As many of you know, like some of my esteemed colleagues, I am a PK (preacher's kid). To me this doesn't ultimately mean a whole lot, other than providing an explanation for why I went to church camps for so many summers and why I have been drawn towards this seemingly eggheaded vocation. It is not something that I think about a lot. But I do occasionallly wonder about the influence of Christianity in my life. I tend to think, since reading the Bible was never an activity forced upon me or one that I voluntarily pursued, that the influence would have been less explicit and more the result of habits of thinking, apothegms repeated, principles practiced. In other words, the results of a surrounding Christian culture rather than an actual intellectual encounter.
To put this another way, Christianity for me is not a matter of belief, but a question of a practice. The distinction here being that belief requires a conscious encounter with the concepts and principles, whereas practice would play out on a non-explicit level, but be captured by the things that I do and the decisions that I make (the latter not necessarily the result of "deliberation" and "rational determination"). I'm drawn to this description, in part, because I strongly distrust accounts of human behaviour in terms of deliberation and rational decision-making. Instead, I am convinced that individuals are shaped by experiences and institutions, stretching from the language that they use to the occupations they take up to the civic groups they populate.
To some degree, this prejudice has informed my comments on the dangers of certain literary experiences.
In the past few years, these ideas have percolated into a specific position on belief, that I must say I am rather proud of. It seems to me like an original idea that I can call my own. So now I'd like to share it with you. To begin with, I am uncomfortable with the question, "do you believe in God?" It mortally offends my sense of good taste.
The reason is that I believe questions about belief are immaterial, and erroneously attribute autonomy to individuals which is fact the effect of institutions (here my sense of institution is extended to the something as amorphous as language, which I take to be encoded with values and prejudices that give it intelligibility and that are the condition for any kind of meaningful communication). In a certain sense, I find the question insulting. As though an omnipotent being would need the affirmation or negation of a particular finite individual. It is a question that does not make sense to me. It is not as though we ask people if they believe in black holes or in quarks, although arguably none of us have ever seen them.
And it seems to me that God is not something we have to believe in. God clearly has effects in our experience everyday. I don't mean by this, God let Musshareff(sp?) put Bhutto under house arrest or God killed all of those Iraqi civilians. That is, if we are asking about the cause of these events being some omnipotent being, intervening in the course of worldly events. But that the concept of God has effects regardless of what I think. For example, "God" has been expressed through the convictions of millions of fundamentalists in their political engagements with infidels. These people act because of their "belief."
But their "beliefs" are also the effect, inarguably, of long traditions of ideas and practices and are not separable from them. Their "beliefs" require numerous conditions for their possibility. But it seems that this idea of belief is important, especially in a world in which we feel alienated in so many ways. Yet precisely for this reason it is deceptive. Because we place so much confidence in belief, opinion polls matter to us. And we allow ourselves to seriously consider a debate between a scientific theory (evolution) and a hodgepodge notion (creationism, intelligible design). We pursue a war in another country on the basis of confidence and belief, rather than evidence.
Belief, it seems to me, has been incredibly damaging, especially insofar as encroaches on "reality." But the latter is not a matter of "belief." This is one of the first illusions I try to disabuse my students of--that philosophy is a series of "beliefs" about the world and reality. It makes my blood boil for them to use the word.
I'm curious what others think about this.