“People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” – Blaise Pascal
As part of my recent series of posts concerning truth and knowledge, I’d like to turn today towards the question of what sort of influences on people form beliefs and consider the adequacy of these influencers to deliver truth on their own.
Why Do People Believe What They Believe?
In the book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (1), the authors describe a seminar in which the attendees were asked for reasons why people believe the things they do. Many answers were given, and the speaker wrote them onto a whiteboard. Some of these answers included things like parents, friends, society, and culture. Others offered reasons of comfort, peace of mind, meaning, purpose, hope, and identity. Others still proposed that beliefs were often formed from teachings of Scriptures or holy books, pastors, priests, gurus, rabbis, imams and other religious leaders, and their respective church organizations. Finally the speaker himself added a few of his own to the end. These reasons were then organized into categories and labelled on the whiteboard, something like this:
Peace of Mind
Starting, then, from left to right, the speaker asked, Is each individual category and its contents was adequate by itself to provide enough justification on its own for belief? Read through the categories and items again yourself and think about your own answer. It seems to me that each of the categories, except the last one, is insufficient to the task. Greg Koukl summarizes the situation this way in his excellent book Tactics:
The Bible is first in terms of authority, but…we cannot grasp the authoritative teaching of God’s word unless we use our minds properly. Therefore the mind, not the Bible, is the very first line of defense God has given us against error. (2)
So what exactly is meant by these items in the category of “Philosophical Reasons?” Logical consistency means that the beliefs one holds do not contradict one another. Internal coherence describes a harmonious relationship between the other beliefs in which each are carefully considered and fit together in a reasonable or natural way. Completeness refers to the ability of one’s set of beliefs to best explain the collection of data and evidence about the particular issue being considered. These three tests for truth have the best hope of delivering truth when applied to the claims made by the other three categories. Working in tandem with good philosophy, we may approach truth in the offerings of society, psychology, and religion.
Ravi Zacharias outlines three levels of philosophy for evaluating ideas (3), and I think they are correct:
- Formal Philosophy – This involves the use of logic and critical thinking in analysis of arguments and evidence presented for a point of view.
- Culture and the Arts – Truths discovered through philosophy can often be well illustrated through movies, music, and metaphor.
- Prescription – Laws and parental household rules are examples of prescription. This is the application of these ideas for oneself and legislation for others.
As an example, you may be familiar with the Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, which is often used to make the intended point that each expression of religion is really a discovery or worship of the same god, and that man’s finite nature and abilities lead us to believe we are serving different gods, when in reality each religion is merely a facet of the one god. Those who present this to persuade others of this view, usually offer it as a full argument (omitting step 1), but it is only an illustration (step 2) of an absent argument. They then move to step 3 and try to make the application that no one can know the truth about what or who god is, and so we should not claim that we are right and others are wrong (this could be used about truth in general as well, not just religious truth). Now, they may be right about these applications (I don’t think they are), but I hope you can see that without an actual argumentation, all we have is a possible explanation, but not necessarily a reasonable one.
In my next post, I will be talking about reasons people resist belief. I hope you will join me!
Comments, questions? Email me through the form on my “about” page, we’ll discuss, and your comments may inspire a follow-up post!
1 Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 51-54.
2 Gregory Koukl, Tactics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 32.
3 Ravi Zacharias and Norman Geisler, eds., Is Your Church Ready (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 33.