By L. Alfred James
“I don’t think it matters what you believe, as long as you are sincere about it. Sincerity is the only thing that really matters when it comes to religious beliefs.”
Have you ever heard this claim? I have heard it literally thousands of times. Friends, family, and coworkers have announced it in my presence ad nauseum. I’ve also heard it proclaimed on TV, in movies, and even in church. We are told constantly that the content of our beliefs does not matter. Sincerity is all that matters. Sincerity alone.
Indeed, this notion is repeated with such confidence, such frequency, such certitude, that it is easy to mindlessly absorb it and adopt it as if it were some kind of commonsensical truism. It might surprise you to learn that this truism is shockingly fragile. I don’t care how intimidating it might seem. Intellectually, it is pathetically weak.
To destroy it, all we need to do is ask one very simple question: Why should I think it is true? What is the basis for saying that our beliefs don’t really matter, as long as we are sincere?
If you ask this question to anyone who cavalierly spouts it off, you will probably get a response like this: “What we believe doesn’t matter because it’s impossible to know which religion, if any, is true.” That’s it. That is the answer you will hear, 95% of the time.
On this blog—over the past year—we have completely demolished that idea. Contrary to popular opinion, we actually can know which religion is true. Just check out our series on making a philosophical journey from hardcore atheism to Christianity and see for yourself. All of the posts in that series can be found by scrolling through the articles here.
Thus, the only reason ever offered for thinking that “sincerity alone” is all that matters is not a good reason at all. It is downright false. Again, read through the aforementioned articles to see for yourself.
Why Our Beliefs Matter
Not only is there no good reason for thinking this claim is true. There are several good reasons for thinking it is false. I cannot improve on the way Greg Koukl demonstrates this:
First, notice that no one accepts sincerity alone in any other area of life besides religion. Why? Because sincerity may be necessary, but it is not sufficient. For example, if you decide to go skydiving, are you more concerned about having sincere beliefs or true beliefs? When you are coasting in a plane at 10,000 feet in the air, preparing to jump into the wild blue yonder and then plummet towards the earth at mind-numbing speeds, do you merely want a sincere belief there is actually a working parachute in your backpack? Of course not. You want a true belief that your parachute is in full working order. If you sincerely believe that your parachute works but you are sincerely wrong, you’ll look quite different once you land.
After reading Koukl, I know what some of you are thinking. “But religious beliefs are different.” I have no doubt that several people who read this will, at this point, be thinking that. But before you assume that religious beliefs are different, let me ask you, once again, “Why? Why are they different?”
“Because we can’t know which religion, if any, is true.” If this is what you are thinking, please reread the previous eight or nine paragraphs.
However, Koukl goes on to address this very objection:
We do not choose our doctors, our babysitters, or our accountants on the basis of their sincerity because we know that sincerity is not enough. In the same way, sincerity is not sufficient for salvation. All religions make general claims about reality and particular claims about salvation. Our primary concern should be the truth or falsity of those claims. God either exists or he doesn’t, we are either reincarnated or we are not, but the sincerity of our beliefs does nothing to change the fact of the matter. If we come to discover that our religious beliefs are false, then we ought to let go of those beliefs.1
Koukl makes a good point. There is no good reason for thinking that religious beliefs are somehow different, as if they are measured against a different standard.
Moreover, no one consistently holds to this standard even when it comes to religious beliefs. No one thinks that all sincerely held religious beliefs are good and acceptable. Just think about it:
- The hijackers on September 11, 2001, were all sincere in their belief that they were honoring God with their actions.
- Members of the Heaven’s Gate cult sincerely believed that they were going to be transported onto a spaceship that was following the Hale-Bopp comet when they committed suicide.
- The followers of Jim Jones sincerely believed that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Lenin. They were sincere enough that they committed mass suicide with him.
- The followers of David Koresh sincerely believed that he was the “lamb of God” who would pave the way for the second coming of Christ. They were sincere enough that they perished with him.
- The racism of many white supremacists is based on their religious affiliation with groups like Creativity (formerly known as The Church of the Creator). They sincerely believe that white people are a “master race” that is superior to all other ethnic groups on the planet.
I don’t know any sane person who thinks that these beliefs are acceptable simply because they are sincerely held by the adherents. Everyone I know (rightly) condemns these beliefs as wrong, dangerous, and unhealthy.
In summary, there are three reasons for rejecting the idea that it doesn’t matter what we believe, as long as we are sincere:
- There is no good reason given for believing this claim. Saying, “We can’t know which religion is true,” is not a good reason since Christian apologetics provides very good reasons for thinking that Christianity is actually true.
- No one accepts “sincerity alone” in any other area of life. It is really strange, therefore, to think that religious beliefs are a special case in which sincerity is the only thing that matters.
- There are many, many examples of religious beliefs that are sincerely held that are utterly false, dangerous, and evil.
A Deeper Reason
There is a deeper (and very spiritual) reason as to why people so quickly spout off this claim. They want it to be true. If it is true that our beliefs don’t matter, then it doesn’t matter what we believe. And this means we don’t have to do any hard work in figuring out what is true. In fact, we don’t have to do any work at all. Whatever the heck we believe right now is good enough. It is an intellectually lazy person’s dream come true.
But, alas, life does not allow us to be that lazy. We are responsible for what we believe, and if we have not done our best to understand what is true about spiritual matters, we should not be surprised if we are one day condemned for our laziness (Matthew 25:26).