How do you change a belief?

by Lenny Esposito

As I wrote yesterday, Christians are called to evangelize, and to be faithful in that calling the Christian must engage in the medium of ideas. We must, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5). These arguments and opinions that non-believers offer are based upon their beliefs of how the world works. In order to destroy their arguments, we must ultimately change their beliefs, but this is much more easily said than done.

Just how does one go about changing a belief, anyway? Realize that a belief is an idea a person takes to be true. In other words, if someone holds to the belief that Jesus was created by the Father, then that person thinks the statement “Jesus is a created being” is true. No person can be said to believe something that he consciously acknowledges is not true. If he knows it isn’t true, then he doesn’t believe it, even if he may continue to act as though the belief is true. The contradiction is between his belief and his action, not between the truth value he holds and the belief itself.

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Two Ways to Change a Belief

There are only two ways that I can think of to change a belief. You can either provide new information that the person hasn’t yet considered, or you can show how their current beliefs are contradictory and therefore cannot both be true. Because beliefs reflect the truth value of a proposition, one cannot simply decide to hold different beliefs, to change statements from false to true. Beliefs don’t work that way.

I’ve demonstrated this many times when I’ve spoken to groups in the past. I’ve asked “How many of you believe that there is a pink elephant in the parking lot across the street from this building right now?” Consistently, my audience responds incredulously. I then modify my question. “How many of you would believe that there is a pink elephant in the parking lot across the street if I offered you a million dollars to believe it?” Of course, a few hands go up, but then I ask, “Do you really believe that’s true or are you just assenting to the proposition to get the money, even though you don’t believe it?” Everyone agrees that they are just acting out the agreement, but they don’t really think there is a pink elephant in their vicinity…

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