Science botherers and truth sticklers

Religious people have some wacky beliefs. But do they have an obligation to justify them to the rest of us?

Philosopher Jamie Whyte is cranky about the way religious people can get away with believing whatever they want. "An interesting change has happened" he said, "It used to be that
people would argue for a particular religious dogma or a clear religious
doctrine. That is no longer what happens. The world is increasingly dividing
into those who have ‘faith’ and those who don’t." And not only do the faithful refuse to provide Jamie with an acceptable justification of their personal beliefs but they insist on feeling superior:

What amazes me is that they like to set themselves up as having a slightly finer sensibility than you or me but in fact they are completely intellectually irresponsible. They used to come up with very bad arguments for their faiths but at least they felt that there was something they should provide. Now mere wilfulness has triumphed. This is what I describe as the egocentric approach to truth. You are no longer interested in reality because to do that you have to be pretty rigorous, you have to have evidence or do some experimentation. Rather, beliefs are part of your wardrobe. You’ve got a style and how dare anybody tell you that your style isn’t right. Ideology is seen as simply a matter of taste and as it’s not right to tell people that they’ve got bad taste, so it’s not right to tell them that their opinions are false. I’m afraid that the cast of mind of most people is the opposite of scientific.

There’s something Lynne Trussish about Whyte’s sense of outrage. If someone insists on believing that their pet dog is going to heaven or that the world was created in six days then why is this Jamie Whyte’s concern? Is is he entitled to conduct an audit of your beliefs and issue an infringement notice if he isn’t satisfied with your reasons for holding them?

Whyte’s problem is his simplistic understanding of how beliefs work. We all know that people sometimes lie to each other – we often say one thing to the people we confide in and another to those we don’t ("What a beautiful baby!" vs "That child looks like some kind of hairless rodent.") For the sake of argument, let’s assume that most of us would confide in ourselves most of the time.

If the definition of a belief is something you’d tell yourself privately and not argue with then there are two obvious questions:

1. Under what circumstances do we tell ourselves things like – Woolworths is open until midnight, that the world was created in six days, or that a relative’s baby looks like a shaved hamster; and

2. What consequences does telling ourselves these things have for our behavior.

Psychologist Robert Abelson has a theory – people treat beliefs like they treat possessions. Just as the things we say to each other can serve a wide variety of functions so too can the things we say to ourselves. Believing that the local Woolworths is open until midnight is what Abelson calls a ‘testable’ belief. It’s a belief we use to organize our behavior, to get concrete results from our interaction with the environment. If we show up at the supermarket at 11:30pm and it’s closed then we revise our belief about opening hours. But what kind of belief is thinking that the world was created in six days, that Hitler had only one testicle, or that dogs go to heaven? When do we tell ourselves these things and what do we do about it?

Abelson calls this second kind of belief ‘distal’:

Distal beliefs seem almost useless. They are tools that don’t objectively do anything. Yet it is clear that people are expected to have them and, indeed, do have them. Public opinion surveys ask about all sorts of distal matters ranging from arms control to Reagan’s visit to Bitburg.

If we think of beliefs as like our other possessions then there’s no real mystery here. Distal beliefs can be "part of your wardrobe." Just as many of the clothes we wear are not really chosen to protect us from the wind, rain, and cold, many of our beliefs serve no utilitarian purpose. We use them to signal solidarity, to create an image of ourselves as tough-minded thinkers, or caring Australians. Just as male executives are expected to wear a suit and tie to work, fundamentalist Christians or Greens supporters are expected to have certain combinations of matching beliefs.

It’s hard to see what is so irrational about this. After all, as long as you don’t use your belief that dogs go to heaven as an excuse to fling the neighbor’s pet under a bus then what harm does it do you or anyone else? What matters is not what people say to themselves but what they do to each other.

As a teenager I was amazed at the way fundamentalist Christians could believe such outlandish things about religion but function so effectively as medical students, business people, and investors. At the time it seemed to me that only a person with extremely poor reasoning skills could believe that the Bible is inerrant, that Noah’s Ark was real, and that the Rapture might happen any day now. I was wrong. Clearly the cognitive standards these high-functioning fundamentalists applied to their studies and business dealings were not the same ones they applied to their more distal beliefs.

This is one of the reasons why politicians can insist that their religious beliefs be treated as private. Unless they bring them into debates over policy the public have no right to insist that politicians put their religious beliefs on the public record or provide justifications for them.

The fact that most people use some of their beliefs and opinions the way they use four wheel drives (picking up the kids from school) or hiking boots (going shopping at the mall) might be annoying to science botherers and truth sticklers like Jamie Whyte but it doesn’t seem to damage their quality of life or hasten the end of civilization.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
20 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Red Peter
Red Peter
2022 years ago

If the underpinnings of a persons morality are based on uncompromising religous dogma, this is supposed to be irrelevant?

Perhaps to a limited degree that’s true, but when the prime minister of england, for example, sais he feels “good” about creationism being taught as biology in some public schools because it relects the “diversity” in our society, a line might have been crossed, no?

If we all all walk around blind, in blissful ignorance of reality, there are bound to be some unpleasant collisions.

Red Peter
Red Peter
2022 years ago

Faith in God, in a form that is purely spiritual, is seperate from belief here, BTW.

Don
Don
2022 years ago

“If we all all walk around blind, in blissful ignorance of reality, there are bound to be some unpleasant collisions.”

Well Red Pete… It’s the lack of collisions I’m so impressed with. It’s one thing to belong to a sect whose leader says that the world will end on a particular date and another to believe in something like the Rapture.

In the first case a believer might quit their job, sell all their stuff, and then find out the whole thing was a mistake.

In the second they simply live their life as if every day might be their last.

It’s the way fundamentalists are able to avoid unpleasant collisions in their own lives that’s so interesting. The thing to look for is the way beliefs translate into behavior.

John
John
2022 years ago

I had a go at this, from a slightly different perspective, here

Alan Green
2022 years ago

Great piece Don, and I’d take it one step further, examining everybody’s distal beliefs.

Each of us walks around with a core set of distal beliefs. This phenomenon is not limited to organised religion: the humanist believes that all people are to be treated equally, the scientist thinks that truth can be discovered by application of intelligence and method, and archetypal greedy executive values his personal wealth beyond all else.

Thoughtful people may be able to express reasons they have for believing in their world-view. However, if you drill down on those reasons, you only have to ask “why?” a few times before you reach a point where the believer has to say, something like, “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” or “Because that’s what I believe.”

In short, we each have our own beliefs that spring from untestable assumptions, and there is no convincing, absolute way to tell which set of assumptions is “right.” Unfortunately, we all have to agree enough on standards that society still works.

I think your suggestion that we judge others on their behaviour – each of us according to our own belief system – is an intellectual cop out. On the other hand, I can’t think of any better solution, and most people seem to get along with most other people, most of the time.

Don
Don
2022 years ago

Alan,

You say “I think your suggestion that we judge others on their behaviour – each of us according to our own belief system – is an intellectual cop out.”

I guess there are 2 things I’d say.

1. You can’t figure out what someone really means by a statement by looking the words up in a dictionary (eg “I believe in God”). What you can do (i) try to discover how it knits in with other statements they’d make (eg “God is evil”) and (ii) look at how the whole package of beliefs shapes their behavior.

2. If you don’t judge people’s behavior using your own belief system whose belief system would you use?

I’m not convinced that facts and values can be separated (see Hilary Putnam’s arguments in Reason, Truth and History). So unlike many people I think it IS possible to have a reasonable argument about values. Value committments do not need to be entirely arbitrary.

scot mcphee
scot mcphee
2022 years ago

Treating your beliefs like they are merely objects – your possessions – is one of the things that IS hastening the end of civilisation.

Don
Don
2022 years ago

Why is that Scott?

goetz von berlichingen
goetz von berlichingen
2022 years ago

The supernatural is, by definition, transcendent.
Religion deals with the supernatural, and thus beyond empirical or rational proof.

Link
2022 years ago

I think this argument is a bit fraught. Too many generalities are being lumped into one ‘belief’, fundamentalists, ideas of truth, concepts of ‘belief’ and the hereafter. All these things need to be more compartmentalised – loosely enmeshing them all only serves to muddy the waters. Where would you put me?

I believe wholeheartedly in an omnipotent, divine being who is soley responsible for my existance. I believe that He is both unknowable and known. I call him ‘God’, because I come from a Christian background and my archetypal knowledge and understanding of symbolic language is heavily informed by that background. I believe that ‘He’ has a male energy, and that all souls are female.

I don’t believe in dogma in any way shape of form, dogma is clearly something constructed by men with small minds and an eye for control.

I believe some of the Bible was ‘celestially’ inspired but that most of it was written by blood and flesh human beings with all their faults and culturally imposed prejudices. The gospels clealy have a universal ‘humanitic’ message. Swedenborg tells me that the Bible is written in seven levels or parable. (and that I will find my ‘dead’ pets in the spiritual world!)

I do not claim to be a Christian – I’m not nearly that ‘good’, it is however something worth aspiring to.

I believe in the ultimate power of truth, which is simply extant, unlike lies which are constructed by humans.

Would you call me a fundamentalist-loony-god botherer whose belief system is worth nothing more than a piece of piss because it doesn’t ‘do’ anything?

Fundamentalists of any creed are dangerous and shouldn’t be allowed political power, we face a grave situation. But hey, this is planet earth, populated with that most perverse and erratic of species, who “know not what they do” (98.9% of the time).

Alan Green
2022 years ago

“I think it IS possible to have a reasonable argument about values.”

Well, I agree with that, even if I don’t agree with your reasoning. ;-)

I’m going to have a think about what constitutes a successful discussion of values. I may also take your advice and read Hilary Putnam.

Red Peter
Red Peter
2022 years ago

This is universally the case. Prejudices and beliefs are, generally, rationalised in a way that renders them more or less compatible with social norms. Watching a doco on apartheid era South Africa the other day, it struck me how its proponents justified their views to the international community

Red Peter
Red Peter
2022 years ago

>

This is universally the case. Prejudices and beliefs are, generally, rationalised in a way that renders them more or less compatible with social norms. Watching a doco on apartheid era South Africa the other day, it struck me how its proponents justified their views to the international community

Red Peter
Red Peter
2022 years ago

Woops! Sorry for the double post, and I messed up the quotes: first part was in response to:

“It’s the way fundamentalists are able to avoid unpleasant collisions in their own lives that’s so interesting. The thing to look for is the way beliefs translate into behavior.”

And then to:
“Thoughtful people may be able to express reasons they have for believing in their world-view. However, if you drill down on those reasons, you only have to ask “why?” a few times before you reach a point where the believer has to say, something like, “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” or “Because that’s what I believe.””

Apologies.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Don, interesting stuff. A couple of reflections:

First, Weber noted that the hallmark of modernity is the inescapable drive to rationalisation. The liberal public sphere is meant to be the sphere where rational debate decides questions, hence the relegation (normatively) of emotional or belief based discourses such as religion to the private sphere. This then raises the whole question of the degree to which liberalism itself rests on values which are not reducible to rationality and which it must disavow while being constitutive of its foundations.

Secondly, Wilfrid Cantwell Smith, more than 40 years ago in his excellent short book “The Meaning and End of Religion” pointed out that the way in which we conceive of religion as a system of dogmas or rationally justifiable beliefs is a product of the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation’s hardening of theological pluralism into rigid doctrinal definition. He argues that the definition of religion in terms of beliefs which are held to be propositions about the world shows its cultural and historical limitations in the ethnocentrism of most comparative religion scholarship about other world religions – the worldview of whose believers simply does not work in this fashion. Similarly, James Barr in his 1977 classic ‘Fundamentalism’ demonstrates that the ‘literal’ reading of the bible and the tendency to treat biblical exegesis as a search for ‘truth propositions’ is inescapably modern, rather than being a return to some notion of what early Christianity was about.

Thus, I’d argue, the best and most positive way for believers to go is to regard religion as a spirituality and a practice rather than as a set of propositions to subscribe to or defend.

Philosophy of religion can be interesting (ie is it logically coherent to think of life after death?) but it seems to me to be primarily an intellectual puzzle often disconnected from the true wellsprings of faith.

Alan
Alan
2022 years ago

Religion makes for social cohesion in a monocultural society and social disintegration a multicultural society. It lessens the extent to which we can agree, or agree to disagree.

The same may be said about secular dogmas, articles of faith and received wisdoms which are beyond reality-based evaluation.

Jamie Whyte values rational social engagement. So do I.

Then there’s this Ron Suskind piece …
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html?oref=login&oref=login&pagewanted=print&position=

Alan Green
2022 years ago

> “If you wanto ignore the entire study of phylosophy, that may be true.”

Red, I don’t mean to be facetious, but why do you place so much faith in philosophy?

Red Peter
Red Peter
2022 years ago

“Red, I don’t mean to be facetious, but why do you place so much faith in philosophy?”

Because it provides grounds for rational discourse. Beliefs are reached through and backed by methodology, rather than simply being prejudices affirmed by a devine seal of approval. In short, cultural paradigms are left open to review as culture evolves.

kyan gadac
kyan gadac
2022 years ago

A theologian once made the distinction for me between beliefs and opinions. Beliefs are the things that determine (change) our actions and opinons are what we have about the weather. This distinction is equivalent to the ‘distal belief’/belief distinctin that you are making but perhaps more lucid.

Also the idea that Christianity equates with the modern fundamentalist version is false. Christians have been Marxists and Greens without seeing any contradiction in the past.

FWIW I think that fundamentalism is an abomination as far as true Christianity is concerned.

trackback
2022 years ago

Religion and politics in Australia

Now that the prospect of Family First holding the balance of power in the Senate has receded (though not in a good way!) there are a few questions I’d like to raise. Reading all the stuff about the rise of…