A Coffee Habit Was a Poor Analogy

In further explaining my belief that verbalizing religious certainty is wrong, I compared the habit of expressing such certainty to a coffee habit. Now, I recognize that this is a bad analogy, but let me explain what I meant by it and then how the analogy breaks down. First though, this will be my third post on this topic, so what I’m about to say may make more sense if you read those previous posts first: “I Know… I’m Sorry,” and “Respectful Discourse.”

When a person knows no other way to express their feelings or beliefs without expressing absolute certainty of those beliefs, there is a problem. In Respectful Discourse, I suggested many alternative ways to express strong belief. Given so many alternatives, why then is it so hard for some to say that they believe something rather than that they know it? I believe this is primarily due to the effect of many years of indoctrination.

In many Christian sects, especially in Mormondom, declaring certainty is encouraged from a young age. Young children are either taught by the examples of parents and other respected adults, or they may be physically brought in front of the congregation and told what words to say. Among the most common words in the LDS church are, “I know the church is true.” After saying these words, children are praised. Members look on with kind eyes. So cute!

As children grow, they may notice that those who express the greatest certainty are given the greatest respect. Such certainty was seen as approaching the pinnacle of spiritual progression. I, myself, remember aspiring to join the ranks of the absolutely certain. With such faith, one could perform miracles, or so believers are taught. I also remember being taught that testimonies, knowledge that the church and its teaching were true, could grow stronger by bearing them, or stating the things that we wished we could know were true.

I remember, as a missionary in Hungary, listening to my companions and other missionaries bearing their testimonies. Some were honest and simply said what they believed to be true and why. “I believe the church is true because I have seen the positive effect of living gospel principles in my life.” Others avoided the issue by not stating whether or not they believed what they were saying and simply saying it. “The church is true. Joseph Smith was a true prophet. God loves us. Jesus atoned for our sins.”

But the missionaries that were most respected by their peers, and often more successful at convincing others to convert to the faith, were the ones that stated their beliefs absolutely. “I know without the shadow of a doubt that these things are true.” I remember getting goosebumps and feeling awe inspired by these individuals. How I wished to be just like them!

Whether or not their beliefs are correct, the deep seated need for many to express those beliefs in absolute terms seems to be a product of those years of indoctrination. After all, Mormons are not the only ones that like to express their beliefs in such a way. I have heard Christians from other denominations, Muslims, adherents of other religions, proponents of various pseudoscientific practices, and direct sales representatives make the same absolute claims about their beliefs. The practice is effective at convincing people to consider what they might otherwise not, and many are fooled.

So, back to my coffee analogy. Due to many years of indoctrination, speaking in this way about deeply held beliefs can become a habit, and a difficult habit to break. People who have such a habit, whether that be speaking in absolutes or drinking coffee, do not typically believe that what they are doing is harmful. In fact, many believe that their habit is noble or beneficial in some way. I have met many coffee drinkers that could not imagine life without their daily cup, and would not want to.

Still, I admit that the analogy has weaknesses. Unlike coffee drinking, speaking in absolutes about beliefs is more harmful to others than to the offender. Another person enjoying their daily cup does nothing to hurt me in any way. Speaking in absolutes though, does have the power to hurt others. How so? Here is a list of a few things that come to mind.

  • It displays a lack of respect for those with a differing point of view.
  • Whether intended or not, the expression of certainty can portray an off-putting arrogance for the non believer.
  • It creates barriers for communication. If a person insists that they know they are right, there is no point in continued conversation. Their mind is set.
  • It is dogmatic.
    • Using absolutes in support of a group or cause can increase tribalism or polar ways of thinking. It discourages collaboration with opposing views to find the ultimate truth.
    • Often the “other side” is ignored, and empathy and respect are lost since the absolutist is more concerned about displaying confidence and steadfastness than having an open mind.
  • It is manipulative. It basically says that because a person knows their belief is true, others should believe as well. There is a pressure to forego independent thought and accept the speaker’s words at face value. Disbelieving seems almost disrespectful, as if accusing the speaker of lying.
  • It can be used to justify attempts to control and manipulate others (E.g. door to door campaigning against lgbt rights in California).
  • It isn’t true…
    • Or at least it makes ambiguous the term ‘know’ by overloading it with another broader definition. If you really know, then where is your faith?
    • By expressing such certainty, those who don’t understand the term is being used in a broader sense, might assume the speaker to have more evidence than they actually have giving a dishonest view of one’s knowledge.
  • It is an instrument for the continued indoctrination of children and other innocent, gullible, or naive individuals.
    • Children are sometimes pressured to use these statements of certainty when they are in fact, unsure.
    • Similar to verbal affirmations, saying something out loud can make it feel more true. This can be used as an unintentional brainwashing technique. In the end, it’s hard to know what they believe through evidence and reason, and what they’ve been “conditioned” to “know”.
  • It perpetuates the practice by normalizing it and making it seem like something noble that one might aspire to.
  • In the case of those that say the words in order to strengthen their own testimonies or to gain the respect or admiration of others, it is dishonest. 
    • The negative effect here is that, if discovered, trust is lost. This is why I also disagree with the practice of telling children that Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy are real. This may seem harmless, but real trust can be difficult to regain.

I feel like there are still many more things to say, but hopefully I’ve made it clear by now that there are negative consequences to declaring religious certainty, and as a result, the habit of drinking coffee is a poor analogy. Habitually stating, in no uncertain terms, that one knows they are right is substantially worse than a regular cup of coffee. So what then would make a better analogy?

There are many potential negative habits to turn to. Clearly, coffee is not in the running, but what about an alcohol addiction? In a previous post, I compared religion to alcoholism. I feel like that was a better analogy, but religion is not the same thing as I am talking about here, the habitual expression of certainty, especially religious certainty. What I am discussing here is one of the worst, most damning aspects of organized religion. This is worse than a simple love for alcoholic beverages.

What about gossip? Certainly gossip has damaging consequences similar to many of the ones I mentioned above. But then it doesn’t really feel like an analogy more than just another common issue found within social groups. 

Perhaps a habit for physical violence against others? Maybe not. While similarly destructive, the violent offender typically knows that what they are doing is not appropriate and looked down upon. It’s certainly not socially acceptable.

I thought about pornography addiction for a while, and though far from perfect, I can find some good reasons to create the analogy. Both habits are rather subtle in their effect. They can both be particularly damaging to the young and innocent. If taken to the extreme, both can cause lasting harm to family relationships.

In the end, I feel like there is no good analogy to use here, or at least not one that uses another bad habit. A person saying that they know that their religious beliefs are correct is no different than saying they know that everybody else is wrong or mistaken about their own beliefs. And when this behavior becomes habitual, when a person doesn’t even know any other way to express themself, there is a serious problem. To me, stating beliefs in absolute terms is a negative, often dishonest, and a manipulative practice, far more damaging than a coffee habit.

*Thanks to Haru and Shyan for their contributions to this article.

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