November 21, 2004

"I guess so"

Imagine, if you will, the following conversation, and form an opinion about it:

"Do you believe that priests actually change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ?"


"It's what your Church says happens."

Then, yeah, I guess so.

Isn't that terrible? How can that person not even know what he believes? He guesses that he believes something? And just because some church told him so?

Contrast with the following conversation:

"Do you believe that your blood carries oxygen from your lungs to your heart and then to the rest of your body?"


"It's what all the biologists say happens."

Then, yeah, I guess so.

Hmmm, indeed. Even the smartest humans can't hold all the world's knowledge in their heads at once, from which to devise and evaluate theories that explain it, whether scientifically or spiritually, or from any other cognitive framework. When we're little we trust what our parents say; as we get older we find other people of authority over various domains of knowledge. If you decide to give credence to what a certain scientist says---whether because you've evaluated his credentials or just because you think he has an honest face---then when he asserts something, you may believe it, based only on the authority he lends to the proposition.

So it is, at least for some, in the religious world. Once someone has decided to belong to a religion---whether raised in it or a later convert---they have implicitly or explicitly decided to believe what it says. Presented with an issue they've never thought about before, and then presented with their religion's stance on that issue, such people will suddenly discover and assert that they agree with their religion. They guess.

Of course, good religions don't just make assertions, they explain the reasoning behind them. (Cynics would call this a rationalisation of the assertions.) The best religions go on to say, "but don't take our word for it---think about it, pray, whatever; we're confident that you'll come to the same conclusion (after all, it's the conclusion we came to), but we want you to eventually come to it on your own terms." Roman Catholicism, by the way, is one such church; that's what the doctrine of Formation of Conscience is all about, as I understand it (though I really need to read up on the details of that, one of these days).

This has sort of been bouncing around my head for weeks now, and I wanted to write it down. Basically, I think that "I guess so" is a perfectly reasonable first response in both of the hypothetical conversations, though I think many would find it less acceptable in the religious context. And I think as a long-term belief strategy, it's not ideal, but I think that putting continued faith in your church's positions is no better or worse than trusting the results of science. And how many of you have personally verified that oxygen is carried from your lungs to your heart and thence onward by your blood? Of course, I think that everyone should think about why they believe things, just as I think a strong sense of curiosity and scientific inquiry is something that every adult mind should possess. But I suspect that a lot of relatively intelligent people have chosen to simply trust their spiritual leaders, and I fear that a lot of Very Modern people who are above plebeian pursuits such as religion spend a lot of time condescending to and underestimating them.

"If AIDS is punishment for promiscuity, are colds punishment for shaking hands? Is cancer punishment for smoking or just living too long? Is heart disease punishment for eating meat? How far does this go?" --Michael Kimmitt

Posted by blahedo at 12:56am on 21 Nov 2004
I suppose it depends on your level of trust in the authority of the Church as versus the authority of the scientific consensus. Posted by Kimmitt at 3:21am on 22 Nov 2004
Moreover, in our (heavily Protestant and individualist) society we're used to thinking of religion as an expression of *what one personally believes* about spiritual/supernatural issues. That's different from the role of other kinds of belief: it's taken for granted that beliefs about, say, scientific or historical facts *can't* be independent of some knowledgeable authority (except for those few scientific or historical facts that we've managed to investigate for ourselves). But the main point of religion in our society is supposedly that it expresses the convictions of individual faith. If you don't have any personal conviction about a particular point of doctrine, what's the point of adopting the church's "party line" rather than just saying "I don't know" or "I don't care"? I think that's why many people find it sillier to say "Yeah, if the authorities say so then I guess I believe it" about a religious doctrine than about a scientific fact. Posted by Kim P. at 6:11am on 22 Nov 2004
Well said. The conversations made me take a step back, so to speak. It's so true... we really can't know everything, and a lot of so-called 'truths' in our lives we just have to take leaps of faith. Love the quote of the moment, by the way. Posted by The Great Unbeatable Jim Mason at 8:15am on 23 Nov 2004
This is interesting - let's discuss at a later date (because it's 6 am and I'm already running late for work, and because I'd love to catch up with you). Let's try to catch up soon - maybe this holiday weekend? Happy Turkey Day. Posted by Theresa at 5:48am on 24 Nov 2004
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