Basis for Belief

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The world is full of partisan arguments these days. I watch them on Facebook, hear them in classrooms and hallways. Maybe people are more involved in politics than before, maybe it’s just become a team sport in which only the most hardcore fans actually go out and vote for their team. But I hear this line, and it makes me wonder:

I’m a _______________, so I believe ________________.

I can’t help thinking that the cart might be before the horse here. This statement is generally followed by something dogmatic and is sometimes hurtful or hateful. It is dogma by definition: you believe the thing you are asserting because of some group affiliation rather than because of reason, reflection, or compassion.

People from all sorts of groups make these statements, so try not to feel too called-out about them. Ken Hamm structures his whole view of science around a central premise—he’s a Christian and therefore believes Genesis is a true account of creation. All science and reason that contradicts this story must therefore be false, and he ties himself in knots explaining this to unbelievers and also to other believers who do not buy his line of reasoning. This is a problem, because this person begins this issue with certainty and works backwards from the conclusion to the premises.

When I hear this in classrooms and hallways, “I am a Christian, therefore I believe…,” often statements about the abomination of same-sex marriage, women’s subservience to men, or other Conservative social ideas follow it. For some reason, Christians who believe the opposite are less likely to link their logic to their faith or put the one before the other.

Atheists are also less like to make these sorts of statements, although they certainly do make and imply them. These tend to be stereotypes about people of faith themselves. Dawkins and Hitchens, really famous, high-profile atheists, are notorious for such comments. For example, from Hitchens’ God is Not Great: “The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.” He didn’t say “Because I’m an atheist, I believe…” but he might just as well have. What data actually suggest this outlook on faith? To make such a case, we really need to start with the equal and opposite certainty Hitchens decries in this quote.

In politics, we see arguments that start with political affiliation and move backwards to social or financial policy, and these often lead into hypocrisy. Maybe you are a libertarian and believe in a small government, less regulation on businesses—but more regulation on private behavior. (We should have “libertarian” in air-quotes here, because many such believers are logically consistent). The real trouble here is that the political belief is not reflected in the data. If we started with the data and then moved towards a political position, might our party affiliation change over time? We actually find that the economy is robust and healthy with good regulation on place, and that corporations are rational actors only insofar as we limit rationality to paying maximum dividends to shareholders. What about the minimum wage? There is by now ample data about the effects of minimum wage laws on local economies. Why is this never part of the political discourse? We simply divide along party lines. Liberal and conservative Libertarians are equally at fault for beginning from a faith position and moving towards policy, rather than starting from the data.

Similar arguments are harder (but possible) to find from the Liberal side of the political table as this group tends not to create a message and stay on message. More diversity of thought is tolerated in these ranks. Still, the things said about Republicans at Democratic conventions certainly seem to imply this argument. If one listens to primary voters at these conventions, Republicans are all old White racist men who hate poor people and gays, and are pro-war. The truth is far more complex. But the data are not at issue here because we have limited our beliefs based on our political affiliation.

Perhaps the most relevant arena in which this problem of dogmatic thought happens for us is psychotherapeutic orientation. I’m a behaviorist, therefore I think… I’m an orthodox psychoanalyst, therefore I think… I’m a humanist or an existentialist, therefore I think… But what does the data say? I am an existentialist, therefore I look for boundary territory in conversations with clients. What if I always assumed it was there, imposed this interpretation on them, overrode their own thoughts and feelings with assumptions of death salience?

As existentialists, we also tend to think all therapies are existential therapies at some level, that the things we practice underlie the things other people practice. If we believe this very strongly without very much evidence, very strong and credible data, aren’t we in danger of dogmatism?

What if we arrived at our various positions rationally and then aligned with a group of people with similar beliefs only so long as those beliefs were born out by the evidence of our senses, by data, by the truths we find through empathy? Would our voting behavior change? Might we be less easily talked into discompassionate beliefs? Might we change the TV channel when we recognized the “news” we were listening to was just dogma—designed to mislead us into a certain kind of voting behavior or just to sell copy?

What you can do:
Listen closely, especially when the speaker seems to be challenging your beliefs. They might be right. Think carefully about ideas that proceed from belief or group affiliation.

— Jason Dias

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