Tag Archives: religious faith

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.

Never trust the devout …

Warning: Offensive generalizations follow. If you can’t handle anti-religious comment, or hyperbole, then please stop reading now.

I’d like to make an argument, only semi-playfully:

Devout religious faith renders one’s analytical and observational skills slightly suspect if not outright dubious.

People who are devoutly religious are accustomed to lying to themselves. They lie about reality, most obviously, but they also lie about what they believe and why they believe it. Most theists of course believe that their faith is reasoned, and at the same time believe that most other theists’ faith is a result of unquestioned upbringing. They’re half right, anyway.

Now, the human capacity for self-deception is unparalleled. And religious faith is only one small piece of that. But religious faith has a high degree of acceptance among the population as a “good thing to have”, and consequently, a large number of people lie to other people about their religious practices. Many of these folks may know they’re lying, of course. But I generally find that most folks don’t like to outright lie, and if they do, they do it quickly, justify it, and don’t think about it much after that. So I’m guessing that most people who say they’re going to church regularly, even though they’re not, are deceiving themselves, more than they’re trying to deceive the questioner.

And let’s not forget that folks who really are devout are somehow capable of lying to themselves on a regular basis about the nature of reality and the world around them. Maybe because, as my grandmother wisely noted, when you get older and closer to death, you want to believe. (She was happy about that, because she thought it meant I would eventually return to the church.) Ultimately it doesn’t matter why people engage in this bizarre self-deception — it just matters that they do it.

So it boggles my mind how, if people maintain such wildly inconsistent & incoherent views of the world, their role in it, and odd mythical creatures like deities or, god forbid, angels & demons — how one is supposed to fully trust such a person. At any point their religion could be tampering with their views. At all points, their inability to root out the illogic & the huge masses of self-deception has to make you question their other conclusions.

It’s not that religious people will lie all the time or that they’ll be wrong all the time, or even that they can never be trusted. It’s more that, with anything you hear from such a person, you have to give it that extra few seconds of evaluation. You can’t just take what they say, ahem, on faith.

Here is how ignorance works: First, they put the fear of God into you—if you don’t believe in the literal word of the Bible, you will burn in hell. Of course, the literal word of the Bible is tremendously contradictory, and so you must abdicate all critical thinking, and accept a simple but logical system of belief that is dangerous to question. A corollary to this point is that they make sure you understand that Satan resides in the toils and snares of complex thought and so it is best not try it.

— Jane Smiley, “Why Americans Hate Democrats — A Dialogue: The Unteachable Ignorance of the Red States”, Slate.com, 2004-11-05

update 2005/8/13:

I wrote the above just after the 2004 election, and de-published it fairly quickly. Atheist, anti-clerical, I may be, but I am respectful of people’s rights to believe what they like. So I’ve been thinking about this issue off & on for the past year, trying to figure out what is my core concern, and how to express it. I recently started reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris, who hits these ideas too. My critical responses to his work let me think a bit more clearly about what I wanted to do with this post.

In the real world of course it would make no sense to stereotype religious people as terminally confused. Acting on such a stereotype would, first, be every bit as foolish as acting on any other group stereotype.

First of all, the stereotype itself falls apart. What is religious belief? It’s vastly different for different people. For most people, religious belief is comprised of a number of somewhat interlocking ideas: the desire for and belief in an ethical systems; the relation of ethical systems to established frameworks; certain unquestioned assumptions & childhood indoctrination; spiritual yearnings; emotional needs; wishful thinking; neurological pattern-seeking behaviors; honest efforts to wrestle with philosophical conundrums (“what is the meaning of life?” “why is there evil?” “why is good better than evil?”); etc. I would wager that relatively few religious adherents have engaged seriously with all the specifics of whatever particular religious doctrine they claim as their own. Firebreathing atheists (like myself, at times) like to trot out the most blatantly absurd beliefs: old men in the sky, angels, demons, virgin births, virgins with fans in heaven, etc. Couple those absurd images with logical fallacies like ‘omnipotent and omniscient’ and you can have a full-time job poking at religious beliefs. But relatively few actual religius adherents have in the fullness of rational evaluation concluded that they believe in the literal interpretation of both Genesis creation stories, all the Levitican rules, and Archbishop Ussher’s totting up of the genealogies in the Bible to arrive at 4,004 B.C. as the creation date. So defining any one person’s religious “beliefs” is an almost hopeless task; to go from there to ascribing a set of such beliefs to a group of people is even more hopeless.

Second, even if one was able to establish what we mean by “religious beliefs”, and define even one person by that belief, it would be meaningless as a way of determining how to interact with that person. Unfortunately, because religious belief is but one species if irrationality, and each and every human being has their full huge and unmeasured share of irrational and unfounded beliefs.

Despite these problems, though, there is a little nugget of something serious in my little argument (some might call it a hateful rant but why be particular). Religious belief is an area in which we as a society permit to pass unquestioned — even condone — large quantities of irrational, unquestioned thought. I find the practical and political impacts of religious belief troubling. But I also find troubling the fact that we treat religion with such kid gloves. What are the implications of turning off critical thinking in some major subset of one’s life? Reinhold Niebuhr made his leap of faith thoughtfully, no doubt, but I suspect that most such leaps of faith are not so conscientiously undertaken.

I’ve long been a proponent of fostering critical thinking, for instance, media literacy. It might be time to think about the problems caused by a lack of critical thinking.