So… what should I believe?

Psychologist Dorothy Rowe has a book out about religious belief, entitled What Should I Believe? She says,

it is possible to create set of beliefs, which allow us to live at peace with ourselves and other people, to feel strong in ourselves without having to remain a child forever dependent on some supernatural power, and to face life with courage and optimism.

What I find interesting about this is the acceptance of the idea that belief  as such presents itself as some kind of choice, while the content of belief is in need of construction by each and every would-be believer. It seems that DIY religion is not so much an option – it’s the only real possibility.

But I think there may be at least three alternatives…

The first alternative to creating your own set of beliefs is to adopt the hierarchist position of deferring to a higher authority. By joining a Protestant cult, or the Roman Catholic Church (or better still, by virtue of having been born into one of these), we can avoid having to justify our beliefs as distinctively our own. Dismissing this New-Agey talk of creating one’s own beliefs, we can assent to, say, the doctrine of the Assumption, not because we’ve searched our own soul and it all makes personal sense, but because the Church believes it for us. It’s official. All we have to do is go along with it.

Of course the problem with this approach is that unless you live in an enclave, you still have to make some sort of choice to believe in what the authority tells you to – and you’re still making a decision about precisely which authority to bestow your blind obedience upon.

Another alternative to creating your own beliefs is to accept that it really is all about choice and to do what everyone else who loves choice does all the time – buy a mass market product. On this account of religious belief it’s simply inefficient to create your own beliefs when belief has already been nicely packaged up for you to enjoy. You adhere to Catholic (or perhaps cultish) doctrine not because it makes sense to you personally (the individualism of Dorothy Rowe), nor because the church says so (the hierarchism of the Magisterium), but because it’s ready-made, easily accessible and easy to digest. You would no more change your beliefs than you would change the covers on your Ikea sofa. It may be important to know that you could, but in practice you just get what every one else is getting. This is religious belief as Fatalism. The problem with this approach is that it loses something as far as personal authenticity is concerned. But then, just take a look around you. How authentic are your surroundings anyway. Think you need to be special? Why not just get over yourself?

A fourth possibility is the Egalitarian approach to religion. I grew up in a Methodist Church environment, where the dominant issue was not about belief but about belonging. It didn’t matter so much what you believed, as long as you could be pursuaded to put your name down for the refreshments rota. This may have looked like a chronic shortage of volunteer labour but really it was about the marks of belonging. Belonging to the group was all,  what it believed was secondary. Note that this contrasts with another version of egalitarian religion, which I occasionally experienced just down the road. The local Baptists didn’t make much of the tea rota. What mattered to them was believer’s baptism as an article of faith. This was very much about belief, but not as assent to authority (hierarchist), nor as individuation (individualist), nor as mass consumption (fatalist). Rather, you got baptised (again???), believed a particular odd belief,  in order to be truly part of the group (egalitarian).
In summary, people who respond most positively to Dorothy Rowe’s book are likely to be those predisposed to individualism. And it is hardly surprising to read a compelling account of individualist religion – after all, we live in a highly individualist moment. But it would probably do no harm to notice that the inescapable ‘choice’ of religious belief is something we construct and reconstruct, and that there may well be other (admittedly flawed, partial) possibilities. So… what should I believe? One way forward, instead of answering the question, may be to interrogate it – to question the question itself.

Dorothy Rowe has a website you can look at.

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