Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Beliefs matter

This excellent and thought-provoking commentary is by Bill R. in regards to a discussion we are having at the "GetReligion Coffeehouse" googlegroup. The subject is "Dialogue between BGLT community and conservative Christians". It's long but an excellent read and he makes some very valid points. Enjoy.

"Beliefs are absolutely indispensible. Social peace and fairness are important, but it is the beliefs of a community that inevitably determine what "social peace" and "fairness" actually look like in the community. For instance, if there exists a communal belief that slavery is perfectly acceptable, then it is possible, by that community's definition, to have abundant social peace and fairness even when certain people remain the property of others. So long as no slave revolts take place, the community will think itself "peaceful", and so long as masters refrain from cruelty, the community will think itself "fair". In the end, real peace and fairness stand no chance if society settles on the wrong set of beliefs or can't agree on any at all.

By the way, I can't understand why beliefs have such a bad reputation these days. We are so accustomed to our culture telling us that believing something strongly causes division and discrimination, but most of the great reformers who fought for justice -- like William Wilberforce, the successful British abolitionist and devout Christian-- were motivated by strong, deeply-held beliefs. In fact, I think all of us on this forum share the common belief that gay people should not be discriminated against when seeking goods, services, or jobs, that attacks on gay and transgender individuals should be zealously prevented and punished, and that gay couples (or any two people who love each other) should be able to make decisions about each other’s medical care. We should acknowledge the value of these beliefs and use them to pursue justice together in these areas, even as we come to understand each other’s divergent beliefs on sexuality and the meaning of the word “marriage”.

I find that belief is also extremely important in interpersonal relationships. If you follow the Unitarian maxim "Deeds not Creeds", what do you do when confronted with an alcoholic who believes it's perfectly ok to get drunk every night? Do you respect his beliefs and say "I have no right to impose my creed on him by telling him he has a problem", even though he is hurting himself and possibly others? In this case, lack of firm belief leads to indifference, not kindness. Love without truth is too weak to be worthy of the name.

Jesus knew this principle well. He met lots of people who thought they were righteous and didn't need saving, yet he refused to agree to disagree, instead confronting them repeatedly (often with insults and offensive language) and ultimately choosing to die for them because of his belief -- his certainty -- that they needed his sacrifice. Iwould argue that if you are convinced that someone is doing something that hurts him/herself and others, the kind and loving action is to intervene, even if that person believes he/she is ok. But here's where it gets hard. You have to constantly check your motives and your methods: it's easy to have loving concern be your primary motive in the beginning, only to gradually replace it with self-righteous arrogance as you repeatedly encounter resistance. You have to constantly ask yourself: am I doing this for other people's best interests or for my own pride? Are my methods appropriate and necessary? Showing the kind of confrontational yet self-sacrificial love of Jesus is much more difficult than either downplaying beliefs or wielding them as a club, but the best way is often the hardest.

With respect to the current issue, I would say this discussion is relevant on two levels: a personal level and a social level. I've mentioned before that one of my best friends at my university is gay. A few years ago, when we first became good friends, we used to talk alot about homosexuality in relation to finding happiness. He was convinced that the key to his happiness lay in forging a committed relationship with another man. But he wanted more than just a friendship, so he was also convinced that, in order to be the type of relationship that would truly make him happy, it had to involve sex. Committed relationships and sex are certainly very good things, but I believe (the key word), based on my relationship with God, my knowledge of his word, and the experience of myself and others, that neither sex nor a committed relationship can make anyone truly, permanently happy. With respect to sex, I further believe, based again on the authority of the God who created it, that if someone uses sex in a way that God did not intend for it to be used (i.e. outside of a marital covenant), they hurt themselves and their partner.

So there I was faced with essentially the same choice as above: do I let my friend go his own way, hurting himself and possibly others, because I don't want to impose my beliefs on him? Or do I intervene? I could not call him my friend today if I hadn't done what I did, which was to gently and sympathetically tell why he would never find happiness through human relationships and/or sex, but through a relationship with the dynamic, living God of love. I absolutely did not call him a sinner or say he was going to hell or anything like that (how would such things have helped point him to God?), but I didn't withhold what I knew of the truth, either. Without those conversations, our friendship would have been shallow, and we probably wouldn't be such good friends today. Since then, he has chosen to seek a relationship with God through Jesus, though he would still call himself gay and say that he is looking for a homosexual relationship. I embrace him as a brother in Christ and one of my best friends, and even though I don't bring up the issue of homosexuality anymore, I still hope that God will spare him the pain of using his sexuality in a self-damaging way (a subject of which I am not ignorant). My point is that even though my beliefs differ from my friend's on this issue, those beliefs played a vital role in the cementing of our friendship, as my love for my friend demanded that I act on my beliefs.

I'll just say briefly that beliefs are important in society and law, too. If the law is supposed to protect people and promote a harmonious society, then it must articulate and uphold ideals for some, but not all, human behaviors. Consequently, you cannot approach law without some belief about those behaviors and which of them fall under the authority of the state. Nor is their any rational justification for supposing that a purely secular belief system is superior to a faith-based or religiously-derived belief system for this purpose. The pre-logical assumptions of a secular worldview are as non-rational as those of a religious worldview. The key is not to avoid imposing your worldview on someone else – such a stance demands that you either give up your worldview or refrain from interacting with anyone whose worldview differs from yours – but to continually question and refine your worldview and then use it to determine how to act in the best interests of other individuals and society.

Thus, if your worldview says that marriage is a private affair which the law has no business defining, either through support or penalty, vote accordingly for freedom. If your worldview says that marriage is a loving, committed relationship between two adults that the law ought to recognize and support, vote accordingly for equality. Finally, if your worldview says that marriage is, among other things, a partnership between a man and a woman to create the best possible household for raising children and that the law ought to do its best to ensure that children have mothers and fathers, vote accordingly for social harmony. But don’t pretend that beliefs don’t matter; test them, own them, spread them, and act on them for the good of every one around you."


  1. Asa, this is a great post. I think part of today problem is that most people don't take control of what they believe in and have allowed others to usurp their minds so that most people don't really know why they believe what they believe.

    "Is that your thought you're thinking...?"-Rachelle Farell, Individuality


  2. Whoa! That is a very thought provoking post. It is hard nowadays to really say how you feel without being labeled a racist, hypocrite or whatever else is the insult du jour. With regard to holding fast to your beliefs despite what society does, that is the most difficult thing to do! Even when evidence shows us that certain activities are harmful to society, people still hold onto these activities and even politisize them!

    An example is that homosexuals males are not allowed to donate blood to the Red Cross. Many people have been up in arms about this, but what they fail to see is that the male homosexual lifestyle exposes its practitioners to parasites which cannot be filtered out from the blood but that are highly contagious via fluid transfer. These parasites present a major public health hazard. About a quarter of humans around the world are infected by parasites due to poor sewage etc. However, when studies have been done on homosexual males, estimates go from as high as eighty percent infected with parasites due to their sexual practices.

    This is why the book of Leviticus contains so many restrictions on sexual conduct; public health concerns was just one level!

  3. You make some fair points, I seek to know, however, what you would have done, if he, had, the same thoughts as you, yet different beliefs. If he thought, that letting you believe in a god, that could possibly be, a lie, may hurt you/others. And he made it his business to stop you from believing ? he would have all the right motives, yet, I am pretty convinced, you would have none of it, reflecting it onto him, convincing him that he is wrong.. correct me if I'm wrong, but your theory only works in special circumstances.