Salvation by Pavlovian Drool?

If you don’t know why something is true, you don’t actually know that it’s true. And if you don’t know that something is true, you don’t actually believe it. Not really. And if you don’t actually believe it, you cannot genuinely claim to have any faith concerning it.

That isn’t to say that you have know the “why” in terms of a comprehensive scientific understanding of its underlying physical mechanics – you don’t need a working and testable Theory of Gravity, for instance, to know and believe that you cannot fly.

And, sure – “belief” and “knowledge” aren’t necessarily the same, but if you don’t at least have some rational basis for that knowledge – justified or not – that you can consciously identify and articulate and verify, to some degree, it doesn’t actually rise to the level of a belief. At best, it could be called a suspension of disbelief, but it would be more accurate to call it wishful thinking or superstition.

All of this is blindingly obvious and could normally be stated without controversy – the only resistance it’s likely to elicit would be annoyance at something so tediously self-evident being stated aloud in the first place.

That is … until it’s applied to Christian belief. Then controversy ensues. In this context, “faith” is widely regarded to be its own authentication.

If you were to ask your garden-variety churchgoer why he believes the Bible is the word of God, that God exists and that Jesus is the Son of God or that he rose from the dead, he’s likely to say something like, “Because I have faith …”

But that is, of course, not an answer. It’s a restatement of the question.

And it’s definitely not true, either, because – if that’s really the best answer he can give – he doesn’t have faith. What he’s calling “faith” is not what the Bible means by “faith.” In truth, it’s not even what he means by “faith,” used in any other context.

Sure, to believe something “on faith” is common parlance to mean, “belief without evidence,” but that definition doesn’t stand up on its own. For “faith” to mean that at all, it has to mean something else on a more fundamental level first: If you take something on faith, your faith is not in what is being said, in and of itself, but in the person telling it to you – it means you trust that person, and you accept the content of their word on the basis of their integrity and trustworthiness.

Faith is not, fundamentally speaking, an epistemology – that is, it’s not a way of knowing. It is, at root, a relationship orientation – it means you trust the person making the claim, not the claim by itself. So, if “faith” means “belief without evidence,” it doesn’t mean that in a direct, unqualified sense – it means, “belief without direct evidence for the claim itself, but on the indirect evidence of the trustworthiness of the person making the claim.”

That’s a mouthful, though, so we typically just put it into the shorthand of “belief without evidence,” but then we forget about and divorce it from that antecedent condition, and the consequence is a misleading definition of the word that leads to fuzzy thinking and bad religion.

So when the churchgoer says he believes X, Y and Z about God and Jesus and the Bible “because he has faith,” he doesn’t actually.

At best, this could mean that he believes it because he has faith in God, but that just pushes the question back to, “Why do you believe God said that?”

He might answer, “… because it’s what the Bible says,” but of course, that just pushes it back some more, and to that he might answer, “ … I believe the Bible came from God because it’s what my church teaches,” which means his faith is in his church, or in the organizers of the Bible, the institutions of the Church, etc., and not actually in God, because he needs to find out if God Himself actually said any of this before he can claim that any of his beliefs are based in faith in God.

But, none of that – even if we take it on the most charitable terms possible – is sound, biblical Christian doctrine. As I explain at length in another article, the Bible doesn’t teach that we should believe the resurrection because we trust God. It’s the opposite: we trust God because we believe the resurrection happened, as a matter of knowable historical fact. As in, the resurrection is the proof and basis for our faith, not the object of it. We trust God because He raised Jesus from the dead, and that’s why, as the New Testament reports, the apostles devoted their lives’ work to persuading people of the truth of the resurrection.

So when a modern churchgoer answers questions about the “why” of his beliefs with, “I have faith,” what he really means – whether he is conscious of it or not – is that affirming certain doctrines, values and beliefs is the social currency by which he pays into the ingroup of his local church in exchange for getting his social needs met. As in, by complying with the standards of belief and behavior that define and are conditions of membership within the ingroup, he receives acceptance and approval, but if he challenges or undermines them, he is likely to be met with disapproval and negative social outcomes. As in, he is conditioned to affirm these beliefs. Whether they are true or not is entirely beside the point – the social rewards and punishments associated with them do not depend on them being true. They only depend on them being useful as social currency within the ingroup.  

Of course, most people don’t notice when we’re being conditioned, unless we’re actively aware of and paying attention to it. So, all of those positive and negative feelings associated with affirmation or threats, respectively, to the belief system, that churchgoer is likely to attribute to the internal workings of the Holy Spirit (which is also not biblical, as I explain in the aforementioned article) – he “believes” all of the “correct” doctrines, but he can’t explain it rationally, but he “knows” it to be true, because his feelings validate them, and those feelings (he is conditioned to believe) are the “proof” from the Holy Spirit.

But, no – those feelings are no more supernatural or divine, necessarily, than the drool of Pavlov’s dogs.

According to the Bible, Christianity is about empowering us to transcend our base appetites and animal nature and become more than human by training us to participate in the divine nature.

It only works if we have genuine faith, though. If we don’t really believe, we’re just playing Christian – we’re doing Christian cos-play or LARPing, but God isn’t in it and we don’t really know God, and we are not truly changed by God. We’re just conditioned to act like we are.

The leaders of popular, mainstream Christianity, not only do not impart that genuine faith, but they keep us in the condition of animals by training us accordingly.

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2 Responses to Salvation by Pavlovian Drool?

  1. Scott says:

    As always, I’m bedazzled by your words my friend. But, I was bugged throughout this essay with the thought that I might be misunderstanding the difference between knowing and believing. Surely there is a difference. English is a big stupid pain in the butt of a language though, so maybe they’re really isn’t a different.

    When their is evidence (i.e. I have evidence of God’s existence, though not empirical evidence provided by another human) believing becomes knowing doesn’t it? Your second sentence seems off and the off theme seems to persists throughout the essay – I only loosely believe that statement, I don’t actually KNOW that statement to be true. So in my example, I no longer believe God exists, I know it. There’s plenty of Biblical truths that I do believe and just a few that I know. With evidence being the catalyst to the metamorphosis of believing becoming knowing.

    What I know is based upon personal experience that to me, needs no explanation. So, my knowing that God exists isn’t going to be invalidated by another person who believes God doesn’t exist, because I have evidence that is irrefutable. In fact, my knowing that God exists makes another person who apparently knows otherwise, bat-shit crazy.

    I can’t imagine God giving me the evidence I’ve been given to just sit in my head stagnating though. But by sharing my evidence that God exists, I run the risk that I might look like the bat-shit crazy one because my evidence is circumstantial and English is after all, a big stupid pain in the butt of a language that I find difficult using to explain things of a spiritual nature.

    I shall digress. I believe that I’m an insomniac who should be asleep right now. The evidence of this is growing but I will not say that I know I’m an insomniac until a medical professional diagnoses me. 😀

    • All very good points, Scott.

      Normally, I err on the side of anticipating and heading off every potential objection or point of confusion that I can … which typically makes for a lengthy and ponderous piece. This time, I strove to err on the side of brevity, and so sacrificed some clarity (maybe too much).

      I added a second paragraph to clarify. Hopefully that helps.

      My main purpose was to point out the distinction between actual *belief* and mere conditioning, which masquerades as belief.

      I have other content (linked in the article) where I explain the biblical perspective on this, which is that there is a difference between knowledge and belief, and “belief” in the salvific sense isn’t merely holding a correct set of doctrines ABOUT God, but actually trusting Him, and that trust is predicated on knowledge. Throughout the Bible, Abraham is held out as the prototype/exemplar of faith, while the Israelites in the wilderness are the chief example of faithlessness. In these and other examples, their knowledge *about* God was not in question. They saw Him and interacted with Him. They knew incontrovertibly what was factually true. At issue was whether or not they actually trusted Him. That is the “belief” in view in passages like John 3:16 and Romans 4 and the rest — the belief that is the condition of salvation.

      In your case, you might not be able to convince other people who are hostile to the idea of God’s existence, but you can at least point to those experiences in your own life as the anchor to your own faith.

      And, as members of the Church, we are collectively called to proselytize — to advance the kingdom of God on earth by persuading others that Jesus is the Chosen One and that immortality and enlightenment are found in him. That doesn’t necessarily mean that each of us individually must become an expert apologist and go around proselytizing, but it does mean that — as an institution — we should know why Christianity is true and be able to articulate it clearly and consistently and with conviction. Our leaders should be teaching that and exhorting individual churchgoers to avail themselves of that information, at the very least — which is the consistent example in the New Testament. But, as it is, we treat this as incidental, at best, and many even sneer at it, while we accept this conditioned superstitious doctrinal conformity as normative and tell people they are saved because of it, and then we wonder why Christianity is dying and young people abandon it the second they leave their parents’ house and go out into the world …

      It’s almost like the system is deliberately designed with that intended outcome.

      I appreciate the thoughtful reading and the feedback, brother.

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