Belief by the manual

Once again, something that’s been on my mind for a while has been dragged to the top of my shamefully long list of things I’d like to write about by a few conversations, here and elsewhere, which have made it seem particularly relevant to address it right now. This time, following on from my last post about what I termed “atheist fundamentalism” (a term I’m still not very happy with), it’s how much we can reasonably generalise about belief (both religious and non-religious) that’s got my attention.

There are two obvious ways of examining what a particular group believes. You can either take that group’s official position (if it has one) as definitive, or you can ask what people who belong to that group believe in practice. There are difficulties with both approaches – discussing the group’s official position is likely to define a rigid view that no one actually holds, but attempting to reflect the full variety of views held by people who count themselves as members of that group risks turning the most basic statement into a survey.

Even if you could easily collect information about the precise beliefs of each person who identifies with a group, working with the majority view would produce some very strange results if we go by what people actually believe. We’d end up saying that typical Christian belief is that Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead (Q24), or that Catholics don’t believe in transubstantiation. That’s plainly a nonsensical result, but if people’s actual beliefs are what matter, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to exclude any views as outliers. The answer has to lie in the awkward middle ground.

“Yes, we’re all individuals!”

I think political parties are a useful analogy at this point – we would have little hesitation in expecting a party’s position to be defined in terms of its official policies, but the situation is more complex for people. Party members, and especially elected representatives would be expected to agree with the broad thrust of their policies, and probably to explain and defend them even if they don’t personally agree, while for those who vote for a party there’s little expectation beyond thinking the party’s the best of a bad bunch. So at the risk of overextending the metaphor, which is appropriate?

At first, I thought that people people who identify with a religion should be expected to meet the “party member” standard – they’ve chosen to tie themselves to that belief system. But that tie is often related to family history (“my family’s always voted CofE”?) and unless you start your own religion, you’re effectively presented with a narrow choice of religions or belief systems, almost like a voting slip. Some may have a level of commitment equivalent to party membership, but that isn’t necessary, even for those who specifically identify with a certain religion or denomination.

So when discussing belief, we have something of a problem. To reflect the variety of beliefs associated with any group would effectively make it impossible to say anything meaningful about that group, but to ignore that variety looks like a great example of the No True Scotsman fallacy and risks an accusation of cherry-picking. The only solution is to adopt an appropriate strategy in each individual case. When speaking about the position of a church as a whole, it makes sense to examine that church’s official doctrine, but if you want to discuss people’s individual beliefs, the practice is more important than the theory.

That’s all very well, but the difficulty is in how to distinguish the different uses. It wouldn’t be controversial to say that Catholics believe in transubstantiation, but according to the evidence, it would strictly be untrue on an individual level. For formal accuracy, it would be better to speak of what official Roman Catholic doctrine says, but I think the meaning of the statement is clear enough for most purposes.

If the discussion centres around personal beliefs, though, especially if Catholics are being criticised for this supposed belief, the detail matters and the statement should be more clearly defined. When an aspect of religious belief is criticised, it’s surely fair enough for a believer to say that they don’t actually believe that. They’re entitled to have a discussion based on what they actually believe, not what other people believe, or what someone thinks they ought to believe. There’s only one person, so there’s no associated difficulty around speaking meaningfully about a group, and it’s basic courtesy.

It’s inaccurate in all but the most bizarre and extreme theoretical examples to say that all members of a group believe or behave the same, but what if the explicit word “all” is dropped? Can we fairly say that group X believe this, or group Y do that, with no further qualification? Dare I say it depends? The word “all” isn’t necessary to make it a gross overgeneralisation, but its absence does make a difference, marking an informal distinction between official and personal views. There’s a difference between “Christians believe Jesus was divine” (party manifesto) and “all Christians believe Jesus was divine” (personal views of members/supporters). Subject to the caveats above around relevance, importance and purpose of discussion, I think the former could be acceptable even if the latter isn’t.

There are problems, though, where the statement isn’t one that matches an official line associated with the group under discussion, or where it clearly reflects personal feeling rather than an institutional position. However many examples I’m aware of to support my statement, it would be inaccurate and unfair to say “Muslims oppose America”, because there’s no such Islamic doctrine. It would also be wrong to say “Muslims hate infidels” whatever the official doctrinal position, because the statement clearly describes personal feelings. As such, both statements are overgeneralising.

Unfortunately, there are huge grey areas. People will disagree over whether the views of people within a group or that group’s official pronouncements are more important. They may disagree over sources of authority, or their interpretation. They’ll even disagree over the circumstances in which it’s acceptable make statements using qualifiers such as “some”, “many” or “most”, a subject I’ve completely ducked. And sometimes I can be a little careless in this area, but I’m just trying to get my thoughts straight.

This is just me attempting to resolve the difficult issue of how to speak about varied groups. I think it makes sense, and this is roughly how I try to deal with general statements, but I don’t claim any great insight, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Photo by Damouns, used under Attribution License


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

6 responses to “Belief by the manual”

  1. Sabio Lantz says :

    Example of cutting back on verbosity. I will rewrite your post by paragraphs:

    (1) I believe we can generalize about belief systems.

    (2) by looking at what the group publishes as their official views or looking at individual views.

    (3) since outliers for the group is the rule, any group summary is an awkward middle ground.

    (4) We could use political parties as an example.

    (5) And most people don’t follow the party line.

    (6) So when talking to an organization, use their stated doctrines, but when talking to an individual [the usual case] seek to understand their own personal mix.

    (7) So saying what Catholics believe may overstate while “the official Roman Catholic doctrine” seems awkward to me. [I think not]

    sorry, already too verbose. I can’t go on with 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12. I got bored.
    Two days later, no other comments. Well, one which was just spam which you should delete. Hopefully someone else is interested.
    Sorry to be a pain in the ass. Hope my thoughts and suggestions help. Or, just dismiss me.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Maybe we’re after different things, just like we have different interests and write about different stuff. Do I go on a bit? Probably. But I write for myself as much as anyone else, and the whole point of starting this blog was to put my thoughts in order and work through my thought process.

      I’ll bear it in mind, though.

      • Sabio Lantz says :

        Yeah, I write for myself too. But I love having folks comment. I was just trying to give pointers for getting readers. Feedback helps us.
        Suggestion: Keep it short and focused

  2. Ben Searle says :

    Doesn’t the national non-religious press reports on the Church, on the issues of women bishops and homosexuality, prove the proverbial ‘party line’ is more nuanced as you’ve suggested?

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I certainly didn’t intend to suggest that the church is a monolithic institution which speaks with one voice. But the deeper you go into the hierarchy, the more conservative the beliefs tend to be – not necessarily in the sense of being extreme, but preserving the status quo.

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