Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Belief and Behavior

Stephen Pizzo, who writes for the Smirking Chimp and elsewhere, has raised an interesting question that is not usually supposed to be discussed. In its clearest form:

“Just how strange, even crazy, does a candidate's self-stated belief structure have be, before it's just too crazy?”

He has Mitt Romney and his Mormon beliefs in mind, because:

“That's why I'm doing this. I may regret it. But I'd regret even more waking up on the third Wednesday this November to discover we have a man in the Oval Office who believes things, at the very core of his being, that are provably untrue, phantasmagorical in the extreme, homophobic and misogynistic and authoritarian. Who firmly believes in entire civilizations that never existed and that a 150-years ago convicted conman and womanizer was shown the "real truth" by looking through a "seer stone," a rock with hole in it.”

I am not particularly interested in Romney’s specific beliefs or how “phantasmagorical in the extreme” they may be, mainly because I find the stated and written beliefs of all religions more or less phantasmagorical. I am interested here in the much broader question having to do with the relationship of belief to both what is claimed to be the beliefs and the ensuing behavior. There must be thousands, perhaps millions of people who claim to be devout Christians who, I am reasonably certain, do not, in fact, believe in a literal interpretation of the bible. I doubt that most of them believe Jonah was swallowed by a whale, or that Noah built an ark large enough to encourage a pair of all the creatures of the earth, or that someone parted the Red Sea, or perhaps even in virgin birth. Such Christians can go to church regularly, enjoy the sermons, the hymns, and the fellowship, the community spirit and social solidarity, and what have you, even though when pressed would admit they do not actually believe everything they are said to believe, and for the most part these beliefs also do not affect their behavior (although I guess there are some few who actively search for the ark).

It is not difficult to find all kinds of examples where people profess to believe things but do not behave accordingly or appropriately. I know, for example, there are Jews who eat pork, there are Muslims who drink alcohol, Catholics who do not take communion or eat fish on Friday, and quite likely Mormons who do not always tithe the expected ten percent. Most certainly there are many who do not observe the golden rule, “Do unto others…” And how many religious believers go through life avoiding all seven of the deadly sins? And what greater disconnect between belief and behavior could you possibly find that some 97% of Catholic women use contraception against the beliefs of their Church?

It is not just in the religious sphere of cultures where stated beliefs are not really believed or acted upon. A simple example from the New Guinea Highlands makes the point. The natives I worked with refuse to eat chickens because, they believe, chickens eat feces. But they eat pigs although they know pigs also eat feces. This contradiction does not bother them in the slightest, it’s just the way things are. Here is an examle of people acting on a belief in one case but not the other. There are always exceptions, it seems, when it comes to beliefs. Thou shall not kill,” for example, is constantly invoked depending upon who is involved, who is being killed, how much oil is involved, and so on. Some cultures put such a high premium on virginity they test for it after the first night intercourse occurs in a marriage, and there are consequences for any suspicion of a violation. When this takes the form of stoning the bride or some other serious punishment we can say that in such a case people really do behave as they believe they should. Similarly, in the case of suttee, when a wife climbs onto her husband’s funeral pyre and voluntarily burns to death, you have a genuine case of behavior following belief.

So, it is not necessarily the beliefs of someone that are important, it is what relationship there exists between their actual behavior and their belief system. As Pizzo says, some, perhaps even most politicians, use their professed religious beliefs only as one of the requirements you need for office in the U.S. Who knows how serious they are about such beliefs? Generally speaking this does not usually raise a problem. However, the question of how a politician’s beliefs might influence his/her behavior is potentially crucial. If a candidate claims they are strictly pro-life will they work to overturn Roe vs Wade? What do you believe yourself if someone tells you they are pro-life but will not work to overturn Roe vs. Wade? What if a Catholic claims their loyalty to country is stronger than their loyalty to church, as in the case of John Kennedy? What if a known conservative bible-thumper swears they will uphold the distinction between church and state? And what if that promise turns out to be a lie? What if a candidate like Romney refuses to discuss his religion but it contains beliefs and ceremonies that are known to be phantasmagorical as Pizzo is suggesting?

There is supposed to be a clear separation of church and state in the U.S., but this distinction has been more and more violated, especially in recent years. As it turns out this distinction is virtually impossible to achieve, especially in a nation that claims more religious believers than most other industrialized nations. I suspect we are increasingly becoming a laughingstock around the world, to say nothing of the hypocrisy involved in our foreign policy, wars, and violence without end. Like Pizzo, I cannot answer his basic question, but merely bring it to your attention. You decide. My personal opinion has never been a secret. There are too many “Churches of the Altogether Bonkers” and far too little interest or emphasis on education and intellectual activity. But, then, it is football season.

Anybody who watches three games of football in a row should be declared brain dead.

Erma Bombeck

1 comment:

boba said...

Here's a link:
Transcript of our interview with Mitt Romney
Here's a lead:
Do a Crtl-F (Find on page) the word "cold" and tell me what it finds. If it is not "phantasmagorical in the extreme," I do not know what meets that criterion.