Thursday, April 3, 2014

Religious Belief

In the above piece, Joe Carter, working off of Roy Clouser, offers analysis of what a religious belief is, according to which "A belief is a religious belief provided that it is (1) a belief in something as divine or (2) a belief about how to stand in proper relation to the divine, where (3) something is believed to be divine provided it is held to be unconditionally nondependent."

He goes on to argue that by this definition materialism is a religious belief, and that, in fact, we all have religious beliefs. Carter thinks this definition is neither too broad nor too narrow. I will begin by arguing against these two claims.

Is my belief in the principle of non-contradiction a religious belief? I do not think it is dependent on anything else, nor do I see how it could be, so, by the above definition, it is a religious belief. There is a problem here: we do not use the word "religious" or "divine" to refer to logic most of the time. Further, the definition above, as shown by this example, makes "religious belief" equivalent to "belief about what is necessarily non-dependent" i.e., "belief about what is necessarily a brute fact if it is a fact at all." Or, "belief about where reasoning must, necessarily, come to an end." (or a belief about how to stand in proper relation to such things). I therefore think that the definition is too broad.

Is my belief that Jesus was the Christ who died for my sins a religious belief? Is it not a religious belief if I hold that God could have done things otherwise, perhaps by keeping the Fall from happening, or simply because I think it was dependent on the Fall's happening that Christ would die for our sins? Is my belief that he was born of the virgin Mary not a religious belief because I think he could have been born of someone else? It would seem strange to think that these are not religious beliefs. It may be that Carter would group these as having to do with how to stand in proper relation to the divine, but, then, what are the bounds of that category? If they are supposed to be beliefs about things like "what I must do to be saved," then, depending on one's beliefs about how much is required, "born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate" seem not to be religious beliefs. Nor would beliefs about whether miracles happen be religious beliefs in themselves, what would be religious beliefs instead would be beliefs about how to stand in relation to the fact that miracles do or don't happen, under the presupposition that miracles are done by the divine (or that their happening is unconditionally nondependent).

Finally, it may be that materialism is not a religious belief, even given the above definition, if it is held that matter is all that exists but that its existence is dependent, or could be dependent, on something else. A materialist might hold that matter could have been created by God if God existed, that God would have been unconditionally nondependent had he existed, but that God does not exist. Dependency is not the same as contingency, and a thing can be both contingent and nondependent.

Thus far the negative part of this post. On to the positive (which is always harder). I do not pretend to be able to offer necessary and sufficient conditions for a belief's being religious. Rather, I offer a few circumstances where we seem to call beliefs religious relatively unproblematically.

1. We call some beliefs religious because they affect how we live in significant ways which are dependent on the person's holding the belief in that way. We may well want to say that a belief can only be called "religious" as a kind of generalization: most people who hold this belief hold it as a religious belief.

2. We call some beliefs religious because they are held in the context of a religion. I take a religion to be something like a practice or tradition whose reason for being is based in beliefs of the first sort.

These two may not exhaust all the kinds of things a religious belief might be, but I cannot think of any others at the moment.

We might, then, still call materialism a religious belief. By this we would mean, I think, that it has certain effects on life beyond what one might expect given simply its propositional content and degree certainty.

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