The Inconvenience of Belief

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Increasingly religious beliefs are being classified as self-deception or a means to justify prejudice. Not too long ago, a couple who had chosen to wait until marriage would have been respected even by those who did not share the religious conviction. But if you had the opportunity to listen to some of the professors at NC State talk about it, you would quickly realize that they believe anyone who advocates for abstinence until marriage must be misinformed, ignorant, or oppressed. In the minds of modern skeptics, religious conviction lacks the necessary conditions from which belief is justifiably built.

From their perspective, adequate proof must exist prior to belief and beliefs must always exist in proportion to the evidence. Religious belief in their minds does not fit this criteria. Instead, religious belief requires no experimentation, changes from person to person, and is made up by the imaginations of people who are picking out what things they’d want to be true. It is like children who play house with none of the inconvenience of actually collecting an income, paying taxes, or mowing the lawn.

And so it is no wonder that skeptics who see religious belief in this way would look upon it with some, if not a great deal, of disdain. Of course, they are right that religious belief is a very different thing from what I most commonly hear called “scientific belief.” But they get two things wrong by categorizing belief in this way. First they are wrong to assume that all non-scientific belief is religious. Non-scientific beliefs are ubiquitous in our lives, most of them non-religious, and not even the most stubborn of skeptics exists without a host of them. And secondly, and most importantly, they are wrong about what separates the one set of beliefs from the other. What may come as a surprise is that these belief systems have similar criteria for what makes something believable.

The main distinguishing factor used to separate these beliefs is that “scientists” must find convincing evidence before they believe. But even this is not an accurate portrayal of the scientific process. For the most part, scientist attempt to find adequate contrary evidence that would be sufficient reason to discard a theory. Of course this may seem like semantics. It is true after all that proof and disproof are two ends of the same coin and some theories are discarded not because they have been disproven but because we have found simpler explanations. And yet it is more accurate to say that disprovability is the essence of the scientific endeavor and not provability.

We may believe that all swans are white because every swan we’ve ever seen was white, yet no number of confirmations will ever prove the fact. Proof is relatively easy to find because our brains are programmed to see things that support our beliefs. But finding ten white swans or a million white swans will never mean that all swans are white. The way we can come to believe this assertion is not through proving it, but by failing to disprove it. And in this case, actually, we have disproved it. Turns out, all swans are not white. And so we should no longer believe the assertion no matter how many times we find another white swan.

This is the essence of scientific belief and the essence of what makes any belief scientific: it can be empirically disproven. And there really is something incredibly comforting in beliefs that can be disproven. They are like politicians. If they are vulnerable to being discredited, if we have fact-checkers and a free press willing to expose any lies, they are much more likely to prove trustworthy. The more disprovable an assertion is, the greater our conviction in its reality.

But there is another sort of belief that does not have the same sort of consolation. This sort of belief is not just religious but also includes many of our strongest political convictions. These are beliefs in things that are not disprovable, and so they remain outside of the fields of science. Examples of non-scientific beliefs are numerous. We might believe in God. We might believe that love is the most important attribute a person can have. We might believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. We might believe in Freud’s concepts of the subconscious. We might believe in an afterlife. We might believe that Les Miserable is the best musical, or Angelina Jolie is the prettiest woman. We might believe that sex before marriage is a sin, or that abortion is a woman’s right. These are all things people believe, but they are also not disprovable.

Of course some things are less disprovable than others. There may be discoveries that would seem to suggest Freud was right or wrong about our brain, but there is no real test anyone has come up with that could actually disprove the subconscious, even if we had the 13 billion dollars it took to test the Higgs Boson particle. We can argue about the utilitarian results of certain points of view, the philosophies behind them, and past outcomes of the belief, and it is very possible to have meaningful discussions and arguments about these topics. Yet sooner or later we must admit that many of our beliefs are ultimately not disprovable. So the conviction we feel about these subjects if it is not based on disprovability must be based on another vulnerability.

And indeed, these beliefs, though not vulnerable to empirical disproof, are vulnerable in another way as noted by Patience Kabamba. And like scientific belief, it is the vulnerabilities that help us believe. To understand non-scientific vulnerability, consider if a preacher has an affair with a member of the congregation. That might cause a lot of people to stop believing whatever the preacher taught. But take the same example in a university class and it makes no sense. If a chemistry teacher has an affair with one of his students, do the students suddenly doubt what is being taught? Of course not. Because chemistry can be disproven. God cannot. While contrary evidence is the Achilles heel of scientific belief, hypocrisy is the Achilles heel of non-scientific belief.

The vulnerability of non-scientific belief is the vulnerability that exists between people. It is the same sort of vulnerability a man feels when he is on his knee asking a woman to marry him. He has opened his heart believing the woman will say yes so that the two of them can know each other better. And if the marriage happens all the things he thought he knew about the girl will be tested again. It is only through shared vulnerability that we come to believe we really know a person.

And when I feel I really know someone and trust them, I am able to put greater stock in what they say. If I have intelligent, insightful, loving parents who sincerely believe in God, it becomes almost impossible to entirely dismiss God as a probability. This is how non-scientific belief is propagated. It travels through the testimony of believers. Whether it is a loved professor expressing his conviction about the rights of a woman to have an abortion or a sunday school teacher talking about Jesus, it is done by testimony. Testimony is the communication of what is earnestly believed based on more or less powerful evidences and yet cannot be disproven. Perhaps that is one of the reasons religions and political parties alike tend to form into groups where they witness together—because this sort of belief is shared between community members and relies on trust in one another in order believe more fully in the un-disprovable.

Even though neither kind of belief can ever be proven we are still able to believe them with incredible fervor because they are vulnerable to us. Anne Askew was one of a thousand protestants who was hung and burned because of her belief of transubstantiation did not mesh with the government’s official dogmas. All she had to do was deny her belief, but she would not. I cannot help but compare this moment to the fictionalized account of Galileo who was simply asked to deny his heliocentric model of the solar system. But he could not. Instead, as the story goes, he said, “but they move!” While the story is idealized, and Galileo did in fact deny the model in order to avoid excommunication, it is still true that he claimed “E pur si muove” or “And yet, it does move.” Galileo could never truly convince himself against his belief.

This is “the obstinacy of belief,” as CS Lewis calls it. And it is the obstinacy that makes it feel real. The billiards balls will roll again as they have for the last 100 years. We cannot help believing it and proceeding as if our belief is accurate. And the more and more we do, the more comfortable our belief becomes until it is hard to imagine that it really is only belief. And we cannot understand why infants take so long to comprehend that the smaller cup will fit into a larger cup but the larger cup will not fit into the smaller cup. It feels inherent to us but it does not to them. As the years have passed, our attitude towards cups and balls has ceased to be skeptical and instead we call it knowledge, even though, as Hume points out, there’s no way of knowing that the laws of physics won’t suddenly change and tomorrow larger cups will fit into smaller cups.

In either type of belief, constancy in the face of vulnerability is what allows us to believe. It was not a foregone conclusion that the boy’s date with his girlfriend would go well. They’ve had dates that didn’t go well. But he brought the ring—and like the vast majority of their dates the conversation was enjoyable and they made each other happy—and so he asked the question. Though he had missed before, the billiards player hits the ball off of three cushions and it makes contact just where he had predicted. And so they believe.

That is why we cannot trust crooked billiards balls, the weather, or adulterers. Without consistency, belief itself becomes ridiculous. The moment the laws of physics change, our attitudes towards our equations and observations could never be the same. When theories do not mesh with observations we begin to doubt. And whenever another testator ceases to believe the whole community is weakened. Consistency is what makes beliefs believable. Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus made her action consistent with her belief. When a Jew turns down pork, when a Mormon rejects alcohol, and when a Muslim kneels to pray on the sidewalk they add credibility to their beliefs because inconvenience draws attention to the consistency of it. It happened again, even in that situation. And the belief that it will happen again tomorrow is the reason billiards players practice, piano virtuosos take the stage with confidence, and we send people into space.

The vitality of belief is reaffirmed by the “inconvenient” moments. When it’s awkward. When it would be easier to change our mind, but we cannot. We may hope the laws of physics would change but they will not and we may wish that our moral beliefs were different but they are not. Inconvenience uncovers the integrity upon which our beliefs rest. Perhaps that is why I yearn to see moments of inconvenient belief, when a politician goes against what would be advantageous, when morality stands against desire, and when opinions are not shared by friends. These are good moments. Moments that expose what makes our beliefs believable.

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