Do Sincerely Held Beliefs Determine Reality?

Do Sincerely Held Beliefs Determine Reality?

In June of 2015 the Supreme Court issued its landmark Obergefell decision, deeming the definition of marriage as one man married to one woman to be unconstitutional and discriminatory to same-sex couples. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, justified this redefinition of marriage under the banner of liberty: 

The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity. 

The now late Justice Scalia responded sharply in his dissent: 

If ever the price to be paid for a fifth vote, I ever joined an opinion for the Court that began: ‘The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,’ I would hide my head in a bag. 

Their disagreement couldn’t have been starker. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, and an increasing number of Americans, endorses a belief that identity must bend before beliefs. In other words, your beliefs about yourself trump your biology.  

Justice Scalia, writing for the minority, and a large number of Americans (including the confessing Church), espoused a worldview that saw certain limits to identity that couldn’t be moved, specifically concerning biology, no matter how firm or sincere one’s beliefs about oneself.  

It should be no surprise, then, that we find ourselves in a debate over transgenderism and bathrooms. It’s the same underlying worldview: identity is determined by beliefs; biology is irrelevant. The transgender question and the same-sex marriage question are fruit of the same tree, the “beliefs-determine-identity” tree.  

And it is becoming increasingly apparent that young people are eating the fruit from this tree. In a recent man-on-the-street survey at the University of Washington, Joseph Backholm, the director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, spoke with students about identity.[1] He began by asking multiple students, “If I told you that I was a woman, what would your response be?” Student after student responded by affirming Mr. Backholm’s pretend decision to be a woman. His beliefs about himself trumped his biology.  

Mr. Backholm then pushed the question of identity further by asking, “If I told you I was Chinese, what would your response be?”[2] Students paused to consider the proposition, but again affirmed Mr. Backholm’s reality as Chinese. Belief here trumped ancestry.  

He followed up by asking, “If I told you that I was seven years old, what would your response be?”[3] Students were clearly skeptical, but because they had eaten from the “beliefs-determine-identity” tree, they again affirmed Mr. Backholm’s reality. So he asked, “If I wanted to enroll in a first grade class, should I be able to do that?” Students struggled, but in line with their worldview, affirmed his right to enroll in a first grade class as a seven year old.  

Then Mr. Backholm pushed their worldview to the breaking point: “If I told you that I was 6 ft. 5 inches tall, what would you say?”[4] Students began to balk because they could clearly see that Mr. Backholm was not 6’5” tall. Reality was beginning to push back against sincerely held beliefs. So he followed up, “So I can be a Chinese woman, but I can’t be a 6’5” Chinese woman?” Students struggled for words. Reality was clearly and powerfully contradicting beliefs about reality and they knew it, but they did their best to remain committed to their worldview that beliefs determine reality.  

Then Mr. Backholm looked into the camera and said, 

It shouldn’t be hard to tell a 5’9” white guy that he’s not a 6’5” Chinese woman, but clearly it is.  Why? What does that say about our culture and what does that say about ability to answer the questions that actually are difficult?  

The “beliefs-determine-reality” tree is producing poisonous fruit. If it merely resulted in an amusing video of college youths making fools of themselves over their inability to tell a 5’9” white guy that he’s is NOT a 6’5” Chinese woman, that would be one thing, but we would be naïve if we didn’t acknowledge that we are just beginning to see the fruit of the “beliefs-determine-reality” tree.[5]  

Justice Alito saw the coming fruit and wrote about it in his Obergefell dissent: 

[This decision] will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women… The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.  

I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.”  

Chilling words.  

And Ryan Anderson, author of Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, speaking to our church body’s national convention in July, warned that the redefinition of marriage would lead to the reordering of society: “If man-made laws don’t mirror natural law/Divine ordering,” he said, “then government will have to refashion human nature and reorder the dissenters.”  

Again, chilling words.  

And what Alito and Anderson saw is coming to pass. In May of this year the U.S. Department of Justice (Civil Rights Division) and the U.S. Department of Education (Office for Civil Rights) issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to all American public schools advising them on how they should comply with the Title IX Law so as to retain federal dollars.[6] This letter fully embraces the worldview that informed the Obergefell decision. It’s simply highlighting the next fruit in bloom on the tree.  

The language of this letter denies biology in favor of sincerely held beliefs. In other words, a person’s thoughts determine his/her gender identity, not his/her biology. In addition to the “gender identity” language, the letter adopts “sex assignment” language. “Sex assignment” language is language that asserts that biology doesn’t dictate a child’s sex; sex is arbitrarily assigned by doctors or parents. In other words, when a doctor delivers a baby and looks at his sex and declares, “It’s a boy!” he’s assigning the child’s sex rather than announcing it. The true sex of the child will be determined by the child when he/she determines his/her gender identity.  Again, biology means nothing; beliefs trump reality.  

None of this should surprise or scare Christians, but it should open our eyes to the trajectory of our culture. It should motivate us to become conversant with our Christian worldview so that we can both offer a reasoned response to our culture and teach our children to stand against the tide. And make no mistake, the tide is rising. Confessing Christians will face increasing opposition. If we don’t equip ourselves and our children to stand, we will be swept under.  

What can you do? In an earlier newletter piece I cited the counsel of cultural commentator Rod Dreher. I think his advice bears repeating.  

1) “The importance of community in forming moral consciences should lead Christians to think of their… congregations as the basic unit of Christian life.” I made this point at our 2015 December voters’ meeting when I referred to the church as the hub of our life. If we are going to maintain our identity as confessing Christians, we’re going to need to re-center our lives around the church.  

2) “It is vital to find a strong church where people know what they believe and why, and are willing to help others in the church teach those truths and live them out joyfully.” Reading your monthly newsletter is a great place to start. It is specifically designed to equip you to understand and defend your faith.  

3) Christians should “read about church history, including the lives of the saints, and to acquaint themselves with the fact that the Christian church has actual roots, and teachings. It’s not about what you ‘feel’ is Christian.” We are not the Church of the brand new; we are the church of the historically true. Our teachings aren’t rooted in the latest cultural enlightenment, but in the created order of God and in His revealed will.  

4) Christians should only marry confessing Christians and should begin embracing larger families. The Faith is transmitted in families and Christians must again see the importance of passing on the Faith. Further, we need to regain an appreciation for marriage and family as the cradle of culture and the bedrock of civilization.  

5) “Christians should put their families on a ‘media fast.’ Throw out the TV. Limit Netflix. You cannot let in contemporary stuff. It’s garbage. It’s a sewage pipe into your home. So many parents think they’re holding the line, but they let their kids have unfettered access to TV, the Internet, and smartphones. You can’t do that.”  

The situation is serious and our response must be too. We’ve come so far that we aren’t even able to affirm biology as reality; we can’t even tell a 5’9” white guy that he’s not a 6’5” Chinese woman. If we aren’t prepared to take what to some might appear to be drastic measures, then we must prepare to watch historic Christianity be swept away by the cultural tide. This is a call to stand. Are you ready? -Pastor Conner 


[2] Mr. Backholm is Caucasian.

[3] Mr. Backholm is in his late 20s or early 30s.

[4] Mr. Backholm is 5 ft. 9 inches tall.

[5] Space prevents treating the question of transgenderism, but it should be apparent that it is a mental health issue and not physical problem. In other words, for those battling gender dysphoria (discomfort with their biological sex), the problem isn’t with their body; the problem is in their thinking. Affirming their thinking (and altering their body) would be as unhelpful as it would be to affirm the thinking and behavior of an anorexic woman who believed she was 300 lbs. The body isn’t the problem; the mind is.

[6] Available here: The implicit threat was: comply or lose funding.

Title IX states that no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

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