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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How Sexual Choice Can Explain Religion

In the Mating Mind, there was one section titled “Creative Ideologies Versus Reliable Knowledge” that I found particularly fascinating.  According to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, any animal with delusions about reality should not thrive. How, then, can Darwinian ideas explain the human institution of religion? Consider the following passage.

While natural selection for survival may have endowed us with pragmatically accurate perceptual systems, mate choice may not have cared about the accuracy of our more complex belief systems. Sexual selection could have favored ideologies that were entertaining, exaggerated, exciting, dramatic, pleasant, comforting, narratively coherent, aesthetically balanced, wittily comic, or nobly tragic. It could have shaped our minds to be amusing and attractive, but deeply fallible. As long as our ideologies do not undermine our more pragmatic adaptations, their epistemological frailty does not matter to evolution.

All of those things come to mind when I think about human religion. We’re suckers for narratives and that’s why you should be suspicious of stories. In my opinion, the following passage illustrates this point quite compellingly.

Imagine some young hominids huddling around a Pleistocene campfire, enjoying their newly evolved language ability. Two males get into an argument about the nature of the world, and start holding forth, displaying their ideologies.

The hominid named Carl proposes: “We are mortal, fallible primates who survive on this fickle savanna only because cluster in these jealousy-ridden groups. Everywhere we have ever traveled is just a tiny, random corner of a vast continent on an unimaginably huge sphere spinning in a vacuum. The sphere has traveled billions and billions of times around a flaming ball of gas, which will eventually blow up to incinerate our empty, fossilized skulls. I have discovered several compelling lines of evidence in support of these hypotheses….”

The hominid named Candide interrupts: “No, I believe we are immortal spirits gifted with these beautiful bodies because the great god Wug chose us as his favorite creatures. Wug blessed us with this fertile paradise that provides just enough challenges to keep things interesting. Behind the moon, mystic nightingales sing our praises, some of us more than others. Above the azure dome of the sky the smiling sun warms our hearts. After we grow old and enjoy the babbling our our grandchildren, Wug will lift us from these bodies to join our friends to eat roasted gazelle and dance eternally. I know these things because Wug picked me to receive this special wisdom in a dream last night.”

Which ideology do you suppose would prove more sexually attractive?  We are largely the descendants of Candide, which doesn’t bode well for those of us interested in the truth.