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

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.

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4 thoughts on “Believe What You Like? – A Blogersation (Part 3)

  1. So, given the invitation to get involved, I thought that I’d chime in.

    So, I am not familiar with Mr. Clifford’s work – and my total exposure to his scholarly/philosophical work comes from the above. It is entirely possible that with additional reading, I would be persuaded to adhere to his teaching. That said though, it seems that he equates sin to faith, or at the very least to failing to test ones beliefs or the entities that one believes in. While I would agree that understanding what one believes in is certainly important, testing belief/faith/God would seem to be an exercise in frustration and doomed to disappointment. Life, in my limited understanding, seems to be not about asking that our faith/God prove themselves to our satisfaction – but rather that we prove ourselves to theirs.

    I also admit to a bit of apprehension concerning the Bible’s authenticity. Oh, believe me, there are areas of the text that give me pause, that I do not understand, or that I disagree with from a logical/human understanding. I continue to struggle with these areas, and choose – likely to Mr. Clifford’s disapproval – to believe that when I cannot reconcile my own understanding to that reflected in the text that the flaw is contained in my understanding rather than the text itself. If I were to assume otherwise, I believe that I would begin to have great difficulty in maintaining a clear view of what is right and what is wrong. If we are able to reject portions of the Bible as flawed, incorrect, or wrong – how then are we to decide which portions are to be rejected, which should be adhered to, and what stops us from changing our opinion on the matter?

    1. I think that you have rightly assessed Clifford when you said, “it seems that he equates sin to faith.” Clifford is certainly of the camp that religious beliefs cannot possible have sufficient evidence supporting them and thus, it would be morally sinful, in his view, to maintain those beliefs. My main critique of Clifford has always been that while I do personally see his insistence on testing our beliefs laudable and try to exercise that level of care and caution in my own life, it is not a fully sustainable perspective. Sure, maybe Clifford is able to rule out religious beliefs, but certainly he “believes” in other things for which he is unable to provide sufficient evidence. I am thinking of those abstractions which pervade our daily lives: love, peace, hope, perhaps even morality. These can all be believed or believed in, but none has sufficient evidence for their existence.

      You ask good questions when you raise your “slippery slope” concern and I think it is always good to be open to the possibility that we are wrong or simply may not have all the necessary information to adequately judge a situation. However, this is the very point where I think Clifford’s “ethics of belief” is so important. How do we handle texts that present God as genocidal? Do we say that “the flaw is contained in my understanding” or do we suppose that the flaw was in the author’s understanding? Surely we would not stand for genocide carried out today, even if it were in the name of God, yet we allow that it was acceptable during the conquest of Canaan in the Bible simply because the authors said it was God that sanctioned it? What we believe and how/why we believe what we believe affect those around us. So, to flip the hypothetical around, since I am willing to say that genocide is okay when carried out by God in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, then what is stopping me from saying that genocide carried out today, if I understand it to be the will of God, is also perfectly acceptable and maybe even “just”?

      I am not accusing you of supporting genocide in any form, modern or biblical, but am simply using that as an example of an area of the text where I feel like it is my moral responsibility to the rest of humanity as well as my responsibility to my own integrity to say that genocide is wrong today and wrong in the biblical text and that no means of justifications could convince me otherwise.

      Even so, the “slippery slope” that you recognize is a real issue. Just how do we determine “which portions are to be rejected” and “which should be adhered to”? I use a myriad of means to determine this for myself, but the simple version is that I allow my over-arching hermeneutic to guide the rest. My over-arching hermeneutic is that God is a god of love. If this is so, then certain things, as I understand them, must be true and other things must not be true about God and about the world. To stay with the previous example, if God is indeed a god of love, then the genocide carried out in the conquest narratives was certainly not of God. In the same vein, in my view, if God is a god of love, then this God values equality and, thus, so do I.

      There are limits to this method (by the way, make sure to read Part 4 and Trevar’s thoughts on method, as they are pertinent here), but it is the method that I have found to work best so far. It does not allow for a static understanding of God and I think that is one of its greatest strengths. Shouldn’t my view and understanding of God and the world change as I learn more about myself, more about the world, more about God? Moreover, I often use phrases like “in my view” and “as I understand them” to show that I am cognizant of the fact that these are my views and may not necessarily represent Truth (if there is such a thing as Truth that is even knowable), but all I have to work with is what I have. That means that ideas and perspectives are not dismissed because they are my understanding of a situation. I use all the tools and methods at my disposal to be as certain as I can. That is all I can do.

  2. I am going to preface this with I’m on a couple of prescriptions at the moment, so there is a very real possibility that the ramblings which follow are likely to be drug-induced and nonsensical. If I start referring to pink elephants or other obviously hallucinations, please bear with me, call an ambulance, and then feel free to reply – or not – as the mood takes you.

    I’ve read Part 4, and I’ll try to address it in a later comment, but for now I’ll stick to the above. I am fully cognizant that my more literal interpretation of scripture would, or rather, has justified Genocide in the past. Moreover, I would react very poorly to anyone claiming to commit Genocide in the name of God in the present day – barring some “strong” evidence of their claim.

    This is one of those areas where I have to admit that I do not understand God completely. I do not understand why he would order genocide, why he would allow Job to be tortured, or demand Abraham sacrifice Isaac. I do not understand how God, a deity of infinite love, decided to allow hell to come into existence and consigns people to endless torment. But I also do not understand how God can forgive people that commit atrocities, killed his son, and disregard his will so frequently.

    I do not understand God completely, and I do not believe that I ever will. I do not believe it is possible for limited beings to understand the unfathomable depths of God. I believe he is a God of love, but that leaves two questions – 1) What is love, and 2) Is God limited to the realm of love. As to the first question, I’m not certain that love can be really and truly understood by limited human beings; but as to the second question, I believe that there is more to God than what we think of when we think of the concept of love. Yes, God is loving, merciful, forgiving, etc. But God has also ordered Genocide, smote Sodom and Gomorrah, sent plagues against the Egyptians, and took other affirmative actions that I think most of us would have difficulty reconciling with a purely loving god. This also doesn’t even begin

    I believe God has asked terrible things of his followers on occasion, and I pray that nothing like that is ever asked in our time. However, again just because God does things that I do not understand or agree with, does this mean that I get to reject those aspects of God or should I attempt to accept those things? Is it my duty to reconcile myself to God or should I expect him to reconcile himself to me?

    I agree that our understanding of God evolves as we grow and change, and adopting a philosophy that allows for that growth is laudable. That said, I believe that such a philosophy should start with the recognition that it is my understanding that changes – not God.

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