Thursday, March 3, 2011

believing, behaving, belonging

I've tried several times to write a post about what's been happening this week in BYU basketball, but I can't find the words. I'm amazed at how fully I've been sucked into the drama, how much I care about the fortunes of this team, how conflicted I am about the suspension of our center for honor code violations. I should have a strong opinion, but mostly I'm just bummed.

Haven't been this bummed since a junior prom debacle in 1991. (It's true: I sat on a stone bench in my tux and never asked my date to dance. I was in la-la-la-la-love and had a tortured soul. And acne.)

My friend Jon Ogden asked me about the question I posed at the end of the last post, and I thought I'd treat it a little more here. He wondered whether the Wm. James approach left any room for faith in the metaphysical verities of religion. If you focus too much on the consequences of belief, or the "cash value" of belief, then you leave yourself open to changing belief based on its perceived consequences rather than the substance of its claims. The Rob Bells of the world question the "cash value" of believing in a hell for unbelievers because it may cause psychic pain and intolerance. One response---let's call it the Jonathan Edwards response---would be that it mattereth not how we
feel about hell if hell is as real as China.

I fall back again on the useful distinction we get from argumentation studies: there are claims about what exists and there are claims about what is good. In order for an argument to be productive, it needs to be at
stasis, which means the two parties need to agree to debate one or the other.

I think my point was that focusing on what people believe---what they accept as fact about life, the universe, and everything---is probably less interesting than looking at the consequences of belief in behavior. One thing I find irritating about the kind of rhetoric we get from sources like Bill Maher's documentary
Religulous is that it condemns religion based on belief. To use a concept from Chaim Perelman, it forms a liaison of coexistence between what a religious person believes (that on Sunday, as Maher states at the beginning the film, "they're drinking the blood of a 2,000 year-old God") and that person's ethos and then condemns that person to idiocy.

The logic goes something like this: "This person believes an angel visited a Bedouin in a cave in Saudia Arabia. Therefore, this person is stupid! Or insane! Or dangerous!"

It is important to ask ourselves how much belief actually matters. It's more important, I think, than getting caught up in the beliefs in isolation of their consequences.

I turn, once again, and certainly not for the last time, to Putnam and Campbell's
American Grace. In their chapter on neighborliness, the authors give us evidence from several studies that show that believing people, the highly religious, are more charitable (in terms of dollars given), more engaged in civic affairs, more likely to support so-called "secular" social projects (like book drives or Amnesty International), more likely to help strangers, and more likely to volunteer than less religious Americans. But before we can celebrate the triumph of belief, the authors make the case that when it comes to social goodness, belonging is more important than believing:

"Theology and piety have very little to do" with religious people's "edge in neighborliness and happiness. Instead it is religion's network of morally freighted personal connections, coupled with an inclination toward altruism, that explains both good neighborliness and the life satisfaction of religious Americans." (p. 492)

They conclude that it is "religious belonging that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing."

I'm not sure where to go from this point. As students of rhetoric we want to accept that ideas have consequences, that arguments change minds and thereby change behavior, that people act based on what they believe. I'm still convinced of this, mostly because it rings so true I have a hard time seeing it any other way. Maybe we can say that belief matters, but only if it circulates in social networks among like-minded people engaged in a collective project.

I love Lord Moran's take on courage: "By cowardice I do not mean fear. Cowardice is a label we reserve for something a man does. What passes through his mind is his own affair." It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.


  1. I too am mostly bummed about BYU's current situation, and—funny enough—I too had a teenage tortured-in-a-tux moment, mine consisting of me supine on freezing concrete for ten minutes because I felt ignored by a girl.

    I like the ideas you present here. I could see why James' approach was interesting from the last post, and this post better helped me see its utility as well.

    Let me see if I understand you correctly.

    Bell says, "You don't know if Gandhi is in hell."

    His opponents say, "Yes we do, you universalist! He didn't accept Christ."

    You say, "You guys aren't at stasis—and since being at stasis is the only way to have a productive argument you should talk about what is good rather than what exists."

    I see the merit in that, and I see that in order for a group to be at stasis about beliefs they need to be, as you say, "like-minded people engaged in a collective project." That is, in this case, they need to have similar beliefs about the details of hell and who goes there.

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  3. Could you be more explicit about how the majority of this post applies to the BYU situation? I have been trying to connect the idea--that the consequences of belief are mostly evident in like-minded communities--with the situation--a young man has been branded a scarlet Y for the world to see. If Hester Prynne had stood on the scaffold of youtube or 24-hour news, the Puritans would have seemed much more brutal, no? At any rate, perhaps my sense of your ambivalence is because a like-minded community has a consequence of belief that is two-edged: principled but merciless, public face over private grief. I guess I just feel bad that the majority of the coverage, and defense, has ignored the poor guy. The whole thing is an ethical conundrum, in the center of which stands a 20 year old being sacrificed for principle. I have mixed feelings as well, unable to laud BYU's decision, unable to justify it any other way, just thinking about the consequences of belief.

  4. Frankly, James, I didn't want to talk about BYU's situation. That was my preamble to cowardly changing the subject!

    But well said. Esp. the last sentence.

  5. So does any group belonging or belief work? Are members of stamp collecting clubs, or the College Green Party, or (to take an extreme case) white supremacist groups just as social beneficial as religious groups of corresponding extremism? Does every group of "like-minded people engaged in a collective project" equally contribute?