What do you think of this statement from Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape?
…people tend not to speak honestly about the nature of belief…
My reaction was to be brought up short: How true! Sam Harris elaborates at length in the book, but here I’d like to give my own perspective.
A Community of Barnacles
In this context, the word belief is synonymous with faith. It is something you hold to be true, even dear, but which you didn’t arrive at by logic or science. It’s often a matter of trust (another synonym for faith).
I’ll speak of the faith with which I’m most familiar, evangelical Christianity. Most evangelicals came to faith as children, trusting their parents, Sunday School teachers, or camp counselors. When an adult converts, it’s usually the result of a personal crisis — his life is a mess and just when he doesn’t know where to turn, a trusted friend invites him to a Bible study.
Let’s follow the adult convert as his years unwind from there. Christianity offers him something beyond his wildest hopes: the creator of the universe will personally forgive him and love him. He only has to receive the free gift of salvation.
So the miserable sinner takes the leap of faith and becomes what the Bible calls a new creature. His sins are forgiven, and he feels great.
Within this new world-view, everything makes sense. “Yes, I see it now. God is in control of history. The animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant prefigured Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. How glorious! By his blood, a New Covenant was established to make even sinners like me children of God. How fortunate I am to have come into it!”
The new believer goes to church, where he makes many good friends. In fact, he finds he has much more in common with his new friends than with “the world” (as he has learned to call it). After a few years, all of his close friends are fellow Christians.
It is the nature of human beings to be suspicious of outsiders, and the tribe at church is no exception. They warn our hero, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, … rather than than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
Our friend takes this to heart. He was already socially isolated. Now, with all good intentions, and only half-consciously, he builds a wall around his mind. He does his best to make his faith immovable. He has become a barnacle.
If he has doubts, his seeks to assuage them rather than to follow the evidence wherever it leads. For example, he may wonder, as almost everyone does, “If there’s a God and he is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?” His pastor assures him that suffering and evil are the result of mankind exercising the God-given gift of free will. “God could have made us as robots, but he loves us so much that he gave us free will. We have brought suffering on ourselves by choosing war and other evils, but that is not God’s fault.” This is enough to quiet the mind of our friend who, after all, was not looking to push the issue but to resolve his doubt. He forgets about the suffering caused by natural events; and it does not occur to him that God could have made us free up to a point, setting limits on what he’ll allow us to do to each other just as we may let our children quarrel but not poke each others’ eyes out.
If something reinforces his belief, the believer will accept it without question. He may wonder, as I did, about slavery seemingly practiced with God’s permission in the Bible. His pastor assures him, “God tolerated slavery, but never condoned it. Besides, slavery in the Bible is not the same as slavery in its modern form. It was more like indentured servitude.” Our faithful friend, having done enough critical thinking for one day, continues on his way praising God. It does not occur to him to read the Bible carefully for himself, where he would discover before he had gotten a fifth of the way through that his pastor is lying. (His pastor probably doesn’t even know he’s lying because he, in turn, got his information from any number of evangelical apologists who are no better at doing their homework than he is.)
If all that were not enough, our little barnacle is told that if he ever climbs out of his shell, he will drift forever and never be able to find his old home again: “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened … and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance…. Ground that drinks the rain … and brings forth … thorns and thistles … ends up being burned.” (Hebrews 6:4-8.) If laziness does not keep him in the fold, fear will.
The foregoing is not everyone’s experience, but having spent four decades in the evangelical community, I can tell you that it is typical.
Can we speak honestly about belief? Can we admit that its aim is to preserve itself, rather than to seek truth? Can we see that it is a defensive, inward-looking, gullible mentality in contrast to the open, curious, yet careful stance of freethought at its best?
Having done that, can we agree that it is not a virtue, but a pernicious vice?