20 September 2023

Do believers really believe?

Religionists claim to believe all kinds of quite startling and implausible things.  But do they really believe them?

There is, for example, life after death -- Heaven and Hell, for Christians or Muslims.  How would a person behave if he genuinely believed this concept, in the straightforward way you or I believe that 2+2=4 or that North America exists?  He would never be sad when a co-believer he loved died, since he would believe that person had gone to Heaven.  After all, would you be sad if you believed that the person you loved had gone on to a much better existence where they would always be happy, and that eventually you would join them there?  And such a true believer would have almost no fear of death.  A little, perhaps, since death is usually painful or at least somewhat unpleasant, but that would be trivial to someone who truly believed death to be merely a gateway to a much happier existence.

Yet most believers mourn their dead pretty much the same way as unbelievers do, and work as hard to avoid death as we do.  Yes, they claim their belief in Heaven as a comfort in such cases, but they don't behave and think the way somebody who truly believed in Heaven would behave and think.

What about prayer?  These people claim to believe in an omniscient (all-knowing) God.  Such a God would already know what you want, and exactly how intensely you want it, and whether you deserve it.  It would make no difference, and therefore no sense, to ask him for it.  Yet Christians do this all the time, and most sects strongly recommend the practice.  When you pray for, say, the life of a friend who is in the hospital, how could that possibly affect God's decision about whether or not to intervene in your friend's favor?  God already knows all about your friend's virtues and faults, how much you care, etc.  It doesn't make sense.  Believers, it seems, do not truly believe their God is all-knowing.  Instead they believe he can be chivvied into doing what they want, even sometimes in trivial matters, by their entreaties.

Consider the behavior of religious leaders.  Corruption and hypocrisy and abuse are rife.  Think of the countless Catholic priests who, as we now know, sexually abuse children.  Think of the systematic policy of the Catholic hierarchy, shielding those priests from exposure, moving them from place to place so they won't get caught and can find fresh victims.  All of this behavior has been going on for decades, probably centuries.  Authoritarian Protestant sects, too, are rife with cases of venerated leaders sexually exploiting women, or committing adultery, or carrying on clandestine homosexual activity, which their religion proclaims to be sinful.

These people are very diligent about hiding their behavior from human witnesses who could expose them to worldly punishment.  But they claim to believe in an all-knowing God who has the power to condemn them to a terrifying eternal punishment after death.  Such a God could not be fooled, and would know very well everything they were doing.  Would religious leaders who truly believed in such a God commit such abuses, "knowing" that no amount of deception could save them from his eventual judgment?  It doesn't make sense.

For that matter, one would expect ordinary believers to behave far more morally than unbelievers, since they similarly believe that their God is seeing everything they do and will severely punish serious misbehavior after death.  Yet this belief does not make most believers behave noticeably better than anyone else does.  In fact, the least religious parts of the US have lower rates of violent crime than the most religious parts, and highly secular societies such as Japan and western Europe have much lower rates than highly religious regions like Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

I grant that some people really do behave in ways consistent with true belief.  The actions of the 9/11 hijackers, for example, actually were logically consistent with Islamic doctrines about jihad and Heaven.  There are stories about the Spanish conquistadors in the Americas baptizing Indian babies and then immediately killing them before they had a chance to sin, to guarantee them entry into Heaven.  From the viewpoint of true belief, this makes sense -- the loss of a normal human life would be insignificant compared to getting eternal paradise rather than eternal torture.  But notice that such behavior (a) is very rare and (b) looks like frightening insanity to almost everyone, including to most Christians.

There may exist, in the human mind, the capacity for a sort of quasi-belief intermediate between actual belief and deception of others -- a kind of deception maintained with such intensity (and with such self-righteousness) that it fools even the self on a very superficial level ("I believe that I believe this").  I can hardly imagine what this would subjectively feel like.  But it seems that the religious belief of most religious people is something like this.  That may account for their weirdly disproportionate outrage when their religion is challenged in some way.  The comforting belief is fragile, and any questioning of it threatens to force them to confront the fact that they're really fooling themselves.

But I don't think most of them really believe the gibberish they claim to believe, not in the plain straightforward way people believe 2+2=4.  They just don't behave the way they would if they did.


Blogger Mary said...

Great post. I think they tell themselves they believe this crap and tell others to try to reinforce it in themselves, but in reality they sort of believe through fear and also arrogance..a great need to believe they are superior and special.

20 September, 2023 06:30  
Blogger Lady M said...

Absolutely agree with this 100%. The religious do not really know - they have no evidence to support their delusions. Religion is about control not truth. If they really believed, not one of them would bother to pay for health insurance and death would be welcomed. Abortion would be ok - look at all the little babies going to heaven. The women who conceived can go to hell. But controlling women is the real motive. Churches are huge businesses and they do what they need to do to insure their continued existence.

20 September, 2023 12:26  
Blogger NickM said...

Excellent post.

I personally have a theory. Well, two, but they are linked...

I suspect a lot of religious "belief" is a myth people convince themselves of because they believe that a society without outwardly expressed faith will go to a very real, very secular Hell. It is belief, or the pretense thereof, done for something like utilitarian reasons. I've known a few Christians who actually 'fessed this up to me on the quiet. A lot of the Church of England is like that. God help us! I even had a vicar once say, "It must be wonderful to have faith". He was subsequently defrocked, mind. Though not because he didn't believe in God. He had his hands in the collection box (and a couple of parishioners).

Then there is the "balance sheet". Yeah, you got child-abusing Catholic priests by the boatload and US fundamentalists who are up to all sorts with the huge wealth they accrue (uusally from the poorest in society). But... What if they feel that, overall, they are in the black with God? You can see how that can be used as a self-justification. Either because via the mechanism I mentioned in the first paragraph or because they believe that bringing people to Jesus (or whoever) simply outweighs their sins.

Moreover, the Catholic Church in particular has these sorts of ideas built in very deeply. The primary duty of a Pope is to maintain the Church come Hell or high water. If you believe that then covering up your own rotten apples in the barrel is a necessary evil. I think this doctrine goes way back...

So, there you have it. I have mentioned Ken Ham here before and his Creation "Science". This is ad hoc attempts to create science to support a belief system and not about understanding the Universe we live in. It is philosophical idealism writ large - the concept that a belief system ought to shape the World or at least how we think of the World and not the other way around. In a very real sense Young Earth Creationists share a lot in common in the meta-thinking with Marxists or gender-identarians. This does amuse me. Grimly amuse me. They all seek what they think is the good rather than what is true. So, yeah, we are back to a form of utilitarianism. I mean if you genuinely believe a nation that turns it's back on Christ is doomed to descend into anarchy then what else do you believe and promulgate? It's a very old way of thinking. It is Plato's "Noble Lie". That of course pre-dates Christianity by five hudred years or so.

Whilst I have here specifically addressed Christianity that was for the sake of simplicity and because you, Infidel, primarily addressed Christianity. I do though think my argument can be generalised.

20 September, 2023 13:18  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe belief is bad.

20 September, 2023 22:17  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary: I'm sure that's true about "telling others to try to reinforce it in themselves". Not only challenges to implausible beliefs, but the very existence of people who don't believe in them, threatens the believer's fragile conviction.

Lady M: Indeed, there's not evidence supporting any of this stuff. There's really nothing at all except that, in most cases, they had the beliefs drummed into them when they were too young to think critically and just accepted what they were told, especially if the adults made it sound important. And that's a good point about abortion.

But controlling women is the real motive

It's remarkable how much about religion really boils down to that.

NickM: I can understand people a century ago thinking that the decline of religion would lead to some sort of decay of society -- even Nietzsche seems to have worried about that -- but certainly not now, when we have so many examples to show that more secular societies are freer and more peaceful. And I suppose that some of those child-molesting priests might imagine that it's possible for something else they're doing to offset the evil of the molesting, but if so, their capacity to make themselves believe insanities is way beyond anything I could ever hope to account for.

The primary duty of a Pope is to maintain the Church come Hell or high water. If you believe that then covering up your own rotten apples in the barrel is a necessary evil

It's hard to imagine a more clear-cut example of an evil organization, or evil thinking, than this. The Catholic Church is way past the point of needing to be shut down worldwide.

They all seek what they think is the good rather than what is true

Certainly a common attitude with a wide range of ideologists, which makes them congenitally incapable of ever getting at what is true, which in turn means they can't cope with reality. I constantly see this with the politics-junkie types.

This is ad hoc attempts to create science to support a belief system

Also true, which means they have no clue what science is. You can't do science by starting with the preferred conclusion and working backwards trying to make the evidence fit it. That doesn't even qualify as a parody of science.

Anon: Knowledge is better.

21 September, 2023 02:56  
Blogger NickM said...

It is fairly obvious that there are highly effective, free and happy secular societies. Most of Europe springs to mind. Also large chunks of the US* and a load of other places.

But some peolpe do believe these are collapsed societies. I do wonder why? I suspect it is why abortion is such a touchstone for the US Religious Right. The more secular places might have high standards of living, social safety nets, good public transport and affordable healthcare... but they murder babies!!!. I guess as well, God and Eternal Bliss is an easier sell to the poor. Christ Himself was big on "The Meek". "Oh, it's blessed are the MEEK! Oh, I'm glad they're getting something, they have a hell of a time."

*Yes, I know the 1st Ammendment and that England has a State Religion but practically... I mean I've spent quite a bit of time in Georgia (or as an atheist local called it, "The Bible Loins" - below the Bible Belt). Actually Atlanta has (had?) excellent public transport but then Atlanta is odd. It really is as if someone just plonked a large(ish) Northern city into Dixie.

22 September, 2023 05:20  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

A lot of Americans, especially red-staters, have very little idea what most foreign countries are like. At most they might have been to Mexico on vacation a few times. If somebody on the internet tells them Germany or Sweden are hellholes compared to Alabama, they have little basis for disbelieving it.

Most big cities in the US are relatively liberal and rural areas are relatively right-wing. What makes a state "blue" or "red" is mostly just whether it has a city (or several) big enough to out-vote the rural areas.

23 September, 2023 00:29  
Anonymous Raina Nightingale said...

As - as I don't know what to call it myself - I would agree a great many believers don't believe, and certainly don't act like they do. OF COURSE, that depends on who and where we're talking about. In America, it often seems to me that "Christianity" is more of a ... well, more about certain political positions (the merits of these political positions is another question entirely, PLEASE do not interpret me as saying anything for or against them based off this one statement), and I think religions are often used this way, to unify people into groups. Not just Christianity, not just America.

This brings us to what you said about religious leaders and the corrupt ways in which they behave. To put this shortly: I think those hungry for power of some sort of another, happily attempt to build themselves positions of authority where they can twist the power of people's beliefs to their own ends, thereby stripping those beliefs of much of their ... essence. What this looks like in various environments will vary a great deal. But when you look at things like the Witch Hunts and the treatment of infidels in Medieval Europe ... well, when I've had Church Elders call the police on me and slander me, because I was trying to share my understanding of how we could actually reap the benefits of what we believe about a God who loves us and Eternal Life, with other people at the church ... well, it makes me very suspicious a large part of this in a vile attempt to control people in any way possible. Including getting them to deceive themselves.

It seems that not only can these Churches be threatened by those who don't believe, they're threatened at least as much by those who wish to live their belief.

Which raises the question of: "which belief?"

And this brings me back again: true, by far and large, a lot of believers don't act like they do at all. But the choice of taking examples of "acting consistently with their belief" only from those subsets of beliefs that lead to ... well, to murder and similar behavior ... is fundamentally narrow.

You might not agree with their behavior, but there are also believers who don't believe in such an angry, vengeful God. Whose faith isn't about punishment. And, there are some of those, too, who live consistently with that belief. It isn't just murderous fanatics. They might make a bigger splash, but they're not the only ones.

There have been people who challenged the belief system they were taught in one way or another, without denying all of it. Some of them, like Molinos, ended up thrown into dungeons until they died there, or burned. Sometimes, it's milder.

To be as clear as possible, I'm not saying that only those who have faith in a God or a Heaven will face torture or death or anything else for their values. 100% not. I'm definitely NOT implying only Christians will do so. (In fact, I'm not even sure that if we widen our view to take in less "civilized" or "advanced" societies, that the Christians have even been terribly remarkable in this area.)

I'm sorry for such a long comment. These subjects are just quite interesting to me, as someone who has definitely struggled with terror of torture, and is looking for that belief, or mindset, or attitude, or choice, or whatever, that ... that scorns both fear and pain. I want to live with that. So conversations about belief and acting like one believes and human beings are interesting to me.

23 September, 2023 11:31  
Blogger SickoRicko said...

Excellent exposé!

23 September, 2023 12:05  
Anonymous Aurora S said...

I understand why people who are immersed in cultures dominated by monotheism think this, but “religion” doesn’t equal Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam). Polytheists exist (still! It’s true!), and none of this is applicable to polytheism or any of the dharmic religions. Not to be the pedant, but please, atheists, humanists, and agnostics, when you mean “Christianity” (or the Abrahamic religions), please say it. The Abrahamic religions insist that their god is the only “true god”, and ex-monotheists tend to still think this is the case. There are billions of people in this world who don’t buy what that god is selling, yet still are theists of valid religious traditions.

23 September, 2023 17:06  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Raina: Thanks for your comment. Actually one of the major original functions of organized religion is to justify the position of the ruling elite and make the masses go along with the existing social order (in the West, think of the divine right of kings and suchlike), so religion has a very long history of being involved in politics -- in fact, in many societies the upper religious hierarchy is the ruling elite. So American churches functioning as quasi-political entities is part of a long tradition. It's been going on for thousands of years all over the world.

It's inevitable that, when religion has so much power (whether political or psychological), people who are power-hungry anyway will be attracted to it and try to use it as a vehicle. Given the sanctity that clings to it, religion makes it especially easy for leaders to get away with the vilest and sleaziest scams and exploitation without much fear of challenge.

As for the cases I cited of people truly behaving consistently with that they claimed to believe (the 9/11 hijackers and the conquistadors), I chose those examples because they are the most distinctly religious (as well as being examples most readers would be familiar with). There are examples of people doing positive things like charity which also accord with their religious beliefs, but neither the action nor the belief is distinctly religious -- as you yourself note, it's easy to find examples of non-religious people both acting charitably and holding the belief that charity is a virtue. Baptizing babies and then immediately killing them so that they can go to Heaven, on the other hand, is a way of thinking that could not exist without religion.

And the examples I cited earlier of behavior not being consistent with claimed belief -- attitudes toward death, and prayer -- also apply to benevolent religious people. They too mostly react to death the same way non-religious people do, which is not consistent with their claimed beliefs about the afterlife, and they also ask God for favors, with is not consistent with believing God is all-knowing, for the reasons I explained in the post. So what I'm saying does apply to them as well.

23 September, 2023 22:18  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ricko: Thanks!

23 September, 2023 22:21  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Aurora: I suspect you haven't been reading this blog very long. I'm well aware of "eastern" religions, ancient paganism, and so forth. I mostly write about Christianity and Islam because they are the biggest problem in the Western civilization I'm part of. In this post, when I say "religion", I mean "religion", and not just the Abrahamic ones -- I used examples mostly from Christianity because those will be familiar to most of the readers. Even there, some of them apply elsewhere. Religions that don't believe in Heaven but believe that death is a step toward "Nirvana" (merging into a sort of cosmic Borg-like hive mind), and also inexplicably believe that this is a desirable thing, should logically also believe that death is a positive event, when the deceased was a virtuous person. Yet people who claim to believe in such religions react to death more or less the same way as non-religious people do. It's the same principle.

When I'm referring only to Abrahamic religions, I tend to specify "Abrahamic" explicitly, unless it's clear from context. I don't write as much about non-Western religions because they're not as relevant to Western culture, but I'm well aware that they exist. And they're all equally full of shit. India, for example, is full of holy men running various scams to prey (financially and sexually) on the gullible, just as much as Alabama is. Japan had Aum Shinrikyo and kamikaze pilots and emperor worship. I assume you're familiar with Aztec human sacrifices and comparable practices from old pagan religions all over the world. I look at religion as a global phenomenon, not a local one. And it's all garbage.

23 September, 2023 22:31  
Anonymous John said...

To believe blindly of spiritual or physical things, are an evil that has compromised the human race through religion.
All religious systems are from evil. All teach a point of view. In which will not help any other person.
To believe blindly is foolish. To believe what someone said is foolish! But to arrive at a decision by facts, that is vision!

Please check out my place.


29 October, 2023 06:31  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I think that since I grew up without any religion, I was able to assess it more objectively than most. It was very easy to conclude that none of the religions make any sense, and there is no reason to believe that any kind of god exists at all.

29 October, 2023 09:30  

Post a Comment

<< Home