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Believe What You Like? - A Blogersation (Part 3)

Thomas Whitley

Part 1 here. Part 2 here. Yesterday Trevar added to his original list of things he believes, though he doesn’t like believing them. Number 5 is particularly poignant and apropos:

No. 5: I don't like believing in the Shoah/Holocaust. Neither do I like believing people truly deny and fail to learn from it. #neveragain

This is apropos because our good and mutual friend Sam Harrelson took his 8th grade students to the Holocaust Museum in D. C. yesterday (Sam, Trevar, and I spent some rather in depth time at the Holocaust Museum with the late Danny Goodman in October of 2008; time for which I am ever grateful).

It strikes me, though, that even as much as I agree with Trevar on his list, this list deals more with societal realities than they do theology. To be sure, the inception of the list was simply that Trevar does, in fact, believe things that he doesn’t like, but the question of how our “liking” a belief, or not, influences our theology and faith is where intend to focus. For, social realities and “facts of life” can be denied or not believed, but that does not make them any less true. This is not necessarily the case when the object of belief is metaphysical in nature. That is, there may or may not be an absolute truth that we are all trying to learn, and even if there is, we have no way of knowing what, precisely, that would be. Thus, we are left with our beliefs about the metaphysical world. These beliefs are of utmost importance to us and to those around us. Just how our beliefs affect those around us is that with which the ethics of belief is concerned.

The Ethics of Belief

W. K. Clifford, whom Trevar has already mentioned, is probably the most famous figure associated with the ethics of belief and he is probably most famous for his quip, “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”[1] This is a harsh statement, but Clifford has a very clear methodology that allows him to get this point. To put it simply, what we believe affects those around us, so we have an ethical obligation to rigorously test all of our beliefs and to discard them if they come up lacking. Clifford says it this way:

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.[2]

It is one of our duties to humanity to seriously examine our beliefs and the foundations for those beliefs.

How, then, does this relate to whether we should like what we believe or if we should of necessity hold beliefs that we do not like, but that have sufficient evidence and support? If we have an ethical obligation to examine our beliefs as Clifford claims, and I think we do, then our critical thought processes, aided by reason and logic, may lead us to beliefs that should be held based on their overwhelming evidence, but which are rather unsettling to us. It may be, then, that we grow to “like” that belief over time. Here’s an example from my recent past.

I grew up believing that the Bible was the 100%, inerrant, infallible word of God. I believed that God had inspired the men who wrote it through trances or some other means, so that I was holding in my hand the words of God. This, of course, meant that all of these words were binding and that they were fully true and contained no errors. I then had a crisis of faith in college where I decided that it was necessary for me to examine my beliefs. Nothing was to be off limits. I thought critically about my view of the Bible, my view of God, my view of humanity, etc. and came out at a very different place. I didn’t really have a choice. I had truly examined my beliefs and many of them simply lacked evidence that I considered necessary for me to maintain them. So now I believe that the Bible is a work of humans, written over a very long period with many contradictions, a lot of embellishments, and some examples of great literature. My faith was shaken rather violently when I realized that the Bible was not written by God, as if God had faxed it to Paul, but I have since then come to rather like my new perspective. The text is much more meaningful to me now that I am able to look at it as a window into the different worlds and world views represented, now that I can see the literary techniques employed in writing so much of it, and now that I am able to see the multitude of ways God is understood within its pages. I certainly did not like this belief when I first came to hold it, but it has grown on me. In addition, I do like reason and logic and find my current position to be the most logical and reasonable and that also significantly adds to my present pleasure with this belief.

I’ll allow Clifford to close us.

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call in question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it – the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.[3]

[1] W. K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief” in Kelly James Clark, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, (Buffalo, NY:Broadview Press, 2008), 194.

[2] Ibid., 192.

[3] Ibid., 195.