Monday, April 23, 2012

Belief as a Selector

Belief seems to me an arbitrary (and really quite odd) choice for the selecting function of salvation. There seem to be a great many good people honestly seeking the truth and either not finding it, or finding contradicting versions of it. But the one thing that (almost) all religions claim is that belief in their specific version of truth is both necessary and sufficient for salvation.

This is highly suspicious to me. Why is belief the ultimate good? It's highly subjective, wildly inaccurate, and easily manipulated. It's a lot less reliable than, say, how hard a person tries to be good. Or even how well that person succeeds at being good. This makes no sense if a religion is actually true. But it makes a lot of sense if religions are human constructs meant to manipulate people. Just like states need to instill a (totally unreasonable) sense of nationalism in their citizens, so too do religions need to convince everyone of belief as the selector. It is the only method by which religion can procreate, and evolutionarily speaking, it makes perfect sense that the only religions that have survived are those that demand the strict belief of their adherents and the proselytization of the infidels.  

The problem, or rather the great genius, of organized religion is that it makes itself the only unquestionable reality.  I can't tell you how hard it was for me to get out from under the thumb of the terror that I might go to hell.  The combination of belief as a selector and fear as a motivator is incredibly powerful, because its self-reinforcing.  The more you believe, the more afraid of hell you are, and the more afraid of hell, the more you believe.  It's not until you release your fears (or plow right through them) that you're free to even think critically about your religion- for nothing is more frightening to the true believer than deconversion.  And any religion that holds onto converts by fear is one I want no part of.  (To the Christian who feels antagonized, I ask that you consider Islam.  Is this not one of your primary complaints about the religion that it rules by fear?  Well, this is certainly one of the primary complaints of many Atheists against Christianity as well.  So now we've established the problem is real, and we're just "Haggling over the price", as it were)

Leah over at unequally yolked recently posted the following in a discussion (roast?) of Unitarian (and specifically Universalist) theology:

In his discussion with the Universalist minister, York pressed his sparring partner on the boundaries of membership in the Unitarian church. York said that if he committed adultery, he would no longer be a Mennonite – he would have excommunicated himself. He wanted to know if Unitarians had any equivalent acts. I was really surprised he thought the dividing line between people in a particular religious tradition and heathens was their acts. With my crypto-Catholic sensibilities, I don’t see how an action could strip you of your identity as a believer. Bad acts make you a bad whatever-you-are, but only divergent beliefs actually cut you off from the community, since they preclude seeking healing from that church.

I think my problem with this is the idea that "healing from that church" is what gets you into heaven.  That seems to me so blatantly manipulative.  Or perhaps that's too strong- it seems to leave itself open to blatant manipulation (and indeed, the Catholic Church is guilty of this throughout much of its history).  My sensibilities get itchy any time someone ends a sentence with "or else".

Two more points I'd like to note in the interest of fairness.  First, I'm not sure if "healing from the church gets you into heaven" is what Leah is actually arguing for as the rational framework for religion (in this case, Catholicism).  It seems just as likely that she's pointing out that your beliefs are what delineate you into different denominations, not your actions.  I don't take issue with that sentiment at all.  Differentiation is not the same as discrimination.  What I take issue with is my interpretation of the last sentence, that somehow the corporate body of the church (whether Catholic or other) is responsible for your salvation.

The second point is that, while I find this framework distasteful, that doesn't make it untrue.  Just because I see huge problems with belief being the selector of salvation, doesn't mean that it's not.  I'm arguing against the arbitrary choosing of belief as a selector, but I don't really have a metaphysical basis from which to argue.  The only cogent way to talk about this is to assume the position of God and make declarations about what does or doesn't make sense.  But if we're to assume a God in order to make our argument, then surely we have lost some basis for criticizing him.  I guess my point is, this seems like a good reason to be distrustful of organized religion.  But it seems like a very poor reason to conclude that God is not real.


  1. "But the one thing that (almost) all religions claim is that belief in their specific version of truth is both necessary and sufficient for salvation."

    Just for the record, Catholicism does not claim only Catholics are going to heaven.

    2. “It's a lot less reliable than, say, how hard a person tries to be good. Or even how well that person succeeds at being good”

    Agreed – Romans 2:13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.

    3. "It is the only method by which religion can procreate”

    The alternative would be religious people who don’t believe their religion is true. In which case I don’t see you having anything nice to say about that. I sure wouldn’t.

    4. ”and evolutionarily speaking, it makes perfect sense that the only religions that have survived are those that demand the strict belief of their adherents and the proselytization of the infidels.”

    What about Buddhism?

    5. “The problem, or rather the great genius, of organized religion is that it makes itself the only unquestionable reality.”

    In your reading of Chesterton, have you come across the problem of materialists who will not allow for the possibilities of miracles?

    6. “for nothing is more frightening to the true believer than deconversion.”

    Opinion? I agree it would be difficult but it does seem to happen with some frequency.

    7. "And any religion that holds onto converts by fear is one I want no part of."

    I’m not a Catholic because of fear, but because I believe it is true. But you would say I only believe it is true because I’m afraid not to. Does that omit the possibility of true belief.

    8. “Or perhaps that's too strong- it seems to leave itself open to blatant manipulation (and indeed, the Catholic Church is guilty of this throughout much of its history). My sensibilities get itchy any time someone ends a sentence with "or else".

    A specific example please. I’m not so na├»ve to think the history of the church is spotless but let’s clear up any misconceptions if possible.

    9. “What I take issue with is my interpretation of the last sentence, that somehow the corporate body of the church (whether Catholic or other) is responsible for your salvation.”

    Just to clarify, Catholics believe God is responsible for our salvation, and that Jesus instituted the Church help facilitate that, but that he can also work outside of it. As a Catholic, it just wouldn’t make any sense for me to go to a Mormon or Scientologist for spiritual help.

    Unfortunately I do think people tend to not think critically about much of anything (sigh). I have only recently begun to rethink the way I am influenced by advertising and political parties.

  2. Just to back up my first point - "Those, who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may attain eternal salvation" (Catechism, no. 847).

  3. 1. Agreed, but it does claim that once you've heard the message of Christianity, you only go to Heaven if you accept it (at least that's my interpretation of that section from the Catechism- do you interpret it differently? Can someone who has heard the message and doesn't believe it, but meets these other criteria of seeking God with a sincere heart, still go to heaven?)

    3. Well, I think the alternative would be a religion that believes itself to be true, but doesn't claim exclusive access to salvation. For example, if Christianity claimed that Jesus came to save everyone, and that everyone would be saved by grace regardless of their beliefs- even though the best way to live is still to live serving God. That seems much more like a religion based in love- you serve God simply because you love him and want to serve him, not because there are any consequences involved if you don't. I recognize that Christians don't necessarily think about the consequences all the time, and that, according to the teachings of Christianity, loving God should be the reason for serving him- but the consequences are there nonetheless, and (in my opinion/experience) play at least a subconcious role for a lot of Christians.

    4. Good point. "The only religions that have survived" seems like an overstatement on my part. This does seems to me like a good reason to investigate Buddhism further, because it doesn't make a lot of sense that that sort of religion would survive if it wasn't true.

    5. I must confess, I'm not getting along with Chesterton at all. I'm about a third of the way through Orthodoxy, and so far he's not making any sense to me. He seems to reject reason for the fantastical, based on some idea that reason itself is no more reasonable than absurdity- but his arguments give him away as actually relying on reason. He has talked a bit about the materialist/miracle issue, but this argument rings hollow to me. It essentially says "those silly materialists, they always expect things to be so reasonable. But isn't it much more reasonable that we don't actually know what's reasonable, because we can't say fundamentally why anything is reasonable?" He's arguing against reason from a position of reason. I'm going to try to keep an open mind with Chesterton, but so far I'm having trouble relating to him.

    I do agree that the exclusion of the possibility of a miracle is a mistake (if only because I can concieve of a reality where miracles would be possible), but I think the assumption of miracles is a much bigger mistake. If we can recognize patterns and codify them into rules and laws that have happened every single time we apply the heuristic, then our response to an aberation should be a suspicion of our measurements, not a suspicion of the heuristic. Over time such heuristics can be overturned, but a single miracle is a very difficult thing to swallow (in particular because the miracles we're asked to believe are never first-hand. They don't happen to us, they happen to other people.)

  4. 6. Definitely my opinion, yes. But I think a bit stronger than that as well- for the true believer, I can't imagine anything being scarier than seperation from God and an eternity in hell (because they believe so strongly in the existence of both God and hell). And the only way for that to happen (again, for the one who truly believes) is to be deconverted.

    7. Well, I don't think all religious people believe their religion out of fear. Particularly in the case of those that come to religion later in life, who have no reason to fear until after they start believing. But I think a lot of believers (Christian or otherise), particularly those raised in the religion, do believe in part out of fear. And those that do, don't (can't) admit that they do, even to themselves. Even if it's not fear of hell, it's fear of something- social rejection, losing familial relationships, even death (in some countries).

    8. Sure. My go-to examples are the Crusades, the highly politicized nature of Papal authority (leading to the excommunication of several monarchs for political reasons- google "Pope Excommunicated" and see what google suggests as an auto-complete), and the selling of Indulgences. Of course we can also hearken back to Copernicus, The Great Schism, and even modern day sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups

    9. Fair enough :)

  5. 1. Certainly they can. Please notice the "through no fault of their own" segment. God is reasonable! If someone doesn't know what they are doing, then God understands this. Jesus from the cross states "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do" despite the fact that they are most certainly at that moment rejecting him.

    Do you think a church that actually did teach the truth would be obligated to tell people that is was risky to reject it? Would a church that said, “we have the truth, but it’s really not that important”, be more trustworthy?

    3. Careful, you're starting to talk like a Catholic! @#!*% is a necessity of free will, it's not part of some devious plan. God wants us all to be with Him, and by becoming a man and being butchered at our hands, He showed He was willing to do whatever it took. Mother Teresa once said "There is only one God and He is God to all; therefore it is important that everyone is seen as equal before God. I’ve always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic." I'm sure she would be thrilled if people saw her example and converted, but her mission was to just love people.

    4. I'd honestly be interested to hear how that goes.

    5. I love Chesterton dearly (He and Douglas Adams are my favorite writers), but I think he can be an acquired taste. But I still hope you hang in there with him. My point was that a materialist can be just as dogmatic about his views as a religion. Once a materialist says "There can be no miracles", he has declared a dogma, just as much as a religion that says "There is only one God". I'm not judging the materialist for saying it, just saying that religion doesn't have the market cornered on "unquestionable reality".

    6. I don't envy the person who does take a critical look at their faith and see that it doesn't add up, nope, not one bit. But I would like to point out that the church teaches there are grave matters that cut yourself off from God and people still very regularly choose them despite the threat of @#!*% (eternal separation from God). Please know that I am not saying all these people are going to @#!*% . That is always ultimately between them and God.

    7. So if something is true and I believe it to be true, then do I still have only a belief in my belief? How is one ever expected to know the difference?

    8. That's a lot of examples. Let's start with an easy one, The Great Schism, how is that manipulation?

  6. 1, 3, 6. This is very interesting- not a version of Christianity I've heard before. To clarify, are you saying that you think Muslims, Hindus, etc. can be saved if their heart is in the right place? Even if they hear about Jesus and decide they think their religion is correct instead? (And is this the general Catholic belief? It is certainly not the Protestant one I grew up with...)

    4. On a recommendation from a friend, I'll be reading "What the Buddha Taught" by Walpola Rahula soon. I'll let you know how it goes :)

    5. Right, I see your point. I think the biggest difference is that the materialist appeals to an "unquestionable reality" (physical matter) that nobody really doubts (just imagine trying to live your life if you really didn't buy this whole "theory" of gravity). The question is whether excluding the possibility of a super-physical reality is reasonable. I tend to agree with you that wholesale rejection of the idea is not reasonable, but I do think a healthy skepticism of it is. That is, we must find very compelling evidence of the supernatural to claim that it exists, because we can't verify it in the same way we can verify the natural (I think we do find some compelling evidence, by the way. The moral law argument, the concepts of Love, Joy, etc., and even our own existence as rational moral agents are fairly compelling evidences. They're just not compelling enough to get me to 100% belief. I'm more like 50/50).

    But ultimately, can we fault the materialist for deciding there is nothing more than matter any more than we fault the supernaturalist for deciding there is something more than matter? So long as each of them looks at the evidence before deciding, and keeps an open mind to new evidence, I'm not so sure they don't stand on roughly equal footing. The difference is that the materialist doesn't threaten hell if you disagree (although admittedly, these days he typically does threaten ridicule)

    7. I'm sorry if I'm coming across as implying I think all Christians are this way- certainly it's not meant as an attack on you personally. The whole concept of belief-in-belief is an abstraction of the idea that sometimes humans actively predict that what they claim to believe will not come true. They come up with reasons why it will fail before it actually fails, because they know and expect that it will. I think you know the difference between belief and belief-in-belief by having a good answer to the question "what about reality would be different if my beliefs were wrong?". I think that's the most powerful question we can ask any philosopher, because if we answer it honestly (harder than it sounds) it reveals a lot of the flaws in our reasoning. When I was a Christian, the honest answer to this question for me was "nothing". In the hypothetical-non-Christian-universe, where the Christian God wasn't real, my life would look the exact same. I would read an old book, pray to air, have solid relationships with other Christians, and generally live my life the exact same way. And I realized that, if Christianity was true, then the Muslim, the Hindu, and all other religious believers must be in this same state as me- no demonstrable difference between hypothetical-they-are-right reality and hypothetical-they-are-wrong reality. How could I expect them to deconvert on the basis of unfulfilled belief if I wasn't willing to do the same? I had belief-in-belief, but I made allowances for the fact that I didn't see any consequences of Christianity because I legitimately didn't expect to see consequences.

  7. 8. Sure- here's a quote from the wikipedia page:

    "Relations between East and West had long been embittered by political and ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes. Prominent among these were the issues of "filioque", whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used in the Eucharist, the Pope's claim to universal jurisdiction, and the place of Constantinople in relation to the Pentarchy.

    Pope Leo IX and Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius heightened the conflict by suppressing Greek and Latin in their respective domains. In 1054, Roman legates traveled to Cerularius to deny him the title Ecumenical Patriarch and to insist that he recognize the Church of Rome's claim to be the head and mother of the churches. Cerularius refused. The leader of the Latin contingent, Cardinal Humbert, excommunicated Cerularius, while Cerularius in return excommunicated Cardinal Humbert and other legates.

    The validity of the Western legates' act is doubtful, since Pope Leo had died, while Cerularius's excommunication applied only to the legates personally. Still, the Church split along doctrinal, theological, linguistic, political, and geographical lines, and the fundamental breach has never been healed, with each side accusing the other of having fallen into heresy and of having initiated the division."

    The struggles of Popes and the struggles of kings sound suspiciously alike. In the great schism, the church split into two groups over questions of jurisdiction and power- the Church was literally broken in half, each accusing the other of heresy. The layperson was dragged along into a whole new Church because of the power struggle of a few men at the top. This seems to be what happens when the church takes on the role of the state- the Church becomes more important than the God the Church is supposed to point to. Manipulation of the masses for personal political gain is not unique to monarchs and revolutionaries.

    What is the Catholic view of this event? Is it still seen as the Eastern Orthodox Church's fault? Or do Catholics look back on this period of their history the way Americans look back on our years of slavery- apologetic, embarrassed, and generally avoiding the topic whenever possible?

  8. 1. That is exactly what the Church's teaching says. I have more examples from the catechism and church fathers if needed. We can never ever ever rule out someone's salvation. Rejection of God has to be a very deliberate and understood choice. Hearing the message and understanding the message (if they even got the right message in the first place) are two different things.

    5. Then we must continue to consider the evidence.

    7. Oh, I really didn't take it as an attack on me. I admit the Yudowsky piece did scramble my brain a bit. “I had belief-in-belief, but I made allowances for the fact that I didn't see any consequences of Christianity because I legitimately didn't expect to see consequences.” When you say consequences, are you again speaking of a tangible “feeling” again. The consequences I expect to see are my life as a Christian is to be transformed to the image of Christ’s life, that of total self-giving love. I'm afraid my life would be very different without Christianity, as Chesterton says, I would become a child of my own age. I am a long way off from it yet, but I can see how without it I could be lost in the sea of voices that offer me differing ideas of what is right and wrong. You may say who decides what is right and wrong and then we’re back to square one.

    8. The Great Schism was about power but it was also about authority (as was the Reformation), that both sides claimed to have. When Jesus established a church, did he mean for the church to speak for him? Did he mean to establish a papacy when he told Simon he was rock and on that rock he would build his church? These are questions we must answer to understand the schism. Here is a link (sorry to have to cut and paste) for early church fathers on the papacy.

    If we can establish whether or not the Catholic church has the authority it claims to have then we can more fairly decide who is to “blame” in the schism. But as far as I understand the position the church takes on it today, the church doesn’t blame the eastern orthodox churches as much as it continues to hold that the primacy of Peter was not just a place of honor, but a place of authority. Here is another link that kind of gives the Catholic view on the schism

    Please keep in mind that the church does not teach that the people in authority of the church are kept free form sin, just that they will not teach falsehoods about the faith. If men behave badly in the church, they do so in direct opposition to the church teachings. Pope John Paul II issued this apology in 2001 "“For the occasions past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us forgiveness,” and reunification has been attempted over the years.

  9. Here is a little clarification on infallibility from the catechism, otherwise it sounds kind of silly to say that what the church teaches can't go against what the church teaches.

    From paragraph 890: The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals.