‘It’s Not What You Believe, But What You Do in Life That Matters’: An Explainer

‘It’s Not What You Believe, But What You Do in Life That Matters’: An Explainer August 24, 2015

DiagramFour and a half years ago, when I decided to write my book, I saw fundamental flaws in the way a lot of non-believing parents (myself included) were addressing — or failing to address — the subject of religion in their homes.

The way I saw it, too many secular parents were inadvertently indoctrinating their kids against religion by ignoring or dismissing the subject, or by treating religion as the cause of most suffering in the world, or by insisting that their children reject all supernatural beliefs in favor of evidence.

These approaches are based on very good intentions. Parents are trying to teach their kids about the difference between truth (evidence-based facts) and faith (no evidence, no facts). And, more broadly, they are trying to instill in their children an appreciation for reality — with all its heavy burdens and astonishing beauty. They are also being honest about the importance they give to religion in their lives, which, for many of us, is nonexistent. Religion isn’t important to us; why would we pretend like it is?

But how do we raise religiously tolerant, religiously literate kids free of bigotry or resentment while still being honest about what we believe to be true? How do openly encourage our children to decide for themselves what makes sense (because that’s the nature of freethinking) without giving them the impression that all religions are created equal?

The answer is astoundingly simple — and astoundingly misunderstood.

Teach kids that it’s what they do in life that matters, not what they believe.

That’s it. That’s the secret.

Now if you are a regular reader of my blog, you have heard this line before — lots of times. Although Relax, It’s Just God is replete with information on a range of topics, this basic principle runs through it like an invisible thread.

And yet that one sentence has been the subject of pretty intense criticism — especially after a PBS interview I did earlier this month.

Here’s the interview:

Believers and atheists alike, it seems, take issue with the separation of belief and behavior.

Here is a summary of what my critics are saying:

  1. Behavior and belief are two sides of the same coin. What you do in life is what you believe because all behavior is rooted in some type of belief. Belief is what drives us to be who we are.
  2. A person’s intent — the reasons behind their actions — is a big deal. Let’s say you kill a guy. Whether you meant to kill the guy may be the difference between a few years in prison or the death penalty. Why? Because what is in a person’s heart when they act is something that matters to us! Belief matters, see? Teaching your kid otherwise is lying to them.

In short: You, Wendy Russell Thomas or whatever the fuck your name is, are a naive idiot.

Right. Okay, so here’s my explainer course.

1. Belief influences behavior; it does not determine behavior.

It is absolutely true that our beliefs lie at the core of who we are. And, as such, our beliefs most certainly do influence our behavior. I choose to look both ways when I cross a street because I believe that it will help keep me safe. I choose to recycle because I believe in global warming. On the flipside, people might choose to bully homosexuals because they believe homosexuality is a sin. People might choose to behead their 17-year-old sister (!!!) because they believe her romance with a cousin is immoral.

So, yes, it is absolutely true that beliefs are tied to our behavior. But they do not determine our behavior.

I may believe I should look both ways before crossing a street and then, one day, forget. I may believe in global warming but be too goddamn lazy to recycle. I may believe homosexuality is a sin but choose to be kind to homosexuals anyway. I may think sleeping with a cousin is immoral but decide it’s not worth killing my sister over (!!!).

2. Beliefs are not the only things influencing our behavior.

People’s actions are not influenced exclusively by their beliefs. They also are influenced by instinct, desire, culture, biology and chemistry and more. So if belief and behavior are two sides of the same coin, where do all these other factors go? Our two-sided coin very quickly turns into an octagon.

Even if we were going to put belief on one side of a coin, I’d argue that the more appropriate flipside would be emotion. Because, in my mind at least, those my feelings and my behavior are far more closely intertwined.

For example: If I believe my husband signed up for Ashley Madison, I may not divorce him, but I am almost certain to feel hurt or anger or shame. If I believe someone beat up my child on the playground, I may not find that child and beat the shit out of him in retaliation (à la Bad Santa), but I am almost certain to be pissed off about it and worried about my child.

Bad SantaWill I act on my emotions, vis–à–vis my beliefs? Maybe, maybe not. But even if I do — how I react will depend on lots of factors: who I am, where I live, how much vodka I inhaled this morning… the list is endless.

This is all to say: Beliefs do not necessarily determine behavior. And if people never “act” on their beliefs, why should you or I waste our time thinking about them? Do we really want to become the thought police? Do we really want others policing our stupidest and most vile thoughts?

3. Intent matters a lot — but only in the context of behavior.

I’m not sure I’ve explained this adequately in the past, so I’m actually glad to have an opportunity to do so now.

Motives matter. In law and in life, motives matters. If I run over a guy with my car by accident, that will get me a hefty fine and maybe even jail time. If I run over a guy on purpose, that is attempted murder and will definitely land me in prison. If I run over a guy on purpose because he is gay, that is a hate crime and I’m going to be behind bars for a long, long time.

How we view actions very much depends on the headspace a person is in at the time of the action. Why you do things makes a difference in how we assess your likelihood to do it again. It helps us to identify underlying problems — both in individuals and in society at large.

But motives only matter in the context of action. Your racism isn’t going to bother me if you sit in your house and never utter a racist word. But your racism is going to bother me a lot if you become a cop and start targeting black people.

4. Speech is a behavior.

I will be grateful until the day I die that I was born into a country that has freedom of speech and expression. It is my livelihood. But just because we are allowed to say hateful things without state intervention doesn’t mean that speech isn’t an action

Speech is an action. How you talk is a behavior — and a very powerful one.

So when I say it’s what people do that matters, I include what they say in that. Because just like a violent act can hurt a person physically, a verbal act can hurt a person emotionally — and neither is okay.

Telling me you believe in God is speech that does not hurt my feelings; telling me my atheism makes me an amoral person who is going to hell is speech that does hurt my feelings. Am I going to judge you for that? Yes. Am I going to speak out against that sort of ignorance? Most likely. Am I going to stop hanging out with you? Most definitely.

And I would expect no less from my daughter.

5. Fighting religious belief is like pouring acid on a lawn to kill one deadly spider. Fighting behavior is killing the spider and leaving the lawn.

It’s true that some beliefs are more dangerous than others. This is what Bill Maher is getting at when he rails on Islam. He sees too many dangerous beliefs tied up in that one religion (too many spiders in the lawn, you might say) and thinks eradicating all of it is the quickest, most efficient way to rid the world of certain behaviors.

(Or maybe he’s just trying to get people to think more deeply about religious beliefs, and is using his extremist talk is just a tactic. But that’s for another day.)

It must be said, too, that some people — including Maher — don’t think secular people should have to give “religious beliefs” special treatment because they are “religious.” The idea that we, as a society, are supposed to be quiet about our skepticism or show reverence for faith out of “respect” for something we don’t respect is tiring, to say the least.

The problem is this: When you start railing against religious belief in a general way — instead of targeting specific religious behavior — you stop seeing the forest for the trees. Or the lawn.

You step into the shoes of the asshole religious guy who insists that my atheism is his business, that my atheism makes me an amoral person who is going to hell, that my atheism is all the information he needs to judge me as an individual.

None of that is true, and it’s not true in reverse either.

So let me ask you this:

If you saw an angry lady pouring a vat of acid on a lawn to kill some spiders, and a scientist in a lab trying to come up with a way to kill the spiders without mucking up the lawn, to whom would you gravitate? And from whom would you want to back slowly — very, very slowly — away?

This is the first part of a three-part series. Coming Wednesday: Does Raising Kids Without God-Induced Morality Require Moral Relativism? 

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