I’m currently reading Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He makes an important point about identifying belief, namely that it is almost impossible to do. If someone professes belief, do they really believe what they are professing or are they professing out of a sense of duty, or because they want to believe? Unless the professor actually admits disbelief, there is no way of knowing for sure.
At least, there is no longer a way of knowing for sure. Dennett suggests that ancient religious beliefs often had associated actions which, if performed, “spoke louder than words”, suggesting that the believer truly believed what she was professing. The example Dennett gives is the belief that performing a particular dance will bring rain. Someone who is willing to perform the dance, especially if it is long and arduous, is probably sincere in his belief that it will have the advertised effect. Someone who is willing to run into battle without a shield probably believes very firmly what he has been told about the protection his god will provide him.
But, as Dennett notes, Christianity is notably absent of any action that requires one’s beliefs to be tested. The only actions expected of Christians today are relatively inexpensive ones: attendance at church services, donations to charity, etc., many of which are voluntary. In other words, full membership of most Christian churches requires, at minimum, mere lip service. Other religions still require some degree of action: the five daily prayers of Islam, for instance, or the numerous traditions of Judaism (which some Jews admit are petty – indeed, that’s the whole point: you must surely believe in God if you are willing to litter your day with all sorts of small, seemingly unnecessary tasks).
So it seems, then, that adhering to Christian beliefs (or appearing to do so) is not only relatively inexpensive, but it has considerable benefits: in many places in the world, a profession of belief automatically bestows on one an aura of morality and respectability (how many openly atheist political candidates have been elected to office in the U. S. recently?). There are also numerous social benefits, such as safe and healthy activities, especially for young people, and a network of supporting and caring people to help one through times of need.
Even the small expense of professing belief is further mitigated in some cases: the large evangelical churches allow considerable freedom to the individual to interpret God, and her belief in God, as she sees fit (this approach, Dennett notes, separates evangelicalism from fundamentalism, which requires a much narrower, less flexible profession of belief). This allows the believer to avoid professing those aspects of Christian belief that make her feel uncomfortable.
One last phenomenon reduces the cost still further, namely that religious belief is generally taught to children of a very young age, making their profession of its tenets seem entirely natural and uncontroversial. Taking all of these observations together, it is surely no surprise that Christianity is the most widely professed religious belief in the world today. The interesting question, as yet unanswered, is how widely the profession of belief coincides with actual belief.
As a post-script, I must make clear what I’m not claiming here: I’m not claiming that people perform deliberate cost-benefit analyses when considering their religious beliefs. And people don’t generally try to deceive a church in order to gain access to its benefits. What I am claiming is that the practical day-to-day demands of Christianity are small, while the benefits are substantial, and this makes it a worthwhile venture even for those who are minimally concerned with the content, meaning, and practical relevance of their religious beliefs. Indeed, such people are usually actively recruited by churches, most of which are anxious to grow their congregations, and are therefore willing to make membership as easy and enjoyable as possible.
This leaves us with a rather odd arrangement: churches are anxious to “spread the good news” and bring new people into the fold. However, once the pews are filled, most churches seem uninterested in determining whether the “good news” has made a deep, lasting impact. As long as new parishioners continue to make the right professions and attend services regularly, that’s enough. As a result, the level of doubt – and even outright atheism – in a congregation could feasibly be quite high, and the clergy would never know it.