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 (5)

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.

columbus.cooper's picture


Saturday, July 13, 2019 -- 11:42 PM

Being an atheist is illogical

Being an atheist is illogical because it requires accepting a position with no supporting evidence. Believing that the are no men on Mars is not the same as believing that there is no God. My belief about Mars is supported by the fact that I can view the planet with a telescope and have seen footage from the Mars rover. While these facts are not definitive, they at least provide the foundation of a fact based argument. In the case of not believing in God, there are no facts that lead me to the conclusion that God does not exist. In fact, the claim that God does not exist only makes sense if I am claiming that God could not exist. This is because, if God could exist he could make himself unseen. Therefore, not seeing God does not prove that he does not exist. If God can exist, the strongest claim a non believer can logically make is that there is no proof that God exists. Being an agnostic has a potential foundation in logic, being an atheist (if God could exist) does not.

In addition to the faulty logic of the atheist position, atheists tend to define God and faith in way that is narrow to the point of being religious. While they make an attempt to define what they don't believe, what they do believe and why is much less clear.

Those of faith tend to see the earth as a grain of sand in the scheme of things. I am reasonably certain that scientists agree with this assessment of earth in terms of importance and significance in the Universe. Still, there is a significant level of complexity and order that is present in our world. Those who argue for intelligent design would say the signature of the designer is obvious. They believe that the order we see is the result of intelligence and the application of that intelligence. That intelligent actor is God.

The position of the Atheist is less clear. There is no credible scientific explanation that explains creation and the complex systems that we observe. Yet, atheists believe in some mystery processes that are responsible for creation. How and why do they believe in these processes without clear evidence and explanations. Without scientific explanations for how and why the complexity that we see, how can any conclusive positions be arrived at. From a practical standpoint any scientific explanation is based on nothing beyond blind mystical faith. I don't believe scientists claim to know how the universe was ordered. If it is not science, what is the source of the atheist conclusion? Without fact can their position be called anything other than faith.

The atheist claim that God does not exist is so weak that if fails to produce a strong argument, even if we accept its premises for how creation occurs. If we assume that creation can be explained by atoms interacting with each other randomly or some similar process, then what are the limits of that process? If you believe that there is a process that can create something with the complexity of a galaxy, how do you reach the conclusion that the creation of a being that can create life and control the physical world is a stretch.

It is possible that human technology could become advanced enough to create life and manipulate matter. One could argue that robotics and AI are the early stages of humans achieving these types of capabilities. How can anyone seeing the potential of the primitive science of humans think that the creation of life by a superior intellect is impossible? How could science oriented individuals assume that there is no technology possible that could enact the creation myth?

Atheist appear exactly like religious individuals when they ignore the potential for God to be a scientist or engineer. In a universe with billions of planets and billions of years in age what would be the cause to ignore the capabilities assigned to God could be created by the same process as created everything else that we see. Only a religious mindset would ignore this possibility. Therefore, the claim that God does not exist exposes itself as a religious position in its denial. The denial cannot reasonably claim to be driven by logic alone.

A being that can create life and manipulate matter/energy seems minor in comparison to a Universe that appears infinite from a human perspective. With this in mind, the rejection of the possibility of such a being seems to contradict the theory that complexity does not require a creator. In fact, If creation is the result of atoms ordering themselves into sophisticated systems over time, then the creation or evolution of God(s) is almost inevitable. A being powerful enough to create a grain of sand like the earth and the creatures that live on it might seem all powerful from the perspective of human understanding only.

It is also not necessary that God be the first mover, nor should that be the requirement for being God. Any entity that has capability to create life and order human reality should be sufficient to claim the title of God. However, moving from entities with God like capabilities to a first mover, is also a rational position, even though there is no proof of the same.

Why would atheists reject what are plausible outputs of their creation theory to accept a premise for which they lack evidence. There is zero logic or support for the premise that there is no God.

Believing that there is an intelligent designer/creator of the universe is a rational and intelligent view. In fact, there is no explanation for how the universe came to be that does not allow for the the existence of God or Gods. The claim that there is no God is baseless. Such a position can not be argued with any authority. Claiming there is no God has the strength of claiming that life only exists on earth.

Underestimating the intelligence of those who believe in God and painting believers as irrational appears to provide some joy for the atheists. I think atheists have it backward and believe their positions could use some introspection.

Christians are described as "lazy", in their faith and comments about "make-believe imagining" suggests that they are in a fantasy world. This is little better than name calling and shows no attempt to understand or respect a different viewpoint.

Christianity consists mainly of a few simple concepts like love each other, treat each other well and understand the oneness you have with each other and the creator. Everything Jesus says and every story he tells is to communicate these simple concepts in some context. If you read the words of Jesus this is what you will find and this is what Christians are generally attempting to imitate.

It is these few principles communicated by Jesus that have resulted in so many people following this belief. The followers believe that loving and caring for each other is right but recognize the difficultly of doing this in a world with evil, sin and hate. Christians are not lazy and they don't forget on Monday. They are attempting to do something that is hard and they understand that.

Some seem to believe that being an atheist makes them superior. I hope they will question that. I think the beliefs of the faithful deserve more respect than I have seen here.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, October 22, 2021 -- 7:13 PM



Neil is “Working for Faith.” Are you? Your reflection is sincere and familiar. Do you take offense to the term “Make Believe”? There is no offense given. I wonder if you have forgotten or ever felt the power of making beliefs instead of taking the beliefs of others for the sake of identity.

Ken and Neil had a good round on religious belief, and you seem to have missed the point altogether. There is a difference between Belief In and Belief That. Western Philosophy as an outgrowth of classical thought has never left the cupboard of Christian beliefs. Jesus talked of Socrates, as did Aristotle, James, Cicero, St. Francis, St. Augustine, Luther, and the council of Nicaea when they established the Christian creed.

Neil’s argument is for religious credence as juxtaposed to make-believe, in the way an apple is to an orange. If you can’t separate the idea here, I would push back that your scriptural reference to King James is vapid. (Note to the reader. King James is a holy text with deep philosophical import and perspective.) Philosophy has no call on religious sentiment, but it can comment on the thought.

Listen to the show, react to the content before sending out links to text that you clearly don’t understand. I take the red letter very seriously in life, love, and philosophy. You write as if you do not care. I would argue that you have stepped off a theatrical stage above in positing your particular practical setting dependence. Can we talk about Neil’s idea here? It goes beyond pettiness and deeper into Kierkegaard’s lazy concept.

If you don’t struggle with the red letter, you are fake. Few can be like Jesus, most notably Jesus himself. That struggle is the religious life (in any religion.) Religious credence is like make-believe in this way. Once you see the man behind the curtain, the illusion is broken. It is a struggle to avoid looking, but we must if any faith is to rise to religious credence. It doesn’t matter that religious credence is like make-believe. Both are equally tasty and nutritious fruit.


One can be an atheist and an agnostic simultaneously, just as one can be, like you, a gnostic theist. I am a gnostic atheist, but it is a spectrum in both cases. I am closer to you than Sarte. Morality means something to those who know it. What I do share with Jean-Paul is his love for humanity and belief in Humanism instead of divinity. I don’t know and don’t believe any person is divine. You can and do. Can we get along? We have a problem if not.

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