Knowledge, Belief — and How Humans Work

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by Neil Godfrey

The third post on Black Box Site addresses the difference between Knowledge and Belief. That’s a question I have sprinkled across various posts here so again I read Blackmun’s thoughts with particular interest.

Some key takeaways (at least for me):

. . . those who held their beliefs with greater persistence also tended to have more activity in the brain’s amygdala, which is involved in threat perception and anxiety, as well as in the insular cortex, which deals with emotions. In other words, a threat to belief tended to be perceived as an emotionally charged personal threat. As one of the researchers involved, Jonas Kaplan, put it in a press release for the experiment: “Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong. To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself.

. . . .

Further, unlike knowledge, a belief can be held with what seems to be absolute certainty, though that certainty is in itself a belief.

. . . .

However, knowledge is also adaptive, with mistaken conclusions (which must be tentative in any case) always subject to correction by new evidence or better understanding; while a particular belief, whether true or false, is essentially static, a thing that is assumed to be true, but never truly examined (though it might eventually be replaced by another belief – also unexamined). In other words, knowledge can steadily advance and improve, while belief, due its very nature, cannot.

I think back to the time I was moving out of mainstream religion into the thought-world of what at the time I was beginning to “believe” was a “true church” that held “the truth”. There was one moment when I innocently asked the question: “To what extent does God expect me, a student with a heavy work load, to keep Sunday holy?” I opened the package they sent me by way of an answer. I read the title of the main booklet: Which Day is the Christian Sabbath? Why was the cover title alone enough to make my heart sink? I “knew” that if I opened the booklet and read it that I would find “incontrovertible arguments” that the seventh day, Saturday (not Sunday), was the “true sabbath”. I “believed” before I even turned to the first page that what was contained in it “was true”. I felt ill because I did not want to be joining some sect or cult, and that’s what keeping Saturday would look like to others. In retrospect I can see something that I surely rationalized at the time — that I believed before I even read the arguments. The notion that I ought to step back and genuinely, objectively be open to opposing arguments or an analysis of the booklet’s rhetoric that demonstrated its psychological manipulations was simply non-existent. By the time I did read opposing arguments I was already more than capable of “shooting them down in flames”.

Even less did I think to seriously reflect on the emotional and mental processes that had led me to that point where I “believed” this particular church was “true”.

There were times when I did struggle to find the evidence I was looking for. So when I read from the same source “A True History of the True Church” I was a little disappointed that it lacked the detailed evidence I would have liked. But I was a history student and had a vast library at hand so I did my own research to complement what I had read. That led to more frustration, sadly. It looked to me like the Waldensians were not really the same sort of sabbath-keepers as we were, and I found no evidence for the Cathars keeping the sabbath but I did find details that they observed teachings we opposed. But my fundamental beliefs were not thrown overboard. I was not at a church-run college so I did not have all the resources that they stocked in their library.

I could not deny that some details of the church’s teachings were wrong, and some forms of practice and behaviour were not what I would have expected in a “biblical church”. But I convinced myself that those details were not fundamental, or would change in time, and I maintained my respectable standing by embracing a “good attitude”. A “good attitude”, I learned not so many years ago, was the same expression used in the 1930s and 40s by Nazi youth and party members who questioned aspects of Nazi practice and doctrines: as long as they asked their questions with a “good attitude” they remained lovingly embraced by the party. A “good attitude” meant that one submits to the authorities and does not cause dissension among one’s peers. In other words, one learns to be very discreet about sharing one’s doubts and questions.

I see now how I was immersed in a pattern common to so many who enter counter-culture type groups:

and many more.

The problem with belief is that a believer just “KNOWS” that one’s beliefs are true. Belief thereby binds a mind more tightly than knowledge. Enter the arrogance of belief. Or if one is so totally confident then it follows that there is no need for arrogance: one can be humble about “knowing” the truth. The arrogance of humility.

That last listed post above, The Brainwashing Myth, concludes with this line:

I reject the idea of brainwashing for three reasons: It is pseudoscientific, ignores research-based explanations for human behavior and dehumanizes people by denying their free will.

Given that this post comes on the heels of a post expressing openness to the possibility that free will is an illusion, that last reason should be modified in some way. The first two reasons draw upon “knowledge” — which is necessarily tentative pending new evidence. The third reason rests on a “belief”, even if a necessary one to maintain our dignity and humanity. And if it’s a false belief, then we have no choice but to call on our reserves of compassion and understanding to uphold our humanity.



“I believe because it is absurd” – and the irony of believing a rational person said that

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by Neil Godfrey

There’s an interesting article discussing the origin of our belief that Tertullian wrote, “I believe because it is absurd”, at aeon.com,

‘I believe because it is absurd’: Christianity’s first meme

by Sam Dresser.

The article is another warning not to thoughtlessly take on board popular “knowledge” that “everyone knows to be true”.

I learned of it through another discussion, one on the Westar Institute site, clarifying the diverse meanings of the word “faith” by Bernard Brandon Scott, The Trouble with Faith.


So far, but no farther… or maybe the journey has just begun

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I recently read something I liked on a blog run by someone (James Bishop) I would think of as a fundamentalist or certainly very conservative Christian. The article is Why I No Longer Hold to Inerrancy & The Need For A New Model of Inspiration. I was reminded so vividly of my own days of doubt and struggles with faith and attempting to be as honest as I believed I could be with myself.

James was faced with conflicts and at some point had the honesty to acknowledge that they were real:

As a Christian student in New & Old Testament Studies approaching the end of his time at university, I have discovered a number conflicts between conservative, fundamentalist Christian views of biblical inspiration (of which we will refer to as “classical inerrancy” or “inerrancy”) and what I have come to deem, more often than not, sound biblical scholarship.

He acknowledged that

these arguments require serious consideration especially if one wishes to take the Bible seriously and authoritatively.

Honesty. But the commitment remains. Faith is strong.

But here’s the part I particularly liked — with my emphasis:

Prior, however, I used to hold to inerrancy. I also once believed that every single challenge to the Bible was easily answered and refuted, and, for a time, thought that conflicts an inerrant view had with scholarship was a result of some anti-Christian “agenda” or “hate” towards Christianity. That was until I actually examined the alleged errors themselves, and soon realized that the answers provided on conservative apologetic websites were often grounded on little more than revisionist historical theories, fringe scholarly interpretations, fringe science, and contrived explanations attempting to explain away biblical inconsistencies.

What a welcome acknowledgement! The implication is that James Bishop no longer presumes that every challenge to the Bible is motivated by hate or an attempt to destroy Christianity.

It is a welcome acknowledgement because too frequently I read scholars and others accusing those who question the very foundations of the history of Christian origins of surely being driven, as “atheists”, by a hatred for Christianity and with a dedication to attempt to undermine all that is good about it. I refer in particular to those who entertain the possibility that Jesus was not a historical figure, of course.

Later in the post James explains why he parts ways with Bart Ehrman:

Long story short, as result of his discoveries that were in conflict with a conservative, inerrant view of biblical scripture, he [Bart Ehrman] is now one of Christianity’s biggest critics. He has sowed doubt in the lives of many Christians who have too come to realize the falsity of inerrancy. Inerrancy is spiritually dangerous in this way (see my argument in point 4e in this article). I have witnessed instances of Christians falling away from faith as a result of buying into the false dichotomy that one either embraces full blown inerrancy or rejects the Bible (a strawman caricature often embraced by both critics of the Bible/Christianity and inerrantists). Christian scholar Michael Bird captures this well explaining that this “means that if some young Christian comes across a passage of Scripture that is historically or ethically challenging, then they are faced with the choice between belief and unbelief,” and there lies the problem.

The point I want to make is that unlike Ehrman I wish to build up fellow believers in the faith. Unlike Ehrman, I also haven’t thrown in the towel, so to speak. I haven’t rejected Christianity or the inspiration and authority of the Bible.

I was not aware that Ehrman is one of Christianity’s biggest critics. In his recent Christmas posts he came across as still in love with the “fullness of meaning” of the Christmas story as found in the Bible. See Finding “unbelievable fullness of meaning” in the Christmas stories?

The problem, in James Bishop’s view, is that Christians who begin to see flaws in the Bible might toss it out completely. A fair reading of Ehrman’s views shows that even an agnostic or atheist can still express appreciation for the “unbelievable fullness of meaning” found in the Bible. Same for various Christ Myth theorists who have also expressed strong admiration for Christianity (e.g. Couchoud) and who even remain Christians (e.g. Brodie).

Reading James Bishop’s post is a déjà vu experience for me. It stirs old memories of my own past conflicts and strivings for both honesty and faith.

Many people struggle with the same conflicts. I think some of us find a solution to one particular conflict and rest satisfied with their resolution of it. Thus finding a new definition or understanding of what divine inspiration means is one way to reconcile certain facts about the Bible with one’s faith.

Others of us continue to question and don’t just stop when one conflict is resolved. They do not deny other conflicts as they arise. They confront them, and perhaps find new ways of reconciling opposites. Hence a few Christ mythicists, for example, find a way to maintain their belief in God and remain deeply devoted to the Christian message.

Some even go so far as to question why they believe in God at all. Is it true that morality cannot be justified or explained without God?

Some question the Bible and stop there when they find an answer. Some go further and question their faith and some might find a new set of definitions they are comfortable with there, too. Others go further still.

But at no point do any of us need to presume that those who go further with their questioning are necessarily driven by “some anti-Christian “agenda” or “hate” towards Christianity.” Or does that charge arise as a defence among those who cannot, for whatever reason, take their questioning any further? I can imagine believers having a very real fear of atheism and of atheism being a logical consequence of ongoing questioning. All I can say to those believers is, There is no need to fear. I can understand why someone only takes their questioning so far and no farther. We each stop where we feel most comfortable and it’s not for me to tell others they are wrong in choosing to find some solace in a level of religious belief in the short time they are on this planet.

I’d just like to reassure believers that being an atheist, and even having strong views about Christianity itself, does not mean we atheists all condemn individual believers for their choices or that our beliefs are driven by a “some anti-Christian agenda”.