Do You Really Believe What You Say You Believe?

William Ellery Channing(1780-1842) was one of the most influential preachers in American history. He’s sometimes considered the starting point of American Liberal Christianity, a title I think he would have appreciated. He also inspired his student Ralph Waldo Emerson to go into theology and eventually begin the Transcendental movement, a fact which I think would have bothered Channing a bit.

He also inspired James Ford, who runs the blog Monkey Mind in the Buddhist portal at Patheos. I suspect Ford would confuse the heck out of stodgy old Channing.

Here’s an anecdote from Channing’s memoirs, recollected and told by his nephew, William Henry Channing. In the story, William Ellery tells of a rare outing with his father, where he was taken to see a Calvinist preacher:

Impressed with the notion that he might learn great tidings from the unseen world, he listened attentively to the sermon. With very glowing rhetoric, the lost state of man was described, his abandonment to evil, helplessness, dependence upon sovereign grace, and the need of earnest prayer as the condition of receiving this divine aid. In the view of the speaker, a curse seemed to rest upon the earth, and darkness and horror to veil the face of nature. William, for his part, supposed that henceforth those who believed would abandon all other things to seek this salvation, and that amusement and earthly business would no longer occupy a moment. The service over, they went out of the church, and his father, in answer to the remark of some person, said, with a decisive tone, —” Sound doctrine, Sir.”

“It is all true,” then, was his inward reflection. A heavy weight fell on his heart. He wanted to speak to his father; he expected his father would speak to him in relation to this tremendous crisis of things. They got into the chaise and rode along, but, absorbed in awful thoughts, he could not raise his voice. Presently his father began to whistle! At length they reached home ; but instead of calling the family together, and telling them of the appalling intelligence which the preacher had given, his father took off his boots, put his feet toward the fireplace, and quietly read a newspaper. All things went on as usual.

At first, he was surprised; but not being given to talking, he asked no explanations. Soon, however, the question rose, — ” Could what he had heard be true? No! his father did not believe it; people did not believe it! It was not true!” He felt that he had been trifled with; that the preacher had deceived him; and from that time he became inclined to distrust everything oratorical, and to measure exactly the meaning of words; he had received a profound lesson on the worth of sincerity.

I’ve been in a similar situation to young Channing. I’ve sat through fire and brimstone sermons, only to watch as everyone files out the door smiling and headed towards Dennys for their usual Sunday brunch. The parishioners show no sign that they know themselves to be dangling over the pit of hell with only God’s questionable patience to save them from eternal torment.

I mean, if they knew, they’d probably leave a bigger tip at Dennys. Blasted skinflint church crowd.

At some point you’ve got to ask, do they really believe this? If they did, shouldn’t it affect their behavior? Channing’s decided that they didn’t believe it, and he went on to become one of Calvinism’s most prominent critics. I have a nasty feeling its more complicated than that.

  • mikespeir

    I’ve wished there might be a pair of glasses one could put on which would render true believers blue and false ones red. I think your average churchgoer, having donned them, would be dismayed at how many red people share the pews with him each Sunday. He might be more disconcerted yet at what he sees in the mirror.

  • Jonny Scaramanga

    I have a vivid memory of sitting in a youth meeting, and the leader saying “Just think, right this second, someone is dying and going to hell. Every single second, somebody dies and goes to hell.”

    It was hard to comprehend, but I definitely believed it. We all sat in silence thinking about this for a minute. We carried on with things after that, but in the same way that you carry on with life after seeing footage of starving orphans in Africa. You don’t doubt it’s true, but you still carry on.

    I’m sure that some people don’t believe what they say they do, but many people really believe it. And it’s a big problem. In fact, if I can shamelessly hawk my own blog, I blogged about this very subject today:

    • kholdom0790

      Great title!

  • vasaroti

    Hell. like smoking-related diseases, is something that happens to other people.

    • DTMcCameron

      You’ve got me thinking about second-hand-Hell, now.

  • Andrew Hall

    Do You Really Believe What You Say You Believe?

    - I have the policy that I don’t say anything publicly that I couldn’t put on Youtube.

    • UrsaMinor

      Perhaps a better policy would be to never put anything on YouTube that you couldn’t say publicly.

  • Lightsleeper

    I think this is an important point. I’ve lived in the “heartland” of American religiosity for much of my life. I’ve lived in small towns and the big city. Yet I have never even heard the vaguest rumor of — let alone met — a person who behaves as though he or she believes the doctrines of Christianity in even the broadest sense. I’ve met good people, kind people, generous people. But not one who behaves as though they actually believe that their actions in this finite lifetime will determine their disposition in an infinite existence after. I can only conclude that they do not believe what they say they believe.

  • Houndentenor

    We mistakenly treat belief and nonbelief as a duality. I suppose on some level that’s true. But we humans are capable of amazing feats of self-delusion and denial. Yes, there are some who don’t believe and know they don’t believe. Look at all the people who consider themselves agnostics. If you can’t say whether you believe or not, doesn’t that mean that you don’t believe? At least for now you don’t believe. It’s difficult for many people to question what the majority of those around them claim to believe. They go along and perhaps wonder what’s wrong with them that they don’t have the faith everyone else professes to believe. Or more commonly they simply choose not to think about it that hard. On some level I think they know what a house of cards it is to believe without evidence. Listen to any theist get angry when anyone dares question their “proof” of god. That’s what we do when we are in denial. Yes, the glasses to show who believed and who didn’t would be interesting, but the real shock would be for those who want to think they believe to realize that they really don’t.

  • Ken

    Well, the Shakers pretty effectively died out believing the end was nigh. Proof positive the thesis is a crock to begin with.

    • machintelligence

      Didn’t the Shakers also believe in vows of chastity for everbody? If recruitment ever falls off — and it did– the religion is a goner.

      • machintelligence

        That’s everybody — I wish we had preview.

      • UrsaMinor

        The Shakers took vows of chastity. They kept up their numbers mostly by adopting orphans and raising them as Shakers; recruitment of adults was generally pretty low.

        • vorjack

          recruitment of adults was generally pretty low.

          Can’t imagine why. They made wonderful lemon pies.

  • diego…

    I agree with Scaramanga, people just carry on…
    Also, if a christian has already “accepted Jesus as a personal Saviour”, they know they won’t go to hell… it is understood that they will keep up with their sins (given the flawed human nature), of course, at a more moderate level; but that will not send them to hell as long as they have let Jesus into their hearts… right?

    • trj

      Only for some denominations of Christianity. Protestantism (and the multitudinous derivations thereof) generally hold that you’re saved by faith alone (sola fide), whereas Catholicism does not.

  • Recovering Agnostic

    I used to have moments like this. I’d hear a Bible reading, or a fierce sermon, and I’d think that I had to change quickly. More than once, I concluded that to steer clear of all the terrors and evils of the world, I’d have to go and live as a hermit. But it seems that just like asking how miracles are meant to work, that isn’t something grown-ups do. You just listen solemnly, then go home and spend Sunday lunch bitching about how the woman down the road still has that annoying dog, or how the vicar’s got that funny habit of clearing his throat all the time.

  • Schaden Freud

    I think the term we’re looking for here is doublethink.

  • Mogg

    On the other hand, I’ve been in many a church service where people walk out quietly with a traumatised look on their face, or there’s a line of people wanting to talk to an elder or the pastor because their world has suddenly dropped out from under them. Experiencing that week after week is devastating, and I suspect, but will never be able to prove, a contributing factor to the major rate of depression and other disease in that particular church. Humans can’t live like that, or at least not in any healthy way. If you’re getting a hit of that kind of emotional devastation every week the only way to continue to survive is to resort to doublethink.

  • cowalker

    I remember when I was 8 years old, terrified of the concept of death, but reassured by frequent prayers to God, to whom I felt very close. I went to Catholic school, and aspired to be a saint. So, inspired by the sweet nun who taught religion class, I volunteered to attend a service on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) to honor the sacrifice of Jesus.

    I was 8 years old. I needed a ride. I was absolutely shocked at the negative reaction from my parents. “Sigh.””We’re going to mass on Sunday. I’d like to have Saturday free.” Free to sleep in and get things done around the house, of course.

    My conclusion was: They don’t really believe in religion. I think that was the first thing that shook my own belief. The funny thing is, it turned out to be true of my mother. Much later she privately shared her unbelief with me, long after I had ended my skeptical journey by realizing I was an agnostic who lived as an atheist. My father did believe, or at least believed he believed. He followed all the rules (even including the ban on contraception), and was sentimentally attached to Catholicism by childhood memories, but he felt no need to go one step farther for the love of God than checking the mandated boxes.

    I think very few people believe in religion the way they believe in gravity or true love. They believe in religion more like they believe in the need to restrict their diet to healthy food or to exercise or to save money. There are a few fanatics; the rest do the bare minimum or make the occasional gesture.

    Given my inborn curiosity and enjoyment in challenging authority, I’m sure I would have ended up on the same skeptical path eventually. But I’m also sure that that observation of cognitive dissonance in third grade boosted me along that path a little earlier than I would have come to it otherwise.

    I suppose the lesson here is that children pay more attention to what you do than what you say. An old lesson, but still true.

    • Robert King

      I’m not sure people, on average, believe in gravity or true love any more than religion, healthy diet, responsible economy, or political ideology. True love, at least in the romantic sense, is something that comes and goes as one’s mood changes. Diet, on the other hand, becomes quite as real as gravity for many people after a heart attack or a diabetes diagnosis; that is, not a matter for belief, but a fact of the world to be reckoned with. But even then, some people still ignore physical or biological laws to their peril: driving too fast along a cliffside, or eating Frito’s despite past brushes with death.

      I don’t think it’s a distinguishing feature of religion that most people have a divide between what they accept in a theoretical or intellectual (or, for that matter, emotional or cultural) way, and how they act in their daily lives. It’s a common trait of human behavior, even if not the most admirable one.

      On the other hand, the most extreme interpretations of how one ought to act based on a set of beliefs is not always indicative of the depth of one’s beliefs. I know many an environmentalist who drives a car with an internal combustion engine – not because they really want to increase their carbon footprint, but rather because they can’t afford more eco-friendly transportation. Are they hypocrites because they try to find the best balance between competing goods in their lives? Or are they not perhaps realists?

      • Elemenope

        Well said. I think the only thing that really sets religion apart from these other examples is that it has a rather grandiose purported source for its authority and due to that rather extravagant claims are made as to its utility. One shouldn’t need to be a realist to employ rule-book for life written by an actual god who claims to have your best interests at heart.

  • Agnikan

    Just because one attends a Calvinistic church, doesn’t mean that one truly believes in Calvinisticism.

  • Ryan

    I found this article really interesting. Thanks

  • brgulker

    At some point you’ve got to ask, do they really believe this? If they did, shouldn’t it affect their behavior? Channing’s decided that they didn’t believe it, and he went on to become one of Calvinism’s most prominent critics. I have a nasty feeling its more complicated than that.

    IMHO, people believe it. But they also believe they’re in the in crowd, so the fire and brimstone doesn’t apply to them.

  • Rosemary Zimmermann

    Heya, just a note to say that I’m here because I’ve been wanting to find an interesting, thoughtful, non-polemical atheist blog to follow (I’m a Christian) and yours is very nice. I found Leah Libresco’s exactly one day before she announced her conversion, and I think I was the most bummed of all the Christians there. ;-)

    Anyway, to the point of your post, it makes me reflect that faith that doesn’t change your life isn’t faith worth having. At that point, why bother?

    • Custador

      Leah Libresco was at best an agnostic. A broad definition of “atheist” includes the implication that one does not believe in the supernatural in general as well as God(s) in specific, otherwise one is being disingenuous at best, deeply hypocritical at worst. I am the first to hate the “No True Scotsman” argument, but I honestly don’t think she could ever claim to have fitted the broad definition of atheist.

      Besides which, as I said on the forum here and on her blog: Starting out to find the source of morality and ending up joining a cabal of international child rapists and their enablers? She’s deceiving herself to achieve an end point she already had in mind. Critical thought, that does not display.

    • UrsaMinor

      Welcome, Rosemary. And be prepared to have any of your arguments dissected and examined.

      OK, so faith is good, you say, if it changes your life. Faith is, by definition, belief without evidence.

      “Believing in something without evidence is good if it changes your life”? That’s too broad a statement to be useful. E.g., I could have faith that if I stepped off the roof of a thirty-story building without a parachute, I’d float to the ground unharmed, even though there is no evidence to support that belief. And acting on the faith that the proposition is true would certainly change my life, but I wouldn’t consider the end result good. Silly example? Sure. But it conforms to your statement that faith is good if it changes your life.

      • Azel

        I understood what Rosemary said as the contrapositive, i.e. “If Believing in something without evidence doesn’t change your life, it is not good”. Alas, it’s not a better criterion. E.g. when I encounter a totally unknown person, I believe it won’t try to off me. That belief won’t change my life but it is a very good default position in a society.

        • UrsaMinor

          That is perhaps the more straightforward interpretation. Rosemary is free to clarify whenever she wishes.

  • Caravelle

    I don’t know; everybody doesn’t believe in Hell, but surely we all believe in starving children in Africa. In people dying horribly in natural disasters, or wars, or unfortunate household accidents. In people being depressed, having incurable diseases, being abused. And so on.
    Yet while thinking about it can make us sad, and we all make varying efforts to change these realities, those things don’t stop non-depressed people from laughing with friends and enjoying their own lives.
    I imagine fundamentalist Christians who believe in Hell deal with it in a similar manner.

  • Mike Hall

    It’s nice to declare ourselves less hypocritical than others based on our assessment of their responsiveness to their devised religion. It is even nicer to devise our own means of righteousness based on the rejection of that which must not be so sufficient since these hypocrites are failures in following such a false construction. Yet, such moralistic deism (on either account) speaks not of, from, or even to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps when you are done with the strawman you’ve constructed, you should engage the God-man who constructed you.

    I’ve read here much about judgement and return thereof to those who you believe heap it out, but what of the Grace freely given in Christ’s sacrifice of Himself on behalf of those who have faith. I read much ridicule based on the lack of belief in the truth one would profess in faith – followed thereby with the ridicule of all truth and belief as professed. The false believer (as a non-believer or even a self-righteous moralistic religious person might adjudge) is a failure for not being internally valid, while the true believer is a failure for being externally invalid given a world of proof to the alternative.

    I’ve very much enjoyed a handful of articles and comments on this blog, particularly with regard to the evangelical church and it’s moralistic failures apart from the Gospel. I am always certain that those who claim to represent Christ in His name and do so on the grounds of moralistic righteousness are often worse than those as yourself who argue with some reason and logic against faith in His name. Yet, you should really take little pride in yourself otherwise with regard to matters of faith or faithlessness as it should be rendered.

    Suffice to say, I’m really rather disappointed in this particular article. I find it only a little better than the typical Sunday morning 3 point & a poem as to triteness, predictability, and cliche’. At the end of it all, I’d say you’ve built a very nice box for you and your lifeless expression of non-deity to live together in, and ask only that you not expect that we should all accept its corrugations as passively as you have.

    May Grace, Mercy, and Peace find their place among His people.

    • Jabster

      “Suffice to say, I’m really rather disappointed in this particular article.”

      So we shan’t be seeing you back then … well that will be a loss.

    • Custador

      And may you die in a fire, you sanctimonious prick.

      • Jabster

        Well I would have said twat instead of prick but besides that I agree.

        • Mike Hall

          So a substantive conversation on the merits then…

          • UrsaMinor

            There’s nothing of substance in your original post to respond to. You apparently expect us to accept as a given, without evidence, that the Grace is anything more than wishful thinking on the part of Christians. Your first task is to establish that this is true; everything else rests on it, and we’re not going to give it to you free, any more than you would grant a Hindu or a follower of Shinto that their metaphysical beliefs are true simply because they believe in them.

            As far as the false-believer thing goes, yes, internal consistency is important. If Joe Self-Styled Christian doesn’t take his own belief system seriously, he can’t expect me to. I would feel the same way about someone espousing a secular philosophy. If somebody I knew proclaimed himself to be a strong support of animal rights and gave hundreds of dollars every year to the SPCA but routinely beat his own dog, I’d call him on that inconsistency too.

            True believers (i.e., those who practice internal consistency) are not guilty of hypocrisy in the way that your false believers are, but again, we come down to the basic, unexamined assumption that they have that their beliefs are more than wishful thinking. Maybe they do adhere consistently to the doctrines of their religion. That doesn’t make their religion true. Either you must accept that external corroborating evidence is required to determine which religion is true, or you must accept that any religion which has true believers is itself true.

            • Mike Hall

              …and yet somehow you found something to respond to…

              summary of the originally article: I went and saw and accepted on face the argument that hell hath no furry like a deity scorned yet observed those who nodded in great agreement then scorn him AND those who needed most to hear that same argument (yet also here presumably most reject it) – hence I reject it as well due to the hypocrisy of it all. Not that I myself have investigated this matter for its internal validity, but having observed the failed validity of it in others posit and accept its overall falseness without additional concern or consideration.

              I know my words are but words unless the Spirit of God also speaks to you with them – “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews (religious / moralistic people) and foolishness to the the Gentiles (worldly / rationalistic people).”

              So I don’t seek to make great arguments of rational logic or even religious fervor… my primary point was to make you aware of the fallacy of your own method of belief. You can beat on the moralist / false believer / dogmatist all you like, (as can he you) but does that make either truly correct or right(eous) – which I think is what the dogmatic atheist seeks in doing such. If the false convert is truly false, so must his faith be therefore I am safe in non-belief. If you choose to push all-in on such a wager, you are betting the man not the pot or the cards – you’re both bluffing.

              We can speak of internal and external validity and logical consistency at length, but the point is this – you cannot demand it on the one hand (internally) and deride on the other (externally) if you lack the understanding of how the two will be lived out in practice. Again I am speaking here of the Gospel and grace rather than moralistic legalism and sadly likely only being heard only as if it is the latter.

              Let me say it this way, when you look so outwardly at others of faith in Jesus Christ – you are sitting as a judge of something you seem to lack even a basic understanding of and rather than further investigate it directly, you dismiss it outright from a very limited perspective. You’ve set yourself up then as a weak little form of god – good luck with that.

              I do like the SPCA comment- but I would note, sometimes what we see as humane is actually quite barbaric AND alternatively sometimes the most toughest looking actions are the most loving ones. This is truly a matter of civility and acculturation isn’t it compared with intents and purposes. Means justifying ends is perhaps one of the greatest philosophical arguments of all isn’t it?

            • UrsaMinor

              For the record, I do not reject religion because of the hypocrisy of some of its practitioners (as distasteful as it is, not for being religious, but for being hypocrisy). I reject religion because there is no evidence that any of them are true.

              You are running very nearly the same risk that I am with your soul, sir, by pretending that there is only one serious choice of theologies. Suppose for a moment that Yahweh is a myth and that Brahma is real.

          • Sunny Day

            “So a substantive conversation on the merits then…”

            You basically said I don’t like this article because. Custy and Jabby just used less words than you.

            But its cool that you brought your own cross with you.

            • Jabster

              We’re persecuting him!

            • Custador

              Before anybody asks, I spam-hammered his last two posts because they were pure bible-babble evangelism. And our only consistent rule other than “Don’t Be A Dick” is “No Evangelism”. We have a forum for that.

      • Mike Hall

        sanctamonious: making a show of being morally superiour to others…

        ah, so you didn’t read the post? Didn’t I deride moralism, moralists and the like…

        Moreover, I personally deny all moral superiourity on my own account whatsoever and accept that I am in fact a great failure in comparison to the Majesty and Glory of God hence my sole reliance on Christ as Saviour and the grace provide in His sacrifice and resurrection for any benefit or goodness.

        As for being a prick – you’ve probably got me on that account friend- depending on your personal definition of such a derisive term. Feel free to lob a few more if it brightens your day – I’m sure they all fit the bill on any given day.

        • Azel

          Well, for that argument to have half a chance to stick amongst this blog’s readership, you need to prove God’s existence. Because I fail to see how could we be great failures in comparison to an inexistant being glory (well, to an inexistant being anything in fact), because pontifying on thirty lines or so for an argument which amounts at “Moralism is bad. Now, repent of your sins and your pride and kneel before God’s glory” is, I’ll be generous, 25 lines too many and a good reason to call you sanctimonious.
          And that’s without going on why would Jesus’ sacrifice be good (it’s a mockery of justice, as are Original Sin and the Fall for that matter), why would it be necessary (hint: it’s not), why would God be good (implausible, to say the least. cf. the Old Testament) and why should we even venerate it.
          A last thing: we can’t engage Jesus, as you asked us to do. If he ever existed, he’s lost to us now, lost to the sands of time, to his followers’ lies and power plays.

        • Jabster

          Complain about being called sanctimonious then carrying on acting the same way … what twat you are.