2015-08-29

Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 1

From http://www.armageddonbooks.com/map.html

From http://www.armageddonbooks.com/map.html

In the previous post we saw the three core features of factual beliefs as understood by Neil Van Leeuwen; we also saw that religious “beliefs” or credence do not share any of these characteristics of factual beliefs.

Van Leeuwen distinguishes factual belief from what he terms secondary cognitive attitudes — that is, factual belief has different characteristics from fictional imagining, hypothesis, assuming for sake of an argument, and so forth. Among these secondary cognitive attitudes he places religious credence. But religious credence is different again from these other secondary attitudes because of three characteristics. In this post we identify those three distinguishing properties.

But before continuing, however, I’ll jump to Van Leeuwen’s conclusion where he explains how religious credence and factual belief relate to one another in the mind of the religious person:

An agent’s religious credences comprise a map she uses for short- and long-term orientation in life. The map is colored with features that are taken to have normative force in virtue of their being part of the map at all; the colors represent sacred, sinful, eternal, righteous, holy, and the like. The map, in more or less detail, is determined by the dictates of individuals who are taken as special authorities in the community of the agent. But the agent herself also freely elaborates on the credence map in ways she finds useful for normative orientation. The map colors the authorities as holy. Other individuals in the community are painted as faithful. This map doesn’t just represent normative properties, however; it also represents objects, people, places, events, and supernatural beings that make the normative properties memorable or salient.

But the agent is always using another map: factual belief. This map comes to be in a different way from the religious credence map. It is generated chiefly by perception and rational expansion thereon. It helps us avoid falling in ditches and eating poisonous berries. The religious credence map lies on top of the factual map like a colored transparency, so that the objects, events, people, and places in the factual map can also appear religiously colored. Thus, only by careful scrutiny do we see the two maps are distinct. (My bolding)

So that’s how Van Leeuwen sees the two types of cognitive attitudes co-existing. Now to those points that make religious credence a stand-alone.

1. Religious Credence: Perceived Normative Orientation

The religious person has credences that certain actions should be followed in order to bring her into a place of a better or more fulfilling world or plane of existence, as well as credences that certain actions must be avoid because they threaten to pull her into some awful or terrible place or existence.

Studies have shown that people committed to religious supernatural concepts cheat less, do more charitable deeds and may cooperate more — although these traits may be found more in relationships with fellow-religious persons. The point is that the religious person sees herself as acting morally, as acting on a higher moral plane, and the actions of cheating less etc are the sorts of actions associated with those who see themselves as acting with a higher morality.

There are other normative behaviours, too. Sacrifices, rituals, meal-sharing can be viewed as acts that orient one towards a higher good and help protect them from sliding into a benighted existence.

Van Leeuwen identifies four types of guidance offered by religious credence:

  1. The idea of imitatio Christi: an individual identifies with Christ’s life, especially his passion, in order “to ‘relive’ with Christ his virtuous life and saving passion, to have him ever present before one’s eyes, to manifest his presence to others, and to orchestrate, as it were, all of one’s emotional faculties around devotion to him.” Imitation is often a key feature of religious narratives and worship.
  2. Credences can structure ritual behavior. God desires prayers, or holy communion, and given such credences there is a sense of strong compulsion that such rituals must be performed to avoid “the bad” side of existence.
  3. Religious credences structure verbal and non-verbal behavior so to express the content of the credences. This form of communication (speaking the way the group of believers speak, doing the things fellow believers do) is a way of signalling group membership. These forms of communications or signalling point to the group’s collective more “towards the good” way of life and “away from the bad”. Van Leeuwen contrasts factual beliefs: “This is all strikingly different from factual belief. A factual belief that one rock is heavier than another is not a signal of group membership; nor are factual beliefs generally.”
  4. “Religious credences sometimes feed into action in Davidsonian fashion: if I desire to be forgiven and have a credence that praying leads to forgiveness, I pray.” When there are special needs and circumstances in life (“birth, aging, death, unforeseen calamities, love”) that evoke a special need for a sense of belonging or desire to approach the good and steer clear of the bad, then religiously motivated actions can follow. “I once asked a recent convert to Christianity why he adopted his ‘‘beliefs.’’ His answer had nothing to do with evidence: ‘‘I wanted that as part of my life.’’”

Contrast factual beliefs

“A factual belief that one rock is heavier than another is not a signal of group membership; nor are factual beliefs generally.” Nor does such a belief generate a motivation to move closer to a “good” and away from a “bad”.

2. Religious Credence: Free Elaboration

Within limits religious credences can be elaborated in one’s imagination. A quoted portion of a sermon illustrates the point:

The are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God that is expressed in the torments of hell… Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth, yea, doubtless with many that are now in this congregation, that it may be are at ease and quiet, than he is with many of those that are now in the flames of hell.

There is nothing in the Bible that says that God is more angry with people living in colonial New England (the provenance of the sermon) than he is with those living in Hell. The idea may be consistent with what is in the Bible but it is nonetheless a freely imaginative elaboration of core religious credences.

Contrast factual beliefs

I can believe I have almonds in my cupboard. I do not feel free to elaborate on such a belief and conclude I also have cashews in the cupboard.

3. Religious Credence: Vulnerability to Special Authority

The religious credences of a community have come down via someone considered a special authority and his is generally considered to have been of admirable character.

Devotees can accept empirical inaccuracies in a guru, for example, but not moral hypocrisy. Some communities may not place such a heavy emphasis on moral virtue, but they will expect the leader to have some special ability to lead wisely.

Moreover, the community in some way is involved in the anointing of this authority figure — shaman, saint, priest, holy man. So the moment of the leader’s investiture or anointing is publicly marked and noted with a special prestige, and his career followed from that moment on.

Contrast factual beliefs

An evidential authority, who can produce factual belief, knows about some objective information, such as plant life or streets in Cleveland. This is the sort of reliable source children respond to already at a young age (recall Kim et al., 2012). A special authority, however, has a revered character (moral or otherwise) and plays a certain anointed role (as it were) in the community. To see that the two kinds of authority are taken differently, consider this comparison:

a church pastor (special authority) can be fired for an extra-marital affair, but it is unlikely an expert computer systems consultant (evidential authority) would be.

The defeater conditions for each kind of authority are different, as are the situations in which they are taken to matter. (Bolding and formatting mine.)

In Summary

This completes the psychological theory needed to posit factual beliefs and religious credences and to highlight how different they are. . . . 

The contrast is stark.

  • The characteristic etiology of factual belief is evidential vulnerability;
  • for religious credence it is vulnerability to special authority.
  • Religious credences guide action in the setting of a felt existential need for normative orientation or when one’s religious identity is in question;
  • factual beliefs guide action in all practical settings.

Finally, the cognitive effects differ.

  • The cognitive governance of factual belief is an inferential process constrained by rational entailment by other factual beliefs.
  • Free elaboration is more imaginative: it allows additions to the religious ontology that are not rationally entailed by prior credences. (Bolding and formatting mine.)

And to see how the two work together, we return to where we came in — by way of the two maps, one overlaying the other like a colour transparency:

An agent’s religious credences comprise a map she uses for short- and long-term orientation in life. The map is colored with features that are taken to have normative force in virtue of their being part of the map at all; the colors represent sacred, sinful, eternal, righteous, holy, and the like. The map, in more or less detail, is determined by the dictates of individuals who are taken as special authorities in the community of the agent. But the agent herself also freely elaborates on the credence map in ways she finds useful for normative orientation. The map colors the authorities as holy. Other individuals in the community are painted as faithful. This map doesn’t just represent normative properties, however; it also represents objects, people, places, events, and supernatural beings that make the normative properties memorable or salient.

But the agent is always using another map: factual belief. This map comes to be in a different way from the religious credence map. It is generated chiefly by perception and rational expansion thereon. It helps us avoid falling in ditches and eating poisonous berries. The religious credence map lies on top of the factual map like a colored transparency, so that the objects, events, people, and places in the factual map can also appear religiously colored. Thus, only by careful scrutiny do we see the two maps are distinct. 

 

 

14 Comments

  • 2015-08-29 10:09:04 UTC - 10:09 | Permalink

    These are useful summaries, Neil. I wonder, have you read any of Harvey Whitehouse’s work on the cognitive psychology of religion? (Van Leeuwen mentions his work briefly, but only cites Whitehouse’s first book and not the later elaborations of his theory.) The reason I mention this strand of research is that it identifies different modes of religiosity that are underpinned by different kinds of belief systems that are acquired in different ways, and encoded differently in memory – and this might connect with the differences between factual beliefs and religious creedences. At the same time, it could offer a refinement of Van Leeuwen’s approach, namely that the difference between factual beliefs and religious creedence might be more notable in different modes of religiosity – specifically, that the difference might be more profound in the ‘imagistic mode’ compared with the ‘doctrinal mode’ (a claim that will only make sense if you’re familiar with Whitehouse’s modes! There’s a bit about the distinction in my feature ‘The ritual animal’: http://www.nature.com/news/social-evolution-the-ritual-animal-1.12256; there’s more here: http://www.isca.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/ICEA/ICEA_publication_pdfs/HW_2002_Modes_of_Rel__cognitive_explanation.pdf)

  • 2015-08-29 15:39:20 UTC - 15:39 | Permalink

    Does fundamentalism then involve confusion between factual belief and religious credence, the latter devolving into the former? Or are they inherently separate and repellent, like oil and water?

    When one becomes a Christian for the reason your friend indicated, that he wants or needs a certain contextual meaning in his life, it would seem to indicate a healthy, open-minded, self-aware spirituality not likely to become authoritarian or judgmental or to have originated in such impluses. Your friend, I surmise, would not, condemn others to hell for not embracing the same contextual meaning for their lives. Again I surmise, but I envision him as allowing for many ways to find such meaning, not merely the way he has chosen.

    If so, then I’m troubled by the emphasis on special authority, which I see as being fundamental to fundamentalism but tangential, at best, to more liberal forms of religion or spirituality. If your friend is a member of a congregation, and it turns out that the minister is immoral, would that undermine his faith? If your friend came to believe that Jesus is mythological, would that do it? I doubt that either hypothetical would cause your friend to abandon the context of Christian meaning in which he has chosen to live. He would find a new congregation or adjust his theology.

    The more difficult question concerns the existence of God, which, of course, does not necessarily entail an authoritarian god or even a personal god in the usual and customary sense. My assumption is that were God to lose credence in your friend’s mind, that might dissolve his existential orientation as a Christian, despite his need or desire to hold on to the meaning of the faith. But what fact or occurrence could cause this loss of credence? According to Job, NONE. “Though he slay me, yet shall I trust him.”

    So again, I’m either confused or unconvinced about the importance of the special authority factor in this field of inquiry.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-08-30 10:26:35 UTC - 10:26 | Permalink

      Just to clarify — the quotation was from Van Leeuwen’s article. (Not speaking of my friend.) I don’t see the article as making judgements either way with respect to the “goodness” of any religion or religious attitude but restricting itself entirely to cognitive explanations. No doubt many religions and religious outlooks are healthier than others.

      Re moral authority the example given is instructive. Many believers will not be shaken by an immoral priest because there are other authorities they look to behind him. With some of the more liberal religious minds I think there are less obvious authorities — such as the reading of an esteemed theologian’s or philosopher’s works. In our church any hint of scandal attached to any authority was always hushed up, hidden. Many clung to the faith even when they did hear of the scandal — but one wonders how much this tenacity likewise went back to teaching and exhortation of other authorities.

      • 2015-08-30 15:27:19 UTC - 15:27 | Permalink

        With many liberal believers, I think the more accurate term is impetus, not authority. People like me may change theologians over a lifetime like we change the vehicles we drive. But we always find ways that suit us best to get from point A to point B.

  • Scot Griffin
    2015-08-29 16:04:28 UTC - 16:04 | Permalink

    Years ago I came to the conclusion that human beings do not experience life, they interpret it. They compare what they observe to what they expected and act according to an emotion created in reaction to the difference between expectation and reality. The biases and heuristics a person applies during the interpretive process can smooth over or eliminate differences from his perception leading to a positive emotion and the conclusion that no change is required. When the interpretive function gives rise to a negative emotion, however, human beings often will react in such a way as to force reality to conform to their expectations, e.g. an act of violence against a fellow human being.

    This is true of all human beings, not just the religious. That is, just because you are not religious, don’t make the mistake of believing that you don’t have your own “colored transparency” guiding how you view the world and understand “facts”. Yes, you will interpret the world differently and will be unlikely in many cases to interpret the same events in the same way, but that does not mean you act purely on factual belief.

    If the “colored transparency” were not such a fundamental feature of the human mind, I doubt there would be a need to study agnotology, and behavioral economics (and the cognitive science that lead to Prospect Theory in the first place) would never have come to be.

  • Nikos Apostolakis
    2015-08-30 02:24:56 UTC - 02:24 | Permalink

    I’m not convinced that this distinction between “credence” and “belief” really captures the religious experience of real “everyday Joe” believers as opposed to sophisticated/liberal believers.

    I stopped believing in god at a rather young age (around 10 or so) and so I have no personal experience of believing as an adult, so my experience may not be typical. That said, the way I remember it there was no distinction about believing for example that hell is real and other beliefs about the way the world works. I really believed that God was real, that I had to say my prayers every night or I would go to hell and/or bad things would happen to me, etc. Actually that was how I stopped believing in God: because I got convinced that these beliefs were false. It must have been a gradual process but the way I remember it, it happened a particular Sunday in church. I grew up Greek Orthodox and before you could take communion you had to “fast” for a week, which meant that there were certain foods that you were not supposed to it during that week: meat, eggs, milk, fish, etc. So during my fasting week I had absentmindedly eaten a boiled egg. It was an honest mistake, I was hungry I found the egg in the fridge and I had totally forgotten I was fasting. Now my grandmother had warned me that if I eat the forbidden foods during the fast period and then received communion I was going to die. So I had the choice of either telling my grandmother that I had eaten an egg or take communion and risk death. After some deliberation I decided that I’d rather face the wrath of God than my grandmother’s and I went ahead and took communion anyway without confessing my “sin”. And that’s how I stopped believing, after a really agonizing mass I went ahead and took communion and of course nothing happened. So I concluded that the whole thing was bullshit. That’s how I remember it now at least. I’m sure it must have been a gradual process in reality, the very fact that I’d rather face God than my grandmother means that I must already had my doubts, even though my grandmother could be really formidable when crossed.

    The point is that, as I recall it, I really believed that God would punish me for eating an egg in the week I was supposed to be fasting. There was nothing different in that belief from the belief that I would be punished if I didn’t do my homework, say.

    This is just anecdotal evidence, and as I said things may be different for adult believers, but it is consistent with the experiences of other believers or ex believers. For at least some people, and I would say quite a few but I have no reliable data for that, there is no real distinction between belief in religious “facts” and other kinds of facts.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-08-30 10:38:41 UTC - 10:38 | Permalink

      Great story. I wonder if you are one of those with an “analytical cognitive style” as mentioned in Part 1 of this series. Also, the fear of your grandmother outweighing your fear of God seems to me to illustrate most colourfully the dichotomy between independence and dependence upon the practical setting/moment. Your belief was certainly vulnerable to evidence — no punishment (a “true believer” would still believe the punishment for eating that egg awaits the day you finally die a nonagenarian) — which perhaps does support the possibility of your “analytical cognitive style”.

      • Tim Widowfield
        2015-08-30 14:48:23 UTC - 14:48 | Permalink

        I can imagine some believers thinking, “Wow, God is sure merciful. He didn’t kill me this time, just to show me his grace and goodness. I’ll never, ever do that again.”

        I can remember this sort of inner narrative going on in my head all the time. I imagined a vast unseen world beyond this one, full of angels and demons, with a war being waged for my soul. And then one day, it all just evaporated.

  • Al
    2016-04-18 19:34:27 UTC - 19:34 | Permalink

    Boudry has written a sort of follow up.

    http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2016/04/disbelief-in-belief.html?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

    Have to say it’s pretty much an empirically baseless rant.

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