Beliefs are a hard thing to pin down. It is easy to say one thing while believing another. It is almost as easy to say that you believe something, and honestly think that you believe it, and yet have your actions prove otherwise. Psychologists discovered long ago that the best way to see what someone actually believes, and how strongly they believe it, is to see what they will risk on the belief being true, and what opportunities they forsake for it. It is this kind of research that has revealed that if people tell themselves something often enough they will come to think that they believe it, even when their actions betray that really they believe something else. I think many people’s religious “beliefs” fall into this category; there are strong social pressures from childhood onwards to profess belief in one religion or another, but few people act as though they really believe the words that they are saying.
Specifically I am referring to the possibility of eternal judgment and punishment (or rewards) based on a person’s behavior. If a person really believed this shouldn’t we expect them to do the right thing almost perfectly? After all the possible consequences seem much more significant than any possible immediate reward from bad behavior. Of course there are several possibilities for this seeming dichotomy between professed beliefs and actions.
One possibility is that people who hold these beliefs also believe that the intentions one has are the only relevant consideration in the final judgment, and thus as long as they keep their minds pure they don’t have to worry about their actions. I guess this is a possible belief system, but I think that few actual religions would endorse it (remember the saying: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”). It is generally accepted that a person can be good only if they perform good acts and have the appropriate intentions, and thus I will discard this possibility as unlikely for most people of most religions.
Another much more likely possibility is that these people believe that they also can be forgiven for their bad actions, and thus escape punishment. However, when coupled with the fact that these people make the wrong choice on a regular basis, forgiveness doesn’t seem a likely possibility. Here is why: generally it is accepted that one can be forgiven for wrongs only when the wrongdoer has the honest intention to do better in the future. However if a person makes the wrong choices at the same rate after asking for forgiveness then clearly they didn’t actually intend to do better (possibly because they do believe that they will be forgiven whenever necessary). Thus a person who believes that forgiveness can be a safety net for their mistakes and then feels free to act badly won’t be forgiven, because they aren’t truly remorseful. Forgiveness makes sense for the good person who makes the occasional mistake, but not for the majority of the religious, whose beliefs I am questioning. (If you do believe that people don’t need a real intention to do better in the future in order to be forgiven this makes forgiveness essentially a license to do whatever you want, and thus any ethical standards become largely irrelevant, a strange position for a religion.)
A third possibility is that people believe they can act poorly, and not be punished for it, because then can blame their actions on unavoidable temptation by their desires, which in turn removes (or greatly reduces) their moral responsibility. This is much like the insanity defense, which, in the ethical realm, says that when the causes of the person’s behavior are not mental aspects that can rightly be called part of a rational agent (neuroses) the person isn’t morally responsible. Once again this may be a logically consistent defense, but it doesn’t seem likely that it is what the religious believe, since if they did they would feel free to sin all they wanted, without guilt, and then simply blame their actions on their uncontrollable desires.
The final possibility then is, as I mentioned initially, that people who profess to hold religious beliefs but act in morally questionable ways aren’t actually believers. How much morally questionable behavior should indicate that real belief is lacking? I would say any regular behavior or any behavior that results from “giving into temptation”, because clearly if a person truly believes in possible punishment after death they would do everything they could to avoid it, and no amount of temporal benefits could convince them to risk such a horrible fate. If you feel that you are religious I ask you to honestly examine your actions. Even though you are strongly convinced that you do believe that is not enough to guarantee that it is really so, after all there have been murderers and other obviously immoral people who have likewise professed to believe, and in all likelihood felt the same way about their beliefs. The conclusion you should reach is not that you should necessarily give up trying to believe, simply that if you want to claim that you are believer your actions should be in accordance with that statement or you should give up the pretense.
I know that some people are going to take this as a personal attack, and I’m sorry if you feel that way, but I’m turning off comments on this one for a few days so that no one is tempted into saying something rash.