Sunday, April 24, 2011

How Real is Religious Belief: Three Cases

A few days ago, for no particular reason, I was thinking about religious denominations—not whether their beliefs were true (I'm an atheist) but to what degree the members believed them, as demonstrated by the degree to which their membership affected their beliefs.

My first case was mainline Protestantism. As best I can tell, in the U.S. in my lifetime, mainline Protestants believed pretty much the same things those people would have believed if they had not been mainline Protestants, the same things college professors and elite media such as the New York Times believed. They were for decolonization, for the War on Poverty, for the Civil Rights movement, against apartheid, ...  . Off hand, I cannot think of a single issue on which the dominant position of mainline Protestants was sharply divergent from the position of people of otherwise similar backgrounds who happened to be non-religious Jews, or atheists, or ...  . Perhaps a reader can offer an example.

Contrast to that Catholics. Early in the 20th century, the Catholic church was the one major holdout against the eugenics movement, the project of keeping the unfit, or less fit, from reproducing, a project whose support ranged from George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill. In my lifetime, it has opposed contraception and abortion. It has not yet, so far as I can tell, come to terms with the now widespread acceptance of casual sex.

For a third case, a little harder to classify, consider Protestant fundamentalists, again in the U.S. in my lifetime. At first glance, they seem to fit the Catholic pattern, rejecting a good deal that the American elite accepts. But there are two qualifications worth making.

The first is that, unlike the (current) Catholics, a significant part of what they reject is modern science, in particular the theory of evolution, which underlies quite a lot of modern biology. The Catholics, in contrast, long ago abandoned any attempt at biblical chronology, accepting evolution as a scientific account while retaining their belief in God's guiding hand—a hard claim to refute.

The second is that my original criterion was not whether people believed what the elite believed but whether they believed what they would have believed absent their religion. For the mainline Protestants, given their typical cultural and professional backgrounds—especially, I think, the backgrounds of their leadership—those are pretty much the same question. But the base of fundamentalist Protestantism, at least so far as I can tell, is much more heavily weighted towards small town, rural populations, people that would be skeptical of the beliefs of the New York Times and Harvard professors whatever their religion was. It is not clear to me to what degree the beliefs of people with that background who happen to be fundamentalists are different from the beliefs of their neighbors who are not.

All of this is, of course, speculation, and not terribly well informed speculation. But it does seem to me that different religions, now and in the past, project very different images so far as how substantial their content is, how important a role it plays in the beliefs of adherents. 

As Orwell put it:
Now, I find it very rare to meet anyone, of whatever background, who admits to believing in personal immortality. Still, I think it quite likely that if you asked everyone the question and put pencil and paper in hands, a fairly large number (I am not so free with my percentages as Mr. Dark) would admit the possibility that after death there might be ‘something’. The point Mr. Dark has missed is that the belief, such as it is, hasn't the actuality it had for our forefathers. Never, literally never in recent years, have I met anyone who gave me the impression of believing in the next world as firmly as he believed in the existence of, for instance, Australia. Belief in the next world does not influence conduct as it would if it were genuine. With that endless existence beyond death to look forward to, how trivial our lives here would seem! Most Christians profess to believe in Hell. Yet have you ever met a Christian who seemed as afraid of Hell as he was of cancer?


jimbino said...

I think it more interesting to consider how active (and successful) the various religions are in imposing their religious beliefs on others.

The Muslims, of course, are notorious for vowing to kill atheists like you and me. The damnBaptists of Texas continue to interfere in our drinking, gambling and sex lives.

The great sin of the mainline Protestants and of Roman Catholics is their support of socialism and the nanny state, as is evidenced over at

I have a home in Rio de Janeiro, and it never ceases to amaze me that, in this largest Roman Catholic country in the world, condoms are passed out to kids at age 11, booze can be bought and consumed anywhere 25/7, nobody worries about your sex partners or positions, and there is almost never a cop to be seen. You can feel real free in Rio.

J Storrs Hall said...

It doesn't really make any significant difference in the ordinary person's life if they believe in evolution, Christian creationism, or Norse mythology. They're all "just so" stories and the person would be taking the evolution story on just as much faith and via authority as the others.

A more interesting thing to ask is whether religious people believe things that make a difference -- this would most likely be in the actual effects of their mores. The only good example I can think of is Victor Fuchs' "Tale of Two States", the remarkable difference in health in Utah (religious, healthy) and Nevada (permissive, unhealthy). But there may be more.

moist said...

Interesting post and comments. The question begged by the apparent lack of faith of mainline protestants is whether -- as Mencius Moldbug asserts -- the beliefs of the social and academic elite are just as much a religion as mainline protestantism itself, merely lacking the classic theistic signifiers.

I am with Josh though, in that for most people evolution (and many other tenets of modern science) are taken on faith in much the same way that creationists take creationism on faith. They personally have neither the time nor ability nor inclination to investigate the evidence for every claim, and so accept the word of a trusted individual or institution.

I must correct a factual inaccuracy though. Modern biology is underpinned by the theory of natural selection, which most creationists do not dispute. Their disagreement is that they do not think that natural selection alone is sufficient to explain abiogenesis, or the diversity of life on Earth. Evolution by natural selection itself has made no major contributions to the biological sciences.

If protestant fundementalists are rejecting modern biology, it is not due to disagreements over theory.

Unknown said...

As someone who was raised a Jehovah's Witness (but is now an athiest) I can attest that Witnesses (and probably Mormons) are two examples of religions which cause significant changes in their member's behavior. Now whether this is because the members actually believe what the religion teaches or are pressured by other means (social isolation from non-Witness family and friends, peer pressure, strict non-conformity to the rest of the world, etc.) is debatable. I think when I was a Witness I did believe what I was taught, although honestly there were always lingering doubts. But I believed it enough to force me to significantly alter my actions from what they would have been were I not a Witness. I think it is the same with many other Witnesses, and as I said with Mormons too, although probably to a somewhat lesser degree, as Mormons integrate themselves with the rest of the world more than Witnesses.

Anonymous said...

So the tentative conclusion is "many religious people believe, for practical purposes, pretty much the same things they would believe if they weren't religious but had otherwise the same background and upbringing," right?

Of course, this will be difficult to disentangle, since religion or lack thereof is an important part of many people's upbringing. But if you restrict your attention to people whose current [a]religious beliefs are significantly different from that of their childhood, you have an interesting question: do people choose a religion but not let it affect their beliefs, or do they choose a religion that coincides with their preexisting beliefs? I'm inclined towards the latter.

Rex Little said...

have you ever met a Christian who seemed as afraid of Hell as he was of cancer?

Fundamentalist Christians believe that their faith in Christ will keep them out of Hell, so there's no reason to be afraid of it. However, since they believe they'll go to Heaven, you'd think that they'd greet the prospect of death with joyous anticipation, like a kid counting the days until Christmas. But I haven't observed this in any of the fundies I'm acquainted with.

Anonymous said...

An important difference in the denominations you describe is in the ability of the leaders to develop and proscribe any viewpoint at all.

The Catholic Church has a well-established hierarchy and an ultimate authority in the Pope. Protestants, to contrast, have to appeal to their members to stay in the church.

It should be no wonder that Protestants are not taking hard stances. Their members can easily switch to a sub-sub-denomination that tells them what they want to hear.


Anonymous said...

To what degree did Christians of the past believe as though they actually feared hell?

Anonymous said...

Er... make that "behave as though".

William B Swift said...


Regarding the religious nature of leftists; arguing politics or economics with leftists is even less rewarding than arguing religion with fundamentalists (among other things, leftists turn into bigger assholes when you disagree with them).

You are wrong about the contributions of evolution to modern biology. Nearly everything in biology is influenced by evolutionary theory, from systematics to molecular biology.

jdgalt said...

I see churches (today, now that it's not compulsory to belong to one) as just a subset of clubs. And naturally, people club with others who share the beliefs they care about.

Still, because a church comes with a whole list of things you have to believe to be a "good" member, they tend to lead their members to uncritically reject some kinds of new ideas (such as those of the transhumanist movement), and to refuse to believe scientific discoveries such as evolution that would require them to disagree with their church.

The most extreme disconnect of this kind I've personally run across is that of the pro-lifers. How can anybody literally believe that a fertilized egg has a soul? I have no handle to persuade anybody that irrational, so I've given up trying.

Kenneth Nyman said...

Coming from Sweden, one of the most secular nations of the Earth, I'd like to take a closer look at the fundamentalist protestants. To some extent, I think they share there views with many non-religious people of the same socio-economic groups. Here in Sweden, I think opposition to gay marriage and a general scepticism towards cultural elites is common among rural and small town-dweller, whether religious or not. On some issues, however, I think there are clear differences between religious and non religious people (as one can see if one compares relatively religious and non-religious regions in Sweden). Opposition to premarital sex, abortion, as well as a more restrictive view on alcoholic consumption and other things are quite common among conservative Christians in Sweden, but I think less so among non-religious rural and small town-dwellers.

Anonymous said...

I think there are lots of variations in religious belief, and people vary in how much they believe in them. But I think there's something like a "hard core" of religious belief that all religious people share. It was probably most cleanly expressed in the Baghavadgita, by Krishna:- we have control of our actions, but not of their results. That's an obvious and rational reflection (we do whatever we can to attain what we want, but we are never, at any point, guaranteed the results we want). Religion merely adds that there is an entity that controls the results, and that hypothetical entity is what the religious call "God". That core belief, I submit, is believed quite strongly by all religious people all over the world, and it's a powerful, consequential belief. The unburdening of responsibility for the results of one's actions is what gives religious people their psychological happiness. But the same type of reflection is capable of giving atheists and agnostics psychological relief too - they just don't need to go the second step, and may attribute the results of action purely to impersonal, mechanistic laws.

TheVidra said...

Jimbino, from what I understand, the whole leftist Catholic current of thought in Latin America (specifically liberation theology) was sponsored and funded by the KGB during the Cold War and has managed to catch on. This is one of the things that came to light after the defection of the highest-ranking Communist Bloc intelligence officer to the US. (you can do a google search for General Ion Mihai Pacepa; also useful are the recently published Mitrokhin files, a couple of superb books have been written based on the material a KGB officer was able to sneak into the West). Otherwise I do agree, Rio is one of the best/freest cities in the world (too bad there is so much crime; otherwise I would move there tomorrow).

Anonymous said...

I wonder. I don't understand the frequent comments on the anti-science beliefs of fundamentalists. I'm not sure their anti-science beliefs are all that different from other groups' anti-science beliefs.

It's as if the entire history of anti-allopathic medicine has disappeared; of "do not fold, spindle or mutilate" (the anti-computer science of the New Left); of the anti-nuclear movement that blamed physicists for war; of the anti-vivisectionists has disappeared from consideration. It hasn't disappeared from society and forms a large part of a political party.

"Yet have you ever met a Christian who seemed as afraid of Hell as he was of cancer?"

Yes. Often among true believers (as opposed to those churches which are wings of political parties). Then again, I live part of my life in the city among academics and part of my life in the rural areas among people who have to work for a living. These "rural areas" have populations and city sizes that within living lifetimes would have disqualified them as "rural areas," but are somehow still thought of as hicks.

"Rio de Janeiro,"

If the Roman Catholic church's institutional memory endures, it will remember the last time it survived, proselytized, and converted such a corrupt society.

Hugh said...

"As best I can tell, in the U.S. in my lifetime, mainline Protestants believed pretty much the same things those people would have believed if they had not been mainline Protestants, the same things college professors and elite media such as the New York Times believed."

Remember, just a few generations ago the North East elite, to which you allude, would have been mainline Protestant too. God may have left the building, but many of the beliefs live on without him.

Including the urge to preach......

Wonks Anonymous said...

You should give data on the positions of mainline protestants. They've shifted left in recent years (or should I say that the more conservative among them have shifted evangelical), but In Andrew Gelman's "Red State, Blue State" they were still graphed as leaning slightly republican in the last election.