I've been having a very enjoyable on-line conversation with an atheist on the subject of whether a Creator does or does not exist. I'm coming to realize that this is only half the question, because we're unlikely to know the answer with "scientific certainty" any time soon. The other half of the question is a lot more complicated: What do we propose to do as a result of our belief (or unbelief)? What action do we propose to take or not take, and what are the potential risks and benefits of our choice?
Belief and Action Are Epistemologically Joined at the Hip
From an epistemological perspective, beliefs and actions are inextricably linked. Perhaps the most important fact about our belief that Proposition P is true is that it make us comfortable, to a greater or lesser degree, that if we take (or don't take) a particular Action A, we're likely to like (or dislike) the result.
FOOTNOTE: Here's a trivial example. My wife fixed a casserole for dinner last night. I was reasonably confident it would taste good. I was also reasonably confident she would be hurt if I spurned her cooking. So I ate the casserole (and sure enough, it was delicious).
Epistemology comes into play when we ask, how much corroborating evidence do we need to satisfy ourselves that Belief X is true? Too many theologians miss an important point here:
The amount of corroborating evidence we should demand about any particular belief will depend on the action (or inaction) that will proceed from the belief.
This is an everyday truth: the more consequential the action might be, the more corroborating evidence we're going to want about the underlying belief. Here are some hypothetical examples:
Scenario 1: During a routine physical exam, my doctor notices a small skin tag on my inner thigh. Belief: The doctor says the skin tag is likely to rub on my clothing when I work out and might start to bleed. Proposed Action: The doctor suggests that I let him snip off the skin tag, cauterize the tiny blood vessel, and put a Band-Aid on it, right then and there, without my having to come back for another appointment. Analysis: I hadn't noticed the skin tag before, and have no idea whether the doctor is right about possible future irritation. What he wants to do isn't especially consequential, however; I quickly decide it's not worth spending any time investigating further. I've got an easy schedule that morning, so I let the doctor snip the skin tag as he suggests. If I had been in a hurry to get to another commitment, the analysis might have come out differently.
Scenario 2: During the same routine physical exam, my doctor looks over my arms, legs, chest, back, and head. Belief: The doctor says he thinks I have a tumor in my leg. He thinks it's a particularly nasty kind of cancer that is spreading aggressively and will soon metastasize to the rest of my body. Proposed Action: The doctor asks for permission to amputate my leg; he says it's the only treatment that will give me a chance of survival. Analysis: The potential consequences of the decision are pretty serious either way. I'm going to want to know a lot more about the underlying reasons for the doctor's opinion. I'm also going to want a second opinion, and will do some on-line research of my own as well.
FOOTNOTE: In other circumstances, the analysis might have been different. Suppose the reason for the proposed amputation was different: Imagine I'm an infantryman in Iraq whose leg was severely damaged by an IED explosion. The battlefield surgeons believe they could save my leg if they had the time to work on me, but other wounded troops are in just as bad shape as I am and need attention too. And so, to save not just my life but those of the others, the docs cut off my leg and move on the next guy. (I understand that military medicine has made dramatic progress in recent decades, and so this kind of dilemna doesn't happen very often.)
Scenario 3: While on foot patrol downtown, a police officer sees me walking on the sidewalk. Belief: The police officer thinks I might be a missing murder suspect whose "Wanted" poster he saw at the station that morning at roll call. Proposed Action: The officer wants to stop me for a couple of minutes to ask me some questions. Analysis: The officer is legally allowed to do so; as long as he stops me for only a brief period, the law deems that society's need to have the police investigate crimes takes precedence over the minimal inconvenience to me.
FOOTNOTE: The analysis would be very different for another proposed action: The police officer asks me to stay where I am; he calls the state prison and says, I think I may have the missing murderer here; please come get him and lock him up for 25 years to life. The officer's proposed action is extremely consequential (to me, at least). The law prohibits the taking the proposed action without the state first producing corroborating evidence that establishes my guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
FOOTNOTE: This graduated approach to proof in criminal cases goes back as far as the Pentateuch, which, for example, prohibits putting someone to death except on the testimony of two witnesses.
Rethinking the Concept of "Proof" of Religious Beliefs
In assessing how confident we are in our religious beliefs, our focus should be on the actions we propose to take (or not take) on the basis of those beliefs, at least as much as on the beliefs themselves. This is especially true for beliefs that are inherently incapable of being rationally resolved one way or another, of which Christianity has its fair share.
Example: Like billions of other people, I'm persuaded that the universe came into being as the work product of a Creator (who may or may not be like the God depicted in the Bible). I'm also persuaded that following the Great Commandment and Summary of the Law that Jesus stressed is the best way to live one's life. Analysis: There's sufficient corroborating evidence of these things that I'm entirely comfortable participating in the Episcopal Church's liturgy (most of it, at least), donating to charity, saying grace before meals, etc. On the other hand, the corroborating evidence is nowhere near sufficient to convince me that, for example, I should take up arms in an effort to conquer the world militarily for God.
Example: Traditionalist Christians say that God consists of three Persons in one Godhead. I mentally shrug my shoulders and think, fine — what are you proposing to do in reliance on your belief? Analysis: I certainly won’t object if these trads want to end their prayers with “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.” I certainly will object if they seek to burn unitarians and other heretics at the stake. I'll even have a problem if they merely try to expel non-trinitarians from the fellowship of the church or disqualify them from leadership positions. The corroborating evidence concerning the Trinity, such as it is, simply isn't sufficient to justify inflicting that kind of harm on people who believe differently.
Example: Traditionalist Christians claim that the Bible is the definitive revelation of God's will. Two of their resulting proposed actions are to prohibit priests from blessing committed same-sex unions and to disqualify noncelibate gay men and lesbian from becoming bishops. Analysis: The evidence corroborating the trads' claim about the Bible's definitive authority is slim to nonexistent (the contrary evidence is far more impressive). The corroborating evidence certainly isn't sufficient to justify the proposed actions.
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In our endless fights about matters theological, I wish we'd remember that we have plenty of God's work to do. I wish we'd give more consideration to how beliefs and actions are epistemologically entangled. Maybe that would convince us to agree to disagree; praise God; and get back to work, together.