Do they really believe that?

There’s a question that surfaces when reflecting on the beliefs of unfamiliar cultures, and especially their religions. “Do they really believe that?”, we may ask, when encountering beliefs about witchcraft or the evil eye. Such beliefs might seem not just wildly incongruent with reality, but somewhat incoherent, even inconsistent with the other convictions of religious believers who are perfectly competent in navigating the world in their daily lives. A Christian may wonder what a Muslim sees in the Quran that makes it seem such an obviously divine communication; a Muslim may be amazed at how a Christian can think of a wafer and wine as literally the body and blood of their prophet and their God.

Now, nonbelievers often perceive all supernatural claims to be eyebrow-raising in a similar way. But I wonder if the attitude of religious skepticism also inspires a “do they really believe that?” response from religious people in quite the same way. I regularly come across very similar questions, but their implication is typically not so much a worry about cognitive weirdness or incoherence as a worry about psychological coping. That is, I often encounter a “how can nonbelievers live like that?” question, with the implication that without Jesus, God, whatever, skeptics must be condemned to a cold and meaningless existence that might be constantly poised on the brink of suicide if not for the empty pleasures of the flesh that dull their existential terror. (OK, an exaggeration, but you get the idea.) But I do not see a “what the hell is going on here?” response analogous to a Muslim trying to wrap their minds around transubstantiation, for example.

I don’t know if this is true, or even all that significant, but it just kind of struck me now, and I don’t quite know what to make of it…

Critical Thinking is Bigotry
Interview with Prof. Axgrind
Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • sduford

    I think the story of Roman Catholics believing a wafer and wine are the flesh and blood of Christ is a myth. I was raised as an R-C and I was thought that this was purely a symbolic gesture.

  • DUG853

    I’d imagine that it’s a ‘holdover’ from a common ‘cannibilistic’-idea, of, “If You eat (insert-body-part-here) then You’ll gain whatever ‘power/s’ associated with that (body-part).

    So, (in their view/s), if they’re actually eating/drinking the ‘body/blood-of-christ’, then they ‘become’ more ‘christ-like’ as a result of the act-?

    “I ate the heart of a LION,….by the power of Greyskull I have the POWER”,….etc” LMAO

    Sounds more like a loose-association handed down from pre-Homo-Sapien times to me.

  • Mark Plus

    How can christians and Muslims live with the belief that their god(s) may have chosen to give their lives “meaning” by condemning them to hell forever?

  • Mark Plus

    I would add that the meaning question exists independently of the god question. God could, without logical contradiction, have created “meaningless” human life. All the theists who keep petitioning such a god to give “meaning” to their lives would just waste their time.

  • greg

    In my experience having grown up in a devout Christian atmosphere, yes, they really are baffled by the beliefs of atheists; both on the cognitive weirdness side and the psychological coping side. They tend to camp out on the psychological coping side a lot more though. I don’t think they grok the atheist mindset.

  • Jonathan Blake

    To the degree that it is true that the religious look at atheists and wonder how they cope, I think it shows that they recognize the reasonableness of disbelief. I think many believers would let go of belief based on the evidence of their experiences except that they are afraid to do so.

    When I became an atheist, I didn’t get any arguments saying “You’re crazy. Can’t you just see how obvious God is?” Most believers know that belief in God requires some irrational assumptions (i.e. faith) and that it is quite reasonable to disbelieve.

  • hinch

    It is easier to understand a person who disagrees with your answers, than it is to understand a person who doesn’t even recognize the value of your questions. As such, a christian and a muslim, for example, may vehemently disagree on how to respond to god, or even on the very nature of god, but in their common quest to seek god they may share an understanding that neither could share with an atheist. This unspoken agreement of purpose not only bonds, but it serves to reaffirm the validity of the questions that plague a person of faith. To be told by an atheist that your answers are not merely wrong, but the very questions that have filled your life are worthless, is a serious kick in the guts. I think this is partly what motivates the different responses you have witnessed.

  • Mike

    sduford, I tend to agree with you that most Catholics probably don’t literally believe that the wine and afer turn into the body and blood of Jesus. However, it’s not a myth that this is part of Catholocism. It’s called transubstantiation, and you can read the “facts” about it in this online Catholic encyclopedia

    Also, there’s a whole section devoted to it in this document in the Vatican’s website under the heading “CHRIST PRESENT IN THE EUCHARIST THROUGH TRANSUBSTANTIATION”


  • Tolerant666

    I’ve seen the “how can atheists live without God?” bafflement among Christians before, and in fact, as an ex-Christian, I used to wonder that myself. Religious people just can’t understand that there is such thing as meaning in life without a God. At least, most of the religious people I know were like that.

    I *was* a Roman Catholic, and I can tell you from experience that transubstantiation *is* part of Catholicism, a very big part, I might add. I remember enduring a several-month-long period when the Church decided that not enough people literally believe in the body/blood myth, so they spent six months or so reminding everyone that yes, you are supposed to literally believe that.

  • Aaron

    i’d also like to point out that the Protestant church, which practices Communion, does not adhere to the doctrine of transubstantiation. rather, Protestants believe in the symbolic represenation of the bread and wine (or juice) as “emblems” of Christ’s body and blood.

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