Jeremy Stein - Journal

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Know Why You Believe

I believe democracy is the best form of government. It’s practically self-evident, isn’t it? We wouldn’t want to be godless Communists, would we?

I finally read The Republic and was amused to hear Plato disparage democracy:

SOCRATES: See too, I said, the forgiving spirit of democracy, and the “don’t care” about trifles, and the disregard which she shows of all the fine principles which we solemnly laid down at the foundation of the city—as when we said that, except in the case of some rarely gifted nature, there never will be a good man who has not from his childhood been used to play amid things of beauty and make of them a joy and a study—how grandly does she trample all these fine notions of ours under her feet, never giving a thought to the pursuits which make a statesman, and promoting to honor any one who professes to be the people’s friend.

ADEIMANTUS: Yes, she is of a noble spirit.

SOCRATES: These and other kindred characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.

And a subversive thought popped into my head: what if he’s right? It wasn’t really even an idea, let alone a conclusion; just a thought. A thought I realized I’d never had before. It occurred to me that the primary reason I believe democracy is the ideal form of government is because I was indoctrinated with this idea my whole life. Now, I doubt I’d start promoting aristocracy as soon as I completed Comparative Forms of Government 101, but it is interesting to note that I’ve never taken such a course—at least not one that was unbiased. From this perspective, my entire elementary school social studies curriculum appears to have been one big marketing program for Democracy and the American Way.

This post is not really about democracy. It’s about opinions, biases and beliefs that we have acquired through doctrine rather than reason. I don’t mean religion; religion can’t be acquired through reason. I mean beliefs that have been placed in our minds as fully-developed opinions lacking the scaffolding of logic that should have built them.

I was struck by this aside from Chuck Shepherd:

…so many people these days wake up every day with the same, or stronger, sociopolitical biases as they’ve had for decades, and filter any “new” news that day into the same ol’ biased cubbyholes. As a college professor, I hated that habit by students and strived to break them of it. As a law student and lawyer, I was trained that you’re not in command of an issue until you can see the other side in its most favorable light, not as a caricature, which is how biased people typically see the other side. source

How often we see the other side only as a caricature! I’ve often thought the correct debate format would be to have two sides argue the opposites of their own positions. Then the winner would be allowed to explain why his side was actually superior to what he had just presented. I don’t believe anyone can really know why his opponent is wrong until he understands why his opponent is right.

It’s not easy to identify one’s own biases. They are often so integral to our world view it feels like trying to smell the inside of one’s nose or taste one’s tongue. But I think the fate of being simply a product of one’s immediate culture is worse than the trouble of reconsidering.

December 5, 2007 14 Comments.


  1. Jeremy replied:

    The title of this post, “Know Why You Believe” mocks the same title of a book on apologetics. If you believe something and need to be told why you believe, then you’re already in trouble. “Know Why You Believe” works much better as a title for my post. I want you to realize the poor reasons why you believe what you do. Paul E. Little’s book is otherwise pretty good. Perhaps he didn’t choose the title.

    December 5th, 2007 at 2:42 pm. Permalink.

  2. Tara Stein replied:

    I remember being surprised one day to discover that communism is not an inherently bad idea — indeed, it’s even biblical. :) It was definitely taught (in grade school) as a great evil.

    December 5th, 2007 at 3:36 pm. Permalink.

  3. Jeremy replied:

    While communism may be biblical, I don’t think Communism is.

    December 5th, 2007 at 3:57 pm. Permalink.

  4. Mark A. Hershberger replied:

    Don’t you guys have a dinner table to talk at? ;)

    Just to continue my argumentative nature, I’d point out that we rarely delve into the “why” of our belief very deeply for a very good reason: it takes too much time!

    Sure, if you’re a professor teaching students, they’re there to learn. But some of us have work to do and have to corral our reason, suspicion, ability and belief to get the job done.

    Have you ever thought about why 1+1=2? Someone did. It took 360+ pages of explanation to get to that point.

    That is why we generally accept what we’re told.

    Still, when you have a chance, it is good to sit back and say “Why this way and not that?” But that sort of thinking is dangerous and it can change you.

    December 6th, 2007 at 11:32 am. Permalink.

  5. Tara replied:

    Don’t you guys have a dinner table to talk at?

    You have four kids and you can ask? :)

    December 6th, 2007 at 11:52 am. Permalink.

  6. Tara replied:

    Actually, I think that it often is less about not taking the time, more about lack of inclination — and that at least partially because the possibility that beliefs that we have held all our lives are Not True is terrifying.

    December 6th, 2007 at 1:11 pm. Permalink.

  7. Shannon replied:

    I can vouch for the dinner table. I see it in my mind’s eye right now…

    I would suggest that we should be working on figuring out why we believe. I imagine it’s a life-long process.

    For a Christian living by faith, this is more than an intellectual process. I think you have to work on the why without letting go of what you believe. Otherwise you move from strengthening your faith to attacking it.

    [insert self-deprecating comment here so I don’t sound too full of myself]

    December 7th, 2007 at 9:10 pm. Permalink.

  8. CJ replied:

    I have two comments that don’t deal with the main point (though it looks to be the norm on this post).

    First, I had to sign something today about not plotting to overthrow the government. At least that is what I always thought I was agreeing to in the past. It actually said that I’m not involved with plots against the form of government of this country.

    Second, you said religion can’t be acquired through reason. It seems like there are many counterexamples to this if I take the statement at face value. As an example, I’m sure there are people who have become Buddhists because its view of suffering fits with what they have observed of the world.

    January 7th, 2008 at 7:55 pm. Permalink.

  9. Jeremy replied:

    Buddhism may be a good counterexample in as much as it’s a philosophy more than a religion. People acquire philosophy by reason, but they embrace religion by faith. Perhaps I should have said that religion can’t be acquired through reason alone. Certainly one should employ one’s reason in considering a religion, but it seems to me that the spiritual jump to conversion requires faith.

    January 7th, 2008 at 10:22 pm. Permalink.

  10. Mark A. Hershberger replied:

    Buddhism as it is practiced by many Westerners is a non-theistic philosophical system. Except for a nice system of morality, it has practically nothing in common with Christianity.

    Christianity is based almost entirely on revelation – God revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ and, as a result, our relationship with God (that is, our religion) is not based on reason.

    January 8th, 2008 at 12:12 am. Permalink.

  11. CJ replied:

    Yes, Mark, Buddhism is quite different from Christianity, but it still qualifies as a religion under any definition that I have ever seen.

    Jeremy, religion might not be the term you want from what you just said. Another counter example that I had in mind is someone converting to Islam to win advancement with a caliph back in the day. If he assented to Islamic beliefs and followed their practices, it would count as a conversion from any historical or sociological perspective.

    I’d guess that there have been people who have converted from Mormonism or the JWs to orthodox Christianity purely based on a rational argument. I’d extended that to moving among the Abrahamic faiths. There are also certainly people who say they have moved from atheism/agnosticism to Christianity based on reason. Josh McDowell comes to mind.

    Certainly Protestant (and Orthodox – don’t know about Catholic) theology do not allow for people to accept the Christian faith based on reason alone.

    Regardless, it seems that your post would be applicable to religion since you do admit that reason can be involved in some role in coming to a Faith/religion and I assume in going away from it. Have I managed to pull this back on topic? (even a little bit)

    The unexamined life is not worth living. – Socrates by way of Plato

    January 8th, 2008 at 9:31 pm. Permalink.

  12. Mark A. Hershberger replied:

    Why would anyone have cause to think that Roman Catholics could possibly see reason as the primary means of faith?

    In my own case, it would have been a kind of imposed ignorance. Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t have told you much about the Roman Catholics except that (like the Communist bogeymen Tara mentions) I had been taught they were evil or at least seriously deluded. Then I actually read their catechism (or, at least, skimmed it) and found they weren’t that bad. So I certainly see the benefit of examining ones own preconceived notions for error.

    And, again related to the original point of knowing why you believe what you believe, I would agree that knowledge of “why” is important, but from my experience with (mostly reformed-flavored) Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, I would point out that one of the striking differences between Orthodoxy and the others is the emphasis of living over knowing. We baptize our children and consider them fully Christian. Certainly education is important, but it is less important than right worship (orthodoxy) and right living (orthopraxis). (This leads to a different understanding of the Great Commission for example.)

    I suppose that what I’m trying to say so clumsily is that I disagree with Plato and Socrates. An intellectually unexamined life is very much “worth living”. If it weren’t then I could find a lot of worthless lives out there. A fool‘s piety is better than the philosopher’s knowledge.

    Is self-examination a good thing? Of course — it is the beginning of repentance. But better is having a knowledge (in the biblical sense) of the Truth from the start and not wavering from it.

    Of course, this Truth is completely the kind that can only be acquired through revelation, not reason.

    This naturally leads to the question: how do we know the difference?

    January 9th, 2008 at 11:21 am. Permalink.

  13. Jeremy replied:

    We constantly learn new things and build on what we already know to make new conclusions. The problem with this is that the things “we already know” may be the result of biases or ill-formed judgments rather than logically valid beliefs. The point of my post was to encourage people to dig down a level and consider whether the foundations of their thoughts were structurally sound.

    It occurred to me that if you kick away the foundation of religious belief (faith), you’re not going to be able to rebuild that foundation from logic. Certainly you should consider whether you’ve been reasonable in building upon your faith, but the foundation of faith itself cannot be derived from reason. That’s why I wrote that religion can’t be acquired through reason.

    Since writing the post, I’ve realized that I should have been broader in my disclaimer. If you go deep enough in reconsidering why you believe what you do, you’ll end up asking philosophical questions like whether reason and logic themselves can be trusted. Like faith, these foundations cannot be created through logic and my post starts to break down. Maybe that’s what Mark was objecting to in his first comment.

    To clarify, I’m simply suggesting we go down one or two layers and try to recognize what assumptions are employed when we make judgments about the world. When they’re actually spelled out, they may not be so obviously true.

    January 14th, 2008 at 2:37 pm. Permalink.

  14. Ernest Lehmann replied:

    You might enjoy Vox Day…

    January 27th, 2009 at 4:45 pm. Permalink.

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