The Nature of “Religious Beliefs”: Football and Cakes

I’ve been thinking about the social psychology of belief systems. We can categorize beliefs as being central to personal identity or more peripheral. The more central a set of beliefs, the more it is related to issues of identity and self. As I tried to show in my recent post on cognitive consistency, the central beliefs can be mutually reinforcing and form a system that coheres to provide a means of understanding the world. From a Christian standpoint, what we call theology is an expression of the kinds of systemic patterns that are the basis of discipleship.

Think of the Apostle’s Creed as an example.. To me, the creeds constitute a belief system that becomes central to a Christian’s identity.

But it seems to me that much of what is called “religious beliefs” are more peripheral in nature. They are positions we choose that may be derived in some fashion to a belief in the authority of scripture, but only in a very loose sense. Sometimes those beliefs are so peripheral that there is little attempt to create a cognitive linkage to central belief systems.

Last week I ran across illustrations of both of these peripheral beliefs.

The Public Religion Research Institute released a survey last week regarding Americans’ attitudes toward various aspects of sports in anticipation of Super Bowlsome big football game coming up this weekend. One question asked if God blesses players of faith. Here’s what PRRI found that just over half of Americans thought this was true but that religious American were more likely to say so:

Roughly two-thirds of Catholics (65%) and minority Protestants (68%) say that God rewards faithful athletes with good health and success. Six-in-ten (60%) white evangelical Protestants and nearly half (49%) of white mainline Protestants also believe faithful athletes are rewarded.

I don’t know what configuration of attitudes makes this work. Clearly, there are athletes of faith who suffer injuries and lose games. They still bow in prayer in the end zone. But this belief “feels” right in a Ben Franklin “God helps those who help themselves” sense.

Not only that, but some belief that God has something to do with the outcome of the game.

Minority Protestants (45%) are more likely than any other religious group to believe that God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event. More than 3-in-10 white evangelical Protestants (32%) and Catholics (31%) believe that God plays a role in determining which team wins a game. Only about 1-in-5 (19%) white mainline Protestants and 9% of the religiously unaffiliated believe God has a hand in the outcome of sporting events.

I’m not sure what to make of nearly 1 in 10 religious nones believing that God is shaping sporting events.

In short, I don’t believe that these reported positions actually reflect belief in the sense that we usually mean the term. They sound much more like superstition that what we’d really think of as belief.

CakeThe same day that the PRRI survey was released, a story broke in Colorado about a man claiming discrimination because a local baker wouldn’t make a cake that said “God Hates Gays” on it. The man says that he was discriminated against because the baker wouldn’t affirm his religious beliefs. (Tobin Grant wrote an excellent analysis of why bakers aren’t involved in freedom of speech issues but are simply providing a service.)

I don’t doubt that the customer holds legitimate religious views. But his position on this issue of social policy seems to be very tangentially related to some centrally held set of beliefs about the Creeds. He has the right to his political view and his personal free speech rights, but his position strikes me as something other than “religious belief”.

It’s fair to call it a political position or a social attitude. He has clear freedom of speech protections to hold his opinions.

But when we call our political disagreements “religious beliefs”, we wind up trying to trump free speech rights with religious freedom rights. And I don’t think they’re the same thing at all.

When we pull out the “religious belief” card, it too often simply stops conversation. We can’t explore dialogue with our neighbor who is of a different faith or no faith at all because we have treated a peripheral, untethered attitude as if it were central to our entire belief system. Where we could explain what we believe and why it’s important, we instead isolate ourselves to those who share those same “religious beliefs”.

On a promotional note, I’ll be discussing this post on “Live From Seattle With Doug Bursch” tonight at 5:00 Pacific Time (8:00 here in Michigan). It’s on 820 AM if you’re in the Seattle area and livestreaming here

Oh, and Doug would want me to say that God wants the Seahawks to win because they are clearly the more spiritual team.

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