Martyrdom and Veracity of Belief

I’ve spoken to a number of people over the years about the veracity of religious claims. I’ve heard answers that appeal to personal experience, lack of answers altogether (usually due to the fact that most people don’t know why they believe what they believe, they just “believe in belief” as Daniel Dennett has said), etc. Occasionally, I’ll hear someone claim, indicating the various martyrs of the early Christian movement as recorded in the New Testament, that people died for their Christianity.

The basic argument is this; why would someone die for a lie? Good question, or so it seems at first. But in response I might ask them about martyrs who have died in the name of other religious beliefs. What about Moslem suicide bombers? Why would they die for a false belief? But more to the point, this response from believers overlooks something very simple. I’ll let Nietzsche make the point;

…people do not want to admit that all those things which men have defended with sacrifice of their lives and happiness in earlier centuries were nothing but errors…one thinks that if someone honestly believed in something and fought for his belief and died it would be too unfair if he had actually been inspired by a mere error.

Nietzsche, Human all too Human, aphorism 53

too unfair. There are things I would sacrifice my life for. Are they worth that sacrifice? I don’t know, but I believe that they are. It would be unfair if I were to sacrifice my life for a lie, an error, or even merely unnecessarily. I feel the emotional import of those people who, in prior times, have put their lives on the line for beliefs. I feel how this can move a believer.

Yet, at the same time, I have to wonder if the tragedy is too great to comprehend for some people, in the midst of these emotions. They believe, strongly, that those martyrs could not have died for anything except the truth. And it is not the genuineness of the belief I doubt, it is the truth of that belief which I hold to the light. Similarly, I don’t doubt the claims of personal experience taht they cite as reasons to believe, I doubt that the experience is what it is interpreted to be.

To consider that the personal spiritual experiences, martyrdom of believers, and lives lived in submission to the will of a god are in error would imply that the sacrifices that some make even now are for nothing. They are sacrifices to a lie. Why?

Because it is possible to believe in things that are not true.

When someone asks me why I don’t believe ‘just in case,’ I think about sacrifice. Pascal’s Wager, basically the idea that one should believe just in case because you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, is completely silly. Not only could the belief be the wrong belief, but what one loses in life by accepting ancient and out-dated ideas is the enjoyments that life can offer. The “sin” of life, if it is not actually wrong, could be a great source of enjoyment. What a sacrifice we make for our beliefs!

So I’ll leave you with another wager; why not take the risk and actually investigate the beliefs you have? What do you have to lose? If your beliefs are true, they will stand up to any scrutiny, so why not challenge them openly and honestly? Don’t make yourself a martyr to a belief you have not even challenged.

But to stand in the midst of this rerum concordia discors and of this whole marvelous uncertainty and rich ambiguity of existence without questioning, without trembling with the craving and the rapture of such questioning, without at least hating the person who questions, perhaps even finding him faintly amusing–that is what I feel to be contemptible…. Some folly keeps persuading me that every human being has this feeling, simply because he is human.

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, aphorism 2

3 thoughts on “Martyrdom and Veracity of Belief

  1. You don’t say aything at all about your own beliefs, how valid they (absolute, probably) or what you would do if they were threatened. I seems that you simply hate the idea that people have beliefs other than yours: a devout atheist, perhaps?

    I’m not religious, but to suggest that Christians and Muslims die for a lie puts you in the Richard Dawkins School of Intollerant Absolutism. Without some evidence of the lies YOU subscribe to, we get nowhere.

    So here’s my belief: there is no certainty in this universe. All I have is belief. And that’s you have, too.

  2. How can one be a devout atheist? There is nothing to be devout about, because atheism does not necessarily imply any beliefs. Atheism is the lack of one specific belief. And in terms of having my beliefs threatened…well, I invite my beliefs to be challenged. Threatened? Only if they are flawed. And if they are, I will change them.

    People do die for lies. Its unfortunate and sad, but they do. I’ve met Dawkins a number of times, listened to him, read his work, and he is no intolerant absolutist. I don’t understand how you conclude that he is. So, what lies do I subscribe to?

    There are levels of certainty, and the evidence and reasons we have make some things more probable than others. The lack of absolute certainty does not imply the lack of any certainty. That sort of epistemological nihilism I do not subscribe to. And you call me the absolutist?

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