Monday, May 27, 2013

How Strongly do Believers Believe: Historical Evidence

George Orwell, writing about religious belief in England, commented that what he wanted to know was not how many people confessed to a vague belief in a supreme being but how many believed in Heaven the way they believed in Australia. I was recently reminded of that comment reading a book on Ottoman law. Under that legal system, there were situations in which a defendant could clear himself by swearing an oath. According to the author's account, there were records in the surviving legal documents of capital cases where the defendant refused to swear and was executed as a result, as well as other cases where the defendant was convicted of a capital offense on his own voluntary confession. The obvious conclusion is that the defendant must have believed in Heaven and Hell very much as Orwell's contemporaries believed in Australia, and preferred death with a hope of Heaven to a life leading to Hell.

It is the obvious interpretation, and the one the author of the book I was reading offered. It may well be the correct interpretation. But I would want to know more about the situation to be sure.

Imagine someone a few centuries hence looking at records from the current American legal system without much knowledge of how it actually worked. Observing that a large majority of felony convictions were by confession, he might well conclude that 21st century American criminals were so honest,  perhaps so afraid of divine punishment for denying their crimes, that they preferred a certainty of prison to a chance of freedom bought at the cost of a lie. What he would be missing would be the institution of plea bargaining, under which a defendant confesses to a lesser charge in exchange for not being tried on a greater, choosing a certainty of (say) one year in prison over a gamble between going free and serving a much longer sentence. Given that institution, the fact that someone pleads guilty not only does not show that he is honest, it does not even show that he is guilty.

Which makes me wonder whether we might be missing similar features of the Ottoman case. The charges were probably for Hadd offenses, the short list of offenses deemed Koranic. Hadd offenses have fixed penalties and high standards of proof. Zina, unlawful sexual intercourse, is a capital offense if committed by someone who is or has been married and so has had the opportunity for lawful intercourse, but normally requires four witnesses to the same act for conviction. Or confession.

In some, perhaps all, cases the same act that can be prosecuted as a Hadd offense with a fixed penalty and a high standard of proof can also be prosecuted as a Tazir offense with a variable penalty, set by the judge, and a lower standard; the schools of law differ on the upper bound of the penalty. One can imagine a case where a defendant believed that if he denied the Hadd charge he would be tried instead on the Tazir charge and receive a penalty as severe or almost as severe. And one can also imagine pressures, legal or non-legal, religious or secular, that would make him prefer the former alternative. 

There is another possibility. Islamic religious law, fiqh, does not permit torture. Ottoman law, a fusion of fiqh and Sultanic pronouncements (kanun), did. So we do not know, at least I do not know, how voluntary the voluntary confessions were.

One might be able to explain away the evidence for strong religious belief along these lines, but it is entirely possible that the author I have been reading is correct in his interpretation. For those of us who do not believe in religion, it is tempting to see other people's belief as only semi-real, as more like my belief in the world of Lord of the Rings (the book, which I read early enough so I had to wait for the second volume to be published, and have reread many times since) than my belief in Australia. It is tempting to interpret our picture of how religious people were in the past as an artifact of filtered data, our sources for the relevant history largely consisting of accounts written by clerics, a point made by Georges Duby, a prominent medieval historian, in a book that used a rare secular source to provide a balancing picture. But it is hard to see how one can give a complete account of history, or even of the present world, without concluding that for  a substantial number of people Heaven really was, or is, as real as Australia.

21 Comments:

At 12:27 AM, May 28, 2013, Blogger RJM said...

My guts tell me that your criticism is correct. I was very religious until the age of 21. The christian communities I know from that time were characterized by people who would consider themselves "strong believers". It's interesting, however, that it's pretty hard to tell what that actually means.

The idea that such a strong believer prefers suffering/death to the perspective of a life in hell seems unrealistic to me.

In fact, since there was no prosecution of christians where I lived, there was no real opportunity to prove the strength of one's believes this way.

It was quite obvious, however, how the "strong believers" maintained there reputation within the community: They took the lead in all earthly and heavenly matters (from preaching to cleaning the church) and used the Christian rhetoric more eloquently than others.
In hindsight, my impression is that strong believe is more about communication and group dynamics than about deeds.

If I imagine some member of the community really would have preferred pain or death because of religious reasons, I think there would be a high probability that the immediate reaction of the community would rather be shock and alienation. The big Christian role models I heard about are all long gone (like Dietrich Bonhoeffer). For modern Christians the real martyr is a scary thing.

And I guess it's more probable that the past has been altered in the honour of those martyrs. I think they often were sociopaths, not so much "strong believers" in any sense.

 
At 1:31 AM, May 28, 2013, Blogger Jonathan said...

When I die, I'll be most surprised and intrigued to find myself suddenly in Australia!

 
At 2:05 AM, May 28, 2013, Anonymous martin said...

RJM:

For modern Christians the real martyr is a scary thing.

In the Netherlands there are Christian communities where people refuse vaccinations against polio for religious reasons. The last polio outbreak has been in 1992.

And recently I read about farmers during a big flood in 1953 who refused to be rescued for religious reasons.

Still that no definite proof, there could be peer pressure at work.

 
At 11:10 AM, May 28, 2013, OpenID gurugeorge said...

Given the absence of the kind of background knowledge we have today, it's very easy to see how people could have actually believed. In fact, there weren't even that many alternative candidates for actual belief around.

My wife and I visited the oldest village Church in Poland while we were there (12th cent or something like that), a dark, musty old wooden building, with a few dim icons around. It's easy to understand and get into the frame of mind that you would have believed. Transport takes ages, nobody can read, all you get is what your priest says.

Scepticism was a luxury.

 
At 11:34 AM, May 28, 2013, Blogger RJM said...

@martin: OK, I admit, there is something in between: People who act weird in the eyes of atheists while acting very rational in the eyes of the respective religious community.

So how could we determine the difference between peer pressure and "real" belief? My impression was, it's basically the same thing (plus some biased interpretation of historic events).

 
At 2:55 PM, May 28, 2013, Anonymous martin said...

RJM:

So how could we determine the difference between peer pressure and "real" belief?

I don't know exactly what you mean, but by peer pressure I mean the fear of losing face with your community, which is (obviously?) different from fear of being punished in the afterlife.

If your question is how we can determine which of the two it is in some case - I don't know if we can.

 
At 3:12 PM, May 28, 2013, Blogger David Yosifon said...

I assume there is some space in your curiosity on this question for "expected heaven or hell," such that a modest guess, not belief, that hell (a comic hell of fire and brimstone) is "real" could nevertheless have a big impact on behavior (life confession).

 
At 4:24 PM, May 28, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it utterly fascinating that most people who believe there is a heavenly paradise to reward the virtuous in the afterlife, nevertheless think the death of a virtuous person or small child, is a bad thing. How could it be bad that someone virtuous has died and entered paradise for eternity?

 
At 5:05 PM, May 28, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

"So how could we determine the difference between peer pressure and "real" belief?"

One way would be by behavior that the peers could not readily observe, but God could.

"How could it be bad that someone virtuous has died and entered paradise for eternity?"

Perhaps because they had things to learn and do on Earth first?

 
At 12:12 AM, May 29, 2013, Anonymous Rex Little said...

As I understand it, Christians don't believe that anyone (including themselves) is virtuous enough to go to Heaven based on that alone. Rather, they believe that because of their faith in Christ and acceptance of Him as their Savior, their sins are forgiven and they go to Heaven because of that.

What I wonder is, if a Christian genuinely believes this, as surely as he believes in Australia, does he look forward to his own death with the same sense of joyous anticipation as a kid counting the days til his first trip to Disneyland?

 
At 3:58 AM, May 29, 2013, Anonymous bruce said...

In the Cold War conservatives really believed in the Russian threat, to the point where they were willing to finance the welfare state to get liberal disbelievers to support a strong military.

Liberals believe in Global Warming enough to badmouth conservatives, and they believe in Global Warming enough to take money for it. They've never believed in Global Warming enough to make a deal with conservative disbelievers.

 
At 8:59 AM, May 29, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there any database or site that has a good amount of Orwell's work and articles? I'm a big fan of him and Animal Farm was extremely influential to me and I'd like to look further into him.

 
At 11:10 AM, May 29, 2013, Blogger RJM said...

@David:

"One way would be by behavior that the peers could not readily observe, but God could."

But what if I prefer death to life (with reference to my belief in heaven) while in reality I just play out my role (this is my role as good christian for example).
I could imagine that a religious person might want to fulfill the expectation of the community until the last.

So "real" belief in heaven (like in the existence of Australia) would be really peer pressure, maybe paired with megalomania.

The reason why I insist is that the actual martyr still seems implausible to me. Those Christians I met who had strong beliefs were crazy or even chaotic to at least some degree. (While someone who believes in heaven as in Australia could be a rational person, just with that one specific additional belief)

 
At 2:25 PM, May 29, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Re Orwell:

I don't know if there is a good site for information on him. What I would recommend is the four volume Letters and Essays.

 
At 5:33 PM, May 29, 2013, Blogger Joe said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 5:34 PM, May 29, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most egyptian art was never intended to be seen by the living.

 
At 9:43 AM, May 30, 2013, Blogger Patri Friedman said...

In the Netherlands there are Christian communities where people refuse vaccinations against polio for religious reasons. The last polio outbreak has been in 1992.

That sounds like pretty cheap signaling of affiliation to your tribe. If the last polio outbreak was in 2012, that would be different.

 
At 11:22 AM, May 30, 2013, Anonymous martin said...

Well, since vaccination began in 1957 there have been two outbreaks, one in 1971 and one in 1992. So you could say the next one is overdue.

And note that these are small communities so I think it likely that everyone in those communities knows somebody who had the disease.

 
At 3:43 PM, May 30, 2013, Blogger David Gordon said...

>>The obvious conclusion is that the defendant must have believed in Heaven and Hell very much as Orwell's contemporaries believed in Australia, and preferred death with a hope of Heaven to a life leading to Hell.

Does this follow? Suppose the defendant thought that there was a 50% chance that Heaven and Hell exist and also thought that if they do exist, what one's destination is after death matters enormously. Couldn't these beliefs form part of a good explanation of why the defendant refused to swear falsely?

 
At 4:50 PM, May 30, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

David G:

Yes. I was oversimplifying. A fifty percent confidence that heaven and hell were real and as described could motivate quite a lot.

 
At 2:53 PM, June 01, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So how could we determine the difference between peer pressure and "real" belief?"

"One way would be by behavior that the peers could not readily observe, but God could."

It is always possible, for an atheist observer, to deem the behaviour of a biliever a product of some social or neurological cause, instead of a product of a true belief.

 

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