Wednesday, August 6, 2008


As I muck around with ideas of belief, I keep coming across strange notions, such as this one in the comments of a thread at Crooked Timber:
Patrick 08.06.08 at 2:21 pm
Slocum- There’s a difference between literally believing something and religiously believing it. Lots of people religiously believe in the Left Behind style of apocalyptic prophecy. It doesn’t have an effect on their day to day lives, and they plan for the future just like everyone else, but it has meaning for them in their… lets call it their symbolic life. In places where they’re interacting with symbols, that’s their allegiance. And that’s why its kind of scary, because for most people politics are a symbolic matter.
Is there really "a difference between literally believing something and religiously believing it?" If anyone can help me figure this out, I'd be most grateful, because it reads like nonsense to me.


Jim said...

Each time I try to start explaining this, the next sentence Patrick wrote throws my explanation off.

He's trying to demonstrate differences in symbolic vs literal, but he does it poorly.

I'll use his example.

Christians believe in the apocalypse as stated in Revelations. Most do not take it as a literal account of the end times, but as a metaphor for how things will play out. These people do not allow this to affect their daily lives as someone who believes in it literally might (I have survivalist images in my head as I write this). These "literals" will take precautions assuming Revelations are soon to commence (2012, baby!). So in their daily lives they prepare their souls for it (I'm not sure what they'd do).

He loses me on the allegiance part, but I'm guessing that relates to the context. He misses the bit about why this is a bad thing, though, which leaves the reader baffled because he ends the rant with a conclusion but provided no basis for said conclusion!

In the end, though, it is nonsense. He jumps to conclusions without giving the reader any clue as to how he got there. Plus his word choices are poor because "religiously believing" something can span a many levels of believing from the lethargic to the literal.

Jason said...

Okay, literal belief makes sense to me. Proposition X appears to me to be true, so I say that I believe X. Symbolic belief does not currently make sense to me. Symbol X appears to represent Proposition Y, therefore I say that I believe . . . what? The representation?

I'm still lost.

But for what it's worth, I don't think Patrick was advocating this kind of thing, but trying to explain it to someone else.

Jason said...

Okay, so it's a mess of an idea. Anyone else have a take on it?

Jim said...

Symbol X appears to represent Proposition Y, therefore I say that I believe . . .

... that the children are our future!

dana said...

Remind me to do a post over at the Edge on this for you.

Jason said...

I'd be happy to read that. Every new insight helps, and I'm sure you're better read on the topic than I am.

John Emerson said...

Some native informant explained to Paul Radin or some other anthropologist that "The turtle who created the world isn't the same as the turtle you see scuttling into the ditch". Or as some other anthropologist said, members of a clan may flatly say "We are birds", but they don't mate with birds, but with people; and not necessarily with other bird-people either, but very possibly with turtle-people.

Or you can just say that the Catholic host is and is not a hunk of Jesus.

As time passes most originally-extreme religions end up putting in buffers and kludges to flatten out the extreme consequences of doctrine without actually changing the doctrine.

And many supposed believers of a doctrine have never thought for a minute about what the doctrine means or what the consequences would be if the doctrine were true.

So I think that the illogic is in the nature of religious belief, rather than a defect in what someone said about religious belief.

There are all kinds of high philosophical ways of rationalizing these mysteries and paradoxes and transubstantiations and incarnations and invisible beings and transcendent hidden truths, but they aren't really any better than the naive acceptances and rationalizations.

John Emerson said...

For another example, I just read Inwagen on "The Problem of Evil". He solves the problem of an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good God who allows suffering and evil by redefining "perfectly good" (= "not evil", not = "benevolent") "omnipoten" ( = "omnipotent within the limits of metaphysical possibility") and, I think, omniscience.

He'd better have said that these terms are from praise poems in Psalms, etc., and not susceptible to philosophical elucidation. He did somewhat that with free will, which he declared a mystery.

To m

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