Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reader Request: Do Christians Really Believe?

I always take reader requests. Here's one from blogger and interesting thinker, Justin Wehr:
Here's one I'd like to see you respond to:
They believe that they believe, but their beliefs are of the easily disposable kind. Suppose you could take a devoutly religious person, ask him, “Are the tenets of your religion true?” and somehow convince him that the life of his child depends on getting the answer right. I’m guessing that nine times out of ten, you’d find yourself confronting a born-again infidel. The only reason that rarely happens is that there’s rarely an occasion when getting the right answer actually matters.
Quote from Steven Landsburg that I came across in this post: 
Here's what I want to know 
  • Which (if any) tenets of your religion would you hold onto and which (if any) would you discard if your kid's life were on the line? 
  • In your estimate, what percentage of pious people would become, in the above situation, "born again infidels"?
One of the things I noticed on my summer European tour is how global cultural religion is. The American South is famous for religious culture, but it exists everywhere and in every religion. First I'll respond to a specific points made in the post linked above:
If there really is a heavenly and eternal paradise awaiting us after death, one would think more people would be in a rush to get there, right?
I can only speak for Christianity, but the Church mostly agrees that although we long for heaven, we have a mission here on earth. So suicide or a reckless life does not fit with Biblical teachings. Now if the writer had complained that Christians don't live out the second half (the mission part), then that is a legitimate complaint. One that atheist Penn Jillette makes really candidly in this video.
To put it simply, most [religious people] don’t live their lives as if they absolutely believed in the words their religious texts profess. For example, if I truly believed in the Christian God, with absolute certainty, I would live my life in a way consistent with that.
I'm curious what he means by this. If he means living a "good life", that is not the description the Bible seems to describe (Old and New Testament). The Christian life is one of repentance, sin, growth, hardship, joy, etc. And for that, I have witnessed many living that life. Which I don't think this writer gets:
Most religions assert that God is watching our actions even when others aren’t watching. If this were true, my inner economist would tell me that people would avoid displeasing God at all costs.
Now to respond to Justin's blockquote. I think the opposite is true. When people's lives are on the line, we see more religious conversion than abandonment. It doesn't seem to me that this person knows many Christians. I think most I know (let's say 90%), my self included, would not waiver. The biggest belief I am personally sure of is the grace of Jesus. I know of no other way to explain my own failures and my own triumphs. The rest of Biblical doctrine is more malleable. For example I now go to a church that practice believers baptism, which I'm not convinced of. I go to a church that doesn't believe in predestination, which I am convinced of. But I still find myself connected our surety in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.


  1. Thanks, Harrison.

    I am not sure you understood the question. I am not asking "would pious people hold onto their beliefs if their life was on the line?" In that case, I agree with you, we'd see a lot of conversion to religion rather than from it. But that's not the question. The question is, "would pious people hold onto their beliefs if getting the answer right *mattered* (e.g., your child would die if you got the answer wrong)?"

  2. My answer is the same for both. Because st the end of your life getting the answer right matters.

  3. Okay, I'll drop it after this, but I just want to make sure you are seeing the difference.

    Getting the answer right at the end of life doesn't matter because if you're wrong, no harm. You're just dead. Nothing to worry about. It's Pascal's Wager.

    But if there was actually something riding on it *in this lifetime,* it seems to me that would really change things. I'm not saying that everyone would become born again infidels. I don't think you would, for example. But I suspect we'd have *a lot* fewer religious people than we currently do.

  4. But I honestly think people would feel they have just as much on the line at the end of their own life. Now if you told people you were going to kill their child if they did not denounce god, then you might see a lot of "infidels" (if at least until their child was out of danger). Though I'm not sure if that would even be the moral choice.

    And I've never heard of Pascal's Wager. But the Wikipedia article about it is fascinating.


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.