I regularly encounter religious skeptics who single out religious beliefs as presenting some particular epistemological problem. The catalyst for this article is one of those opinions which I read just this morning on Twitter. The skeptic writes:
“Why do folks ”struggle” with religious beliefs? We happily let our other beliefs evolve as we go thru life. But we cling to the religious ones or lament their waning. Seems to me a good thing to mature in our convictions. That entails changes in belief. Me not understand.”
The subtext of the tweet is clear: religious beliefs track with epistemic and emotional immaturity, a refusal to engage the evidence and revise one’s beliefs accordingly. In short, religious beliefs inhibit rational maturation.
The first problem here is that the tweeter never defines “religious” beliefs. If we’re going to argue that religious beliefs track with epistemic and emotional immaturity, one should first explain what it means for a belief to be religious.
In fact, that is an enormously difficult question because the concept of religion is an essentially contested concept. In other words, people do not agree on the essential components by which a religion should be identified. There are paradigm instances of religion, but there are many liminal cases: e.g. Marxism, humanism, patriotism. Many of these phenomena may form doxastic communities of belief and ritual which structure the lives of their adherents and imbue them with meaning. Are these doxastic communities and/or the systems of belief and ritual that frame them thereby religious? And if not, why not?
To ask that question is to embark on an endlessly complex debate with no clear answer. Needless to say, if we cannot define religious beliefs then we cannot say that religious beliefs track uniquely with epistemic and emotional immaturity.
A Paradigm Religious Belief
Let’s set aside the challenge of identifying the necessary and sufficient conditions of religion and instead focus on a paradigm example of a religious belief. In What’s So Confusing About Grace? I relay my experience growing up in the Pentecostal church. As a Pentecostal, I grew up thinking that after conversion, Christians should await a second blessing, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, the hallmark of this Spirit-baptism is the supernaturally bestowed ability to speak in other languages. I would propose that (i) the belief in second blessing Spirit-baptism and (ii) the belief that speaking in other tongues is the hallmark of the Spirit-baptism are paradigm cases of religious beliefs.
So now a question: do epistemic and emotional immaturity track especially with the religious beliefs (i) and (ii) over non-religious beliefs? I see no reason to think that is the case. In my own experience, I gradually came to the conclusion that (i) and (ii) were false based on my assessment of the evidence. As I recall in the book, I observed that many spiritual people (i.e. people who evinced behaviors indicative of spiritual fruit) did not speak in tongues or claim the Spirit-baptism while many of those who did, failed to exhibit that spiritual fruit. And this evidence provided prima facie evidence to disconfirm (i) and (ii).
Subsequently, I took a course in university in which I studied the relevant texts in Acts and 1 Corinthians 12-14 and I came to the conclusion that the New Testament also did not support (i) and (ii). Based on this evidence I abandoned (i) and (ii). In retrospect, I would count that process as a paradigm example of the reasoned assessment of evidence and the revision of one’s beliefs accordingly.
Furthermore, I have many other examples like that which I recount in the book. And I’ve seen similar experiences among other people as well. So it seems to me that the evidence from paradigm instances of religious belief does not bear out the tweeter’s claim.
Existentially Significant and High Ingression Depth
The real issue, I would suggest, involves beliefs that have the (overlapping) properties of being existentially significant and having a high ingression depth. Ingression depth refers to the extent to which a belief in one’s noetic structure (i.e. the totality of their beliefs) connects to other beliefs within that structure such that abandonment of the belief would require a person to change many other beliefs.
Here is an example of an existentially significant belief with a high ingression depth: Jane believes her dad is a kind man who loves her deeply. Consequently, when evidence surfaces that he is, in fact, a psychopathic serial killer with the inability to bond emotionally with anyone, Jane is initially resistant to the evidence. Indeed, she evinces the very hallmarks of epistemic and emotional immaturity lamented by the tweeter.
There are two points to make here. First, Jane’s belief in her father is not a religious belief. And yet, she struggles much more with abandoning her belief in her dad’s basic goodness than I ever struggled in giving up my paradigm religious beliefs in (i) and (ii).
Second, Jane is not necessarily exhibiting epistemic and emotional immaturity at all. You see, when a belief is existentially significant with a high ingression depth, the reasonable and psychologically natural response is to evince a high degree of conservatism in retaining that belief as one carefully assesses the evidence. To be sure, one may indeed eventually lapse into epistemic and emotional immaturity if irrational defense mechanisms take over. But that is by no means the expected outcome.
I’d say the same thing about people who find religious beliefs that are existentially significant and with a high ingression depth to be under evidential assault. They too are reasonable to be conservative in their assessment of evidence. It doesn’t automatically follow that they are exhibiting epistemic and emotional immaturity. Indeed, the case may be quite the opposite.
One more thing: the same phenomenon is evident with the person raised in an atheistic household who gradually becomes convinced that Christianity is true. They likewise are experiencing a change in their noetic structure which affects beliefs of existential significance with a high ingression depth. And as a result, they are predictably conservative in their response to the challenge. In short, where worldviews are concerned, conversion doesn’t happen overnight. And that’s as it should be.