Working for Faith

12 May 2019

I had a terrific time discussing religious “beliefs”—or religious credences, as I call them—with Josh and Ken this past Sunday.


For those of you not familiar with my research, I’ve been pushing two theses for several years now—the second more controversial than the first.


1. A great many religious “beliefs” are processed differently in people’s minds (that is, psychologically) from garden-variety factual beliefs. So I call them by a different name: religious credence.


For example, a religious credence that Jesus is alive functions differently in people’s minds from a factual belief that Tiger Woods is alive, even if we set aside the differences in whom each “belief” is about and other features of content. In philosophical terms, religious credence and factual belief are different cognitive attitudes.


​2. The ways that religious credences differ from factual beliefs are largely the same as the ways that make-believe imaginings differ from factual beliefs. Religious practice, consequently and from a psychological standpoint, is a form of make-believe.


That’s not to say religious credences are nothing more than fictional imaginings. They do in fact help give people a sense of purpose in life and help constitute people’s communal identities. For example, someone with a religious credence that Jesus is God has a different identity from someone who has a religious credence that Jesus was a great prophet (Christian versus Muslim). But none of that is at odds with my second thesis. Rather, religion is a game of make-believe that people use to define their identities.


So how is religious credence like make-believe imagining? This brings us to an exchange I had with Ken that I want to delve into further.


One striking feature of religious “beliefs” is that people don’t act as if those “beliefs” are true outside of sacred settings. People act as though God is real in church and on Sundays, but not for most of the week (unless you ask them explicitly, in which case they know to say the right thing). As anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann put it in the Roving Philosophical Report, even devoted evangelicals often “forget” to act and think as if God is real. This is where the telling phrase “once-a-week Christian” comes from: no matter how devout one seems on Sunday, the rest of the week most Christians blithely act as if God doesn’t exist. Or as Dan Dennett puts it, if it’s not Sunday, people do things while “believing” God is watching that they wouldn’t do if their mothers were watching.


Such compartmentalization isn’t just a feature of Protestant Christian psychology either. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it crops up in many other religious contexts: from traditional ancestor worship to Catholicism to Islam. And for me, the striking thing about this is the resemblance to make-believe play. In make-believe, you stop acting like what you imagine to be true (say, that you’re a Scottish King) when you stop the make-believe game or when you step off the theatrical stage. In religion, likewise, you stop acting like the contents of your religious credences are true when church is over or when it stops being the sacred day of the week. I call this general feature practical setting dependence: both imaginings and religious credences, in point of psychological fact, depend on certain practical settings in order to influence behavior.


This brings us to the point in the show where Ken challenged me on something, and I responded. I bring this up, because that exchange is worth expanding upon.


Ken pointed out that, for someone like Kierkegaard, a Christianity that was only active one day a week would be “a lazy Christianity.” On this view (quoting Ken who was paraphrasing Kierkegaard), “True faith is demanding. It’s not a once-a-week thing.”


Ken meant this as a challenge to my view, so it’s important to see why it isn’t. In fact, the point supports what I say, if we examine things more carefully.


Ken’s challenge, fleshed out, goes something like this: Van Leeuwen holds that religious credences are left behind six days a week (in the case of Christianity). But real Christians (in Kierkegaard’s sense) do the demanding thing and act on their faith at all waking times. So Van Leeuwen is wrong about the compartmentalization of religious belief in at least some cases.


The thing to remember, however, is that my big point is that religious credence is different from factual belief. And Ken’s point actually highlights a major difference. Garden-variety factual beliefs don’t require effort to be involved in guiding action. It doesn’t take effort to take seriously the belief that San Francisco is in California or that electricity is what makes light bulbs light up. Those factual beliefs come online automatically when their contents are relevant. So factual beliefs aren’t “demanding” because they don’t need to be: it’s not hard to act like their contents are true, because they just portray how things are for you. There might be various motivational shortcomings when it comes to actions that incorporate factual beliefs, but the factual beliefs themselves are just the default representations of reality (the sun is hot, grass is green, dogs have teeth, etc.).


But religious credences are demanding because it is hard to maintain them and act on them consistently. Even the most devout must put effort into maintaining and acting on their “beliefs” that there is an afterlife, that certain acts are sinful, or that God cares about what they do. This is why phrases like “struggling with one’s faith” exist in the first place.


So, with all due respect to Ken, his point shows the opposite of what it was meant to show. He meant it to show that the Knight of Faith’s religious “beliefs” resembled factual beliefs in that they’re not compartmentalized. But the fact that it’s hard and “demanding” to keep them uncompartmentalized—in the very few cases where that actually happens—shows an even deeper way in which they’re unlike genuine factual beliefs. Here’s one more comparison:


It’s not hard to act consistently on the belief that gravity exists. But it is hard to act consistently on the “belief” that God exists. And that’s why that “belief” is a religious credence and not a factual belief.


Image by J F from Pixabay 

Comments (3)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, May 13, 2019 -- 12:00 PM

I can follow and agree with

I can follow and agree with the two theses, as presented. Beliefs (religious or otherwise) are different things to different people, written scriptural texts, notwithstanding. And, make-believe is a fundamental aspect of the human mind and condition. The stumbling block (for me; perhaps for others) is the semantically ambiguous phrase, factual belief(s). While it is true that much of what people believe is (or can be) based upon fact, it does not follow that religious belief is factual. This seems to be where your first thesis regarding credence comes into play. Some (including yours truly) have said that man invented the God concept to make humans feel better about themselves in an uncertain world. The late Kenneth Burke seemed to reiterate this by saying that decisions (as instruments aimed at the future) generally involve uncertainty. So, your theses, as such, have at least as much solid ground under them as many others. Dewey's notions about belief were well-put in HOW WE THINK. So goes the tenuous relationship between religion and the rest of philosophy---perhaps this is one reason why, in many university humanities departments, the two are bunked together? Keep up the good work, ladies and gentlemen.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, May 21, 2019 -- 11:44 AM

In spite of what philosophers

In spite of what philosophers and Humanists have said about religion and belief, I have long held to the notion that it is good for humans to have something to believe in. Belief typically endows life with purpose, and, without purpose, there is no life as such. (I am not here distinguishing good purposes from bad ones, as this is not about normality vs. abnormality.) Burke said: "A world without metaphor would be a world without purpose." I'm not sure that is exactly right, but, the world WOULD BE a lot more boring. Purpose and belief are mutually inclusive. Kenneth Burke's long, productive life is evidence of that notion. He also noted: "Where someone is straining to do something, look for evidence of the tragic mechanism." This may sound counter-intuitive, until we consider that tragedy and comedy are representative of what it means to be human. So, by any and all means, let the people believe what they will. Purpose and metaphor are world-driven---seems to me...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, June 1, 2019 -- 12:30 PM

A group (family, actually) of

A group (family, actually) of Jehovah's Witnesses showed up on my street this morning, they made their way, sequentially, to four of my neighbor's homes, spending, I would estimate, no more than seven minutes at any of those. They were quite pleasant, and when I expressed no interest in their upcoming meeting in Dayton, Ohio, they wished me a good day and left. I repeat, earnestly: Let the people believe what they will...
Everyone has a right to believe in something, even if, to someone else, it has no relevance.