Do some Christians worship belief itself?
Bible-believing Christianity requires an extraordinary degree of faith in the human mind or rather the whole chain of minds that have brought us the Bible and Christian teachings in their current forms. Evidence suggests that this faith is unwarranted.
Failure to Reach Agreement
Most of us feel pretty confident about our worldview most of the time. And yet, when it comes to the really big questions, like why we are here and what happens after we die, our best hypotheses about what is real diverge wildly. Over the course of the last 2000 years, the branches of Christianity alone have split into thousands of different denominations and non-denominations, with people in each one feeling convicted that theirs is the most right. Some even send missionaries to convert other kinds of Christians. (The Evangelical church that I grew up in taught that some other kinds of Christians like Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Mormons, were actually heathens in need of salvation.)
Outside of Christianity, there are thousands more variations on people’s “best guesses” about what is real.
What does this say to me? It says that people who care deeply and who spend their lives dedicated to understanding God and goodness have been unable to reach convergence about what God is and what he wants from us.
And the trend lines aren’t promising; Christianity is splintering at the rate of two new denominations per day. We humans now have convergence about whether the earth revolves around the sun, and we are moving toward convergence about the nature of the stars, but when it comes to the nature of God, if anything humanity is moving in the opposite direction.
The one thing we do know for sure is that no matter how you slice it, when it comes to our ideas about God most people must be wrong. Beyond a doubt, we, as a species, are prone to hearing something we think is the still, small voice of God, that isn’t. And yet despite this, people on all sides feel so certain that some are willing to die—or even kill—for their beliefs.
Psychology of Belief
There is a reason for that, and it has to do with the nature of faith and the nature of knowing.
If you are religious, think about how confident you feel that your beliefs are right. Now think about the experiences that have made you feel this way. Maybe what seems to be answered prayer. Maybe a feeling of God’s presence when you worship or an overwhelming sense of God’s love. Maybe you have studied the arguments in favor of your faith.
Here is why things get complicated: People in other religions have that exact same feeling of knowing. And it is based on very similar kinds of evidence and experiences.
Now, when I say that, your brain may not quite let you believe me. If your worldview teaches that there is One Way to get to heaven–belief in the Lord Jesus Christ–then your brain will automatically downgrade or dismiss other people’s faith-based experiences that contradict this theology. Your own experience of God feels absolutely real, and it has beliefs attached that say that a Hindu’s or Buddhist’s beliefs can’t be real, so their experience of God must be fake.
You might tell yourself that they are mistaken or, perhaps, misled by Satan or their own sinful nature. And, if challenged on this, you might line up logical or historical evidence for Christianity. But what do Christians say when logic and evidence seem to fall short? “I just know in my heart.” It feels real, I believe it, and that settles it. But members of other religions go through the very same cycle of gut feelings, then reasoning, followed by more gut feelings.
Obviously, human beings care a great deal about knowing what is real. And just as obviously, the human feeling of knowing is like Swiss cheese. Sometimes you poke it and there’s something solid there, and sometimes you poke and there’s just a bubble of air. That is a situation that is sobering at best. If we care about love and truth, it is a situation that calls for humility. At minimum, it should give us pause in situations where we feel justified doing something ugly or harmful in the service of our religious convictions.
This complicated, humbling state of affairs raises questions that, as a psychologist, I find fascinating! What is it about how we process information that lets us feel sure even when we are wrong? Are there patterns to these flaws? Is there any reliable way to identify our cognitive weaknesses and work around them? What kinds of safeguards might we put in place to keep from going down rabbit trails of falsehood?
Brain scientists have begun to investigate our sense of knowing—which, as it turns out is actually an emotion—and to analyze the patterns in our biases. One of the first consistent patterns of cognitive distortion that was discovered is something you have probably heard of called “confirmation bias.” Once some kind of experience triggers a sense of knowing, we selectively seek and attend to information that supports what we already think and feel. This is universally true. It affects me, you, all of us, and when we are aware of it we can sometimes catch ourselves in the act.
How Science Addresses This Problem
Confirmation bias used to be a huge problem in science. Science is an imperfect process conducted by imperfect people. It gets distorted by errors and biases of many kinds. Scientific knowledge moves forward despite this, largely because the scientific method has one feature, called disconfirmation or falsification, that obstructs our tendency toward confirmation bias. Human knowledge started changing when scientists started asking, “What are the questions that might show you wrong?” Those are the questions that research has to ask. Do you hear the stark contrast from how we usually think? We usually seek the evidence that could show us right.
This one concept—falsification–is why the modern scientific method, has been called what we know about how not to fool ourselves. It has made the difference between the Middle Ages and the Information Age. Self-doubt is one of the most valuable qualities a scientist can have.
By contrast, in religion, doubt is seen as a sign of weakness, a spiritual failing, while certitude is treated as a virtue. Faith allows—even asks us—to indulge in confirmation, to selectively seek stories and evidence that support a specific set of traditions. Belief in the absence of evidence or even in the face of contradictory evidence, is, in fact, the ultimate virtue—the one that sends you to heaven—and doubt, when followed to its logical conclusion, is the ultimate vice.
Human Perfection All the Way Down
Evangelical Christians believe that people get assigned to an afterlife based on faith. Believers know this to be true because the Bible says so–Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved—and they know that the Bible is true because a passage in the Bible itself seems to say so—all scripture is given by inspiration of God—and religious authorities define scripture to include the texts currently in the Bible.
But the more we know about neuroscience—specifically those aforementioned flaws and biases in the human quest for knowledge and the unreliability of our own sense of knowing—the more this belief seems like a peculiar basis for eternity. Saying that people deserve heaven or hell based on what they believe requires an unmerited degree of faith in faith itself—or, if you prefer, belief in belief itself—belief in humanity’s ability to know, instinctively and impartially, what is real.
To believe that belief itself is the ticket to heaven requires
- belief that the Bible is the perfect word of God despite the many contradictions it contains, which requires
- belief that the Bible writers acted with perfect knowledge (since they are the ones who chose the words)
- and so did the Catholic councils (since they are the ones who decided which of many early Christian texts got into the Bible),
- and so did the Protestant reformers (since they are the ones who reinterpreted those texts and rejected some),
- and so did the 19th Century theologians (since they are the ones that shaped the very American versions of Christianity accepted today by most Bible believers).
And all of this requires an extraordinary level of belief in the infallibility of one’s own “I just know in my heart,” the gut feeling that tells a believer that all of these layers of decisionmakers perfectly recognized and conveyed the Word of God. Christianity preaches humility, as do all the world’s largest religions. But the level of faith believers are asked to entrust to their own sense of knowing—and that of their chosen religious authorities—is far from humble.
One Chinese creation myth says that the world rests on the back of a turtle. In a jocular story that you may have heard, a person asks what the turtle rests on and is told “another turtle.” But what does that one rest on? and the next? and the next? The answer comes back that it’s turtles all the way down.
In Christianity, what we are talking about is perfection rather than turtles at every step of the way. Biblical Christianity requires a whole Jenga tower of perfectly functioning human minds perfectly receiving and transmitting perfect messages from a perfect God. That requires a rather surprising level of hubris I think. It makes an idol out of the human mind.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.