What It Means to Really Believe

At some point along the way, most philosophers came to the conclusion that having a belief isn’t simply an internal state of the believer. One might suppose otherwise — that in order for Mary to believe some proposition P, she simply needs to be in the appropriate internal mental state, perhaps one in which she is silently saying to herself “You know, I really believe P”.

There is some truth to the internalist view. After all, we sometimes reach conclusions without announcing them to the world. Archimedes could have stepped into his bathtub, noticed how the water rose and immediately acquired a belief about how to measure the volume of irregularly-shaped objects — while keeping his mouth firmly shut, saving “Eureka!” for another time and place.

One problem with this view, however, is that it seems wrong to say that Mary believes P if her behavior is (consistently) inconsistent with believing P. Say, for example, that Mary claims to believe that all Americans should pay their required income tax, yet fails to pay any tax at all on her extremely high income. When the IRS comes calling, she is nowhere to be found. Mary might loudly proclaim that she believes in paying her income tax — she often says to herself “We Americans should all pay what we owe to the IRS” — but we would be remiss if we didn’t reply: “You claim to believe that, Mary, but your behavior shows that you really don’t”.

I was recently moved to think about what it means to really believe by an exchange of views on an Internet message board. The subject of this particular board is a certain fairly well-known musician. During a recent discussion, a Christian gentleman, veering seriously off-topic, wrote the following:

I got on here before and some people complained, saying that I shouldn’t be using the forum for a place to discuss God. It started a controversy. The people here who go to church etc, and those who don’t. It starts a conflict. That’s the way witnessing is. That’s the way it always is. I won’t continually use the forum here to witness day to day, etc. That’s not the only purpose of the community here. People have a right to get on here and talk about music without someone telling them that they need God. I understand that. But I can’t deny God when I need to mention Him.

And later:

We don’t have to be preaching every minute of the day…. I am getting ready to take a trip up the road to the place I go to see flowers, etc. I don’t feel that I am lost because of it. There is plenty of time for me to enjoy my life, whether it is music, art or whatever, being with family, etc.

The question that occurred to me was: how should a person behave if he really, truly believes that the Christian God exists and that each of us is going to face an eternity of paradise or damnation? How much time should a person spend “witnessing”, i.e. doing God’s work by trying to convince other people of the truth of Christianity, so that they might enjoy a good afterlife? Should one witness only when the mood strikes? An hour a week? One day a week? Five days a week? Every waking hour?

Charles Stanley, of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta, put it this way: “God’s plan for enlarging His kingdom is so simple — one person telling another about the Savior. Yet we’re busy and full of excuses. Just remember, someone’s eternal destiny is at stake.”

Here’s another example. If you truly believe that every fertilized egg is a full-fledged human being, so that abortion is murder plain and simple, what should you do to stop abortions? If you really believe that there are murders being committed every day in a neighborhood clinic, is it enough to express disapproval to your friends, or to show up once a week outside the clinic and try to convince women not to go inside? Or should you be doing something much more dramatic? If you believed that children were being murdered every day in the back room of your local 7-11, what would you do to stop it from happening?

I go back and forth between atheism and agnosticism (do I believe that God doesn’t exist? Or do I strongly doubt it?). So I’m asking these questions as an outsider. I’m not trying to live according to the supposed dictates of the divine ruler of all creation. But I wonder why more Christians don’t behave like those Asian monks, giving up their worldly pursuits, leaving their loved ones and spending all of their time preaching and praying, relying on donations to survive (remember that comment about rich people finding it terribly difficult to get into heaven).

Do serious Christians truly believe what they claim to believe? I think the answer is “yes”, but why don’t they behave more often as if they do?

One answer is that they think some level of prescribed behavior is “good enough”. It isn’t necessary to be a perfect Christian. You just need to meet some minimum requirements in order to get to heaven, so why do more? It’s only right that we should enjoy life while we can, even if that means a few more souls end up in Hell and some more babies are murdered. 

Another possibility is that the seriously religious don’t feel it’s necessary to be their brother’s keeper. So long as they (and their loved ones, perhaps) are doing the right thing, they don’t have a responsibility to make sure that everyone else does the right thing too. It would be wonderful if lots of other people could be saved and go to heaven. It would be wonderful if there were no more abortions. In fact, it’s your Christian duty to do what you can to make those wonderful things happen, but only within reason. It isn’t necessary to devote your whole life to other people’s problems. 

Or maybe they just haven’t thought too hard about this kind of thing. They grew up in the church, saw how other Christians behaved and followed their lead. That’s human nature. 

P.S. — I could have written about Islam instead of Christianity, of course. It’s doubtful that all Muslims try to be perfect Muslims. Unfortunately, a tiny minority of Muslims take their religion extremely seriously, mixing it with politics to violent effect.

2 thoughts on “What It Means to Really Believe

  1. Bertrand Russell claimed that he would not die for his beliefs because he felt that he might be wrong. I too, hold this belief; not only do I believe that I might be wrong I believe that I probably am and most of the time. (I don’t think that this is cynical; I think that, to err is human.) Perhaps this is why I’ve become an avowed atheist; to lend balance.

    I’ve never met a religious person that even considered the possibility that he/she might be wrong. I often proclaim, quite cynically, that if you have faith you can believe in anything. Is faith the antidote of doubt? Herein lies the problem, I believe.

    I’m an atheist, I believe (faith based to be sure.) My existence is a mystery and complexity that enraptures and confounds me daily. Some religious might say that those mystical or enrapturing things are the works of god and I can live with that. Yet others allow that by my professing to be an atheist I am then subject to capital punishment; their faith tells them that I am the devil’s deciple and may be deprived of my life. I’m quite sure that this is done with sincere regret but I’m equally sure that there isn’t a hint of guilt either. It seems as though once you embrace god you can’t be wrong!

    I suspect that most (not all) religious zealots could be could be led to doubt- if their own life was threatened in consequence of their beliefs. Some might even change their beliefs. Perhaps this indicates that faith is ‘power’ based? Who else but those in power will proclaim the ultimate penalty.

    I secretly believe that most god-talkers, witnesses, are afraid to recognize their doubts and feel compelled to have their beliefs validated by everyone. What a load of crap that is; as is the very notion of god. It’s time you moved from your most infantile stage of life to possibly becoming a toddler.

  2. One thing you wrote that I disagree with is the idea that your beliefs are probably wrong most of the time. If that were true, you’d find it hard to survive — you’d bump into the furniture a lot, and not know what it was safe or possible to eat, and not remember people’s names, including your own.

    But maybe you were only referring to your philosophical or metaphysical or scientific beliefs. Those might mostly be false, since they tend not to have as many practical consequences as more mundane beliefs (where you left your car, who your wife is, etc.).

    I agree that many religious people don’t doubt their religious beliefs. Religion is something firm that people can hold onto in a puzzling, difficult world. (Although the clergyman going through a crisis of faith is a familiar figure in Ingmar Bergman movies and English novels.)

    Yet the seriously religious don’t always behave as if they really have those religious beliefs, which was the subject of the blog post.

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