I’ve probably sorta kinda said this before, but I like to lay things out explicitly in case I ever want to point someone to exactly what I meant. I think there are basically three kinds of belief, as categorized by the reason for the belief.
1. Believing what is observed by the five senses.
2. Believing what is observed within the mind (visions, feelings, etc).
3. Believing what an authority claims (the authority being a person, book, or any other source that is separate from your mind and senses). This one is of a different quality than the first two, because it doesn’t solve the problem of where the authority got the information, it just shows that you have secondary rather than primary information.
Experimental science is based on Type 1. Scientists can’t always use their senses to observe the thing they want to know more about, but when they try to find out about that thing, they do so by using their senses to observe other, related things. They look at the pattern made by a bazillion photons to figure out what one photon is like, rather than, say, meditating on the nature of the photon to figure out what one photon is like.
It’s up to individual believers to decide what faith is based on. If they’re Christian and they remember the part where Jesus told Thomas that it’s better when people don’t see and yet believe, they’d have to rule out Type 1 as the definition of faith. Type 2 is a possibility, especially because this is where prayer happens. But Type 3 ends up getting up getting used a lot, too, and I don’t think Christians do a good enough job of thinking about the difference between Type 2 and Type 3.
I can’t argue against Type 2 based on any deep principle, but I can say that it frequently gives results that clash with the results of Type 1, and given the choice, I’d side with Type 1 because it’s what tends to work the best in real life experience. If you’re not sure if you agree with that, try some tests. Meditate on how to cook something you’ve never cooked before, then cook it. Then get a recipe for it by a food scientist, make it, and compare. Maybe Type 1 has an unfair advantage in that we test the belief based on the same criteria we used to formulate the belief – our senses. But I can’t really get around that – it’s a consequence of living in a material world. Maybe if we were ghosts Type 2 would work better. Some religious beliefs are untestable in the material world, so Type 1 beliefs can be neither formulated nor tested. In those cases, I would almost say that I can’t argue against Type 2 beliefs at all, but then I remembered that different people can use the Type 2 process to come to believe universal principles that completely contradict each other. If these beliefs include claims that they apply to everyone (as in ‘I was meditating and the universe told me that no one should ever eat liver’ vs. ‘I was praying and God told me there should be no restrictions on diet’), then either we need to abandon logic, which would cause a lot more confusion and immobility than most people who argue “you can’t apply logic to religion, silly” realize, or we need to assume that Type 2 beliefs are only valid for the individual who thought them up (as in ‘I was meditating and the universe told me I should never eat liver, but I don’t know if you should eat liver or not’)*, or we need to assume that Type 2 beliefs aren’t valid at all, which would mean that we simply can’t know things about the non-material world. Some would say that it’s not so grim as that – it’s just that some people’s Type 2 beliefs are right and other people’s are wrong. But since we have no way, besides our own Type 2 beliefs, of choosing between the two, I think that’s the same as saying we can’t know. Doesn’t mean we can’t hold an opinion, but it would mean we have no grounds to tell other people that they are, as a matter of fact, wrong. As you’ll see below, I do think it’s a good idea to hold opinions of these types, and to stick to your own opinions, but as you’ll see even further below, I don’t think we need to judge other people for disagreeing with those opinions.
I can argue against Type 3 based on principle, that principle being that you never know if you can trust that authority. You don’t know if you can trust your senses or your mind, either, true. But you’re adding to the untrustworthiness when you get someone else’s senses or mind in play. And at least you know if you’re genuine, whereas you don’t know if your source had some ulterior motive or a bias opposite to yours. Plus there’s the issue of interpreting what they meant, and in some cases, translating from one language to another. It’s a mess. An unavoidable one, in many cases. But a mess we should be aware of, nonetheless. That’s why scientists write about their methods in such detail and try to replicate the experiments of other scientists – to make their claims more transparent and more trustworthy because they acknowledge this flaw in second-hand information, which we must rely on since we can’t all do every experiment for ourselves. For anyone to allege that it is virtuous to believe through Type 3 instead of through Type 1 or 2 is beyond my comprehension (and always has been, despite my Christian past, I’m proud to say). But people do it. They tell you to believe the Bible just because it’s the Bible, and that believing the Bible without needing to see Jesus or have a vision from God or do a scientific experiment to prove a biblical claim true is one of the best things you can do. Doing a test, in fact, is sinful in some cases, I think because it’s insulting to God that you wouldn’t just accept this very old, very confusing, translated, interpreted book by many completely different authors of many different time periods. It’s a virtue, they say, to lower your standards for belief.
It’s not simply out of scientific snobbery that I’m saying that this lowering of standards is a bad thing. That kind of standard makes the world un-understandable, even more than it already is. If I should accept a claim just because someone wrote it down and said “This is true,” then I should be both Christian and Muslim, along with a whole lot of other things, like for instance, a member of every philosophical and theoretical movement that has ever written a manifesto. Since that is an exercise in extreme self-contradiction, which would require suspending logic, which would require admitting that we don’t understand anything at all, including the claims we believe – if x can = not-x, then the claim that Jesus is God could = the claim that Jesus is not-God, so I still don’t know whether Jesus is God or not – I’d suggest that this is a bad idea. Rather, we should have other criteria for accepting a belief than the fact that an authority said it. You could say that those criteria need only be added criteria for trustworthiness of the authority, but the authorities in the Bible would probably lose out before a lot of philosophers would, just for the fact that so little is known about them besides what they wrote in the Bible. And the Koran claims more clearly that it is all true, so if I were picking a religion based on how authoritative its authority text was, I’d be Muslim. And wherever a religious text conflicts with a peer-reviewed, replicated scholarly study, there’s really no contest. (coughevolutioncoughhomosexualitycough)
I think what many Christians actually do, and this probably applies to other religions and even things that aren’t religions, is to judge the Bible parts of the Bible (see my page Stuff Every Bible Believer Should Know) based on their Type 1 and Type 2 beliefs, and see enough stuff that they like that they decide to accept its authority. Then whenever they find something in the Bible that they hadn’t seen or thought about before, they automatically accept it based on a Type 3 belief. If their Type 1 and 2 beliefs clash with this new thing they found, they try to find a way of interpreting the text that makes it support their pre-existing 1 and 2 beliefs, or they change their 1 and 2 beliefs, or they ignore that part of the text while still claiming (falsely) to accept all of the Bible. (Better yet, they admit that they both believe and do not believe in this part at the same time, and explain this by saying that they are either a sinner or a limited being or both and therefore cannot understand or believe properly, but they trust that God has some complex reason for it and that it’s all true and good, somehow. Translation: I don’t believe it, but I believe I should believe it. I’ve also heard this used as an excuse for not having read all of it – it doesn’t matter if I’ve read it because I couldn’t understand it anyway and God is good so it must be right. The person who said that is going to graduate from a prestigious university this year.)
Then they tell you to accept all of it too, based on the same sunshiny passages that got them to accept it back in the day.
This is silly, because they if they had just read that problematic part of the Bible when they were making up their minds in the first place, when they were judging how well the Bible fit with their 1 and 2 beliefs in order to decide if they accepted the Bible, they would have simply said “No, I don’t buy that.” This is complicated by the fact that many people are raised believing in the Bible, and either skip the step of deciding to accept it or go through that step with a heavy bias already. In which case they have always believed in the Bible for Type 3 reasons, both of the type “The Bible says so” and of the type “My parents say so.” So it’s still silly. It’s worse than silly, it’s the thing that brought me closer to a full-out breakdown than I’ve ever come in my life. In fact, I may have gotten there. I really think trying to be a good Christian (read: accepting Type 3 beliefs from the Bible) and trying not to hate myself (difficult to do without psychological repercussions) while seeing the Bible as saying that women are inferior to men nearly made my head explode, and I trust you can see why. Finally I had to realize that when I doubted the most, I always convinced myself that Christianity was right by thinking about the concept of infinity and how somehow that made me think there must be a God, and by thinking about how good, in surprising ways, Jesus was and how that made me think the Bible must be from God instead of written by messed up people. I had stood in judgment over the Bible every time I affirmed it; I had to, because without my judgment I had no way of choosing it over any other authority. So I could stand in judgment over it then, and decide that if it said I was inferior, it was wrong, not me. (In my opinion, which I do not claim has any more authority than yours, unless yours is pulled out of your ass while mine was very painstakingly, emphasis on the pain, researched.)
So I went from a very dry logical argument to a very personal bizarro anecdote, and you don’t have to care about the anecdote, but I hope it can clarify what I was trying to say without making you think I’m totally unhinged. Although I will probably never stop being angry (in a particular, non-life-sucking way) that I was brought to that point, angry at myself because I should have known better, angry everyone who encouraged and praised me for suspending my critical thinking skills and putting the worst of all belief types on a pedestal, angry at everyone who told me they were glad I was bringing up tough questions or that they’ve thought about these difficult issues before but didn’t do anything in response to them – and although I feel that I very much deserve to be angry and that I do not want to be cured of my anger** – my anger over this one personal experience is not the only reason why I think this is an important concept to be aware of. It’s what helped me grasp the concept, but since then I have seen only too many opportunities to apply it.
I talk about Christianity a lot because of my experiences, but I want to stress two things – first, Christianity is not the only culprit here, by a long shot; second, not all of Christianity is guilty of this. I’m not against people believing in Jesus, although I personally do not. I’m against
-hurting other people/violating others’ rights
-discouraging critical thinking/skepticism and encouraging blind faith/trusting Type 3 beliefs over Types 1 and 2
Because I think all of those things, no matter the context, are both obnoxious and conducive to horrible horrible things happening. And that is why I wrote this post.
* Couple of things about that assumption: 1) it reminds me of my post “Intellectual Laziness (and asymmetrical stances), 2) that could still be problematic if the universe told you that you, but not anyone else, are supposed to kill everyone who’s wearing a green shirt today. Other people’s Type 2 beliefs would tell them that you are absolutely not supposed to kill anyone and must be stopped from doing so, but our stance on Type 2 beliefs would tell us that you’re within the rules while they are breaking the rules, so you must be the one who’s right. This brings up questions about where we get the idea of human rights from, and may make it more understandable (although this isn’t my reason for feeling this way, as I hadn’t noticed that bizarre loophole till now) that I don’t believe in human rights the way some people believe in God, I just believe that it’s a great idea to build a moral system around them.
** I mean obviously, I don’t call myself Judgesnineteen just because of how nicely it rolls off the tongue.