Why Believe Anything At All

08. Why Believe Anything At AllBelief is fundamental to being human. We cannot function without holding basic beliefs like the belief that I’m currently writing this blog and not plugged into the matrix. Moving from mere function to framework, however, our core identity is shaped by a deeper set of beliefs concerning our origins, meaning, morality, and destiny. Who you are is consciously or unconsciously shaped by what you believe about our universe and your place in it. Growing up in urban Australia I live in a microcosm of the world’s cultures all thrown in together. People believe all sorts of different things, some with a higher degree of certainty than others. So if these beliefs are so fundamental to people’s identity, and if there is a track record of sparks flying from talking at each other, how can we open up a discussion of people’s beliefs whilst remaining “wise as serpents” and “harmless as doves” (Matt 10:16)?

A DISARMING QUESTION

People tend to discuss beliefs at the level of conflict (where do we disagree) rather than first questioning what philosophers call their “epistemology” (how do we know what we know)? In opening up a conversation about people’s deepest held beliefs my first question reflects a desire to understand what has shaped them. One disarming question I’ve found helpful is simply to ask  … how have you come to believe what you believe?

BAD CAUSES AND GOOD REASONS         

The American philosopher James Sire delineates two different possibilities for how people come to hold their beliefs. There are bad causes for belief, and there are good reasons for belief. Things like genetic determinism (where beliefs are the product of genes and cumulative experiences, not choice) and brainwashing (where beliefs are the product of psychological manipulation, not choice) fit into the bucket of bad causes. The first doesn’t seem to match humanity’s ability for abstract thought (not to mention the undesirable moral implications) and the second, although painfully a reality in extreme cases, doesn’t fit the experience of your average Aussie. But having rejected bad causes for belief, Sire goes on to ask what are some good reasons to believe? Personally, having garnered responses from hundreds of university students, I’ve found that most funnel down into one of four categories: social, psychological, religious, and philosophical reasons.

Social reasons for believing something revolve around the notion of belonging—you believe something because your family, friends, or broader culture believe it. This seems a legitimate starting point for belief, for in the absence of reasons to doubt it, why not trust the collective wisdom of the people who are most valuable to you?

Psychological reasons for believing something revolve around an experience of existential wellbeing—you believe something because it results in a sense of comfort, significance, or security. If beliefs were relative, why not believe what makes you most comfortable? The problem some when you realise that your beliefs don’t shape the reality you bump into. I may believe donuts give me abs of steel (surely a belief that brings me comfort!), but this does not rewrite the natural laws governing physiology and nutrition. Hence, although psychological reasons may give a window into our desires, they don’t govern what’s true about the world.

Religious reasons for believing something revolve around a sense of personal purpose or hope—you believe an authoritative figure or a religious book because they help to make sense of your life, and offer some kind of overarching direction or promise. Here the problem comes when you start to encounter many different and contradictory stories. In a world filled with religious claims how are we to know which one to trust?

Philosophical reasons for believing something revolve around a degree of intellectual credibility—you believe on the basis of logic, reason, and an examination of the evidence. Given that diverse cultural backgrounds and religious persuasions exist, this category seems best equipped to examine the relative warrant for holding your beliefs. In philosophical terms warrant concerns logical consistency, explanatory power, and corresponding evidence. Here’s a few question you could ask someone about their beliefs: Does what you believe fit together logically (or do your beliefs contradict themselves)? Does it explain everything in the realm of human experience? Does it correspond with the historical and scientific evidence in the world around us? Is there a way to test its claims?

THE NEXT QUESTION        

Asking why someone believes what they believe gives you a window into where they are coming from, and explaining the above reasons can be helpful in provoking people to seek out the truth. This next question exposes where the gospel needs to be established for them: what would make you change your beliefs? Some are looking for relevance in their beliefs (social, religious, and psychological reasons); some want to know what’s true (philosophical reasons); others simply don’t care. For anyone to be willing to engage in the search for truth or change their current beliefs they need to become convinced that the hard yards and new ground is worth traversing. Here are a few helpful analogies I use to express why I think it is…

WHY BELIEF MATTERS

Imagine standing on the observation deck of the Empire State building in NYC and a man says, “I don’t believe in gravity!” What’s going to happen to him if he tests that belief and steps off the edge of the building? What we believe matters! Let me translate this from the realm of physics to relationships. Perhaps, through applying your honed deductive reasoning, you come to the belief that the single most incredible girl (or guy!) is interested in you! Interpreting the signs of interest at this point are crucial; you don’t want to act too soon and get it wrong. Perceiving signs of interest is merely the first step of a possible relationship. You need to respond to that belief in one of three ways—ignoring the signs of interest (rejecting relationship), exploring the signs of interest (testing truth and relevance), or responding to the signs of interest (entering relationship). Only if you take the step into the relationship do you experience how it can change your life.

I hope this post serves to help you know and share your faith in a world of colliding belief systems. I’ve found using this is a phenomenal way to provoke people to search for truth—one that I’ve found is both propositional (God exists) and intriguingly relational (God is interested in you).

Dan Paterson is Assistant Director of Traverse, and a Pastor at Ashgrove Baptist Church.

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