David Brooks writes:
The pope and many others speak for the thoroughly religious. Christopher Hitchens has the latest best seller on behalf of the antireligious. But who speaks for the quasi-religious?
Quasi-religious people attend services, but they’re bored much of the time. They read the Bible, but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They find themselves inextricably bound to their faith, but think some of the people who define it are nuts.
Earlier, I asked: Do Religious Believers Really Believe? If someone really believed their unbelieving friends would be tortured for all eternity without Christ, wouldn’t they try a bit harder to get them to see the light? It seems they don’t really believe, or they are astonishingly cold about the fate of people they profess to care about.
Perhaps many religious people do not really believe the ancient superstitions, but rather suffer from what Daniel Dennett called “belief in belief.” People who believe in belief think that mankind needs myths to live by, so we ought not examine religious myths to closely. It’s a good thing to believe, whether or not it’s true.
Believing something, and believing that one believes something, are not the same thing…
I can know how to spell ‘chrysanthemum’ without knowing that I know how to do it. Likewise, you believe many things that you don’t realize you believe, so in that sense you lack the belief that you believe them. For instance, you probably believe that there are more fish in the Pacific Ocean than there are birds on the Galapagos Islands, though until this minute, you probably weren’t aware that you held this belief. It’s not that you didn’t believe this a minute ago, and only just now formed the belief: nothing in the previous sentence has taught you anything that would have caused you to form a new belief you didn’t have last week. You already had a first-order belief about Pacific fish v. Galapagos birds, yet you lacked the second-order belief about yourself, namely that you held that first-order belief…
Believing something differs from believing that you believe it in a still stronger sense. First-order beliefs are compatible not only with the absence of second-order beliefs, but with their outright denial. Perhaps I know how to spell ‘chrysanthemum’ even though I’m sure I don’t know how to do it. Similar paradoxes occur with belief. The Pravda, a newspaper controlled by the state, was the official source of “news” in the Soviet Union. When polled, its readers would forcefully deny believing anything they read in it, conscious as they were of its being an organ of state propaganda. Yet when polled about their first-order beliefs, about events going on in the country, Pravda readers held beliefs and opinions they could only have formed from reading the Pravda. It is easy to see how this can happen. You read ‘P’ in the Pravda, and you say to yourself “P comes from the Pravda and so is groundless and false.” As time goes by, you remember ‘P’ but not where you got it from (who keeps track of that!). First thing you know, you’re believing P…
Even more important for present purposes is the other way around: believing that you believe something is not the same as believing it… If you are like my Canadian father-in-law, you believe that there is a t-sound in the word ‘butter’… But you clearly do not have this belief, at least not if you are a competent speaker of North-American English. For if you did, you would say “buTer” (with a t-sound) rather than what you do say, which is “buDer” (with a flapped d-sound). What you believe then, to recap, is that the normal pronunciation of ‘butter’ is “buDer” – witness how you actually do it – but you also believe (mistakenly) that you believe that the normal pronunciation has a t-sound in it. Just because you believe that you have a belief doesn’t mean you have it, anymore than believing that you know how to spell ‘chrysanthemum’ implies that you do know how to do so.
Mercier then makes a striking claim:
Most people don’t really believe the religious claims they purport to believe.
Mercier’s first example is the one raised by Doug Stanhope: “If you really believe that death leads to eternal bliss, then why are you wearing a seatbelt?” Mercier concurs:
For instance, whatever they may think or say about what they believe, most people believe that life ends at death. If you really believed that life goes on after death, you wouldn’t put such care as you do in avoiding death. Dying would be like going to bed: a bummer if you’re having a good time, but heck, you’ll have another good time tomorrow (and if not tomorrow, then the next day, or the next one after that). You would wish, encourage, and hasten the death of the poor, sick, depressed, or otherwise worst off, since their next life could only get better.
Certainly most people, whatever they may think or say, do not believe that an eternity of bliss awaits the pure and innocent. No matter how happy your life is, it’s nothing compared to the everlasting bliss that awaits you as long as you haven’t done anything worthy of eternal damnation. Given that your life is a little speck of nothingness compared to eternity, and that every day you go on living increases the risk of your doing something bad for which you would spend an eternity in hell, what loving parent would not self-sacrificially wring your neck the moment you were born, to save you from eternal damnation? (They could explain to an understanding God afterwards why they had done the right and loving thing by you.) Perhaps you think that God does not condone killing people for their own good. (Why not, if he is good, and it’s for their own good?!)
Still, if you really believed in the afterlife, you would at least be an extreme risk-taker: you would want to die as soon as possible before succumbing to some temptation that would damn you to hell forever; you would never look before crossing the street, in the secret hope of being soon done in by a truck; you would take your children on dangerous expeditions on icy precipices and hope they fall to their end while still pure and innocent. If you really thought God punished the unjust you would not be so selfish as to protect your children for your own enjoyment at the risk to them of an eternity of suffering. Yet that is not how most of us feel and not what most of us do…
The best example of true believers in life after death and eternal bliss, whose actions reveal the genuineness of their first-order religious beliefs, is provided by suicide bombers…1
Most people who claim to have religious beliefs have scarcely ever analyzed the contents of their belief, and indeed are reluctant to do so even when prompted. Ask a theist pointed questions about God, or about the concept of God, and you end up with non-answers: at the end of the line will invariably be things we really can’t understand, concepts that are not only beyond comprehension but essentially mysterious, and so on. So their first-order beliefs have referents they can’t refer to, and their second-order beliefs can’t be of the sort that are about concepts, since the concepts about which they would purport to be are themselves undefined, indeed purposefully so. The concepts making up their belief are essentially vacant.
…There is a good reason why most people refuse to examine the details of the religious propositions they profess. Let’s face it, most first-order religious beliefs are daft: that Jesus was born from a virgin impregnated by a holy spirit; that Mohammed split the moon in two; that evil is the consequence God has to put up with to grant us freedom. Such beliefs are as implausible as Athena’s springing fully clothed from the head of Zeus, the Earth being supported by a tortoise, the gods requiring that virgins be thrown from cliffs or Christians thrown to the lions. And most people (first order) know it: the very same who believe the ones would scoff arrogantly at the others.
…Religion is all about believing that one’s beliefs are right, not about having right beliefs. If first-order religious beliefs had content, their content could be checked against the truth. It is precisely because such beliefs lack content that one can go on believing that one believes them despite any and every evidence. But the price of second-order belief in vacant first-order beliefs is self-deception.
All forms of self-deception are dangerous, but none is more cruel than that which robs one’s very reason for living of its authenticity.
And so I ask again: Do most Christian really (first order) believe?
- I added paragraph breaks, here. [↩]