Tuesday 20 January 2015

Between Fakers and Fanatics

Neil Van Leeuwen
This post is by Neil Van Leeuwen, Assistant Professor at Georgia State University. 

Between the fanatics and the fakers lie the normal religious 'believers'. That is the view I defend in my recent paper, 'Religious credence is not factual belief'.

Joan of Arc, a fanatic, heard spiritual voices throughout her life. For her, the existence of these voices as external entities was, as far as we can tell, regarded with the same attitude of factual belief as, say, the voices of her baker or next-door neighbor. She took these voices as part of the furniture of the world around her.

The unbelieving clergy studied by Dan Dennett, on the other hand, are fakers. They are, in point of fact, atheists who, because of the momentum of their social circumstances, continue to pretend God exists. These fakers have fictional imaginings to the effect that Christ performed miracles—among other propositions. These imaginings guide their pretense in church every Sunday. The fakers, typically, experience a great deal of stress, because they are perpetually pretending.

But most religious believers are neither fanatics nor fakers, and it is the existence of this in-between level that my thesis seeks to capture. Furthermore, I have a novel proposal about how to capture the in-between level. First, let us pump intuitions a little more.

Consider a friend of yours who is sincerely religious. It could be any friend whose faith is genuine, but who is also not a fanatic. Now: what is your friend’s underlying attitude toward the metaphysical propositions of the religion she professes? If your friend is a certain kind of Christian, for example, one of those propositions could be that demons exist and torment people.

If we go with a traditional ontology of cognitive attitudes, we seem to have only two options for describing the attitude of your friend (let’s call her 'Sarah'):

          Sarah believes demons exist and torment people.

          Sarah imagines demons exist and torment people.

But if we have only these two options, we seem constrained to say that Sarah is either a faker or a fanatic.

Against this background, I posit an additional attitude, which I call religious credence (a term of art that I define in my longer paper). The idea is that religious credence is what I call a secondary cognitive attitude—it is not the same as factual belief—which means it has key properties in common with attitudes like hypothesis, assumption for the sake of argument, supposition, and fictional imagining.

Importantly, the word 'belief' does not map on perfectly to either attitude (religious credence or factual belief). Sometimes when speakers of English use the word 'belief', they are referring to the underlying state of factual belief, and sometimes when they use 'belief' they are referring to religious credence.

Consider the following pair of sentences (taken from my paper):

          Jennifer believes# Margaret Thatcher is alive.

          Sam believes* Jesus Christ is alive.

In my view, believes# expresses a factual belief, and believes* expresses a religious credence.

How do these two states differ? It is nothing about the contents that defines the attitudes. Religious credences tend to have religious contents; but this is not necessary. One can, in principle, have a religious credence or a factual belief to any propositional contents, just like one can have a fictional imagining or hypothesis to any propositional contents. Rather, secondary cognitive attitudes lack key functional properties of factual beliefs, and each secondary cognitive attitude has special properties of its own that makes it different from the others (e.g. hypothesis is used in the practical setting of inquiry, whereas fictional imagining is used in the practical setting of make-believe play).

Most importantly, religious credences do not guide behaviour in all practical settings. The common phrase 'one-a-week' Christian already suggests this idea. But the anthropological research of Paul Harris and colleagues lends more support: 'believers' of traditional Sub-Saharan ancestor worship are less likely to express belief in certain propositions about the afterlife when probed outside the setting of religious ritual, as are Spanish Catholics. On the other hand, when religious credences do guide actions, they are accompanied by a sense of perceived normative orientation, which means that the religious agent feels she is doing the right and avoiding the wrong when acting in ways that express religious credences.

There are a number of other respects in which religious credences differ from factual beliefs—too many to go into here. But the key point is that the posit of religious credences is the start of a research program: it is a posit that tells us where to look. And there is still much looking to do, both empirical and theoretical.


  1. Belief describes something that an individual holds to be true. This is quite independent of whether that belief is justified, i.e. whether the thing believed is actually true.

    When Sarah says she believes in demons, she is (presumably) saying that she doesn't really know, but that her BEST GUESS is that demons exist. If Sarah is a fanatic, she may assert that demons exist, and that others should accept her belief. If Sarah is like most of us, she would assert nothing, but simply inform us of her belief. Then it would be up to us to judge whether her belief is justified, and therefore whether we should adopt her belief too.

    1. You make an interesting point about a dimension of variation I hadn't considered. To what extent do we expect others to adopt the 'beliefs' we express? I think the picture here is clearer for factual beliefs than for religious credences. Other things equal, I expect you also to factually believe liquid water is denser than ice, if I express this. But it's not quite the same for credences. People often refer to the god they worship as "my God"--this suggests they may not expect you to form the credences they have formed, or at least not without a personal commitment first.


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