Some time ago, religious activist Be Scofield published an article criticizing atheists who say that religion is harmful, because they haven’t shown that concrete harms have resulted from the beliefs and practices of each of over 4,000 distinct religious groups. According to Scofield, organized religions often provide social services that aren’t available elsewhere, and religious belief has assisted marginalized groups in building community, developing personal identity, and resisting oppression. At the time, I sensed that he was somehow missing the point about the harms of religious belief, but I couldn’t quite pin down where exactly this argument went wrong.
More recently, Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum claimed it was largely irrelevant that 46% of Americans believe human beings were created by God within the past 10,000 years, because not believing in evolution has very little impact on people’s everyday lives. Instead, Drum noted that such a profession of belief is just a “cultural signifier” that they use to identify themselves as Christians. Again, it seemed that he had failed to grasp something essential about people’s beliefs, but I was still at a loss to describe the precise nature of the error.
And then I found a post from a Tumblr user who was looking for a religion that could account for what they perceived as a spiritual dimension and “sacred” nature of transgender people. When others questioned whether subscribing to a religion was necessarily a good idea, they responded:
There are reasons to hold a belief other than epistemological. If you’re better off for believing something, and you aren’t hurting others with that belief, that is sufficient reason to believe it.
That was when the mistake common to these examples became clear: These people have misunderstood the concept of belief itself, and in doing so, they encourage misuse of the very action of believing. They don’t seem to comprehend what a belief actually is, or what beliefs are for, and so they’ve mistakenly labeled a number of distinct concepts as “beliefs”. This can generate significant confusion in any discussion about belief, so it’s important to distinguish the different meanings that people intend when they refer to “belief”.
Belief is typically understood to denote a person’s idea that something is true – that is, they regard a certain state of affairs as actually being the case in the real world. If they believe “snow is white”, this is meant to correspond to the fact that snow is indeed white in reality. This should be pretty basic stuff, but it soon becomes vastly more complicated due to the many roles that people have repurposed “belief” to serve.
Beliefs are part of the larger category of functional ideas. They specifically function to represent reality and create an internal model of the world, offering people the ability to understand how things relate to one another, identify why things happen, and predict what may happen in the future. Obviously, a person’s belief does not cease to be a belief if it’s inaccurate or outright wrong. It’s still a belief as long as they consider it a genuine map of reality, even if this is actually incorrect.
All beliefs are functional ideas, but not all functional ideas are beliefs. Ideas can serve purposes other than generating a model of the real world. They might instead provide personal emotional comfort, encourage social cohesion, promote charity activities, be appreciated aesthetically for their perceived elegance, make someone seem interesting for how obscure and esoteric their ideas are, indicate membership in a certain group and aid a person in fitting in with them, or be seen as virtuous to profess a belief in or attempt to believe in even if you don’t actually believe it.
All of these purposes are completely unrelated to belief itself – the matter of whether the ideas in question are true or not. An idea which serves these purposes may also be a belief, if someone genuinely holds it to be reflective of reality. But if it isn’t meant as a statement about what they consider to be true in reality, it’s not a belief. It’s just a functional idea.
When people treat all ideas which serve these purposes as also being beliefs, the resulting confusion knows no limit. Collapsing these distinct categories into one group labeled “beliefs” suggests that these other functions have some bearing on whether a belief is actually true. They don’t, but treating them as if they do can badly compromise the goal of beliefs: accurately representing the real world. That’s what makes this conflation so insidious, and that’s why such cavalier and careless approaches to belief are so frustrating.
Certainly people still regard beliefs as being about what’s true, even when using them in a way that doesn’t reflect this at all, and this requires redefining truth as well. Instead of defining their beliefs solely by what they regard the state of reality to be, what they see as true about the world is now defined by whatever they “believe” in this new sense of the word, which is determined by any number of purposes other than modeling reality. When representing the state of the world is just one purpose of belief among many, this can become secondary to other considerations.
What Scofield, Drum, and the seeker of transgender spirituality are telling us is that they are completely okay with the obsolescence of belief as a map of reality. To them, belief need not be tied to reality at all. Scofield is quite confident that religious belief can be good for people and societies, and this apparently outweighs any potential impact of holding beliefs that are actually false or basing one’s beliefs on how useful they are to individuals and groups. Drum protests that disbelief of evolution isn’t a cause of any harm, while failing to consider what it might be a symptom of. And our spiritual seeker cuts right to the heart of it: “There are reasons to hold a belief other than epistemological”, and one of those reasons is how good it makes you feel.
For all of their focus on whether beliefs are good or bad, harmful or harmless, they’ve paid little attention to the consequences of decoupling beliefs that are putatively about reality from reality itself. If you can believe whatever you like because of how you feel about it, and truth is just one aspect of belief among many (if it’s present at all), facts about the world can be helpless to alter your beliefs. Reality is now only a single factor that holds no privileged status here.
And if a belief comes to serve a deep emotional need, the cost of finding a replacement for this role may be unbearable, so anything that contradicts this belief must be denied and disregarded in order to preserve it. Just one strongly valued belief that must be protected at any cost is all it takes to distort someone’s entire world view. Any other belief or fact that might be connected to this will be filtered through the lens of the security blanket belief that cannot be denied.
Maybe you’re a transhumanist who takes great pleasure in the thought that a technological Singularity will inevitably occur in the near future, solving every problem and ending all suffering, so you might mentally downplay anything that suggests this might not happen instead of adjusting your beliefs accordingly. Or you could be a recently converted Catholic who’s so excited about your newfound religion that you’ll overlook your disagreement with the church’s official views on homosexuality and chalk it up to mere “confusion” on your part, rather than admitting that the church might just be wrong.
Perhaps you’re enthusiastic about the idea that cryonic preservation of your brain for future revival will allow you to live indefinitely, and so you don’t take any evidence of the shortcomings of current cryopreservation techniques quite as seriously as you should. Or you might be so attached to the supposed inerrancy of the Bible that you find yourself defending American slavery, because you can’t bring yourself to say that the Bible could be mistaken about the practice.
This is what can happen when your beliefs are determined by emotional need, social benefits, group identification, a perceived virtue in the act of belief itself, or anything other than reality. The possibilities for denial and distortion are as limitless as human emotional attachments. And when holding a certain belief becomes that important in people’s lives, it may become necessary for them to act in a way consistent with that belief on an individual or collective level, in order to keep up the internal charade that this belief is about reality.
Allowing your needs and social concerns to influence your beliefs – your mental model of reality – is not just a harmless personal indulgence, even if it may seem that way due to how universal confirmation bias and wishful thinking are. But defenders of faith like Be Scofield are unashamedly suggesting that the truth does not matter, and ensuring that our beliefs mirror reality is unnecessary. In doing so, they grant people an explicit license to believe anything they feel is good or necessary for them. And they don’t seem to have any grasp of the boundless epistemic chaos that they’re leaving everyone to languish in. They’re prepared to cultivate an approach to reality that revolves around believing whatever you find most comfortable and enjoyable, and they’re really trying to say that there is no harm in this.
But at the end of the day, the truth is not determined by what makes you feel warm and safe. It is not determined by what gets you the most friends. It is not determined by what makes people be nice to each other. It is not determined by a cost-benefit analysis of holding a certain belief. It is determined by reality. And those who willingly compromise their understanding of reality still have to live in it. They just might find themselves without a decent map.