Religious and Intellectual Commitments

by Chris Swanson


[This paper was first presented at Gutenberg College’s 2013 Summer Institute in response to Jack Crabtree’s paper, “How To Follow Jesus When You Cannot Kill the Beast.”]

I am going to talk about religious and intellectual commitments. Primarily my aim is to clarify and explore these ideas and then to raise some questions that might be profitable to talk about. I think Jack Crabtree’s distinction in his paper, “How To Follow Jesus When You Cannot Kill the Beast,” is a good one, but there are some complexities to the issue. First let me try to describe how I think Jack is using these terms.

If I am reading his paper correctly, I am “religiously committed” to a belief if I hold that belief “no matter what,” with the “what” referring to some sort of counter evidence. In other words, if someone presents counter evidence which seems to refute my belief, I disregard that evidence. An “intellectual commitment,” on the other hand, is a commitment that I hold as long as I am convinced it is supported by the evidence. In the case of an intellectual commitment, if I were to run across a refutation of my belief, I would have to deal with that refutation. I would not ignore it. If the refutation were ultimately cogent, then I would abandon my original belief as incorrect.

A further aspect to the distinction between intellectual and religious commitment, as Jack has described it, revolves around rationality. Intellectual commitments are described as rational. Religious commitments are described as inherently irrational. In fact, it is impossible to have an intellectual commitment to a position which is irrational.

A final aspect of the distinction between religious and intellectual commitments revolves around the will. Although Jack does not specifically identify the “will” in his discussion, it seems to be implied. Those who have a religious commitment to a belief are not justified by reason but instead desire to maintain that belief.

Examples of Commitments

I would like to propose a view of commitments which emphasizes some other aspects that I believe Jack endorses but did not explicitly discuss. To do so, I would like to start with some examples, beginning with simple ones and then expanding to more complex commitments:

  1. I believe that I have five fingers on each of my hands.
  2. I believe that the earth revolves around the sun and not that the sun revolves around the earth.
  3. I believe that in the nature versus nurture debate, nature plays a bigger role in a child’s development than nurture. (Actually I am not sure I believe this, but I wanted to pick something relatively controversial.)
  4. I believe that God exists and has revealed himself to us in the Bible.

Let us consider the nature of these commitments.

Example 1:  I believe that I have five fingers on each of my hands.

I selected the fingers example since it was particularly obvious. It seems that the question is completely cut-and-dried and my belief is based solely on evidence and reason. Further, it is not clear that my will or desire enters into the calculation at all. I cannot imagine that I want to believe that I have five fingers more than I desire to be intellectually honest.

We cannot really imagine someone coming up with a counter argument to my belief. So it is unlikely in this case that it will be possible to even decide whether my commitment is intellectual and subject to modification (if further evidence came to light) or if it is religious and held in the face of contrary evidence. There just isn’t any contrary evidence.

Nevertheless, I think there is a personal commitment to my belief about five fingers. This belief fits with everything else that I know. All of my assumptions about my senses, assumptions about the number five, assumptions about human anatomy, my past experience, and the beliefs of others—all of these reinforce my commitment. I am willing to claim to others that my belief is true, and I expect them to believe me. I am willing to act as if my belief were true. Just because there is little controversy does not mean that a lot of assumptions have not made their way into my belief.

I suppose that we could manufacture a bit of controversy if a impudent child were to claim that I have four fingers and a thumb. In this case, it is merely a case of definition as to what a finger is and what it is not. In the context that I have been assuming, my thumb is obviously a “finger” and the child is purposely misunderstanding my meaning.

The main point, though, that I want to stress about this example is that the distinction between religious and intellectual commitment does not seem to apply. That is because the belief is so obvious. Nevertheless, I have a personal commitment to the belief; it is a belief in which I participate. This is the case with many of our beliefs.

Example 2:  I believe that the earth revolves around the sun and not that the sun revolves around the earth.

The second example is a famous one from history pitting the geocentric theory (Earth is the center of the solar system) against the heliocentric theory (sun is the center of the solar system). I have chosen it because, while now it seems painfully obvious that the heliocentric theory is true, the geocentric view was held in Western culture for a couple of millennia. It will perhaps be instructive to examine how that change came about.

To me the feature that makes this historical example so interesting is that there were two distinct empirically adequate explanations for the appearances. By appearances I simply mean all of the movements of the stars, sun, moon, and planets that people had noticed. Both of the two competing theories fully explained, in some detail, the appearances. In fact, mathematical formulas were available to calculate exactly where everything would be using either theory. These formulas were fairly accurate and successful. Thus in a sense, the empirical evidence did not favor one theory over the other.

Nevertheless, after Copernicus proposed the heliocentric theory in 1543, the geocentric theory was still widely supported. Over the next 200 years, the heliocentric view gained more adherents. This particular episode is often portrayed as a battle between science and religion, but I do not think that is an accurate assessment. Instead it was a battle between different philosophical and cultural views.

The existing geocentric view was supported by a combination of Greek science, Catholic theology, and common experience. Greek science supplied the specifics of the mathematical theory as well as an earth centered cosmology. Catholic theology built on this earth centered perspective to create a theology of heaven and hell as described, for instance, by Dante. Common experience made it clear to all that the earth was not moving. Thus there were very good reasons to accept the geocentric view of the world. To overthrow it required an overthrow of a) the authority of Greek science (which had been very successful in many ways), b) Catholic theology (which had worked out a fairly comprehensive and detailed interpretation of the Bible consistent with heliocentrism), and c) common sense.

When Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and others claimed that the heliocentric theory made more sense, there was significant backlash. Most of the intelligentsia was committed to the geocentric view. The question then arises as to whether the commitments of the intelligentsia were religious or intellectual.

One could argue, as many have done before, that the geocentrists were unwilling to accept the new view and thus they were religiously committed to their position. People have argued that the geocentrists, especially in the Catholic church, were religiously committed and no evidence could change their minds. I have a few problems with this picture, however. First, the reality of the situation was very complex. The basis of belief for both views was a rich and multifaceted combination of data, presuppositions, cultural assumptions, and of course old fashioned pride. The evidence for the heliocentric theory was not inescapable. A very good argument could be made for the geocentric view. Second, the resistance of the Catholic church was really a resistance from academics in the universities who used the church to silence a view which threatened what they had been teaching. It was not a commitment to a religion over and above science. It was a commitment to one intellectual structure and authority which believed in God over and against a different intellectual structure and authority which believed in God. Third, the same criticism that the geocentrists were religiously committed could be made of the heliocentrists. What makes us so sure that the early heliocentrists were intellectually committed to their theory? For instance, the Church explicitly instructed Galileo not to teach the heliocentric theory as true. Galileo believed in the authority of the church. Nevertheless, he maintained his heliocentrism. Shall we celebrate this as intellectual courage or stubborn religious adherence to the new view?

I guess the point that I would like to emphasize here is that deciding whether a commitment is religious or intellectual, even in a famous historical example is far from simple.

Example 3: I believe that in the nature versus nurture debate, nature plays a bigger role in a child’s development than nurture.

Nature vs. nurture is an old debate. Many feel that childhood environment and how we are raised is far more significant than our genetic makeup. Thus they feel that creating a good, nurturing environment will allow humanity to live in peace and happiness. Others feel that the environment has a much less significant role. Personality, proclivities, and sinful desires are aspects of our lives that are not “programmable” so to speak. An introvert could never have been an extrovert if his childhood had been different, for instance.

To be clear, everyone recognizes the importance of both nature and nurture. However, there is disagreement about how significant each side is.

In order to explore the type of commitment involved in this example, let us consider some possible reasons for believing nurture is predominant. First, there are many examples of people who have suffered in their childhood where that suffering has had a profound influence in their lives. Second, those who grow up in families that are poor on average tend to be poor. Those who grow up in families where competitiveness is very important tend on average to be competitive. There are many such examples. Third, if nurture is the predominant force in our behavior and beliefs, then there is hope that by improving how children are nurtured, our society will improve. This is very desirable, allowing us to have a righteous cause that gives us significance. The alternative is rather depressing. I am sure there are other compelling reasons as well, but let us start with these.

Now consider reasons for believing nature is predominant. Parents realize that children have very different personalities and proclivities. With hindsight, parents can see that these proclivities manifest themselves at a very young age. Parents of adopted children see even more pronounced differences. It is also the case that parents find themselves unable to get rid of specific childhood character traits that they find undesirable. They may channel these traits, but they cannot remove them. As before, I am not doing justice to all of the possible arguments for the predominance of nature, but let this suffice for now.

Because there are such compelling reasons for both sides of this issue, it is not at all uncommon for people to base their decision on other factors. Everyone has a worldview that guides and influences their understanding of facts and ideas. If a worldview provides a strong reason for believing that nature is more significant than nurture, then the evidence is interpreted in keeping with this worldview. The reasons given by the nurture side are seen as insignificant or easily explained away. The reasons given by the nature side are seen as very significant and compelling. In a case like this, the worldview and assumptions play a very important role. In order to view the question is a truly impartial way, one must be willing to risk that there are problems with one’s worldview. This is very difficult since our worldview is the result of many judgments, assumptions, and analyses built up over a great deal of time; it is not held lightly. Further, to modify or give up a worldview has implications for our pride (how do I feel about myself having been so wrong for so long), our social relationships (how will my friends and family react to me now), and possibly even our livelihood (can I in good conscience continue on in my current employment).

The main point that I want to emphasize in this example is that assumptions and worldview play an important role in our judgments about what is true.

Example 4: I believe that God exists and has revealed himself to us in the Bible.

This last example is the biggie. At stake is eternal salvation. Obviously, the issue is huge and multifaceted and I can’t possibly address it properly. So I am not even going to try. I included it in order to suggest that there are many similarities between our commitment to God and our other commitments. The same issues come up in our belief in God as came up in the examples I just discussed. The formation of belief in God is not a fundamentally different activity than the formation of belief in a more mundane theory. But because it is so important and so complex, it is easier to talk about the underlying nature of our commitments in other contexts.

General Principles

So, what general principles can we glean from the examples that I have provided?

First, I think we can say that a huge number of our commitments and decisions are rather uncontroversial and mundane, like the example of the five fingers.

Second, all of our beliefs are generated by a fitting together of a wide range of data and assumptions and analyses. This is true even in the case of the five fingers. Despite the conclusion’s seeming obviousness, and despite our confidence in it, it is based on the same principles as the other examples. We just happen to be pretty expert in fitting together the data and assumptions and past experience so that we are not aware of the internal processes that have gone into our belief about the five fingers. For other more complex beliefs, the process of fitting data and assumptions into a coherent whole is less tacit and more visible. If some piece of data does not fit into the whole, it irritates us and chafes at our mind, until we either find a way to fit it or we find a way to discount it. It is clear to us that there is data and judgments to fit together.

Third, our presuppositions and assumptions play a big role in many of our beliefs, especially if the question at hand is one that is answered differently by people with a different set of assumptions. I think the heliocentric versus geocentric question was hugely influenced by the presuppositions of the various participants of the debate. It is important, however, at this point to notice that our assumptions are in fact just other beliefs. They have been constructed by fitting together the evidence, assumptions, and claims of others into a single picture.

How Then Should We Approach Evidence?

So, given the nature of our beliefs, can we and ought we try to approach the evidence in an unbiased and assumption free way? Given that we are committed to our assumptions, can we simply drop them temporarily? And if we can, should we?

I am of the opinion that neither can we put our assumptions on hold, nor should we. Consider for a moment what that might look like, and you will see my point. Take the example of nature versus nurture. We might think that the proper approach would be to put our bias on hold. Fit the evidence into a whole without letting our assumptions sneak into the analysis. Our decision should be purely rational, and we should not reinterpret the evidence within a framework.

Let us go through an exercise where we try to eliminate all of our bias and assumptions with just one of the evidences that I mentioned earlier. We will start with the first one, that childhood sufferings have a significant impact on the child’s life. How do we even know that this is true? Before we can look at this evidence without assumptions, we need to look at how we came up with this piece of evidence. We might have read about it in some psychology book, or heard about it from a friend. We may even know someone who suffered, or we suffered ourselves and then saw the effects. In each of these cases, there are oodles of assumptions and analyses and data and beliefs that have been brought to bear on our knowledge. The psychologists who wrote the book looked at a limited number of examples. They had to determine what sort of suffering the children experienced. They had to decide how that affected the child. They had to separate out what was due to suffering and what was due to some other aspect of the child’s life. Making these determinations is extremely difficult and relies on lots and lots of beliefs about “normality,” “suffering,” etc. It relies on correlations and careful sifting of data. The psychologists cannot compare the life of the person who suffered to the life of that same person who did not suffer to see the difference.

Ok, for that case, someone might reply, there is bias, but what about personal experience or the experience of friends and family. Surely that is direct evidence. But aren’t the same issues involved there?

The point I am making is that all of the evidence that we confront is evidence built upon a huge number of assumptions, beliefs, observations, and judgments. These things cannot be removed from the process of gathering evidence. So, you see, we cannot really remove assumptions from our examination of the evidence since the evidence itself is chalk full of assumptions.

And even if somehow you could remove assumptions from the evidence itself, how could you remove all of your assumptions in analyzing the evidence? You can’t do it. You would have to be like an infant with no knowledge or experience. It is that very knowledge and experience that allows you to analyze the data in the first place.

To be clear, I am not trying to paint a bleak picture about knowledge. I think that knowledge is certainly attainable. It is attainable precisely because we can use our assumptions and presuppositions. They aid us in the process, and without them we are helpless. Thus to answer the question of whether we should use our assumptions and worldview as we approach difficult questions, I answer resoundingly, you betcha!

But, you may respond, what if our assumptions are wrong? What then? How are we to examine and find the truth if we start with a mistaken set of assumptions. This is crucial since all of us carry around with us some mistaken assumptions. No one has an undistorted worldview. No one sees with the eyes of God.

The problem is acute. We are dependent upon our assumptions and worldview to even function, but some of our assumptions are mistaken. What can be done? I would argue that we must proceed in good faith that our assumptions are more or less correct. But we must hold them with humility, recognizing that they may be mistaken.

I am not suggesting that we continually second guess ourselves. Instead I am suggesting that we be willing, if a problem arises, to question our assumptions. Now, how and when we do this is a skill that needs to be developed. It requires a great deal of effort and discipline to develop this skill. We have built up our assumptions using our reasoning faculties. We may not have done it systematically and carefully, but neither have we done it randomly without any thought at all. Rethinking our assumptions should not be done lightly, but it should be done.

It is at this spot, rethinking assumptions based on some sort of challenge, that one of the most significant obstacles to learning the truth comes into play, namely pride and fear. If some sort of challenge to my belief comes to light, it may represent more than an intellectual challenge. It may represent a challenge to my self-concept, my position in life, my relationships, all of the things which tend to carry a great deal of weight in my inner thoughts. Under these circumstances, I have a strong motivation (independent of my rationality) to maintain my belief. My will exerts a strong force upon my rationality. I do not want to be mistaken.

This problem cannot be underestimated. It is probably the most important aspect about our truth seeking, especially where the stakes are high. In matters of the soul, the stakes are the highest; the role of the will is predominant. Where the stakes are low, the will is correspondingly less significant.

It is also the area where a true believer has a distinct advantage. A person oriented to God desires what is right and true above all else. The believer, of course, does not always succeed in doing what is right, but the struggle to pursue the right and the true above all else is what the believer’s life is all about. The unbeliever, however, has put other interests before God and therefore before the right and the true. The unbeliever is much more susceptible to the error of the will for this very reason.

Distinction between Intellectual and Religious Commitments

Given how we process data to come to belief, given the role of assumptions and the role of the will, where do we stand with regard to the distinction between intellectual and religious commitments? The religious commitment is a commitment to a belief no matter what evidence is put forward. The intellectual commitment is a commitment which is willing to rationally weigh the evidence. At first blush, it may appear that the way to think about it is that believers make an intellectual commitment to that which is true while unbelievers make religious commitments to that which is not true.

To explore this, I would like to raise four different possibilities. These are possibilities that examine the complex nature of the distinction between religious and intellectual commitment:

  • First, is it possible for a believer to have a religious commitment?
  • Second, is it possible for an unbeliever to have an intellectual commitment?
  • Third, is it possible for any person to have an intellectual commitment to that which is not true?
  • And fourth, is it possible for any person to have a religious commitment to that which is true?

First, in practice, it seems possible, given that we are all sinners, for a believer to be committed to a belief and to take that belief with him to the grave in the face of overwhelmingly contrary evidence. Is that a religious commitment? How would we tell the difference between that commitment and a religious commitment without being God? Consider, for instance, the shift from the geocentric to the heliocentric view of the world. Do we believe that all those that maintained the geocentric view even as the evidence against it began to mount could not have been believers? On the other hand, couldn’t a refusal to accept the heliocentric view be a sign or a symptom of a heart that rejects God?

Second, it also seems possible for an unbeliever to have intellectual commitments to a wide variety of beliefs. This is certainly the case with rather simple uncontroversial beliefs, like five fingers. But what about more controversial beliefs? As Jack has explained, there is a culture that supports a variety of beliefs that are ultimately grounded in a rejection of God. People growing up in the midst of that culture may very well accept these beliefs, thinking they are the most intellectually satisfying. They may never be confronted with a compelling version of an alternative. Or even if such an alternative is provided and, in their pride, they stick to their assumptions and worldview, can we claim that such a commitment is religious? It may represent a religious commitment, or it may be that they would be convinced under different circumstances or with further life experience.

Third, it seems possible for a person to have an intellectual commitment to a belief that is not true. The fact that all of us are subject to error should convince us of this. Consider, though, the nature of beliefs that I have outlined above. Beliefs are based upon a myriad of assumptions and judgments which build on each other. They are reinforced over time. It is impossible to remove our assumptions from the way that we look at the world. Further, the skill of finding what is true is a difficult skill to cultivate and takes a great deal of effort and time. Even those who are adept in their use of rationality are subject to error. These factors come into play in all cultures. The further the worldview of a culture deviates from God’s view, the more of an impediment these factors will be to finding the truth. In such a culture, many may be deceived and hold onto all sorts of false beliefs. They may feel that their views are entirely rational, not realizing the errors of their assumptions. I think of Paul prior to his conversion. To all appearances, his behavior and his beliefs were antagonistic to God and to Jesus. I do not know how much dialog or intellectual interaction he had with Christians, but it is hard to imagine that he was totally ignorant of the gospel. Similarly, I can conceive of those who are antagonistic to Christians and the things Christians value not because they ultimately hate God but because they are misguided about what is true. Thus it is a question for me as to whether the correctness of a belief is an indicator of whether the commitment is intellectual or religious.

Finally, fourth, it seems possible for a person to have a religious commitment to what is true. I can think of two contexts where this might apply. I imagine some scientist who has proposed some new and interesting theory which happens to be true. However, the evidence for the theory is lacking and the community of scientists does not find it compelling. Despite all arguments to the contrary, the scientist is committed to his theory, partly because it is his theory and he is attached to it. Another context is perhaps more pertinent, namely belief in God. To be clear, I think that belief in God is thoroughly justified rationally and the evidence clearly supports the truth of the Bible. However, it is not completely clear that everyone who is committed to God has come to that place as a result of the evidence. Is it possible, for instance, for a person to believe that the evidence seems to favor an atheistic position and yet believe in God? This person may feel as if the evidence is incomplete or incorrect, but he cannot give a coherent or cogent critique of that evidence. Nevertheless, because God has elected him, he will always believe in God, no matter what kind of seeming evidence is produced.

Conclusion

So to recap, all of our beliefs are dependent on presuppositions of various sorts. We cannot function without those assumptions. They form the lens through which we see the world. They create a powerful force in how we process new information and fit together the data into new judgments. This is how it has to be, and there is no escaping it.

Further, our will plays a significant role in our commitments. Wanting something to be true or false deeply colors how we see the evidence. Our pride and fear can be huge obstacles in our search for what is true.

Lastly, the categories of religious and intellectual commitment are rather difficult to distinguish. Ultimately, in our hearts we are either children of God or we are not. Those whom God has not elected will reject God, no matter what. They are religiously committed to a worldview without God. But how belief and unbelief in God manifests itself in various other beliefs can be complex.

 

Copyright August 2013 by Gutenberg College, Inc.

Chris Swanson