lot of interesting explanations, psychological and economic, can account for their behavior in a way that still leaves unresolved the fundamental paradox that people behave inconsistently with their claimed beliefs when their loved one’s life is lost or in danger.

Also, obviously, people act on their religious belief in non-life-threatening situations: going to church, praying, etc. That seems pretty distinguishable, psychologically, from the threatened-life situation.

Disputing Claims of High Levels of Religious “Belief” in the US

Now, in the US we regularly see statistics that show that we have unbelievably high rates of “believers” in “God”, “angels”, the “power of prayer”, and the like. Unbelievably high rates of people who “believe” in creationism or intelligent design or teach the controversy. And these statistics, because they are about “beliefs”, rely on self-reporting.

But there’s another way to analyze “beliefs”, and that’s by looking at observed behavior. Because people generally behave in accordance with their beliefs.

Consider our belief in the sun rising tomorrow, versus our belief in whether or not it will rain. We’re pretty damn sure the sun will rise tomorrow. So if we’re going for a pre-dawn walk we don’t take flashlights with us. We’re not quite as sure that it won’t rain, and so we might prepare for both contingencies: bring an umbrella just in case. We act on strong beliefs (rising sun) differently than we do on uncertain beliefs (no rain).

So you could look at people’s behaviors to ascertain the level of “belief” in a proposition. I suspect that such an analysis would turn up a practically complete “belief” in the proposition that the sun will rise tomorrow. I also predict that such an analysis would turn up a much lower level of “belief” in the local meteorologist’s “prophecy” about tomorrow’s weather — based on people bringing along their own choices of weather gear, despite what the weather forecast says.

If you applied that method to evaluating the high levels of religious “belief” in this country, I suspect that you would find out the levels are not nearly as high as people claim.

The beliefs in “gods”, “afterlives”, immortal “souls”, and the efficacy of “prayer” which such apologists describe ought to have a significant and observable impact in the daily lives of believers. I’m not saying that we should see the effects of answered prayers! (The lack of statistical data showing the efficacy of “prayer” is answer enough to answer any questions about that.) But you ought to be able to see really different patterns in behavior from people who have these beliefs when confronted with life-threatening situations. What they’re claiming is, really, quite incredible. We don’t live a finite, usually less than a hundred years’ time? There’s a hell? And a heaven? There’s an omnipotent, omniscient being? Or a First Creator? An omnipotent being might choose to answer our prayerful petitions? These are, as Christians say, incredible life-changing doctrines.

So why aren’t people’s lives being changed by their belief in these doctrines? When it matters, when it comes down to a choice that might affect an outcome, people’s lives don’t seem very affected. For the most part, these unbelievably high levels of believing people don’t put their money where their mouth is in these matters. If you look at who and how many people really do put their money etc., it might turn out to be a few low percent — some of the Christian Scientists, a few other fundamentalists, some other obvious kooks … I would be really surprised to see the number look anything like the claimed high levels of “believers” that we see now.

Which suggests to me that self-reported statistics about “beliefs” are not very helpful. So the statistics that 90% of Americans believe in “God” or “angels” or the “power of prayer”, or whatever, land right in the same pile as the highly dubious data generated from self-reported levels of church attendance. (Self-reported, and for that matter, pastoral-reported, levels of church attendance are much higher than levels generated by counting heads and cars.)

enough procrastination and pleasant speculations.