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The Seriousness of Belief

Thomas Whitley

I am currently in that stage of my academic career where I am studying to take the comprehensive exams for my Master of Arts in Religion. It is quite stressful, but has also been an occasion for some reflections. One of the courses that I have taken and will take an exam on is Philosophy of Religion and the question that we will be asked to respond to deals with the relationship between belief and reason. Since that class the first person that comes to my mind when I am approached about the relationship between belief and reason is W. K. Clifford and his (to some) incendiary statement: "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence" (The Ethics of Belief). That statement, however, will not be the topic of this post (I have many thoughts on that statement and will likely post about that later). Instead, while reviewing Clifford's "The Ethics of Belief" I came across another statement that struck me hard once upon a time and struck me hard again. That statement deals with a topic that underlies Clifford's views of the ethics of belief, namely, the seriousness of belief (this is my categorization and not Clifford's):

No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may some day explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever.

The point that Clifford is trying to make and that we so often miss is that each and every belief we hold is vastly important. There are no minor beliefs. While I may disagree with Clifford on some things, I think he has this spot on. Much too often we hold beliefs with little understanding as to why and think that it's really no big deal. Most of the people around us hold those same beliefs so they must be true, I needn't question them. This is detrimental not just to those around us, but especially to ourselves. For the groundwork is being laid for beliefs of the same tenor to be held in the future.

We must not lightly accept beliefs. We must test all of our beliefs by the most rigorous standards we can and keep only the ones that have been proven worthy. Let me offer an example. One belief that gets a lot of press in my part of the country is the inerrancy of scripture. More people than not where I live hold to this belief, in my experience, but the majority of them hold to it quite lightly. By that I mean that they believe it with their mouths and, I suppose, partially with their heads, because they have heard it their whole lives and have never been given a good reason to question it (Insert rant: If people would but read their Bibles more they would not have to wait for someone else to suggest they question this belief and others). So, these people lightly accept this belief not understanding the consequences. Thus, having never questioned the belief they are met with a situation in which they have two highly undesirable (to them anyway) choices to choose from. The situation I am talking about usually involves an honest look at passages like the Joshua account of the conquest and God's request that Joshua and his cohorts slay everyone in Jericho: men, women, children, livestock. The two undesirable options: 1) God really did ask Joshua to slay an entire city that did nothing wrong other than living in the land that God had promised to another people group, or 2) God didn't do that and the Bible is untrue. The dichotomy I have set up is certainly a false dichotomy, but it is usually the one that people set up for themselves in this and similar situations. That situation is only possible because of the small and lightly held belief that the Bible is inerrant.

Some may accuse me of being extremist, but my experiences have supported the example I gave and have supported Clifford's view of just how significant and serious each and every belief that we hold is. In a sermon that I recently preached (and posted here), I spoke of the importance of owning our faith, of knowing what we believe, what we don't believe and why. There is perhaps no greater disservice to any belief system, religious or otherwise, than adherents holding to its beliefs without sufficient reason and without a full understanding of what the belief actually is and its fullest implications. Don't be that person.