Clues of Religious Commitment

by Jack Crabtree


In the paper—How to Follow Jesus When You Cannot Kill the Beast—that I presented at Gutenberg College’s 2013 Summer Institute (SI), I employed a distinction between an “intellectual commitment” to a belief or value versus a “religious commitment” to a belief or value. I described the distinction as follows:

An intellectual commitment to a belief (or value) is a personal commitment that one makes to embrace that belief so long as (and to the extent that) one is rationally and intellectually justified to do so. A religious commitment—in contradistinction to an intellectual commitment—is a personal commitment that one makes to hold or embrace that particular belief no matter what.

This distinction is quite important in at least two contexts: (1) in our theological, doctrinal beliefs and (2) in our political beliefs. In these two arenas, our religious commitments to a set of beliefs is most prominent and most pronounced. I maintained in my paper that the belief of a Jesus-follower should never be a religious commitment in the sense defined above; it should always be an intellectual commitment. Nonetheless, it is quite common for people to embrace their “faith” as a religious commitment. The same is true of modern political beliefs. People are quite regularly committed to their political beliefs and values “religiously.”

In a very thoughtful response to my paper, Chris Swanson suggested that it is not so easy to discern when a person’s commitment to a set of beliefs is a religious commitment and when it is an intellectual commitment. The person who has made an intellectual commitment to a set of beliefs will proceed in much the same way as a person who has made a religious commitment to those same beliefs. So, can we really discern the difference? If not, have I made a truly meaningful distinction? That is the question that Dr. Swanson raised in his SI paper.

Dr. Swanson is most certainly right. It can be difficult to tell whether one’s commitment to a set of beliefs is religious rather than intellectual. And it is difficult for just this reason: the thing that determines whether a belief-commitment is religious (rather than intellectual) is the person’s subjective disposition. If a person is more interested in preserving his belief-commitment than in discovering what is right or true, then his commitment is a religious one. If he has a greater interest in discovering what is true, then (and only then) is his commitment intellectual. But because the determinative difference between them is ultimately subjective, it follows that the nature of a person’s commitment ultimately will be invisible to another person. (Depending on how self-aware and honest he is, it might even be invisible to the person himself.) But while it is ultimately invisible, there are nevertheless important, discernible clues to the sort of commitment a person has made. Certain behaviors are likely indicators that a person is more interested in preserving his belief-commitments than in discovering what is true. That is, they are important clues that a religious commitment is in play.

My purpose in this article is to describe some of the sorts of behaviors that might lead me to conclude that another person is religiously (rather than intellectually) committed to his beliefs. Following, then, are ten of the more important signs of a religious commitment.

(1) The other person remains deliberately ignorant of the relevant facts.

If, over the course of time, a person does nothing to educate himself with respect to the facts relevant to the belief at issue, then it seems clear that he is not particularly interested in discovering the truth of the matter. One who is truly interested in truth will be motivated to become informed of all the relevant facts. Occasionally a person, while being adamant that his belief is right, makes no effort to learn the facts and from them build a case for his belief (or against mine). Sometimes he will refuse even to expose himself to information that concerns the belief in question, being clearly afraid that the facts might call his belief into question. In either scenario, I strongly suspect the presence of a “religious commitment.” This is not an infallible indicator; sometimes the person who is confident in his intellectual commitment will not want to “waste his time” gathering more data. He doesn’t feel he needs to. But if someone refuses to expose himself to more facts and information, more often than not, it is a sign that a religious commitment is at play.

(2) The other person refuses to have a conversation about the legitimacy of his beliefs.

Occasionally a person who disagrees with a belief I hold will explicitly refuse to talk about it. That is, he refuses to engage in a conversation with me wherein I might challenge the truth of his beliefs. This is an almost infallible sign of religious commitment. Someone who is truly interested in knowing what is true would never refuse to have his beliefs called into question. He will ultimately welcome any challenge to his beliefs. He does not want to embrace something that cannot withstand a challenge. Therefore, he would never refuse to talk about it.

(3) The other person explicitly declares that nothing I say can possibly change his mind.

Another nearly infallible indication of a religious commitment is this: when a person explicitly announces that he is not going to change his mind, no matter what, he describes the mindset that, by definition, involves a religious commitment. So, if he really means what he says—if he honestly refuses to change his mind under any circumstance—then he has clearly made a religious commitment.

(4) The other person gets angry when I call his beliefs into question.

If, in the course of a conversation, a person gets angry when I call his beliefs into question, it is likely that I am dealing with a religious commitment on his part. One who is intellectually committed to a belief will not typically get angry when his belief is challenged. There is one exception: when my challenge to his belief is somehow tantamount to a personal insult—for example, I have insulted his intelligence. But, assuming my challenge is not disrespectful in any such way, then his anger is solely in response to his belief being questioned. Such anger would not likely come from a person who is intellectually committed to his belief. Such anger stems from fear. I argued in my SI paper that the religiously committed person is rightly insecure in his belief-commitment. Therefore, when his religiously held belief is challenged, he is brought face to face with the insecurity and vulnerability of his commitment. It provokes fear. (What if I am wrong? What if my commitment is exposed to be false?) Out of fear, he becomes angry. Exactly this scenario is common when a religiously committed person encounters a challenge to his beliefs. Anger, therefore, can be a telltale sign that I am interacting with another person’s religious commitments.

(5) The other person gets angry when I present counterevidence (or offer a counterargument) to his beliefs.

For exactly the reasons articulated above, an angry response to counterevidence that I offer can be a telltale sign of religious commitment.

(6) The other person resorts to attempts to intimidate me when I present counterevidence (or offer a counterargument) to his beliefs.

If, in the course of a conversation, a person seeks to intimidate me and bring an end to my challenge to his beliefs, it is highly likely that he seeks to defend a religious commitment. If he responds with intense emotional energy, verbal intimidation, or ad hominem attack—all of which efforts are aimed at intimidating me into ending the conversation—then, in all likelihood, he is seeking to preserve a religious commitment about which he feels insecure.

(7) The other person dismisses fact claims that are inconvenient to his belief, even though he has no basis for doing so.

Suppose that, in the course of a conversation, I raise claims of fact that I believe to be true and that call into question the legitimacy of my conversation partner’s beliefs. Now suppose that, without any real grounds for doing so, he dismisses my claims, declaring that they are false. Because he is so ready to dismiss inconvenient fact claims without any real basis, he is likely engaged in protecting a religious commitment.

The religiously committed individual can dismiss my fact claims in a number of different ways: (1) he can simply dismiss them out of hand; (2) he can challenge the reliability of my sources—but again, without any legitimate basis for doing so; (3) he may accuse me of being naïve, gullible, stupid, or a victim of propaganda to have believed such a fact claim; or (4) he may accuse me of lying about my “facts.” Any dismissal of inconvenient fact claims in any of these ways is probably an attempt to defend a religious commitment.

None of the above are infallible indicators of religious commitment. A person who is quite confident of an intellectual commitment will also set aside contrary fact claims. There is a difference, however. The person who is genuinely interested in the truth may, indeed, “shelve” an inconvenient fact claim, but he will not dismiss it altogether. Whether my fact claims actually are facts is of great consequence to him. He is ultimately open to the possibility that a contrary fact claim could force him to reconsider his beliefs. On the other hand, the person who is only interested in defending his religious commitments is not similarly open. He is not open to reconsidering his belief-commitments. Therefore, he is not open to investigating whether my inconvenient fact claims are true. To the extent that such lack of openness can be discerned in the behavior and response of a person, it is possible to infer that a person is defending his religious commitment.

(For those who have read my SI paper: one prominent and effective propaganda strategy used by those I defined as the “superior class” is to invite us to dismiss as mere propaganda any true fact claims that are inconsistent with our culture’s orthodox beliefs.)

(8) The other person shows no desire to answer the objections I have raised against his belief-commitments.

A person who is genuinely interested in truth cannot remain comfortable with his beliefs unless he has found satisfactory answers to any objections that have been raised against his beliefs. Such a person would never allow an objection to remain unanswered indefinitely. For the sake of his own intellectual integrity, he needs to know that there are compelling answers to my objections. A person who can comfortably allow objections to remain unanswered is not intellectually committed to his beliefs. He is religiously committed. Since he is going to believe what he believes anyway, it does not matter whether all of my objections are answered.

A common rhetorical ploy of this religiously committed person is to respond to my objection with a counter-objection. Rather than take my objection seriously and puzzle through to an answer, such a person simply goes on the offensive. He raises an objection against my beliefs without even having attempted to answer my objections. His goal is to avoid having to respond to my objection altogether. By keeping me busy answering his objections, he never has to respond meaningfully to mine.

A second ploy is to respond to my objections by leveling some sort of ad hominem attack. This is clearly indicative of religious commitment. It suggests that he has no genuine interest in whether his beliefs are intellectually defensible. He is more interested in protecting his belief-commitments than in ensuring that his beliefs are true.

A third ploy is to offer a psychological account for why I—the one raising objections to his beliefs—am resistant to what he believes (or am attracted to what I believe). Rather than answer my objections, he focuses on offering a psychological explanation for why I am unable to see the legitimacy of his beliefs. This ploy accomplishes two things: (1) it shifts the focus from his beliefs to my motivations, and (2) it changes the topic of conversation from the validity of my objections to the legitimacy of his psychological account. In other words, his psychological explanation is a red herring that completely misses the point. The point is whether his beliefs are rationally warranted and true. My psychological motivations are utterly irrelevant to that point. So, why create this diversion from the real issue? Probably because he is not interested in what is true. His only interest is to preserve his religiously held belief-commitments. If he were actually interested in what is true, he would be vitally interested in whether a satisfactory answer can be given to the objections I raised.

The main point is this: if a person does not actually care whether my objections to his beliefs can be satisfactorily answered, then he is not interested in what is true. He is only interested in protecting his belief-commitments. If there is no evidence that a person is interested in answering my objections, it will look suspiciously like his beliefs involve a religious commitment. For this is one of the hallmarks of a religious commitment: a lack of urgency with respect to answering objections brought against his beliefs.

(9) The other person refuses to acknowledge any point at which the evidence and arguments for his belief-commitments are weak or lacking in force.

When a person refuses to acknowledge those points where the basis for his belief-commitments are weak, it can be a sign that those belief-commitments are religious in nature. This is not necessarily so. Sometimes a person who has an honest intellectual commitment to his beliefs is just too proud and stubborn to acknowledge any shortcomings. But any humble and honest intellectual commitment would lead one to forthrightly acknowledge any points at which his basis for believing is weak. Therefore, when one refuses to acknowledge the weaknesses that are there, he does not have a humble and honest intellectual commitment. Perhaps he merely lacks humility and honesty. Alternatively, his commitment may not be an intellectual one but a religious one.

(10) The other person becomes uncharacteristically dumb when I attempt to explain the reasoning behind my conclusions.

In a dispute over a belief, a person may claim that he is unable to follow the reasoning that I have presented as the basis for my belief. However, if I know the person well, and I know that he is an intelligent individual who is fully capable of following a line of reasoning, and if my reasoning is not particularly abstruse, then his claim to be unable to follow my reasoning seems inexplicable. One of two things must be true: (1) his claim to be unable to follow my reasoning is insincere; or (2) he has deliberately made himself obtuse. (Like a child who goes “limp” to prevent his parent from picking him up and carrying him, a person can make his brain go “limp” in order not to be carried away by a line of reasoning.) In either case, there can be only one explanation. The person is committed to not reconsidering his prior beliefs. His strategy is to make himself unable to understand any proffered alternative to those beliefs. Such a person is religiously committed to his beliefs. He behaves as one who wants to continue believing what he believes, no matter what.

Copyright October 2013 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jack Crabtree