Thursday 24 October 2013

Religious belief is like love, not science


What does it mean to say that you believe that something is true?

It means that you live-by it (belief means to live-by).


So, when I believe that my mother loved me, I mean that that truth was what I lived by.

I believed it as a whole; and this belief was not made up from observation, evidence, analysis.

I did not treat it as a scientific hypothesis. If I had treated my mother's love as a scientific hypothesis to be investigated, and compared with alternative hypotheses, and always kept open to doubt and revision; then I would not have believed she loved me.


What does is mean to believe that the Bible is true?

Something closely analogous. It means to live-by the Bible, as a whole.

It means precisely not to regard the Bible as an assembly series of hypothetical propositions for open-ended scientific investigation; 


When I say that my mother loved me, does this mean that I think you could chop-up this love into all the specific moments of a human life, which could be analysed and individually tested, and where conclusive evidence of 'love' could be detected, and where no alternative hypotheses were viable? 

Of course not, that is silly - that is a silly, unserious, obscene way to talk about the subject.


The love of a Mother is not the kind of think to pick-apart and examine moment-by-moment, to test empirically against alternative hypotheses, and so on - in fact, if you are doing this then you are not believing that your Mother loves you.

To behave like that, is showing by your behaviour that you do not believe - that is not how people behave that believe.


What about the Bible? If you believe the Bible is true, does that mean - should that mean - that you are open to scientific investigation of the Bible as the test for validity of belief; that you regard it as appropriate, perhaps necessary to cut-up the Bible into little pieces, into detachable propositions, or into themes, or focus upon micro-translation issues - on the basis that you will believe only if it is established that every-which-way you slice the Bible you are certain of the verifiable factuality and internal consistency of the whole lot?

No - because if you do that, then you do not believe in the truth of the Bible - you show by your behaviour that you do not believe.

In behaving like that, you have ceased to believe; you have ensured that you never can believe in the way that you should believe.

You can only believe (at best) in the way a scientist believes - which is not to live-by a belief, but to regard the 'believed-in' as an object for investigation.  


To believe in the truth of religion is, properly, a behaviour analogous to belief that your Mother loves you, it is not analogous to science, philosophy or any other scholarly discipline.

This is especially the case for Christians; where love is the proper medium of belief; and where the primary (indispensable) metaphor of divinity is relational: God our Father, Christ His Son, ourselves as His Children.



Bruce B. said...

Believers act like they believe. I suppose this is why Catholic doctrine doesn’t abstract faith from works.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - Yes. I wanted to point out that it is a kind of category error to approach religion as if it were science, or even philosophy. This is exactly what Pascal (for me, the best Roman Catholic thinker I have encountered) is saying in Pensees written after his mystical experience "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars."

Vader said...


ajb said...

"this belief was not made up from observation, evidence, analysis"

Perhaps - but is it immune from observation?

Wm Jas said...

I agree with your point here, but I do feel a sort of professional duty to point out that belief as by-live is a false etymology. The word is derived from (the proto-Germanic word for) "love," not "live" -- which, I suppose, fits your interpretation just as well. (Similarly, the words creed and heart share a common ancestor.)

Agellius said...

Your post reminded me of a passage of Newman's which I once quoted on my own blog:

"[A] child’s mother might teach him to repeat a passage of Shakespeare, and when he asked the meaning of a particular line, such as ‘The quality of mercy is not strained,’ or ‘Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,’ she might answer him, that he was too young to understand it yet, but that it had a beautiful meaning, as he would one day know: and he, in faith on her word, might give his assent to such a proposition,-not, that is, to the line itself which he had got by heart, and which would be beyond him, but to its being true, beautiful, and good [based on his mother's telling him so].

"[U]nless he did assent without any reserve to the proposition [told him by his mother] that lucern was food for cattle, or to the accuracy of the botanical name and description of it, he would not be giving an unreserved assent to his mother’s word ….

"It is indeed plain, that, though the child assents to his mother’s veracity, without perhaps being conscious of his own act, nevertheless that particular assent of his has a force and life in it which the other assents have not, insomuch as he apprehends the proposition, which is the subject of it, with greater keenness and energy than belongs to his apprehension of the others. Her veracity and authority is to him no abstract truth or item of general knowledge, but is bound up with that image and love of her person which is part of himself, and makes a direct claim on him for his summary assent to her general teachings."

Grammar of Assent, Chapter 2

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ag - This reminds me of a very early revulsion to Christian teaching, which was probably a factor in my becoming an atheist as a young child - which was the insistence that I must love God the Father more than my own Father.

I could not do that, did not want to do that, because it felt wrong, ungrateful and disloyal.

It would have been better (more effective, probably more honest in terms of a child's understanding) to say that my love of my own Father was *also* a way of loving God in the way he ought to be loved; rather than trying (and failing) to down-rate my love for my Father to favour instead what seemed like an abstract, incomprehensible and remote construct.

Jeff G said...

Very well put, Bruce.

There are so many metaphors and ways by which we can construe beliefs. Science tends to treat belief as making a 4 dimensional mental map of the world by which we can instrumentally find our way to whatever destination we see fit. I don't think this fits the Biblical construal of belief. Rather, the Bible treats beliefs as a sort of compass which points to the direction to which we are supposed to find our way regardless of our preferences. That's why truth is compared to a path, etc.

Perhaps a more neutral way of construing both kinds of beliefs would be in terms of mental tools which can effectively be put to any number of purposes. Science tries to come upon with value-free mental tools which can be put to a rather broad range of moderately important purposes. Religions mental tools, on the other hand, are very effective at accomplishing a relatively narrow set of very important purposes.

Wm Jas said...

Perhaps it "would have been better" to say that loving your father was a way of loving God -- but it wouldn't have been truer to the actual teachings of Christ. He taught that his disciples must hate their parents -- and lest anyone think he didn't mean what he said, we have concrete examples of Christ criticizing would-be disciples for showing even the most rudimentary concern for their parents. To one who would bury his father, he said "let the dead bury their dead." Another, who wished to say goodbye to his family before abandoning them to follow Christ, he pronounced unfit for the kingdom of God. Mark has him explicitly pronounce blessings on those who abandon their parents, siblings, wives, and children, promising that they will receive "an hundredfold" new brothers and mothers and so on -- as if family members were replaceable! To counterbalance all this we have only his reaffirmation of the Mosaic command to "honor thy father and thy mother" -- but honor is hardly the same thing as love.

Hard sayings -- who can hear them? But their place in Christian doctrine is undeniable. Insofar as Christians teach "family values," they do so in spite of the teachings of their founder.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I can see how they might be interpreted in that way - as 'behave in the same kind of way I am behaving just now' - but I don't think these teachings were either intended or received in the way you describe.

I think they were figurative, parables, making a point about principles and priorities; not describing a pattern of behaviour.

By analogy, there is the parable of the labourers in the vinyard

which is not meant as advice about how to run a farm - as such it would be extremely bad advice.

The general trend of things in the Bible is - surely - to say that the love of God should be like the love of Father: only much more so.

(Plus of course there is the fifth commandment to honour your father and Mother; and there are innumerable examples in the Old Testament.)

In sum, and given the context of the time, it simply *cannot be* that these incidents you gather were intended or should be interpreted in the way you suggest.

They not only can be denied to have the meaning you ascribe - such meanings *must* be denied as contradictory to the core of Christianity as well as its overall cohesion!

But the recurrence and persistence of this kind of false interpretation throughout the history of 'the church' is, I infer, one of the reasons why the clarification of such matters by the 'Restoration' of Mormonism became necessary.

ajb said...

"To believe in the truth of religion is, properly, a behaviour analogous to belief that your Mother loves you, it is not analogous to science, philosophy or any other scholarly discipline."

Yet, if asked, wouldn't people (usually) say there is overwhelming evidence that their mother loves them?

It would be like rigorously testing whether there actually is a house one lives in.

So if this situation is evidentially analogous, the evidence that the religion in question is true should be overwhelming.

Similarly, the question in contemporary debate isn't so much whether God loves one, but whether there is a God at all. That is, the evidence seems so wanting to some people that they doubt His existence or consider it absurd - it is not in these cases directly a debate over His character.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb "Yet, if asked, wouldn't people (usually) say there is overwhelming evidence that their mother loves them?"

'Usually', probably yes, but that still leaves ?some billions of people who do not regard the evidence as overwhelming.

'Evidence' never is overwhelming; no even when it seems to be to others: in fact it seems relatively easy for people to doubt absolutely *anything* (and believe, sort of, almost-anything).

IN that sense, there is no such thing as evidence - when the word is used in its common sense; because it is always possible to deny that evidence really is evidence.

(Or that lack of evidence is significant - indeed nowadays lack of evidence for something is taken as evidence for its conclusive truth. The fact that something has never happened is regarded as irrelevant to the question of whether is *can* happen - and sometimes this is indeed correct! - although usually it is not; or not yet.)

ajb said...

"'Evidence' never is overwhelming"

This smacks of post-modernist nonsense.

Sure, people can doubt (in some sense) virtually anything. The proper response is to say they are mistaken, and to show why.

It's true that evidence is coherentist in nature, and so depends on other beliefs for its strength. It's also true that one can be more critical than not (especially if one's motivations work against something being true). None of this means there can't be overwhelming evidence in a relevant context.

Indeed, the list of propositions with overwhelming evidence in an everyday context is very long.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I am describing how people are, not how they ought to be.

The evidence that 'my Mother loves me' is strong, but not conclusive. Other interpretations are possible; and are indeed made by some.

The evidence for the reality of God was regarded as having much the same weight - until recently.

What has happened with mass apostasy and secularization and now coercive anti-Christianity has nothing to do with the evidence for the reality of God, which is the same as it always was - but the attitude toward this evidence is what has shifted - the attitude of 'scientific' questioning, the attitude of 'why not?', a change is what is assumed and what is supposed to be proven - and the rest of it.

Now these inverted assumptions are built-into, implicit-in public discourse - most significantly the mass media - it is the air people breathe and the water they swim-in.

"he list of propositions with overwhelming evidence in an everyday context is very long." To you, and to me - and yet I know of very senior and prestigious professors in science, engineering and the like who deny - to my face - propositions with overwhelming evidence, when it doesn't fit the mainstream discourse.

It is one of THE characteristics of modernity that 'anything' is open to doubt (regardless of the evidence) - except for what is NOT open to doubt (regardless of the evidence).

The idea of using evidence is modern discourse is a fools errand - I personally have wasted enough years on it, but I have finally learned from experience.

Nicholas Fulford said...

"What does is mean to believe that the Bible is true?

Something closely analogous. It means to live-by the Bible, as a whole.

It means precisely not to regard the Bible as an assembly series of hypothetical propositions for open-ended scientific investigation." - Bruce Charlton

But the Bible is a collection of writings written by many people over a substantial period of time. You also make a categorical error in equating the belief in a book with a belief in a person, (with whom you have a lifelong personal connection and experience.)

The Bible is also not cohesive, contains many abhorrent passages, (and especially in the Old Testament.) It also makes statements about a global flood, and how an ark was made by a man named Noah which contained two of every species. This stretches its credibility well beyond the point of breaking if it is not looked at mythologically and metaphorically. In areas where it makes these statements it walks into the scientific arena, which demands supporting evidence for these claims. Now, if you want to say that Noah's flood, and the Garden of Eden are metaphor, these objections are easily set aside. What cannot be so easily set aside are prescriptive remedies such as Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (KJV)

18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:

19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;

20 And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.

21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

This bears directly to your statement of your belief in your mother's love. The above passage does not instill a love of the Bible or the God it purports to speak on behalf of. (There are many other examples, which any reader can find for themselves.)

Does this mean that God does not exist and should not be loved? No, but then the question was not about God, but about the Bible.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - There is no point in accusing me of a category error when the post is me saying (in effect) that other people (such as you) are making a category error!

The question is, which category is appropriate.

The answer comes from the centrality of love in Christianity: the Christian concept of God is love.

What kind of thing, what category of thing, do humans primarily love? Other humans.

What is the kind of human love which love of God most closely resembles (the Bible gives us the answer, multiple times) love of a child for parent - specifically for a Father.

I have just taken one step to the side to discuss this in terms of love for and by a Mother - assuming that parents are both (for this purpose) in the same general category.

This is, I believe, the primary way in which Christianity should be understood - in a relational way.

ajb said...

"The idea of using evidence [in] modern discourse is a fools errand - I personally have wasted enough years on it, but I have finally learned from experience."

I understand that much of the media seems impervious to evidence on certain issues. I think why the line of reasoning above bothers me, as someone who knows secularism from the inside, is that crucial to my own trajectory was and is:

1. A realization that much of how I understood Christian terms was not correct (or, there were other ways of interpreting Christianity which made much more sense).

2. Connected with this, finding out there is much more evidence for certain aspects of Christianity than I had previously thought.

3. Conversely, coming to the conclusion that certain considerations against Christianity were not as strong as I had thought (ex., certain interpretations of aspects of evolutionary biology).

I understand that, taken as almost a 'mob', media doesn't seem amenable to evidence or good reasoning about certain things. At the same time, evidence certainly is important for certain people (which is enough), and those people can in turn have significant influence.

Similarly, I feel like turning one's back on evidence, for whatever reasons, is a step towards turning one's back on truth. My gut instinct is that this should not be done.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I would put it differently.

Instead of using what we consider to be evidence to persuade people, which doesn't work and is often counter-productive - we need to look at the nature of what counts as evidence.

We need to take a step back and ask what 'evidence' was to earlier generations. For example in science I spent quite a long time on trying to decide what counted as evidence; in spirituality/ religion - what was the basis for belief etc.

The answer I found which seemed best, was that it was a mixture of intuition and common sense (which is spontaneous reasoning).

This properly, ultimately, underlies 'real' science and philosophy just as much as ordinary life.