In my previous post I noted the connection between behavior and belief and how doubts about God are often rooted in disobedience. But how exactly does this work? Why should one’s moral conduct, whether good or bad, have intellectual ramifications? Let me quickly explain two moral-psychological dynamics that account for this.
First, there is the phenomenon known as self-deception. As many studies have shown, reason is not the sole determinant in belief formation. A person’s beliefs can be altered by significant desires, fears, and other emotions. In fact, people often act on their passions even when reason clearly points in a different direction. So, to illustrate regarding an ethical matter, when a person forms an immoral habit (say, anything from pirating DVDs to extramarital sex), they will naturally desire to avoid admitting their actions are really immoral. Consequently, a moral perspective or general worldview that condones such behavior will be more attractive to them, and the desire to avoid guilt and shame about it will motivate the belief that such theft or adultery, at least in the person’s present case, is not really wrong. This is a classic case of self-deception—believing what one, in some sense, knows to be false.
Second, and more fundamentally, there are the cognitive consequences of sin. As Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga has elucidated (see chapter 7 of his Warranted Christian Belief), sinful behaviors have cognitive ramifications. The mind was designed to, among other things, form true beliefs about the world, and when functioning properly in a congenial environment, it tends to do just this. Immoral indulgences disrupt cognition so that it cannot function properly, thus clouding judgment and skewing perceptions. This is especially so in the case of moral and spiritual beliefs where personal pride and selfish desires are most likely to interfere.
Because of the potentially devastating dynamics of self-deception and the cognitive consequences of sin, we must take great care in living virtuously and diminishing the corrupting effects of sin on the mind. Only by avoiding the negative cognitive effects of disobedience can the intellectual challenges to the faith be addressed in a clear-headed (and pure-hearted) way.
The practical upshot is that we must prioritize right living, and this is especially important when struggling with doubts. Some such doubts are genuinely intellectual and may be addressed accordingly. But others are rooted in vice, in which case the first order of business is repentance rather than apologetic research. In light of this, I have counseled some struggling students to live “as if” Christianity is true, even when they have severe doubts. By this I mean that it is wise to observe Christian moral standards even when questioning the truth of Christianity, because indulging in sin will only further confuse one’s thinking and invite self-deception.
I recall one instance in which a student came to my office, wracked by doubt and feeling that he was “living a lie” by acting as if he was a Christian. I told him to continue to live by biblical standards just in case Christianity is true. This way he wouldn’t have any regrets if his faith convictions returned. Well, sure enough, his Christian beliefs did re-solidify, and he later thanked me with immense relief that he hadn’t done anything rash (in terms of immoral indulgences) during his spell of doubt. I suppose there is something Pascalian in this approach, but then again, there is a Pascalian dimension to all of life, as we must “wager” about many choices we make.
The lesson here is that all of our behaviors, whether habitual or one-time experiences, impact our cognitive condition to one degree or another. And our cognitive health in turn impacts what we are inclined to believe and disbelieve. Thus, whether or not virtue is, as the saying goes, “its own reward,” it certainly has cognitive benefits, just as vice has cognitive costs. The wise person will take this to heart.