Six Ways People Choose Their Beliefs
Mark Mittelberg wrote an interesting book called Choosing Your Faith, where he discusses the common ways by which people choose their religious beliefs. He outlines six common ways people choose their faith. I have summarized them below for your interest.
- Relativism: truth is a personal choice. This mindset adheres to “what’s true for you may not be what’s true for me”, a common way of looking at reality in our modern world. Often it is declared that there is no such thing as absolute truth, but rather truth is relative to each person. It is a common way of thinking among many post-moderns. In terms of faith, this usually plays out as whatever religion works for you is the right one for you.
- Tradition: truth is what you’ve always known. Many of us have grown up with religious parents, and we simply believe what they have believed – no questions asked. This approach values what has been historically accepted as truth over what current thinking, evidence, or feelings might suggest. Faith is passed on from generation to generation simply because that is what we have always done and believed.
- Authority: truth is forced upon you. Some religions use a dictator-like approach to passing on the faith to the next generation, where it is simply forced along regardless of one’s will. In some extreme cases, those who deny that faith are essentially kicked-out of their community or sometimes even killed.
- Intuition: truth is what you feel. Some people believe something to be true not based on facts but on instinct. Even in the absence of evidence, something could be considered true merely because of a feeling or gut instinct. This approach to faith means that truth may be remain constant but not necessarily be found in the same way by different people. Intuition, it would be thought, is to be above factual information or logic.
- Mystical: truth is what God tells me. Getting a message from God is what is called “divine revelation”, and some people choose their faith through this method. They have some kind of mystical experience where they feel that God has spoken to them, and therefore they believe whatever was revealed in that moment. This can be through dreams, visions, voices, ethereal experiences etc.
- Evidence: truth is what logic and reason support. The final way people choose their faith is by examining what evidence there is for a given truth claim. They evaluate beliefs to see if they are logical, reasonable, and if there is evidence to back them up. This method places a high emphasis on thought and a low emphasis on feelings.
I would suggest that the wisest approach would be the final one. Each other approach is flawed in some form or another. Truth cannot be different for each person; this is a self-contradictory claim. Even to say “there is no absolute truth” is itself a claim of absolute truth, thereby debunking the whole concept of relative truth.
Additionally, while tradition may not always be bad, it can be if the tradition being held is one that is harmful or untrue. It is good and healthy to ask questions and not simply adopt tradition without first thinking critically. Traditions and common beliefs should be tested, not for the sake of stirring up controversy, but for an honest, humble search for truth.
The authoritative view as well is weak, since forcing someone to believe something does not make it true. Truth never changes regardless if it is forced to be believed or adopted willfully. One should not simply believe something because it is forced upon them, but rather assess the belief and think for themselves.
Relying on intuition is also unwise. Sometimes gut instincts are right, but other times they are wrong. Our feelings are inconsistent and unstable, while truth is neither of those things. Therefore we cannot trust our own intuition to lead us into truth.
The mystical approach does not take into account that spiritual experiences may not always be from God, but rather from an untrustworthy spiritual source. It is next to impossible to determine if a given experience was truly from God based on the experience alone unless there is a set standard to compare it to.
This brings us to the final approach of evidence. The reality of a set standard of truth means we have a way to measure mystical experiences. It also will keep us from allowing our unstable emotions to lead us astray, gives us a way to test our traditional understandings, provides an un-changing source of truth, and allows us to think for ourselves what we should or should not believe. Therefore choosing our beliefs should be done in a way that engages the mind and entails a thoughtful and careful examination of evidence. Using reason and logic in this way, we can form beliefs that have a strong foundation to stand on and are more likely to represent an accurate view of reality.