Snake handling Pentecostal preacher Jamie Coots found out that choosing what to believe carries a price.
In a September 2010 web-chat, Richard Dawkins responded to an online questioner as follows:
15:06 Hannah Devlin (moderator): We’ve got a lot of questions coming in on why it is possible to “choose” to believe.
15:06 Richard Dawkins: [previous post by audience member, quoted by RD] “How can you ‘choose to believe’?”[RD’s words] Yes indeed, how can you? Either the evidence supports something or it does not. Choice shouldn’t come into belief“ (my emphasis)
Dawkins is not alone in this perspective. Author Sam Harris writes, in “The Moral Landscape”
“Choosing beliefs freely is not what rational minds do.”
Having Dawkins and Harris (dare I say, the “high priests” of disbelief?) so firmly take a view opposing a foundational position of mine was disconcerting, as I highly value their writing and perspectives.
So what was Jamie Coots doing everytime he picked up a snake, if not choosing to believe that venom held no power over him? How does this scenario affect your response to the poll above?
I’ve come to belie…. rather, I’ve come to the position that a lot of the problem we have in discussing “belief” is hung up on equivocal use of the word. I think Dawkins and Harris are both saying that you cannot choose what is true, when evidence clearly shows what one must “believe.”
But if this is so, how could Jamie Coots choose to handle snakes when he knows they are deadly? Clearly he chooses which evidence, or propositions to value more, and he values the word of the Bible over toxicology reports. Similarly, the dead members of the Heaven’s Gate cult chose to believe that a mothership was in the shadow of the Hale Bopp comet, and that their ticket to catching a ride was to commit suicide at just the right moment.
So what are we doing when we “choose to believe” something? Choosing to act. It’s tough to separate what we “believe” from what we do, and ultimately what we “do” demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt what we actually believe.
Do we choose to act?