Sunday, March 29, 2009

Live Forever or Die Tomorrow?

I read a short passage from "Zorba the Greek" by Nikos Kazantzakis that has provoked some thought for me. In it, Zorba comes along an old man who is planting a tree. He questions the old man about why he would plant a tree when he will never see it produce fruit. The old man responds, "I live as if I am going to live forever." Zorba enjoys this thought, as he mutters to himself, "I live as if I will die tomorrow."

What a contrast in perspectives. But which leads us to a full and prosperous life? Haven't we all heard that we should live as if we will die tomorrow? Isn't that the lesson we feel we must take away any time we attend a funeral? Sure, living as if we could die tomorrow has some benefits. We may treasure our relationships more and give to worthy causes. Yet, what about the constant fear? I am not sure I want to live a life worrying that the value of my life depends on having everything in order when I die.

The old man suggests another way. Now, living as if we will never die has some dangers. If we live in ignorance of death, we run the risk of taking unnecessary risks to our health. We all know we should visit the doctor, wear our seatbelts, and avoid dangerous activities. But what if believing we will never die could mean more than that? What if living forever meant that we devoted ourselves to larger causes, tasks that may take a long time to complete?

The Christian believes they will live forever, through the grace of God. The faithful do not live in fear of death but in hope for the redemption of all creation. They do not sit back and watch but participate in this work of salvation.

What are your perspectives?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Truth and Beliefs

Truth is the accurate and complete perception of reality, including and transcending a variety of perspectives and beliefs. Truth is not a constructed reality but simply exists, without relation to subjectivity. Yet subjective knowledge, including beliefs, can have a varying reflection upon truth. The psychology of religion typically gives little mention to beliefs and, when it does, relegates belief to "merely" subjective experience, without attending to whether beliefs are true (Vergote, 1993).

Cognitive psychology has taken a greater interest in this question by looking at how beliefs develop and change. The research in that field has pointed out that beliefs can be formed independent of rational discourse and accurate perception that would be consistent with a search for truth (Begg, Anas, & Farinacci, 1992; Gilbert, 1991; Hasher, Goldstein, & Toppino, 1977; Ladowsky-Brooks & Alcock, 2007). Instead, beliefs are formed through mechanisms that can introduce error, such as repetition, reputation of the source, and consistency with prior memories. Although this provides a quick and efficient means of information gathering, the drawback is that beliefs are not always representative of truth (Begg, Anas, & Farinacci, 1992). In fact, people are directly affected by all sources of information, whether they be factually true or false, and the inherent process is to accept all information as true before comparing to prior experiences and evaluating the source (Gilbert, 1991). Beliefs are therefore subjective rather than objective.

Does this mean that beliefs can never be true or that truth does not matter for beliefs? On the contrary, the truth of beliefs becomes of the utmost importance when a false belief causes an unwanted problem. Cognitive-behavioral therapy addresses the emotional consequences of false beliefs by teaching the client to rationally judge their beliefs, rather than allowing false beliefs to continue to have a destructive effect on their lives. The need for such therapy reflects how difficult it can be for people to become aware of and challenge their false beliefs. While psychology cannot determine whether beliefs about transcendent realities, such as God, are true, there is the possibility that the factors that contribute to these beliefs can be unveiled and evaluated.

What does all this have to do with religion? Well, religion is fundamentally about beliefs (Froese & Bader, 2007). These beliefs are presumed to be true. Yet if beliefs can be formed in a manner that allows for error, how can we be sure of our religious beliefs? Sociological research has shown us that beliefs about God are shaped by socioeconomic status, suggesting that beliefs are merely constructed out of experiences that have little to do with a personal knowledge of God (Froese & Bader, 2007). However, religion has retained its explanatory power as a belief system despite thousands of years of hard experiences that have tested the limits of these beliefs. Although theology has changed alongside the times, the shortcomings of these new perspectives generally become evident in time. In other words, theology's truth can be tested with experience. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been effective because the flawed thinking of depressed or anxious individuals has proven to be too weak for rational evaluation. Religion has not yet experienced an equivalent rational retort.

Religion evaluates truth in a variety of ways: through scripture, reason, religious tradition, personal experience, with some even integrating science (Brown, 2004). By these methods, religion tests beliefs for truth. These are all methods for evaluating religious beliefs that can help discern truth for the religious individual. Religion therefore has a more stringent test of the truth of beliefs that most other institutions and individuals.

Begg, I., Anas, A., & Farinacci, S. (1992). Dissociation of processes in belief: Source recollection, statement familiarity, and the illusion of truth. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 121, 446-458.
Brown, W. (2004). Resonance: A Model for Relating Science, Psychology, and Faith. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 23, 110-120.
Gilbert, D. (1991). How mental systems believe. American Psychologist, 46, 107-119.
Hasher, L., Goldstein, D., & Toppino, T. (1977). Frequency and the conference of referential validity. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 16, 107-112.
Ladowsky-Brooks, R., & Alcock, J. (2007). Semantic-episodic interactions in the neuropsychology of disbelief. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 12, 97-111.
Preston, J., & Epley, N. (2005). Explanations Versus Applications: The Explanatory Power of Valuable Beliefs. Psychological Science, 16, 826-832.
Unkelbach, C. (2007). Reversing the truth effect: Learning the interpretation of processing fluency in judgments of truth. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33, 219-230.
Vergote, A. (1993). What the psychology of religion is and what it is not. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 3, 73-86.