Before looking for the right answers, look for the right questions

Thanks for a great post, Noah.

I would make a few points, however.

First of all, Noah you’re right that my distinction probably doesn’t apply to some Oriental religions. Confucianism and some strains of Buddhism do indeed define themselves at least as much as ways of life as religious beliefs. I thought about adding a disclaimer to that effect to my original post but thought that was a bit lawyerly. Also I’m sure some faiths explicitly say “If you do this, you cannot be a Zoroastrist/Jainist/whatever.” (And with regard to Judaism, “Who is a Jew?” is a Pandora’s box I don’t want to touch right now.) This isn’t what this is about.

Second of all, you are right that I’m talking about religious belief not sociology. Obviously from a sociological perspective the only way you can determine religious belief through “external” factors. But if you want to learn about more than sociology, it’s a pretty limited approach.

Though, I’m curious, what would you think of a sociological study that said “We’re not counting the adulterers in this society as Christians”? (Let’s assume that this is a society for which we have detailed, Kinsley-type data, on who tends to be an adulterer or not.)

Third of all, I really wanted to make a narrower point, which is to attack the (in my view) unfounded axiom that some actions are automatically incompatible with (most) religious belief. I have little quarrel with the question “Why do you as a X, do Y?” That’s a good question. And I might be getting into a tizzy over semantics; people might mean “Why do you” when they say “How can you”, and in some cases that’s indeed the case. But I don’t think that’s always, or even the majority of cases.

And in any case, when I am given that question, I don’t jump on a high horse and say “How dare you give me that baffling question!” I interpret it as “Why do you”, and I do give one of these answers:

He could say: some Christians may consider X a sin, but I don’t, and I according to my faith I have the competency to make that judgement, so I see no contradiction. He could say: yes, it is a sin, and I struggle against it because I do believe it is a sin, but I am weak, and it is precisely because I know that I am weak that I am a Christian – so, again, there is no contradiction.

But let’s try to take your points and work through them.

First, your example of two men, one of whom acts like a Christian but does not believe the central tenet of the Christian faith, and the other who attacks Christianity but believes that the Apostles’ Creed is true. You’re right, I don’t think the first man is a Christian.

As for the second man, your literary reference gives up the game: it is precisely because Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is a Christian, and not in the sense of belonging to an established church but in the sense of believing that Jesus is the son of God, that the story is so profound and real.

Let me take a perhaps imperfect analogy: what about a man who has a family life, a wife, and children, and regularly has sex with his wife. Maybe he even flirts with his secretary. But he is only sexually and romantically attracted to other men, and that has been the case since puberty, even though he has not so much as kissed another man. He bears his secret in silence. To borrow your phrase, we know that man exists.

Is that man straight, or is he gay? I think most people would say he is gay, even though without knowing his heart it would be impossible to say so.

Let me take a more provocative example. What about a man who loves his wife passionately, more than anything. And yet he drinks, he cheats on his wife, and he even occasionally beats her and his children. Does such a man exist? I think a lot of people would say, “No, a man who beats his wife cannot possibly love her.” And yet I think we both know from literature and from the incredible complexity of human nature, that this man does exist. And, of course, his love for his wife excuses none of his actions. It doesn’t mean that the guy isn’t a terrible person. But it doesn’t mean that his love doesn’t exist.

What about a man who greatly loves his wife but, wrongly thinking she has a relationship with another man, kills her, Noah? Do we find an example of something like that in history or literature? Is the murder incompatible with love?

And that’s kind of the point I was trying to make. The CW on domestic violence is that it’s impossible to love your wife and simultaneously beat her. And to descend in the murky waters of sociology and public policy for a second, the CW leads to bad outcomes. Because while many battered women stay because of fear or emotional blackmail or other coercive reasons, many of them do stay because of (requited) love, which makes it harder to fight domestic violence because people will say “Just leave that horrible man!” and then throw up their hands when they don’t, where a more nuanced approach would have a greater chance of success.

And so, let’s take the case of the pedophile-covering-up bishop.

You write:

If someone asked “How could bishop so-and-so do that, if he really is a Christian,” I should hope the answer would be, “indeed, his actions were gravely sinful, and if he doesn’t understand that then I, too, question the sincerity of his profession of faith.”

A tentative answer that probably won’t satisfy you and that I’m not sure satisfies me: That would indeed be my answer. But while I would certainly question the sincerity of that man’s profession of faith, I would not either categorically deny it.

Just like, upon learning that a man cheats on his wife and beats her, I would certainly question whether he does love her, but I would not discount the possibility either.

You write:

Because if that isn’t the answer, then on what basis can anyone ever question the authenticity of someone else’s professed faith?

Well, exactly. You say: “How can anyone question…” I say: “Why would anyone…”? What does that teach us?

It certainly doesn’t tell us anything about whether someone’s actions are morally right or not, except to say “And he’s a hypocrite, to boot!”

And, I think it doesn’t really tell us about whether someone is a Christian.

I guess it might tell us something about whether someone is a “good” Christian, but I don’t think the category “good Christian” means much of anything and, oh look, it just happens that we have reams and reams of writing about what it means to be a “good” Christian! Starting with the Bible, and, in the case of my denomination, the doctrinal writings of the Church and the lives of saints. If there’s one thing the Catholic Church is good at, it’s producing documentation on the Catholic religion. (And funny hats, amirite?)

And that was the point of my post. If we want to learn some things about religion, what are some good questions to ask?

To go back to my post, I think the question to ask is what does it teach us to ask the religion/action compatibility question? And my answer is: nothing at all.

A more valuable question is “Why would someone who professes religion X do action Y?” — but, and there lies the rub, once you’ve gotten past the non-contradictory answers you point out, this is a question about human nature, not religion. Which is fine, I guess. But, at the risk of sounding tautological, if you’re curious about religion, asking questions whose answers won’t teach you about religion isn’t going to teach you much about religion. Which was my point.

But here’s the thing: the subtext to this entire debate is really the question: “Does (my particular) religious belief make people a better people?” “And if so, to what extent, and how, and why?”

To the first question, my answer is a resounding yes.

But, out of the crooked timber of humanity, etc. I don’t think being Catholic makes people better every time and in a straight line. (Read Graham Greene, etc.) I think it is more likely, on the whole and over time, to make people better persons.

And maybe I’m wrong! And we can debate that! It’s an interesting debate!

But again, “How is person X doing action Y compatible with professing faith Z?” doesn’t teach us anything about that. Or anything else.