Daily Archives: July 11, 2019

Should We Accept Religious Beliefs?

The head shaman of the religious community Altan Serge in Buryatia.

In my last post on outgrowing my childhood religious beliefs, I said this:

Some ideas are mostly self-evident and others just aren’t available to you…. So I believe the earth rotates around the sun…and that biological evolution is true, but I can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead…or that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. And it’s not like I have to try to believe the former two things and not believe the latter two.

This claim elicited the following slightly edited comment from Professor Darrell Arnold.  

This issue of trying to believe things is interesting. We have all kind of beliefs. I can look outside and see that it is raining and then believe what my eyes tell me. I can feel hungry and believe that I’m hungry. These are two examples of beliefs that are even more self-evident than those you mention. (Professor Arnold is right about this.)

Other beliefs, like the belief in atomic particles or evolutionary theory, require an education. Yet because the evidence is quite straightforward, they generate consensus once someone has learned the methods of research in these areas and how correctly examine the evidence.

Then there are the metaphysical beliefs such as those you mention (as well as beliefs about ethics or aesthetics.) When it comes to metaphysics it’s difficult to know what counts as good evidence.

But what is apparent is the degree to which people rationalize their religious beliefs. To really believe in God, the father almighty, that a man walked on water or rose from the dead or that the spirit of the universe is contained in a wafer — that takes some hard-core suspension of disbelief and (a lot of) rationalization. It’s both frightening and fascinating that we are so ready to do this for views that we have been told are sacrosanct.

As evidence for such far-fetched beliefs, people often appeal to “inner experience” as evidence. Yet there is no clear analysis of what type of inner experience would be adequate for forming a belief in miracles, the resurrection of the dead or that some god is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing. Clearly, as Hume pointed out, there is always a more plausible account for a miracle than that the miracle actually happened. And it’s easy to argue that finite beings can’t experience the infinite. 

Yet there is no argument or evidence that would suffice, for the adamant believers, to falsify their beliefs. They believe because they want to and the evidence presented for these beliefs is disingenuous—usually, it is based on religious experience. Those who have had such experiences then accept, normally whole cloth, the group of beliefs that their particular religion are supposed to believe. The religious experience, of course, doesn’t justify those beliefs.

One of the most interesting things about religious views is the set of social conventions and institutions set up to try to guarantee their unquestioning acceptance. Another is the certainty many believers claim to have despite a clear lack of evidence for their views.

Those in religious institutions, of course, have material interests in maintaining those institutions. But much of the rationale behind the dogmatist’s effort to ensure they never doubt is the deep insecurity of the dogmatists themselves. When the reasons for belief are so poor, believers take comfort knowing that others remain convinced of the ideas.

In any case, fear and intimidation are cornerstones of religious education. In standard Christian and Muslim traditions, children are taught they will be eternally punished if they have false beliefs, and that they should never question tradition and the authority of their religious institutions. So not only must believers engage in difficult mental gymnastics to try to sound rational to themselves but those who oversee the institutions must work hard to try to ensure that believer never begin to doubt. 

To reiterate, some ideas are self-evident. We don’t have to work hard to believe that it’s raining when it’s raining or that we’re hungry when we’re hungry. Other ideas require hard work and continual suspension of disbelief.

The paradox is that the more difficult religious ideas are often held with the greatest certainty. But believing in them requires continual effort which raises questions about what existential and social functions such ideas play. Why are they thought so important that billions of people suspend rational thinking and accept them? And why do institutions work so diligently to try to ensure that believers don’t dare question them?