Edmund Griffiths  

E d m u n d   G r i f f i t h s

Infrequently questioned answers

‘......?’ — ‘Because they’re crazy.
    Any response along these lines is manifestly unacceptable, as an answer to a question about a belief system—and replacing the forthright colloquialism ‘crazy’ with some more clinical expression would make it worse, if anything. There are, as a matter of fact, interesting parallels to be drawn between certain non-pathological belief systems and the systems of ideas that can occur as symptoms of particular mental illnesses (which may provide an opportunity for useful interdisciplinary research by psychiatrists and descriptive logicians in the future). But we cannot appeal to psychiatry to explain why any belief system commends itself to more than a handful of people: even if we could be confident that the founder of a given belief system suffered from a diagnosable illness, and that specific doctrines had their roots in specific symptoms of the founder’s condition, we would still be no closer to knowing why the followers should accept the same doctrines without suffering from the same illness.

‘......?’ — ‘Nobody really believes that.
    Perhaps not—but it is only as a last resort that we should ever decide they don’t. The phenomenon of ‘beliefs that are not supposed to be wholly believed’ actually raises some interesting descriptive logical questions, and there is a chapter on it in Towards a Science of Belief Systems. But the main stumbling block and scandal in the study of belief systems is the fact that people do in all sincerity believe radically different things: if we want to approach belief systems scientifically, therefore, we shall do well to guard ourselves against the consoling illusion that anyone whose beliefs strike us as especially implausible must just be pretending.

‘......?’ — ‘Yes. [or, as the case may be:] No.
    Some propositions are true, others are false, and yet others are meaningless; at least, I believe so. But it is no business of a science of belief systems to help us decide which are which. The proposition that intelligent extraterrestrials visited the Earth in the distant past is either true or false. (I do not think it is meaningless.) If we want to know whether we should believe it ourselves, however, the sciences that are most likely to assist us are archaeology, ethnography, astronomy, and the history of technology—well-established disciplines that it would be absurd for us to try to replicate or replace. The first step towards a genuinely objective science of belief systems must be to shelve the question of propositions’ truth or falsity and to concentrate instead on understanding—in this case—why people believe that ‘palaeocontact’ did take place (or, conversely, that it did not), and how it feels to believe so.

‘......?’ — ‘Monotheism and polytheism.
    With the appositeness of ‘monotheism’ there can be no quarrel: when belief systems proclaim among their central doctrines that ‘the Lord is one’, ‘I believe in one God’, ‘there is no god but God’, when they consciously define themselves in opposition to ‘idolatry’ or ‘paganism’, it is difficult to imagine any adequate reconstruction that would not call them monotheist (or some synonym). Equally obviously, however, the term ‘polytheism’ has no such justification. If the literature of ‘polytheist’ belief systems does ever deliberately assert that ‘there is not—as you may think—only one god, but more than one’, then this will tend to result from exposure to monotheist proselytism. We have no right to assume that the question must have arisen in this form in every belief system that involves the word ‘god’: on the contrary, there is good reason to think it has not. ‘Polytheism’, unlike ‘monotheism’, does not arise naturally in the course of logical reconstruction—it represents an artificial transcription into monotheist terms. ‘Heathenism’ would be more honest, and no less scientific.

‘......?’ — ‘Ultranationalism.
    The term ‘nationalism’ is not necessarily inadmissible, and we shall certainly have to use it in describing belief systems whose adherents refer to themselves that way—although a descriptive label that can be applied indifferently to Gandhi, Goebbels, and Gwynfor Evans is unlikely to prove the right tool for any very subtle analysis. But, even assuming we know what we understand by ‘nationalism’ in any particular case, classifying a given belief system as ‘ultranationalist’ can only mean that we wish it were rather less nationalistic than it in fact is. Well, let’s say we do: we cannot reasonably expect investigators whose beliefs differ from our own to agree. They may feel that the belief system in question gets its level of nationalism just about right, or indeed that it does not go far enough (‘infranationalism’?),—and their classification schemes will vary accordingly. Terms of this kind, terms that describe not the beliefs we are studying but the student’s own beliefs, can of course have no place in serious scientific discussion.