February 20, 2007

Do They Really Believe?

Sexta/Viernes/Friday-POSER-Deus - Dios - God
God (Photo credit: Caio Basilio)
I think that many atheists take it for granted that the vast majority of Christians believe what they say they believe. The fundamentalist Christians really do take their bibles literally, hate homosexuals, oppose abortion, etc. The liberal Christians really do care about the environment, hope to reduce poverty, and wish their fundamentalist brethren would think before speaking. But what if we're wrong? What if many, even most, Christians do not actually believe much of what they profess?

Aaron at Kill the Afterlife has a great post about the recent tornadoes in Florida and how at least one pastor has responded. He raises many excellent questions about the nature and limitations of faith, prompting me to add my thoughts here.

After several tornadoes killed 20 people, damaged over a thousand homes, and destroyed a church in Lady Lake, the pastor of this church called for his parishioners to praise their imaginary god. Aaron notes that this pastor seems to forget about the death and devastation his god just caused, focusing instead on how his parishioners presumably managed to escape unharmed. He points out that this pastor is trying to have it both ways: his god did not cause the storm but did save the congregation. The absurdity here and the refusal (or inability) of most believers to see it makes me want to scream.

The crux of Aaron's post is the following:

Theists never really expect their faith to actually do anything other than make them feel better emotionally. The object of their faith didn't create those tornadoes, nor will it actually rebuild their church and their town. Appropriately, these faithful will not blame the devastation on their God. Yet strangely, once these flesh and blood people finish rebuilding their community, they will scramble to be the first to thank their God for fixing everything!

At the very least, these people will claim that God gave them the hope and/or emotional strength needed to rebuild their town. They will do anything to make their imaginary friend appear necessary. Who are they trying to convince, anyway? Perhaps themselves?
As I read this, I can't help wondering how much of what they profess is actually believed by these Christians. If their god did not send the tornadoes and if their god will not actually rebuild their destroyed town, what good is their god? Aaron is right that these people will thank their god and that they will claim that their strength to face adversity came from this god. But why doesn't their god actually do anything to help like the god described in the Christian bible is reported to have done?

Could it be that these Christians find hope, emotional strength, and the courage to face adversity in the act of believing itself? Perhaps many Christians know (at some level) that their god is fiction but they find their belief useful in some way and maintain it for that reason. This belief would be fragile, require faith, and would need frequent reinforcement, justification, and defense. We could almost characterize this as a form of intentional self-delusion, except that proper indoctrination would minimize the degree of intentionality. Could this help to explain the massive disconnect between what Christians say they believe and how many live their lives?

Alternatively, perhaps many Christians do not actually maintain these beliefs but simply the charade of belief. In other words, they know their god is imaginary and do not actually believe but maintain a deliberate facade of belief because it is useful. There would be nothing delusional about this whatsoever. The appearance of belief serves a function, and the appearance is maintained without necessarily requiring much in the way of actual belief.

Ted Haggard certainly did not live in accordance with what he claimed to believe. If he actually believed what he claimed to believe, it is extremely difficult to explain his behavior without resorting to mental illness. However, if he did not believe what he claimed to believe, he might be little more than a skilled con-man.

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