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…

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What Explains God's Moral Grounding Power? Part II
Some Thoughts on Naturalism and Morality
Parody: Ben Affleck and Sam Harris Debate Scientology
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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