Unpacking The Complicated Nature of Belief

"Even truths born out by rigorous analysis are often laid asunder by a rapidly changing world.  Last year’s truths are often today’s red herrings.  As rapid technological change transforms politics, culture and economics, we need a new approach that is based less on false certainty and more on simulation." - Greg Satell

Greg Satell is no intellectual slouch. Recently, I came upon a number of compelling pieces he wrote about beliefs and the problems with hard data and modern the scientific worldview, from the perspective of a hard data analyst.

Marshal McLuhan, a Canadian intellectual behemoth, conceived core arguments about the nature of technology which are well reflected in Greg Satell's work. Decades ago, McLuhan said with confidence, that politics would become about who looked better on TV. He also said we would become a society that entertains ourselves to death, and most famously, he said "the medium is the message". We more or less take McLuhan's thesis for granted as a self-evident fact (at least in the Canadian school system). Despite his ideas seeming crazy to some, it turns out the basis for McLuhan's beliefs about the nature of media was fundamentally true. But it's taken science a while to catch-up to belief with hard facts. 

I think something similar is happening with the Christian Faith and Science, but it's more or less flying under the radar because of pointless debates like evolution vs creationism. Also not helping are over-simplified views on doctrine being held in the Christian space. 

But if you can look past the smoke, the core Christian doctrines about the nature of reality are objectively correct. Eventually, Science will catch-up but we'll need to be patient and humble. Good science is already emerging on issues such as Pornography.  In the cited article, the evidence supports a long-held belief within Christianity that promiscuity is dangerous - both to society and to the soul. Clinical evidence supports the theory that our brain chemistry changes and can even degrade due to our repeated behaviors. En mass, it's creating a sexually charged, sexually immature generation who will grow up to pass on distorted views of sexuality to their children and children's children. This is part of the "complex dance of genetic and experiential factors" involved in brain development. If experience is a factor in our brain's development, then experience plays a role in the continued adaptation of our brain to the physical contexts and stimuli which we are exposed to throughout life.

For example, a porn addict eventually becomes unable to maintain arousal around a real person (this is a classic McLuhanism - any medium when over-extended will produce the opposite effect of that which was intended). The gambling addict, through repeated behaviour reinforced by the serotonin released with each roll of the die or click of the button, may begin to believe that gambling will solve all of their problems, despite experience after experience which directly refutes the validity of this belief. The alcoholic believes they are in control, when it is clear to everyone around them that they are not. Another Christian belief which data seems to support is the belief that when sin is fully grown, it has physical, quantifiable effects - both individually and systemically (the consequences of a single porn addict vs a culture of porn addiction). 

Bonus Discussion: Sin

Aside from these examples, there is still a lot of disagreement in the church about what exactly constitutes sinful behaviour, as Christians are no more shielded from the massive effects of changing context than anyone else. But sin isn't really about behavior. It's about the distorted patterns of thinking which lead to the behavior. Granted, when the degraded thought patterns are known, as in the case of an addict, it's appropriate to simply 'believe behaviour'.

2100 years ago, not having children on purpose could be construed as sinful behaviour. But the context has wildly changed. The scriptures were written by and for a culture of (often poor) nomads who needed to preserve their lineage in order to survive as a nation. Purposefully not having children would most likely require a distorted thought pattern of denying the lineage, and therefore possibly the nation to continue. That particular pattern of thinking (wanting the nation to not thrive) is still considered a distortion, but it would lead to other sinful behaviour today (like Terrorism). Most of the world now lives in overpopulated mega cities, so the behavior of not having children has nothing to do with not wanting the country to thrive. It may be the case that a person who choose not to have children does so for the very reason of wanting their country to thrive and not become too overpopulated (in theory). So you see, similar behaviour yet different patterns of thought.

The causes of addictions are also better understood today than in the past, and scientists are confident that there is a genetic component to addictive behaviour. This has significantly re-framed the discussion on addictions in many good ways. The current understanding of addictions is also supportive of the Christian belief that we are all, in one way or another, prone to addict ourselves to a variety of objects, behaviors, substances and/or experiences in order to feel whole, justified, safe, and/or get our sense of worth - this is ultimately what the bible calls Sin. Only through a relationship with Jesus can the level of healing and restoration we need come through to the deepest parts of us. Everything else masks and covers-up our deepest experiential fractures. Jesus exposes, then heals them completely.

To recap, sin is not just about behaviour. And to make sin about only behaviour is to seriously misunderstand the nature of sin. Sin is first and foremost about patterns of thinking which give birth to actions which degrade your ability to love God, others and even yourself. On a physical level, perhaps I could say that ideas lead to behaviour and behaviour has consequences. Harmful ideas lead to harmful actions toward yourself or others, which over time degrades the synaptic connections you need for healthy relationships to thrive. This is why the Bible tells us to take all thoughts captive to Christ. Put another way, all ideas need to be tested against a standard of truth which has proven reliable. That truth is Jesus himself. 

"[and] that’s the funny thing about beliefs.  They do not thrive in the absence of thought, but become sound only when we have thought enough about matters to internalize fact patterns.  Much like we practice our multiplication tables until they become automatic, thinking deeply about the world around us builds sound beliefs that we can act on." - Greg Satell

If this is true about sound beliefs, then the opposite is also true. Wrong beliefs likewise don't thrive in the absence of thought, but become "solidified" when we have put enough thought into them to internalize them as fact-patterns. This is why Christians are so adamant about protecting ourselves from sin by running from temptation, which we could categorize first as an enticement to embrace "harmful patterns of thinking".

"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you." Philippians 4:8-9 

"Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." - Romans 12:2

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. - James 1:13-15


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