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Do believers really believe?

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Many atheists behold the persistence of religion in the West - and especially in America and its politics - with something close to incredulity. How can it be, they lament, that despite the absence of any evidence for the central tenets of Christianity, despite the enormous progress of science in explaining the origins of the Earth and its inhabitants, that so many people continue to believe pre-Enlightenment gobbledegook?

That the world was created by an invisible deity, that He later impregnated a virgin who then bore a son who was His own father, that we have immortal souls and will live for ever in Heaven if we are good and love Jesus - how can anyone who has even attended high school believe such things?

And how can agreement with this nonsense be a prerequisite for winning the support of the American electorate? It defies belief.

So it does. And if something defies belief, a good starting position is not to believe it. That is my position. I am not shocked by the persistence of religious belief in the West because I do not believe it exists. It is simply not possible for people who know as much as modern Westerners do to believe in the central tenets of Christianity or the other major religions.

Of course, religious assertion persists. But there are many reasons for saying religious things other than actually believing them. Most often, I suspect, people are expressing their hopes rather than their beliefs - substituting “I believe” for “I wish” in the unconscious endeavour to convince themselves.

The real test for genuine belief is not what people say, but what they do. To believe something is to be disposed to act upon it. The vast majority of Western Christians fail this test. Imagine this. Recognising that many people find their children an unwelcome burden, the Government creates a network of slaughterhouses. Each year, about a million unwanted children are dropped off for extermination.

It is a horrifying idea. Anyone who believed it to be happening would surely rise up against the regime, with violence if necessary, or at the very least passively resist by not paying taxes or refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the State. To do nothing while millions of children are murdered would display despicable moral complacency.

Yet British Roman Catholics allegedly believe that such slaughter is really happening. They claim that humans have immortal souls from conception, and that killing a foetus is no less murder than killing a ten-year-old. From the Catholic point of view, abortion clinics are slaughterhouses for children.

Is the lack of anti-abortion militancy - at least in Britain - not then strange? If they believe what they claim to, they are no better than those who turned a blind eye to Nazi atrocities. But I do not think they are that wicked. It is just that they don't really believe the things they say about foetuses and immortal souls.

I do not mean to pick on Roman Catholics. All Christians fail to act on their avowed beliefs. Suppose you believed that Heaven exists and that only some of us will qualify to live in it for ever, as the vast majority of Christians claim to. How would this affect your behaviour?

It would depend on what you thought were the admission criteria for Heaven. But whatever you took these virtues to be, they would utterly dominate your life. When everlasting bliss is on offer, nothing else matters at all. People who believed in Heaven would surely act quite unlike those who do not.

Yet the expected behavioural difference is not to be observed. The vast majority of Christians display a remarkably blasé attitude toward their approaching day of judgment, leading lives almost indistinguishable from those of us open non-believers. Put simply, they fail the behavioural test for belief.

So do American politicians. All claim to be Christians but they approach policy exactly as non-believers would. Consider John McCain and Barack Obama, to take the most topical examples. Both recommend policies on grounds that weigh only earthly costs and earthly benefits. The afterlife consequences are never mentioned.

By the light of their avowed Christianity, this is perverse. If we have immortal souls, then earthly costs and benefits are an infinitesimal fraction of the total. For true believers, the first question to ask about any policy ought to be: How does it affect people's chances of getting into Heaven? But this is never even the last question asked.

American politicians obviously do not really believe that we have immortal souls. And they know that voters do not believe it either. They know that, contrary to popular mythology, a politician who approached policy from a truly Christian perspective would be considered an unelectable lunatic.

The persistence of religious profession is irritating. It is a sign of something intellectually unserious in the professor and his appreciative audience. But it is not alarming once you realise that it is all just talk.

Source: Jamie Whyte[1]


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