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Why Believe?

February 4th, 2007 · Posted by Who Knows? · 9 Comments

I thought long and hard about what I wanted to write in this post, wrote various sentences, deleted them again, and in the end, I think I’ll just stick with “this is interesting”. My thoughts on the matter will have to come out through comments or later posts.

Most Americans oppose violence spurred by religious fundamentalism, but few agree on how to address it. In books like The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, author Sam Harris contends that religion itself–not its more extreme forms–is to blame. This week, Harris debates blogger and Conservative Soul author Andrew Sullivan in a no-holds-barred “blogalogue.” Return here to see Harris’ next post–and check Andrew Sullivan’s blog for his responses.

This is from ‘God Is Not a Moderate’, on RichardDawkins.net. The debate can be found elsewhere as well, but that source is to me the most readable.

OK, that intro seemed to help me get over my writers’ block. My apologies: this probably means I’m going to ramble on randomly for the rest of this post.

For some time now I’ve been labelling myself a “moderate”, hoping the term is broad enough not to lead to too much confusion. (Why label things? Well, to try to aid understanding. Try pointing out a “tree” species without making use of the label “tree”.) I have for a couple of years recognized the problems and dangers inherent in fundamentalism, and generally agree that the world would be a better place without it. And then I also ponder John Lennon’s “Imagine no religion”…

While just ignoring such issues completely, and getting on with my life with some unresolved vagueness sounds like a wonderful option, I have quite some trouble opting for it. Suppose one does opt for leaving unresolved vagueness, what does one tell one’s children, for example? I hear the main “problem” in mixed-religion marriages is “what to teach the kids”. I also wonder about the advantages and disadvantages of telling your children “Don’t worry, grandma is in heaven” versus “I choose to believe grandma is in heaven, and suggest you do too”. The latter is definitely more honest? Sam Harris suggests: “Rather than teach our children to grieve, we teach them to lie to themselves.” (Now is maybe not the time to go into abstract ideas of “heaven”. I have some potentially interesting ideas I will share someday.)

Then again, why need I worry about my children, if I remain an eternal bachelor, which is the route I seem to be currently walking? ;) It does not exactly help that the general consensus in one of my circle of friends is that the most important thing in finding a potential spouse is their being a “good Christian”. My views are unconventional enough, or just unconservative enough, that I often do not feel I meet their definition of “good Christian”. (I do remain conservative enough that I will never have children to raise if I’m not in a marriage. <grin>) Maybe I’m forcing that circle of friends into a box in which they don’t really belong. I wouldn’t really know. I am hoping to start conversations like these that would help me learn more about the true views of my friends, it’s not the kind of thing easily discussed at the typical party. And yes, that was a great and terrible generalization.

Anyway, if I make this post long enough, I need not worry about sweeping generalizations – few enough people will read it that it doesn’t matter. ;) So back to the article, and why its chain of thoughts is interesting to me. I am on a journey. (All Christians should be on a journey, not at a destination.) This particular section of my journey seems primarily concerned with what exactly it is that I believe, and what that really means to me.

Take a look at an old post by Real Live Preacher, The Beginning and the End of Wisdom, a most amazing essay that somehow expresses what I’m thinking incredibly well. If you were to read only one of the two links I provide in this post, I suggest you read this one. Besides, it’s much shorter than the debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan.

Well, that’s enough for now. I will further lament peer pressure and fundamentalism at a later date, as well as illustrate and explain my views bit by bit. For now I want to encourage everyone to comment. You can also do so anonymously (you do have to provide an email address, but only I will ever see it, and I respect your privacy).

Oh, and who wants to watch “Saved!” with me? You can find trailers at the movie’s official site. I’m curious as to what my reaction to that movie will be.

Categories: Religion and Science
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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 stefan // Feb 5, 2007 at 12:27 am

    I can see you are handling this topic gingerly, so I assume you have friends who stand on both sides of the fence, or at least have different perspectives. A long time ago, Socrates said: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” In my opinion the same can be said for religion, that “unexamined faith is not worth believing”. With examine, I mean question, and I (gladly) find that fewer people outright oppose that point of view today.

    Of course, when one enters the religious domain, it is valid to ask what can be gained by drawing from our limited arsenal of conventional (“earthly”) knowledge. I think that, even if we do not find the answers to our questions, we learn a lot about ourselves and what we believe simply by going through the process of critically examining our faith.

    One doesn’t need to look far to find topics that elicit animated debates. Even the Bible itself, central to Christianity, is a source of contention. Some see the Old Testament as a historically accurate reference, while others approach it merely as a collection of mythology. Key concepts — inspiration, translation, interpretation, context — are all things that muddle the waters.

    Can we all call ourselves Christians, or does the umbrella term cover too many dissenting opinions? I don’t know. But as long as we, in an accommodating and neighbourly fashion, engage each other in argument, that dialogue will take us a long way towards finding our place in this universe.

  • 2 Hugo // Feb 5, 2007 at 1:36 am

    Yes, all true.

    What is the difference between Christian fundamentalism, and the kind of fundamentalism that flies planes into buildings? Not much, really… just different doctrines/teachings? If my friends were born into another belief system that encouraged violence, what would stop them from committing it? I’m sure my friends would claim they would not do it? But why not? The only answer I can come up with: critical examination of their faith! Which is why critical examination is so important…

    The question of “what is a Christian, really?” was a problem for the early church as well. The First Council of Nicaea was the first attempt to “define unity of beliefs for the whole of Christendom”, and resulted in the Nicene Creed. Given that I have to say “I don’t know” to a number of elements of that creed, taking that as the definition of Christianity would leave me at what, “I don’t know”?

    Some might reduce the definition to what they believe to be the key to Christian doctrine: belief in the resurrection?

    I will write about this again later. I agree with the perspective that “no one can truly know for a fact” (note the difference between “choosing to believe” and “knowing for a fact”), and anyone that agrees with that, might also call themselves “agnostic” in the technical sense. Consider the Wikipedia entry for Christian Agnostic. It’s not too long a read, but here is the first paragraph:

    “While the separate terms agnostic and Christian have a well-defined context in Western history, philosophy, and theology, the concept of “Agnostic Christian” is a relatively new idea. This expression juxtaposes two seemingly contradictory ideas, but with an ironic force that is intended to focus attention, in a critically postmodern way, on each term in a play of meaning and thought.”

    It is very true that I have friends on both sides of the fence, and seriously so. I have not yet advertised this blog to all my friends yet, I’m waiting for that post where I feel it’s got some interesting discussion going. I’m not sure this post is it. I have some ideas as to what to tackle next, but as I’m going away for two weeks, I can’t do that right now. (Start a war and then go AWOL for two weeks? Not exactly my style, I want to have a peace-keeping hand in it all.) This is what I hope to do later: enumerate/discuss the dangers and problems of fundamentalism in one post, because not everyone knows why it is a problem, and then as a balance, try and discuss/list the things that are lost when one turns to atheism. I think it will be interesting.

    (I hope to get to a point in defining and discussing “moderate” Christianity, or maybe liberal Christianity, I’m not sure?, to the detail that open-minded but critical atheists can accept that it is a viable and useful world-view, and need not be placed under the same umbrella as fundamentalism. That is, need not be eradicated if they were to be on the mission of eradicating fundamentalism. This will at the same time be a search for a better understanding of what exactly my beliefs are, or are becoming, rather.

    At the same time I would love it if more Christians could see and accept that atheism is in fact a very logical perspective to take, that there really is no universal proof for Christianity, and respect people that choose to take that path. This, I feel, is a necessary step in the direction of a non-judgemental perspective, which is what Christians ought to strive for?)

    I will probably make another post or two before I go AWOL. One will likely address certain kinds of “head-in-the-sand” behaviour.

  • 3 Riaan // Feb 5, 2007 at 10:41 am

    I agree that engaging each other in argument in an accommodating and neighbourly fashion is the way to go. I believe that looking at your own faith critically and acknowledging shortcomings or contentious issues does far more good in the long run, both for yourself as well as others of your faith. Like a scientist who tries to strengthen his theories by looking for flaws or counter proofs himself, so a believer of whatever faith/doctrine/philosophy should not neglect to stand back and look at his faith critically. A danger of neglecting to do this is that other will do so inevitably.

    I am currently reading “Geloof sonder sekerhede” (Afrikaans for “Faith without certainties”) by Anton van Niekerk. Although I do not wish to comment on any particular issue addressed in this book, I support Van Niekerk’s effort to share his thoughts on the importance of keeping our faith practical without being intellectually irresponsible.

    For myself, however, I do not believe that is is necessary to distance myself to such an extent that the only truth available to me is an existence based purely on scientific reason with no hope of salvation from, or dialogue with a God who knows me personally, which is one of the fundamental truths of the Christian faith.

    Anyway, that is just my “klip in die bos”.

    I would like to conclude with a quote that I feel applies here:

    “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know, it’s what we know for sure that just aint so”. Al Gore, quoting Mark Twain, in the movie An Inconvenient Truth.

  • 4 Hugo // Feb 5, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    Great comment! And nice quote. Saw Al Gore’s movie on Friday, still wanted to blog about it.

    BTW, anyone had a look at RLP’s “The Beginning and the End of Wisdom”? I’m sure I will link to it again, it deserves a more prominent place in a post. ;)

  • 5 Gerrit // Feb 5, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    It seems to me that fundamentalism is a key issue in your post, but with the implied negative connotation attached. Fundamentalism to me is simply people believing very strongly in something. In my book you cannot equate a person that is standing for what he believes in by means of peaceful methods and those by means of terror or violence as both fundamentalists. You will have to differentiate between the two, because it simply is not the same thing.

    Another point I’d like to make is also about strong beliefs. Let’s say person A is a christian. If he truly believes in his faith, implying that people need to come to salvation, but are quite happy by not telling people (or confronting them?) about his beliefs, then what does that say about him and his faith? What good is it to anyone to let them get on with their lives if there is an issue of eternity to address, simply because you don’t want to offend anyone? Remember, somewhere out there, there is such a thing as an absolute truth, and somebody’s got it.

    A jumble of thoughts but I hope I got my point accross.

  • 6 Hugo // Feb 5, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    Thanks for your comment Gerrit! I look forward to your future contributions, when we get to more specific topics. ;) (Of course, no pressure to take part in all discussions. Not all discussions will really target the same audience.)

    I would differentiate between “very strongly believing something” and “believing something in an unexamined way”, maybe I could talk about “unexamined faith” instead of “fundamentalism”, for example?

    In any comparisons we make, we can typically find aspects that are “similar” or “the same”, and aspects that are “different”. (So an oak and a willow are the same in that both are trees, but they’re also really not the same, for a silly example.)

    Now you mention “peaceful means of standing by beliefs” and “violent means of standing by beliefs”. I’m thinking more of “beliefs that encourage peacefulness” and “beliefs that encourage violence”. You do thus agree that if you were born into a belief system that encouraged violence, you would probably challenge that system (one cannot really be absolutely certain, but one can think what would be most likely). Then we understand one another!

    Considering we are dealing with matters of “eternity” (where there also exists different understandings of “eternity”), I have decided to not just remain silent about these matters. Now all I need to learn is how to be less verbose? I am generating too much text on this blog. ;)

  • 7 auke // Feb 8, 2007 at 8:42 pm

    Gerrit writes about fundamentalism:

    “Remember, somewhere out there, there is such a thing as an absolute truth, and somebody’s got it.”

    Surely science is the most relevant to discovering truth? Science, as a thought-system, self-corrects and shows progress. There are competing theories, but these are for the most part concerned with details within a larger framework; they come and go (sometimes because they are boring, other times because they no longer are able to reproduce what we know).

    In comparison, religion as a system admits almost zero self-correction, rarely showing any progress whatsoever (other than whatever changes any social structure undergoes over time). And unlike in science, there are many “equally-correct”, mutually exclusive, religions, in essence making a multitude of contradictory claims.

    Put simply (and to choose a personal example), there is one Astronomy, but a multitude of Gods.

  • 8 Steve // Feb 9, 2007 at 8:48 am

    Funny: the same statement by Gerrit caught my attention as I was reading through the comments. It was cut and ready to paste when I got to Auke’s post:
    “Remember, somewhere out there, there is such a thing as an absolute truth, and somebody’s got it.”

    However, my response to the comment is from a different angle. I agree with the first bit, but not with the second bit. One can debate the existence of absolute truth, but I think most people are willing to accept that – denying its existence makes any other debates pretty pointless.

    However, what makes one believe that someone has “got absolute truth”? We surely don’t have absolute truth about the physical world around us, otherwise scientists would all be out of jobs. What makes us feel the spiritual world is any different? Furthermore, if us humans could ever full understand and comprehend God (which I would include under having absolute truth), wouldn’t that make us more powerful than It?

    I more strongly support Brian MacLaren’s approach which says that each person’s world view has certain overlaps with absolute truth, and also overlaps with other people’s world views. One can picture it as a kind of Venn diagram. In this context, Christians may be able to learn things about absolute truth from atheists, Buddhists, and anyone else.

  • 9 Hugo // Feb 9, 2007 at 9:49 am

    Ah, great comments, everyone! Looking forward to hearing from all of you on future posts.

    About Brian McLaren, I am quite a big fan of his books. If anyone wants to borrow a book, let me know! I will blog about the books I’ve read recently, so that should give you a better idea what each book I have is about, and which might be of interest to you. (And those that have already read them can chip in and make their additions to my post where they feel I missed something.)

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