People frequently profess beliefs about what God wants them to do or not to do. But then they don’t always follow God’s recommendations – which is pretty strange. Wouldn’t you figure that if a person really believes in God, and really believes that God wants them to do something, that they would absolutely do it (or die trying)?
Conceptually, let’s divide all the beliefs that people can have into two types. Type A beliefs have an observable effect on the believer’s behavior. Type B beliefs do not.
Now that type B is identified, if can immediately be ignored. If it doesn’t affect what you do, it’s not sociologically interesting. Type B beliefs might include, for example, the Catholic notion of the Trinity. Whether you believe that God is “One” or “Three” or “pi” is not going to make a detectable difference in anything you do (except for trivial cases such as what you’re likely to say when asked about the number of God). The vast majority of propositions about God fall into this category. What you believe about the nature of the deity will make little or no difference to the rest of us. In fact, this may be a misuse of the word “belief.” We don’t see you believing stuff so much as just saying stuff.
Type A beliefs are more interesting. They make a difference. For example, if you believe that God does not want you to eat pork, you probably won’t eat pork.
But it’s not as simple as that.
First, many of the beliefs that supposedly constitute religious participation are not followed. Catholics, by definition, “believe” that contraception is wrong. But most of them use it anyway; therefore, they don’t actually believe that it’s wrong. So this would be a type B belief – that is, not a belief at all.
Still, many people really don’t eat pork, for “religious reasons.” But what does this mean? If we ask that person why he doesn’t eat pork, he says (approximately) “Because I believe that God doesn’t want me to.” But it is well established that people can be wrong – sometimes very, very wrong – about their own reasons for doing things. So, let’s take a look at this person’s environment. He is surrounded by people who are telling him that God does not want him to eat pork. That is, eating pork is frowned on by his community. The people around him are telling him that it’s not OK to eat pork, and if he eats pork he is going to have to answer to them.
Which is more likely: that I don’t eat pork because I believe that it is deprecated by God, or that I don’t eat pork because I know full well that it is deprecated by my friends, neighbors, family, and local law enforcement? Which is more likely: that I worry about God punishing me in some unimaginable way, or that I worry about people punishing me, in ways I can imagine all too well?
So, the real reason that some people don’t eat pork is obvious: social pressure.
The idea that people have religious beliefs that dictate their behavior falls apart in at least three ways. First, some beliefs are too abstract to affect any practical decision anyone makes. Second, some rules do not affect people’s behavior because they are not followed. And my point today is that the behavior is probably caused by something other than the belief.
Even if some people say that they believe that God doesn’t want them to eat pork, and if those same people indeed do not eat pork, it still could be—in fact, it’s very likely—that this belief is not the reason that they don’t eat pork. Therefore, it’s a type B belief: the kind that doesn’t affect behavior. The kind that’s not really a belief at all.