Commenter Jason B, whose blog name and tagline cracks me up, ponders a Crooked Timber comment that draws a distinction between religious belief and regular belief and asks: huh?

(The Crooked Timber discussion doesn’t require the distinction, just the belief that Christians have no idea in Hell (ha) when the Antichrist will show up, so even if one believes in the Rapture literally, one might as well take out the 30-year-mortgage. But what’s the point of the Internet if not tangents?)

The distinction the commenter is trying to draw is not a new one, and is usually presented not as the difference between religious belief and regular belief, but as a difference between believing that something is true, and believing in a person. It comes up in philosophy of religion in the context of justifying one’s faith, and in evaluating evidence for the existence of God, and again in considering the problem of evil. The first kind of belief is sensitive to facts and evidence and testimony in the usual way.* It’s the belief of science, where testing and proving and gathering facts is virtuous, and believing something without adequate proof is vicious.

The second kind of belief is a little trickier. Believing in is fundamentally about a relationship of trust between persons. C. S. Lewis argued that in such relationships, not demanding scientific evidence is a sign of virtue. The scientist who sets out little loyalty tests for his wife to prove her fidelity as he would prove a chemical compound is (I paraphrase) a dick.

And so, Lewis argues, the religious person who would want evidence of God’s love or promises or what have you, would be acting inappropriately, like her relationship with God was just affirming a set of propositions.**

I think that answer is a bunch of baloney. And I think it might be enough to scrap the distinction entirely. (I could go either way on this.)

To continue with Lewis’ marriage example, the scientist who sets up loyalty tests for his wife is surely a dick, but the scientist who ignores her sudden change in manner, her newly erratic hours, the hushed gossip of neighbors, and the smell of a stranger’s cologne is someone who could stand to evaluate the evidence. And to murder the example, but move it into problem-of-evil territory, if his wife beats him, humiliates him in front of his friends, and treats him cruelly, his faith in his wife’s love looks dangerously foolish.

It can’t be that believing-in someone means that all the belief-thats are irrelevant. To hold that would be to neuter the problem of evil***, and could turn the believer into the battered party in an abusive relationship.

What I think the distinction is trying to get at is two things. Little games of gotcha about Biblical trivia or historical claims are not going to amount to a serious reason to give up on one’s faith. (This might have been what the Crooked Timber comment was getting at.) This means that little games of gotcha are annoying.****

Moreover, discussion of whether the religious believer is justified in her faith tends to exclude the religious believer’s own personal experiences of the divine. And there’s good reason for doing that if one takes the problem to be one of convincing a non-believer about the truth of claims about God. But it’s not as clear that if one is talking about justifying one’s own religious belief, the believer should only have recourse to evidence that is available to everyone and exclude her own personal experience.

And perhaps this should be the real point of a marriage example. We can’t judge the health of someone’s marriage by adding up the dollars spent on gifts or the time spent with each other, but some of the things the couple would want to introduce as evidence of their love are hard to evaluate without being part of that couple. (“He always puts my toothbrush back in the holder without saying anything” wouldn’t make anyone’s top ten list of Signs you know He’s the One, but might be the most obvious daily sign that the couple is in love.)

In other words, it doesn’t look to me like a debate about different kinds of belief, but a debate about what should count as evidence, and whether personal religious experience gets to count.


*Nothing like glossing over an entire field, is there? Sorry, Weiner!
**”Don’t ask questions of God” is a really common belief, but I’m not sure it’s as well-supported as Lewis wants to claim.
***Trying to solve the problem of evil is fine, but pretending that there isn’t evidence of evil is just the wrong way to go for a faith when its core tenet is, “So, God died to save us all from evil….”
****As well as missing the point.