From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Russell Turpin)
Subject: Normative aspects of belief (was: religion different?)
Summary: Why not believe whatever you want?
Date: 1 Jan 90 22:32:03 GMT
References: <8121@cbnewsm.ATT.COM> <email@example.com> <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Organization: U. Texas CS Dept., Austin, Texas
>> First, I will remain the cold rationalist who does not
>> sacrifice intellectual integrity even if such a leap of
>> faith provides a better human existence.
Mr Wingate responded:
> OK, fine. Why don't you consider this as a confession of a fault?
> I'm entirely serious about this.
Mr Wingate raises an excellent question. In fact, this is most
likely *the* issue that divides us, and that divides many
atheists from theists.
Why should reason dictate belief? More fully, why should the
arguments and criticisms that people make, the scholarly lines of
thought behind claim and counter-claim, be decisive for what we
choose to act on or walk around, hold dear or doubt, integrate
into our view of the world or consider fantasy? This is not a
black and white issue, because the amount of reason behind a claim
usually comes in a shade of grey. All that fideists do is take a
claim or two with no reason behind them, and treat them as truth.
Why not? Especially if it leads to a happier and more meaningful
The first thing to point out is that this is a normative
question, not one of fact. It asks what one should do, not what
is. No answer to this question is true or false. Any answer is
an ethical proposition, and can only be criticized as good or bad
from an ethical framework.
The next salient fact is that this question has a particular
relation to the scholarly and academic. Academia has its own
particular ethic, related to its goal, which is the search for
knowledge. As an institution, academia calls for an alignment
between knowledge and belief . This is why there is less faith
in seminaries than in lay believers.
It should also be noted that many Christians, especially educated
ones, are not entirely comfortable with the idea that belief
should be divorced from knowledge . Despite the fact that
intellectual integrity is just one one of many goals we can set
ourselves, and despite the fact that it isn't too hard to find
verses in the Bible that denigrate it, the attempt to reconcile
religious belief with one's intellect has been a constant
endeavor within Christianity. (Western thought developed a
severe case of schizophrenia when Greek rationalism was married
to an Eastern mystery cult. This schizophrenia wasn't cured
until the 19th century, when orthodox Christianity lost respect
as a philosophical stance. Unfortunately, it may take another
few centuries for this to have its full effect on society.)
Of course, none of these answer the question. Nor do I plan to
offer a firm answer. As I previously said to Mr Wingate, believe
what you want to believe. Kierkegaard is perhaps the champion at
arguing that a leap of faith, a small sacrifice of intellectual
integrity, will buy a better life. Pascal also wrote on this.
Strangely, when I think of this issue the book that comes to my
mind is a science fiction novel by Spider Robinson, "Mindkiller".
(Perhaps it is just the title that causes me to think of it in
this context.) In this novel, he looks ahead to the future where
human happiness and a sense of fulfillment are available at the
end of a wire implanted in the brain. Why not? As Marx was not
the first to note, religion is also a powerful drug.
 Two notes. First, institutions don't literally have beliefs.
But institutions do have policies, which are based on underlying
assumptions. A fundamentalist church acts on the assumption that
in the Bible, interpreted in a particular way, is the Truth.
Academia acts on the assumption that knowledge should empower
action. Second, there is much more to academic politics that
this assumption. This expresses an ideal, which academia does
 My dialogue with Mr Wingate is a sign of this. He
desperately does not want to admit that religious belief has very
little to do with anything resembling reason. He wants to keep
the label 'reason' even though he rejects what qualifies as reason
everywhere else and replaces it with other things that do not.