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Belief In Action – Why Many Self-Professed Theists Might Actually Be Atheist

April 14, 2014

Nathaniel Givens’ latest post at Times and Seasons addresses the question that many critics of Mormonism often ask of Mormons — what would it take not to believe in the LDS church? Typically, the person asking this question wants the Mormon in question to either admit the weak point of their faith (where they will then try to attack it), or to admit that their faith is unconditionally held.

Nathaniel doesn’t answer that nothing could sway his faith, but rather proposes that in order not to believe, he would have to be presented with a better alternative:

…everyone has to believe something. You don’t get to opt out. As long as freedom is inevitable (which it is), choice is inevitable. And as long as choice is inevitable we will make purposeful decisions that reveal our preferences and also our beliefs. The only possible alternative is to engage in purposeless, random action. But even if that were possible over a long period of time (which I doubt) it is a kind of belief that has a name: nihilism. Therefore: That we will believe is not in question. The question is whatwe will believe in and, even more importantly, why.

Some critics of Mormonism or religion in general seem to discount the inevitability of belief and therefore miss these two key points. Rather than criticize religion in comparison to some competing belief, which is rational, they sometimes engage in purely negative attacks with no alternative belief specified, which is not. This implies that they believe some degree of error in a person’s belief is sufficient to abandon that belief. In favor of what alternative? Some never say, or at least not until they have first attempted to get you to discard your current belief.

But all beliefs are flawed by definition because we, who conceive and hold those beliefs, are flawed. Belief is a model of the world, of what is relevant and what is true, and we know axiomatically all models are wrong. I read somewhere that it is not only banal but vulgar to criticize a model for being wrong, and though I’ve been unable to find the original source I passionately agree with the sentiment. The question is never between erroneous belief and pure, unsullied truth. It is always between different sets of competing erroneous beliefs. Don’t just try and tell me that what I believe is wrong. Tell me what I should believe that is better.

Someone could probably write several posts about just this idea in the post (whether directly challenging whether there aren’t better models than Mormonism or indirectly challenging the idea that because all beliefs are flawed, then somehow there is some sort of equivalence between them all.) But instead, I found another part of the post to be more interesting. In talking about beliefs, Nathaniel raised revealed preference theory. As Nathaniel describes:

…When your life has ended and you look back and see the decisions that you have made along the way, the pattern of choices will imply a corresponding constellation of beliefs. Those facts and principles that you affirm as relevant and true because they are made logically necessary by your actions are the things that you believe.

This perspective is a generalization of the economic theory of revealed preferences, so we can call it the theory of revealed beliefs. It eschews subjective feelings about what is true for the simple reason that we often do not know our own feelings. We sometimes think that we believe in something, but then behave in ways that contradicts that belief. These instrumental or fictitious beliefs are not, in my mind, the genuine article.

For the same reason, Paul Samuelson (who invented the theory of revealed preferences in 1938 and became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics in 1970) didn’t hand out surveys to ask people about their preferences. In his quest to provide an empirical basis for the concept of utility, he determined that the best route was to allow folks to reveal their preferences through their choices. These revealed preferences could then be represented by utility functions, and the rest of the discipline could chug along on top of this new foundation more or less as before.

According to the theory of revealed beliefs, preferences are just one of a variety of beliefs that we reveal (or perhaps create) as we make choices in our lives. The challenging decisions and sacrifices we face in life are there by design to force us to reveal/create our beliefs in a more granular way. If you’re rich enough, then paying tithing doesn’t force you to differentiate between obedience and material comforts. Scarcity of time and resources force us to make meaningful choices, and these reveal what we really believe.

One consequence of the theory of revealed beliefs is that it makes sense to talk about a person’s beliefs independently of that person’s opinion about his or her own beliefs. As long as a person acts in a purposeful way, then the collection of principles required to rationalize their behavior constitute their beliefs.

I was personally very intrigued by this theory because in my mind, beliefs are absolutely about subjective feelings about what is true. For me, what it would take for me to believe in Mormonism is equivalent to asking me what it would take to experience the subjective sense of its truth (regardless of anything objective.)

By focusing on actions rather than subjective experiences, Nathaniel opens the (very real) possibility that our subjective experiences might disagree with our actions…and Nathaniel says we should trust the actions.

However, this raises the possibility for us to challenge people’s self-conceptions of themselves.

For example, suppose that someone claims not to believe in God, but when they are in a dangerous situation, they quickly cry out in prayer for help or to avoid the danger. Does this action defy the self-conception and self-profession of atheism?

As some folks say, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Regardless of the veracity of this statement, it strikes at the idea that actions might defy self-conceptions.

However, if it strikes this way, it could strike the other way.

What if someone claims to believe in God, but when they are presented with the stakes of what belief in God demands, they do not perform? For example, what if someone believes that God demands adherence to commandments, repentance and renunciation of sin, and that if these things are not done, then one’s eternal soul is at risk? If these beliefs were truly born out through actions, we’d expect that those beliefs would be revealed by strict adherence to commandments, repentance for any slip-ups and renunciation of the sins.

But it seems that many, if not most self-professed theists, aren’t so strict in their adherence.

In contrast, if you look at folks who believe that getting hit by a car will lead to an extreme amount of pain, if not death, then you will see very high levels of action surrounding that belief — people don’t jump in the way of cars, and if they notice themselves in a car’s way, they will scramble to get out.

The question is a bit more complicated for religion, however. Understandably, the car example is pretty immediate. But religion is further away, less concrete. But nevertheless, matching actions to beliefs is difficult. How could we distinguish between associating frequent church attendance with belief in God (or belief in the Book of Mormon), when it could very well actually be associated with a belief that if one does not attend church frequently, then social relationships with friends and family will suffer? For BYU students or employees in Mormon environments, how can we distinguish between using actions as a proxy for belief in God or using actions as a proxy for belief in keeping a job, or keeping an ecclesiastical endorsement?

How exactly does one act out belief that the Book of Mormon is true, anyway?

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