June 22, 2003
"Who knows what people REALLY believe?"

From the evolutionary psychology list at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/evolutionary-psychology/message/25791

Herbert Gintis wrote:

> Sometimes I wonder what "true believers" REALLY believe... Who knows what people REALLY believe?

I'd rephrase the question: What are they actually doing that demonstrates what they really believe?

In any one church or religious organization are people standing side by side who may actually believe two completely different things. One is there because they actually believe in metaphysical "truth." The other is there for any number of social or ethnic reasons having nothing to do with metaphysical "truth;" they're just there because it feels good to be there or it's what they've always done, or for any number of personal reasons. All these individuals may privately believe different things or some combination of these examples, in fact, some of them may, privately, deny outright that any such metaphysical "truth" exists or can even exist.

In such organizations there is no mechanism for people to recognize, among themselves, that they don't believe different things, because the profession of belief in a "truth" is the one thing (a greatly ritualized thing) that holds the organization together, and profession of doubt or difference is taboo as well as the utterance of the kinds of questions that might lead there. So if you don't believe, and profess that you don't, you're not there.

Thus what individuals believe in these groups is, in a sense, unimportant. But what they've demonstrated is that inconsistency is okay, that privately believing one thing and publicly professing another is just to be expected. Perhaps this is why hypocrisy is a common feature of such groups, because far from being taboo, this understated hypocrisy is a basic value or shared secret among them; and in their insistence that various other groups be placed "back in the closet" they show that they believe that this expectation must be universalized to all people. Even the notion of private space becomes hard to find in this milieu.

All of this may be simply academic and has no immediate downside, until you wake up one day and find out that some religious organization has decided to target YOU because of something that they believe and that they think you've transgressed, which often has a very tenuous connection to the reality of the situation, if any. At that point it isn't time to "debate" what the nature of "truth" is, but to look instead at what such organizations actually are doing, which again demonstrates what they really believe or what they're actually setting out to do. In fact I think it's essential that such controversies be effectively taken out of the realm of any assumption of metaphysical justification if any headway is to be made against such movements; such an assumption simply gives religious groups and their leaders an undeserved level of privilege and immunity from scrutiny.

There are individuals, who I believe populate the leadership of at least some religious groups, that I would call atheistic Christians; that is, these are people who view Christianity mechanically as a means to an end, of gaining power, political influence, or simply as a means of making a living. Any method may be adopted to support the cause, thus, in one instance that I'm familiar with, it's not surprising to find Christian marketers consciously applying a theory of metaphor that holds that there can be no such thing as absolute truth, to sell a system of absolute truth to Christian teenagers. In this framework "God" is simply shorthand for a particular set of values, that holds that the world can be simplistically divided into good and evil, that they and their organizations are by definition on the "good" side, and that they must actively militate against "evil" wherever it is found. Since "God" must exist, they're then on a perpetual make-work program of figuring out what new and novel "evils" must be acted against. No metaphysical "truth" need enter in here, in fact, the primary activity instead becomes the manufacture of enormous numbers of mundane details about how some group or subset of individuals must be viewed as "evil."

Mike Doughney

Posted by Mike Doughney at June 22, 2003 01:28 PM | TrackBack
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