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Dominees and faith  @psychohistorian.org

Dominees and faith

posted: 4153 days ago, on Tuesday, 2009 Jan 13 at 09:58
tags: atheism, psychology, religion.

So the other day the discussion was about church ministers ("dominees", reverends), and how many of them truly believe in God. Sean said that he'd like to do an experiment where a lie detector is used to gauge if the reverend is telling the truth or not about his professed beliefs.

He suspects that many (most?) reverends do not actually believe in God; on the other hand, most church-going folk do believe in God. Most reverends, he argued, have studied the Bible, and must therefore have come across a host of inconsistencies, including the dubious moral nature of God (particularly in the Old Testament). As such, a reverend would find it difficult to believe in the God of the Bible

I pointed out that lie detectors are, on the whole, not reliable – they're not used in psychological research and are not features of (at least our) law system.

I also suggested that belief is not a binary variable, but that the strength of one's belief varies – some believe in God strongly, others do not; it's a vector. Sean said that he thinks that ordinary church goers strongly believe in God, and that strength of belief could be understood as the inability/unwillingness to entertain the opposite notion.

One sentiment I didn't express was that ordained clergy as a sample make a rather odd bunch. They are people who have met certain academic criteria, and have gone through a social selection process – I suspect their motive and personality profiles will not be particularly unique, and that a study of "dominees" will be fascinating sociologically, but difficult to interpret psychologically.

Anyway, we agreed that individuals who profess to believe in God, and claim to follow a literal interpretation of the Bible, present special problems, to be discussed separately. As such, their route to belief, and maintanance of that belief, is probably the most interesting to explore.

Sean raised the point that educated theologians, who have studied a great deal of philosophy, must be aware of the inconsistencies in their belief system; they must either justify, or ignore, certain points. As such, their world view is inconsistent.

I countered that, to the contrary, their world view is entirely consistent, and that there is a difference between justify and explain. When such a theologian encounters an issue that jars with their world view, they attempt to understand this apparent contradiction in terms already familiar to them. One doesn't give up when you run into a problem – babies and bathwater. My point is that there are no critical reasoned arguments that a theologian cannot, or will not be able to, resolve. Their world view is consistent, and I asked for examples of something that would present an insurmountable problem.

Sean pointed out that God's actions are immoral, and that anyone reading the Bible would come to the same conclusion. Think for example of all the people that died because of God's direct or instructed actions. The Bible reports more deaths by God than deaths by the Devil, suggesting that this would be a conundrum to any logical thinker.

I maintained that no, one can be entirely consistent in one's beliefs about God, even in the light of his apparently murderous nature. The importance of death within Christian belief is very different to its status in a secular world view. The weight of the eternal soul outbalances any physical considerations – think of Job, I pointed out.

That life is a basic human right is irrelevant, because this is a modern concept, and in any case ignore the existence of the soul, and that God grants human life (and apparently also free will). This brought the discussion of morality to a head.

I suggested that it is illogical to berate God's early behaviour (say, Old Testament) using our current (20th century) interpretation of morality. God has always acted morally – it is our understanding of morality that has grown over the centuries. Our definition of morality has changed, but God's hasn't. The Bible – a text written at a specific time – cannot update itself live, but proper study of the Bible can update our understanding of morality and how best to understand it in our (ever-changing) present.

The discussion then touched on the fate of babies, and the sins of the fathers being visited upon their children. It could be said that sending an unbaptised person to hell is reprehensible and that therefore God is morally dubious. But this is a wild assumption about what God would do (or at least a superficial reading of the Bible). God could, in fact, do something else, and our criticism of his faulty morality would be fallacious.

The point I was arguing is that thinking believers are not committing reasoning errors, as Sean suggested, nor do they wrestle with inconsistencies in their world view requiring stop-gap measures. Of course, naive thinkers may appeal to all sorts of faulty reasoning – but this is probably an indicator of their ability, and not a shortcoming of the belief system. After all, a child struggling with calculus doesn't highlight shortfalls in differential mathematics.

It was suggested that the mere fact that theologian constantly study and debate such topics, points to their awareness of inconsistencies. However, any sufficiently complex world view is going to test the limits of one's ability to grasp; or will be confronted with novel situations that challenge current understanding.

Much was left unsaid, particularly about the cognitive mechanisms involved in belief formation. A proper unpacking of such a problem exposes ignorance rather than just confirming earlier biases.

It's a fascinating question Sean raised – do clergymen really believe in God? To discuss this would mean first to discuss what belief is, how it is shaped, and to what extent it influences behaviour. I believe that are many roads to belief; numerous ways, experiences and inclinations that result in the experience, one way or the other, to a lesser or greater degree, of conviction.

For the record: I bet that most dominees firmly believe in God, and that most people have a weak/modest belief in God.

My current point of view is that the thinking theologian has a wholly consistent world view, totally free of logical errors. Individual struggles with apparent contraditions are commensurate with ability and experience. The thinking theologian has a world view predicated on the supernatural. Once that axiom is on-board, it all makes sense. There is no faulty logic, and (ultimately) no call for stop-gapping. Theologians ain't stupid. They're just wrong.

nothing more to see. please move along.

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