Do The Pious Actually Believe What They Say They Believe?

I recently had an aha moment of sorts. You know, one of those moments of clarity where you have a revelation that has been lurking around in your mind. This particular aha moment, that I will reveal shortly, was prompted from hearing another persons’ voice articulate an idea. I’m not going to shed the suspense quite yet, but I will reveal that my seemingly obvious revelation was spawned from listening to Colin Marshall interview Steven Landsburg on The Marketplace of Ideas (You can find the episode here).

At this point, I’m sure my suspenseful buildup is gnawing at you. Are you ready to know exactly what this earth shattering revelation is? OK, here it is: People, particularly pious people, don’t really believe what they say they believe. Sucker that I am, I have often naively thought otherwise. When someone tells me that they believe in Heaven I usually give them the benefit of the doubt and believe what they are telling me. Shame on me, I should know better! This is because the evidence that I can gather from people who claim to hold these types of beliefs would indicate that I’m dead wrong. And I *believe* that using evidence and logic is a superior methodology for arriving at conclusions than is listening to empty words. If there really is a heavenly and eternal paradise awaiting us after death, one would think more people would be in a rush to get there, right?


Fast forward a week or so after listening to the podcast, and I find myself devouring Landsburg’s book The Big Questions (which is excellent by the way!). In the book, Chapter 6 describes the details of this earth shattering idea in greater detail.

The chapter begins with a short anecdote from Landsburg about his friend, Misha, who is an Orthodox Jew. Readers can infer that Misha is very similar to many pious individuals. We learn that Misha concludes his morning prayers with the following declaration: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may tarry, nevertheless I believe.” This, however, prompts an interesting question: Does Misha really believe this with the certainty that he claims? Landsburg suspects that the answer is “no”, and like many of his devoutly religious brethren, Misha is simply a liar.

Now that I’ve extensively ruminated over this idea, it seems so painfully obvious that people don’t really believe what they say believe, but I find this idea, like the need for religion itself, fascinating anyway. Consider this passage from Landsburg’s book.

They believe that they believe, but their beliefs are of the easily disposable kind. Suppose you could take a devoutly religious person, ask him, “Are the tenets of your religion true?” and somehow convince him that the life of his child depends on getting the answer right. I’m guessing that nine times out of ten, you’d find yourself confronting a born-again infidel. The only reason that rarely happens is that there’s rarely an occasion when getting the right answer actually matters.

The reason we shouldn’t believe what pious people tell us about their deepest held convictions is based on the evidence presented to us. To put it simply, most folks like Misha don’t live their lives as if they absolutely believed in the words their religious texts profess. For example, if I truly believed in the Christian God, with absolute certainty, I would live my life in a way consistent with that. Perhaps I’m being naive or foolish again, but I suspect that others would do this too if they truly believed (I’ll concede that some religious individuals do indeed live according to their beliefs, at least they’re consistent).

Let’s look at a real life example of a belief that I actually hold with absolute certainty. I have the deep held belief that I can’t walk through brick walls and I certainly live my life as if I unequivocally believed this. Sure, it’d be nice if I could walk through brick walls, but alas, I can’t. Strangely, I rarely find myself telling people that I believe I can’t walk through brick walls; I simply don’t feel the need to. The reason is because I believe with absolute certainty that I can’t walk through brick walls and no faith based argument from a foe would convince me otherwise. My mind is simply made up about this seemingly obvious truth and I feel no compulsion to try and persuade others to believe this too. I, like Landsburg, suspect that people who feel this same certainty about their religion feel no need to debate others or talk about. These select individuals are at absolute peace with their beliefs in the same that I am with my belief that I can’t walk through brick walls.

Most religions assert that God is watching our actions even when others aren’t watching. If this were true, my inner economist would tell me that people would avoid displeasing God at all costs. Yet, I don’t think that’s true based on what I observe in the real world. If somebody really believed that there were a heavenly afterlife, you’d suspect they’d always be on their best behavior, right? Alas, I have been reminded that there is at least a grain of truth in the trite cliche that ‘actions speak louder than words’.

Here’s an interesting example about actions and beliefs that Landsburg dishes up in the book:

There are a billion Muslims in the world, of whom at least several million profess to *believe* that martyrdom is the most direct path to heaven. Why, then, have Islamic terrorists managed to carry out no more than about five hundred suicide bombings in the past fifteen years? Why so few volunteers? Is it possible that only a negligible fraction of those several million actually mean what they say? (my emphasis)


As an aside, but a related one, I also see that corruption plagues many religious organizations, which suggests to me that some devoutly religious folks act in purely selfish ways. They act, disgusting as their actions may be, as if this life were the only life. I mean really, is the short term gratification they get from acting immorally really worth an eternity in hell? If devoutly religious folk really believed what they say they believe, then I would suspect that they would be some of the most ethically sound people around.

A favorite saying that is plastered on bracelets that can be found on the wrists of today’s young and hip Christians is “What Would Jesus Do?”. Well, Jesus lived an ascetic life and would likely be a Liberal Democrat. What kind of car would he drive? I’m not sure, but my gut intuition tells me he wouldn’t drive a Range Rover or an Audi! Yet, I often see evangelical Christians driving these types of fancy cars, but proclaiming they want to live like Jesus. As such, I simply no longer believe them. The evidence that I can gather suggests to me that people who vocalize their ambitions to live like Jesus don’t really want to live like Jesus.

In the end, I’m not sure why I’m so shocked by this revelation. I say I believe in things that I don’t really believe in with absolute certainty frequently. However, I’m always willing to change my mind in the face of compelling evidence or logic. The bottom line is that talk is cheap and we can learn a great deal more about what people really believe by examining the evidence.

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13 Comments on “Do The Pious Actually Believe What They Say They Believe?”

  1. Richmonde says:


    George Orwell
    observed that Catholics don’t seem to believe in Hell the way they believe in
    Guildford. Or was it Australia?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Many cigarette smokers believe that smoking will shorten their lives but continue to smoke. This incongruence is not evidence that they do not believe in the evidence that smoking will shorten their lifespan, only evidence of weakness of will.

    Note that many if not most Judeo-Christians believe than God is merciful and forgiving as well.

    • Greg Linster says:

      Thanks for the comment, Duff!  I think you make an interesting point, but I think it misses the mark of what I was getting at.  In your example, there is still a reason that smokers will continue to smoke even if it shortens their life or gives them cancer.  That reason is that the pleasure (the benefit) they derive from smoking cigarettes outweighs the cost of shortening their life or getting cancer.

      Now, I think you’re correct to tacitly suggest that many people fall victim to hyperbolic discounting.  However, that doesn’t change my point.  Let’s say the cost of smoking increased significantly.  For example, let’s say that if you smoke today, you’ll die tomorrow.  Do you think we would still see a vast number of people smoking today?  As the cost of smoking rises (or gets harsher), we’ll see less people do it.  You’ll notice that we don’t see sane people suffering from the cognitive dissonance you suggest when it comes to jumping from skyscrapers.  That’s because the cost (death) is severe and immediate.

      Shortening your life or getting cancer from smoking pales in comparison to an eternity in hell.  We’re talking about the supreme cost of all costs here.  Perhaps I’m injecting my personal utility calculus into the equation (joking, but not really!) into the minds of the pious, but there is no benefit here on earth that outweighs the cost of an eternity in hell. 

      • Anonymous says:

        Some atheists believe that after death there is no experience other than a meaningless void, therefore all we have is this life. Some of these atheists also smoke and believe that smoking causes cancer and shortens lifespan. Therefore atheist smokers well-informed as to the risks of smoking don’t really believe either a) after death is a meaningless void or b) smoking causes cancer and shortened lifespan.

        Either that or your argument fails.

        • Greg Linster says:

          That’s a false dilemma right there!

          I’ll dissect your argument step-by-step.  We’re all good on your first premise, I too agree “some atheists believe that after death there is no experience other than a meaningless void, therefore all we have is this life”.

          Where the problem comes in is in your second assertion.  “Some of these atheists also smoke and believe that smoking causes cancer and shortens lifespan.”  So what?  That alone is not grounds for drawing an interesting conclusion.  I’ll suggest that some of these atheists also believe that the pleasure they derive from smoking is worth more to them than dying prematurely or getting cancer.  Now what happens to your conclusion?

          Because your second assertion is deliberately vague, the conclusion you draw is not supported by your claims.  You are committing a variation of the informal logical fallacy known as an incomplete comparison by not providing enough information in your second claim.

          • Anonymous says:

            Ok, I’ll complete the comparison.

            You said, “Shortening your life or getting cancer from smoking pales in comparison to an eternity in hell.” If one believes that after death one faces a terrifying, meaningless void, this is arguably as bad as an eternity in hell. (Some might prefer hell, for at least there is something rather than nothing.) Therefore the same logic of hyperbolic discounting applies. Therefore a smoker who believes that after death is a terrifying, meaningless void who also believes that smoking causes early death must by your argument, not really believe that death is a terrifying, meaningless void OR that smoking doesn’t really cause death. Or your other option is to say that a Christian who believes in eternal damnation must also be allowed hyperbolic discounting. Either way, the true believer in eternal damnation can believe while also acting incongruently with their belief.

          • Greg Linster says:

            Let me ask a clarifying question just to be sure I understand what you’re getting at.  Are we assuming that an eternity in hell (the cost) is greater than the benefit of acting immorally here on the earth?  If so, I think you’re making a mistake in your reasoning.  Again, the reason the smoker may choose to smoke, despite being well aware of the consequences, is  because the perceived benefits of smoking outweigh the costs.

            Let’s consider the following hypothetical anecdote that may help illustrate this more.

            We have a simplistic individual with two beliefs. 

            1) Alcohol causes hangovers.

            2) Jumping from buildings without a parachute causes death or at least great harm.

            Now let’s suppose this individual enjoys getting drunk and enjoys the feeling of free-falling (I do in fact know people who enjoy both of these things).  So what can we infer?  Well, the cost of getting a drunk (a hangover) is much less severe than the cost of death that is likely to come from leaping from a building.  How, then, should we expect people to behave?  I’m arguing that not very many people will jump from buildings because the costs outweigh the benefits.  However, the cost of a hangover really isn’t that severe and while it may be unpleasant, some people may find more pleasure in being drunk than they do pain in the hangover.

            Based on what I can observe, I think my logic is right.  Because sure enough, I see many more people getting drunk (even if they know it’s bad) than people who jump from buildings (and would get pleasure from it).

          • Anonymous says:

            You fail to understand that behaving immorally also feels good, therefore hyperbolic discounting applies (hell is a loooong way away, and perhaps God will be merciful for this one little thing…).

          • Greg Linster says:

            Actually, I completely understand that point.  What I think you’re failing to understand is that the initial cost of what you are discounting matters.  An eternity in hell, even discounted, isn’t even comparable to a slightly premature death many years down the road.  Is anything, even discounted, really worth an eternity in hell? 

            Here’s another example that help shine light on this point:

            Let’s suppose that the experience of getting drunk and getting high from other harder drugs both “feel good”.   Furthermore, let’s suppose that whatever the consequences are, they are more severe for the hard drugs, even though the consequences for both come at a much later date.

            Now, as I’m sure you are aware, more people get people get drunk than use hard drugs.  Why is this so?  Why don’t the people who get drunk also use hard drugs, especially since they both “feel good”?  Why don’t more people fall victim to temporal myopia when considering the use of hard drugs? 

            I’m arguing it’s because the cost is so severe!  And as I’ve said, an eternity hell, even discounted heavily, is still a heft price to pay.

          • Anonymous says:

            Worth it to whom? My point was that an atheist smoker may also believe not in an eternal damnation, but an equivalently awful post-death result of their behaviors yet continue to smoke.

            I think it is more reasonable to say that people believe what they believe regardless of incongruencies in their behavior or whether I think what they believe is true or false. It is also more kind.

  3. Kristophermiller says:

    Although my comment is generally off topic for purposes of this post.  I do reference this post in the comment.  My thought was that the comment would cause a stir among your readers.  To provide context, this is a response to Mr. Linster’s inquiry into whether Tim Tebow is offensive.

    I. “I respect your right to avoid answering the tough questions, Kris.”  The following is my response to your questions.  Though not properly labeled an act of avoidance, I concede that I omitted to answer your questions.

    Question #1: “Would you be offended if Tebow were an atheist and as equally flamboyant about it?”
    Under your hypothetical, Tebow is an atheist.  I am not going to get into what an atheist actually is.  I don’t think a semantical argument of the definition is necessary to address the points that have been raised here.  Your point, correct me if I’m wrong, was to provide an example of a belief system that is the antithesis of mine, and prod (maybe too harsh a word for your taste, but I believe the word to be fitting – insert the word “gauge” if you would rather) me to determine my level of comfort with its public display.  Thus, for purposes of this analysis only, I am imagining Tebow as someone that does not believe in a God or Gods.  To be clear, I am also imagining Tebow, i.e., a record breaking college football player that has been outspoken about his atheism for his several years in college and is now a Denver Bronco.  Done, I can envision such a character.
    The second part of your question requires our hypothetical character to be as flamboyant about atheism as the actual Tebow is about Christianity .  This is where I hit the first roadblock.  I’m convinced that, at the time of your response, you had not read the article I posted and that you simply read the title –  causing your knee to jerk in the form of your response.  I am not going to scold you for not reading it, but I will offer some of the insight provided therein.  When discussing the issue of Tebow’s flamboyancy, the article offered the following:
    “His idea of proselytizing is to tweet an abbreviated Bible citation. Mark 8:36. He leaves it up to you whether to look it up. When he takes a knee, it’s perfectly obvious that it’s an expression of humility. He’s crediting his perceived source, telling himself; don’t forget where you came from. On the whole, it’s more restrained than most end-zone shimmies.”
    Thus, we (you and I) may have almost immediately reached our first difference of opinion.  Simply stated, we have differing views of Tebow’s level of flamboyancy.  Naturally, since we (Tebow and I) presumably share a belief system, I have a much thicker skin when it comes to what I consider to be mitigated displays of faith.  Therefore, I must put on my empathy glasses, which, frankly, I think is your overall purpose for Question #1, as I’ve labeled it.  To accomplish that I must assign our hypothetical character a level of flamboyancy for atheism equal to what an atheist would consider to be a mitigated display of atheism. 
    I must admit, it is difficult for me to envision the way in which this manifests itself.  What does this character say in post game interviews and how does he celebrate a touchdown?  Does he say the following in the post game interview?
    “First and foremost, I want to thank myself – for I am my own unique source of power and determination but humbly acknowledge that my existence is the result of happenstance.  Secondly, I want to thank my teammates and the universe for randomly coming together today and making me look better than I am.”  After he scores a touchdown does he quietly kneel and thank chaos and happenstance, then jump up and point to himself? 
    All of a sudden your question is easy for me to answer.  Through the guise of my empathy glasses, I am not offended.  I would dismiss his statements, give an eye roll at most, and be curious about what he has to say about the game, specifically.  I would also be grateful that he led my favorite football team to a victory.
    Question #2: You state that pursuant to my definition of evangelical, “anyone who responds to a statement with which they disagree is evangelical. You don’t really believe that, do you, Kris?”
    Your response seems to be fueled by my perceived failure to use a more narrowed social/contemporary definition of “evangelical.”  I do believe that responding to a statement with which someone disagrees can, in certain circumstances, be evangelical.  I think that the circumstances of your response warrant use of the evangelism label, under either the literal and/or social definition.  The literal definition is broad and whether you fit into it does not need to be explored and you’ve already dismissed it as rhetoric.  Whether you fall under a narrowed definition (similar to how a Christian evangelical is defined), however, should be explored.
    You concede in your second response that you’re “interested in having truth-seeking debates.”  It naturally flows that you consider yourself a truth seeker.  Greg, the term “truth seeker” and evangelists are joined at the hip.  As an exercise, I would ask you to go to and search evangelist truth seeker – then tell me how many secular destinations come up on the first page.  You will quickly find that many of the Christian evangelists you find so distasteful label and advertise themselves the same way you label yourself .  I am also familiar with coffeetheory and your general vigilance toward the “pious,” “religious,” or any other label among the slew you’ve applied to theists, generally.  In your January 3, 2012 blog, you stop just shy (benefit of the doubt given) of calling the pious liars in the excerpt: “[p]eople, particularly pious people, don’t really believe what they say they believe.”
    When you have published such an opinion, you do not get to put the sheep’s clothing back on, so to speak.  At this point, you have lost the privilege of being considered a harmless passerby.  You come to the table with an agenda and you ask the world to adopt your kind of religion, coffeetheoryism.   Consistent with coffetheoryism, one must be “willing to change [their] mind in the face of compelling evidence or logic.”  Based on some of the comments I’ve read, one must also be comfortable with augmented appeals to probability.
    The above arguments are good support for the position that you have taken an evangelistic approach to your ideals, but the following is, I think, particularly telling.  In defending the propriety of your response you state:
    “I simply stated an observation in the second part of my response. The fact that it may make some pious individuals uncomfortable does not necessarily make me evangelical.”
    After reading that and assuming it to be your actual position, my question became: “what could Greg find so offensive about Tebow’s approach then?”  You said it yourself, if you speak your views, and a pious person is uncomfortable, it does not necessarily make you evangelical.  Tebow embodies the same approach and if he is not evangelical, then what could be so offensive?  Tell it how it is Greg; primarily, you don’t care about the way he displays his faith and neither do atheists (I acknowledge that there is a difference between you and traditional atheists).  You and they have a problem with his faith in any form, whether flamboyantly expressed or privately observed.  If that is not the case, concede that you are, indeed, taking an evangelistic approach to your beliefs.
    II. “One of the strangest things I find about religion is that people believe that, God, if He exists, actually cares about the outcomes of athletic competitions.”
    Generally, I do not think that God cares much about athletic competitions and I think Tebow and many, if not most, Christians would agree with me.  In my church, Tebowmania is kind of a running joke and taken very lightly – most folks still wear #7 on Sunday.  In almost every post game interview I have seen of him, Tebow says something to the effect of: “football is well and good, but there are more important things in life.”
    That said, it is hard for me to concede, entirely, that God does not care.  From my erspective, God cares about everything and considering the polarizing effect of each game’s outcome, I would not be surprised if He did, in fact, care.  On a sidenote, when someone starts a sentence with “something I find strange about religious people is,” it’s usual immediately thought to be a transparent effort to conceal your true feelings, i.e., “something that I find really stupid about religious people is …”
    III. “If He has the time to intervene in childish sporting events, then He should take a look at the suffering around the world and get His priorities straightened up.”
    If you accept as reality that God exists, there is heaven, hell and eternity; then the temporal world’s suffering takes on a different meaning.  As a confirmed Catholic, you are familiar with the crux of the Christian rebuttal to this type of assertion so I will not regurgitate it here.  You have rejected the Christian rebuttal, I have not.
    IV. “And your use of rhetoric is actually quite nice, it’s just too bad that it’s hollow and misguided.”
    Because I know you on a personal level, I will not characterize this sentence as smug.  I will state, however, that the points I make in section I. above, regarding Question #2, address the extent to which my “rhetoric” is “hollow and misguided.”
    V. Generally
    Greg, you are my friend – always will be … and I respect you more than you will ever know.  You’re extremely intelligent and I will never characterize your efforts as being anything other than pure, well intentioned, diligent, and generally admirable.  However, you are drawing a line in the sand and it is a line that we will always be on opposite sides of. 

    • Greg Linster says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, Kris. I too would like to mention how important your friendship has been to me over the years. And, of course, you know that I admire your intellect as well. Obviously, my intent is not to
      deliberately hurt people, especially my best friend, but I’m also not bashful about sharing my religious opinions (when warranted).

      Ultimately, this is because I think religion causes, both direct and
      indirect, harm in the world. I could give many examples, but I’ll
      provide you with one that comes to mind at the moment. I think it’s
      utterly cruel and inhuman how some homosexuals are treated within some
      Christian churches. Granted, these particular theologians may be evil
      without religion too, but religion gives them an excuse. As I’m sure
      you are well aware, religion bleeds into legal and political affairs as
      well. As a secularist, I think this is absurd. If you were a Christian
      minority in an Islamic country, I think you may empathize with how it
      feels to be in the minority in terms of religious views.

      I’ll concede, however, that many religious figures, like Jesus, were
      excellent moral philosophers. And virtually everyone could stand to
      learn more about how to be a decent human-being from figures like Jesus.
      Why do we have to sacrifice our ability to reason and our rationality
      to do this by making them supernatural figures though? Why can’t
      Christianity just be a philosophy of life?

      Now, on to your points.

      I. Question 1: While I did read the op-ed piece, my response was
      admittedly directed at the question in the sensationalist title.
      Perhaps a hypothetical atheist was a poorly chosen example on my part.
      What if Tebow were a flamboyant Muslim instead? Again, we may differ in
      opinion on what constitutes “flamboyancy” and “offensiveness”, but this
      is worth considering. Nonetheless, you understood my point with
      precision and I appreciate your attempt to empathize. Question
      2: I was indoctrinated with Catholicism as a child, and due to my fears
      of brimstone and fire, it took me until later in life to shake these
      goofy beliefs. I was a gullible and obedient (for the most part) child.
      Admittedly, I got defensive when you called me evangelical because, as
      you know, that is one of the things I despise in many religious folks.
      To be fair, I also despise it in militaristic atheists too.
      That other Christian folks call themselves truth-seekers, however,
      doesn’t necessarily make them truth-seekers. Calling yourself “X”
      doesn’t necessarily make yourself any more “X”, right? These folks
      ability to get at truth, in my opinion, is impaired by their dogmatism,
      which they are clearly blinded by. Where I differ with these folks you
      mentioned is in methodology. I believe that empiricism and logic are
      superior methodologies over faith (I suspect you disagree with me here).
      But tell me, Kris, if I tell you that I have faith that there is a
      giant flying teapot orbiting around the earth, should I be taken
      seriously on my *faith* alone? Leading back to one of my
      opening points, “faith” is used to cause a lot of harm in the world.
      In fact, there are militant and literalistic Muslims who have *faith*,
      and faith alone, that they will get 72 virgins in heaven for their acts
      of martyrdom. Do you feel safe letting your children grow up in a world
      where we tolerate the foolishness of faith-based beliefs in public
      life? Furthermore, would you really vote for a politician who made
      promises based on his “faith” alone? As an empiricist, I can once again
      can conclude that most people don’t really believe what they say they
      believe because no politician in their right mind runs on this type of
      platform. II. You wrote: ” From my perspective, God cares about
      everything and considering the polarizing effect of each game’s
      outcome, I would not be surprised if He did, in fact, care.” Where does
      this belief come from? Surely it’s not from the evidence or logic?
      This reiterates my point earlier, if “faith” based claims like this are
      acceptable, then I’m really scared about what could happen in this
      world. III. I think we can agree that we both want to make
      the world a better place. I am, however, interested in practical
      solutions given the reality of the human condition. It’s simply
      logically inconsistent to assert that an omnipotent and loving God would
      allow such evil in the world. Again, I suspect your defense is that
      your “faith” allows you to understand something that I don’t. The only
      reasonable conclusion I can come to is that theists of this variety, who
      believe in an omnipotent and loving God that allows evil and suffering
      in the world, suffer from cognitive dissonance or a fear of logic.
      IV. Nothing to add here. I wasn’t trying to be smug; I was simply
      trying to make a point. Either way, I apologize for my smugness.
      V. Again, I respect you immensely, Kris. I’m not expecting you to come
      over to my side. It’s not about that. Theism is, however, pretty
      controversial and extreme. It’s not exactly in the same category with
      deism or Einsteinan religion, which I am much more sympathetic towards.
      That I find certain varieties of theism dangerous, doesn’t tarnish our
      friendship in the slightest though. And as you you know, I’m no fan of
      dogmatic atheism either. So what do I think we can agree on? We’re
      both human-beings, blessed and cursed with all the pleasures and sorrows
      that come with the human condition, who want to live moral, virtuous,
      and happy lives. Agreed?

  4. Harrison Brookie says:

    Here are my thoughts:

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