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15 February 2012


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Lewis Powell

Judaism provides an interesting case. Growing up, I had conversations with the rabbi and with the president of the congregation I was involved with, in which I tried to explain that I couldn't possibly be Jewish, as I was an atheist. I was told that this does not matter, from the perspective of the religion. The model that was suggested to me was the inheritance of a contractual relationship. Abraham entered into an agreement with God, and all his descendants inherit that compact, until some renegotiation takes place. I could be an atheist Jew, or a non-observant Jew, but I couldn't opt out of membership in the tribe.

Of course, the mere fact that Jewish doctrine would count me as Jewish solely in virtue of my lineage does not mean that my self-identification must follow suit. However, as a consequence of the religion's refusal to evict me for lack of faith or failure to practice, played a major role in my maintaining some identity as a Jewish person.

Lewis Powell

Also, both Leibniz and Berkeley discuss the phenomenon you describe as "quasi-belief". For Leibniz it is "blind" or "muffled" thought, and discussed most prominently in the New Essays. Berkeley has Euphranor and Alciphron discuss it in the context of showing that Alciphron is committed to the meaningful use of words that do not (on that use, for that user) signify ideas to the mind, citing an example of free-thinkers who accept various scientific views without real understanding, but only in deference to the assent of the scientists whose word they are taking.


The problem of people "merely ticking the Christian box" is a pretty old one - it's one of the main things that St Paul is worried about, so there's a sense in which it's already there in the Bible itself (although of course he uses slightly different language). It's hard to think of a reforming movement within Christianity that hasn't, at some point, been concerned about mere box ticking. One interesting contemporary version of the problem is posed in Kenda Dean's recent book "Almost Christian", in which she describes the faith of many young American Christians as "moralistic therapeutic deism". (Her diagnosis of the problem: they get it from their parents.)

alan nelson

[When a mans Discourse] beginneth at some saying of another, of whose ability to know the truth, and of whose honesty in not deceiving he doubteth not; [t]he Discourse is not so much concerning the Thing, as the Person; And the Resolution is called
BELEEFE, and FAITH... [Leviathan, Chap. 7]

John Schwenkler

When this topic comes up, I always start thinking about Burge on arthritis. Can't the content of a person's beliefs be determined in part by the social community of which that person is a part, and the positions of recognized authorities to whom a person is disposed to defer? (This is certainly how Aquinas thought of it.) In any case it does seem that at least part of what it is to be a Christian is to identify oneself (and work and worship together) with a certain social group; it's not just a matter of which "private representations" one has.

Helen De Cruz

John, this is a very useful idea. Like you, I'm also not very sure about putting absolute priority on private representations (to stick with the cognitive science of religion language). The Burge-type externalism could be helpful to think about religious belief. Come to think of it, I have many friends and acquaintances who are priests and monks, and in conversations I noticed that many of them had very heterodox ideas (to put it mildly, for instance, one of them has ideas that are quite close to Manicheism). So, if we took Dawkins' criteria for being a Christian seriously, many of these priests and monks who self-identify as Christian would not be Christian.
Francois Recanati has a piece in mind & language where he attempts to dissolve the problem of quasi-belief in this way, using Burgean deferential representations. According to him, someone who endorses evolution can have a belief like "natural selection is an important evolutionary process" even if he does not understand it, and so similarly someone who is a Christian is someone who self-identifies with a particular group.


I'm intrigued and a bit confused by resistance to the phenomenon of "merely ticking the box." Who is it harming? Why do we want to prevent this? Why would one (as previous commenter Mark did) describe this as a problem? It seems to me this is only problematic from two standpoints: if one is a devout and rigorously theological member of a religious community who doesn't like being lumped in with the mere box-tickers or if one is an adamant non-box-ticker with an anti-religious stance attempting to show broad public support for their own position. It seems to me that both of these positions are extreme enough to exclude the vast majority of the human population. Most of us are mere box-tickers. (This is all assuming, of course, that "merely ticking a box" is a phenomenon applied to all religious groups rather than just Christians.)

Put another way, I imagine there are very few of us who either fully and completely without hesitation accept all of the teachings, mandates and practices of any religious group or who fully and completely without hesitation reject all of the teachings, mandates and practices of all religious groups.

John Schwenkler

Helen, I am glad to hear that you find this idea useful. I'd be happy to correspond about it -- just send me an e-mail.

Helen De Cruz

Kly: the reason that Dawkins objects to the "mere box-ticking" is that a lot hinges on people's self identification: funding for churches, faith schools, etc. If, according to Dawkins, box-tickers aren't truly Christian, this would be a reason to provide less funding for the church.


Clearly Mitt Romney self-identifies as a Christian, but a large number of self-identified conservative Christians say (in effect) Mitt is wrong. Private representations have only so much cache in public debates about who counts in quantifying over a description that (i) many share and (ii) is strongly exclusionary and intolerate of variation by significant numbers of self-describers. We used to exclude some people from being in that very basic category (person) despite the fact they strongly saw themselves as such. Social norms and political power structures are not irrelvant here and sometimes mitigate internalist factors, at least where the issue of self-identification is fodder for public consumption, as with Mitt.

I do have a question about the Society: may an avowed atheist join? Not that I'm interested, but as long-lapsed evangelical who now is a committed non-believer, I'm just curious.

Helen De Cruz

Hi Alan, the LDS (Mormon church) is an interesting example, because they seem to differ in their opinion with Christians. Many Christians, I suppose, object to their self-identification because of their heterodox views (God is embodied, we're all going to be like God, there is also a God the mother, Jesus is not divine etc. [note: I'm not an expert on Mormonism, so if I got any of these wrong - sorry]) But if self-identification is enough, maybe they are Christians after all. Christians of the past included the Gnostics (who thought creation was bad, and not the work of God but of a bungling demiurg), Marconians (who thought God of the old testament and God of the new testament were two Gods), docetists etc. All these people self-identified as Christians and it seems strange to say they were not in the light of the orthodoxy that eventually prevailed (which was, after all, contingent upon multiple historical factors).
So I think personally that if you are an atheist with an interest in Christianity who identifies himself as a Christian, this would be enough to "consider yourself as a Christian" and I see no problem for you to join (if you were interested!)


Thanks Helen (if I may)--a very interesting historical take on the issue. I can't say though that I by any means now identify as Christian--but previous time-slices certainly did!

D.P. O'Connell

Helen, thank you for this fascinating reflection. I find myself in sympathy with your father, although my circumstances are very different from his. I am told that I said to my father, at the age of 7, as some priest was going on about the uniqueness of being a 'Roman Catholic' — "Dad, are we Roman Catholic?" — "Yes, of course!" he said. — "Oh, I thought we were Irish-Catholic!" I replied.

I suppose my understanding of these things has changed and (I hope) improved since then, but I find that I still have an aversion—even though I agree, politically speaking, with almost nothing the R.C. bishops in America stand up for these days—to officially switching over to a more progressive protestant Christian church. I can't really say why, although in my more honest moments I have to admit that it is in part because—at least in the case of the Episcopal Church, which I might be expected to find more congenial both politically and liturgically—they have, historically, associations with England and with the British people.

I haven't often made this aversion the subject of any philosophical reflection, although I probably should. Could you say a bit more, briefly, about where Dan Sperber takes up this notion of "quasi-belief"?

Helen De Cruz

The principal source is in a book called Rethinking symbolism (1975), but my main source is a paper entitled Apparently irrational beliefs from 1985. He also takes up the issue in a Mind & Language paper on intuitive and reflective beliefs (1997). I have a copy of the 1985 paper if you would like to have it, just drop me a note. Sperber makes a distinction between first-order beliefs and metarepresentations. Roughly, he argues that quasi-beliefs are beliefs that are only stored as metarepresentations.
So I can for instance believe that Sydney is the capital of Australia (first-order belief) which would be false. Or I could believe that John believes that "Sydney is the capital of Australia", the proposition is embedded as a meta-representation - in this case my belief could be true or false. A quasi-belief is stored only in this second sense. To give an example by Recanati: Lacanians believe that "the unconscious is structured like a language. They do not know what it means, but they hold the belief because Lacan said so. Perhaps one could tell a similar story about religious identity.

alan nelson

"They do not know what it means, but they hold the belief because Lacan said so. Perhaps one could tell a similar story about religious identity."

That bears a striking resemblance to what Hobbes says in the quotation in #4 above!


Re: kly's question about why "mere box ticking" is supposed to be a problem, I think Helen's explanation of Dawkins's concern is correct. As for the religious concern, I imagine the worry is less about being "lumped in" with the box tickers, and more about the state of people's souls. Most of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible spend a good deal of time railing against what people are doing under the guise of religion; so does Paul, and indeed Jesus. In all of these cases, the worry is: you're doing it wrong. Whether it's Moses, Amos, Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Mohammed, or whoever, many of the major doctrines and practices of the three major monotheisms are based upon a criticism of existing religious practices, where the form of the criticism is: "you call this religion, but really it's not".

Of course, none of this goes to show that you can't just tick the box and be happy about it - the only point I wanted to make was that the form of Dawkins's worry is not new, and that it's one that many religious thinkers are likely to concur with.

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