Like many of you who have Facebook pages, I see a lot of bullshit posted by Christians. Here’s an item that appeared on my wall some time ago:
Philip Yancey is a well-known author in evangelical Christian circles, a favorite of many. The part of this quote that caught my attention was the final sentence, “We must believe in something-the instinct is as strong as thirst or hunger….”
First, I don’t agree that people must believe in something. Second, I don’t agree that people have an instinct to “believe.” Third, I don’t agree that thirst and hunger are instincts in themselves; rather, they are manifestations of the instinct to survive.
The crux of Yancey’s error is the second idea he states, that people have an instinct to believe. The drive that people have to learn and know is tied to our survival instinct: we must learn to control ourselves and our environment in order to survive. The best way to gain such control is to know what the facts of the matter are, not just to believe that we know what they are. The danger in simply believing in “something,” of course, is that mistaken beliefs often lead to costly, even deadly, errors.
The failure to distinguish between “belief” and “knowledge” is common among fundogelicals. Erasing the distinction makes it easier to settle for accepting simple belief rather than having knowledge about matters of faith. If “belief” and “knowledge” are simply points on the same continuum, it doesn’t matter too much where on the continuum their beliefs/knowledge lie. But, if belief and knowledge do not lie on the same continuum (which they don’t), then religious believers have a serious problem. Regardless of all their prattle about the beauty and value of simple faith (a term often used interchangeably with belief), and despite their many attempts to designate their belief claims as knowledge claims, and notwithstanding their attempts to pretend that belief and knowledge are two different points on one continuum, many believers seem to realize that mere belief really is inferior to actual knowledge. After all, there is nothing inherent in “belief” that makes one belief superior to another. This is why many believers search desperately for historical or scientific evidence that appears to bolster their beliefs and seemingly transform them from the realm of fantasy (which is where all those other wrong beliefs belong) to that of knowledge (where they hope their beliefs belong). Unfortunately for believers in superstition, woo, religions, etc., any and all beliefs not genuinely rooted in reality are false. Any apparent evidence to the contrary, any bit of uncorroborated or unconfirmed evidence that seemingly justifies fantastical beliefs, is either mistaken, or worse, manufactured.
I think Philip Yancey is actually a pretty intelligent guy (this is a statement of what I believe, not what I actually claim to know – I may well be wrong) who just happens to be wrong about this matter. Humans don’t have an instinct to believe; rather, we have an instinct to survive. One of the manifestations of that instinct is a drive to know – not believe – stuff about ourselves and our world, because it is knowledge, not mere belief, that will enable us to survive and, if we use our knowledge wisely, thrive well into the future.
— the chaplain