Behavior-affecting beliefs

One of the leitmotifs of James’s Varieties is

[I]n the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion… The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us, the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition. Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow.

James is explicit that this is a property of the metaphysical and religious sphere, and so is just as true of irreligion as religion, atheism as theism. I think that the relevant sphere where this is true is wider, and that what James is talking about is any sort of belief that has a significant-enough effect on life. For example, if you could wave a magic wand and make the whole population  believe that chapter 4 of a biology textbook were true, none of them would feel either affirmed in how they live or feel the need to change their lives, but things would be very different if you waved your wand and made everyone believe in animism, feminism, or the perverted faculty argument.

Consider two degrees of belief: (a) accepting something as true which demands significant changes in behavior and, at a higher level, (b) a belief of this kind that actually does cause significant changes in behavior. The difference between the two is what St. James meant when he insisted that faith without works was dead, or what Christ meant by Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father (Mt. 7:21).* 

Perhaps the science of James’s time wasn’t sufficient to give him (a)-beliefs at all, but ours certainly is. Our knowledge that cigarettes cause cancer, that obesity causes early death, or that burning fossil fuels exposes us to global catastrophe are all commonly held (a) beliefs, but the extent to which they are (b) beliefs is less impressive. So certain (a)-beliefs might get wide lip-service without ever turning into (b)-beliefs. For all I know, this was just as true for Christianity in Christendom as it now is for our beliefs that we need to burn less fossil fuel or lose weight.

This is true a fortiori for (a)-beliefs that are not widely believed or are opposed by elites. One of the most effective campaigns to shift an (a) belief to a (b) belief was tobacco use, but this success only began decades after we severely restricted tobacco advertisements. If we had the same public cigarette-rhetoric of the 1960’s, with glamorous starlets and ruggedly handsome men smoking in movies, million-dollar campaigns for smoking on all manner of media, health studies funded by RJ Reynolds, etc then we’d probably have an anti-smoking campaign that was no more effective then modern anti-obesity campaigns. As a consequence, we’d be a lot less convinced that “cigarettes kill” was an (a) belief at all. Who knows? Different studies show different things!

The point James wants to make about theology is therefore a general point about any behavior-affecting belief, which is exactly what we’d expect since the intellect is not hermetically sealed off from the rest of the soul or from our social existence. Intellection is not just a power of discernment and reasoning but a principle of desire and of integration with other persons, and so we can never entirely divide apprehension of truth from our behavior (especially our habits) or our social existence.


*See also the parable of the two sons, which argues that action is so much superior to mere belief that it can take its place, or the parable of the four soils, where much rudimentary belief fails to bear fruit.

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