Say What?

It’s all been quite instructive – in fact, now I think of it, it couldn’t have been better if I’d planned it that way. I didn’t, I hasten to add, but it would have been fiendishly clever if I had. I’d be another Milgram or Rosenhan, a designer of some sort of thought experiment: what happens when a rational, secular empirical form of inquiry attempts to combine with a non-rational religious ‘faith-based’ form of inquiry? Sparks fly, is one answer.

There is more than one problem with trying to mix religion into non-religious enterprises like history or science. The obvious, glaring problem of course is the fundamental difference between making up one’s findings and discovering them. But even beyond that, there are further problems. There is for instance the way religion is saturated with non-cognitive elements that obstruct and interfere with – that are fundamentally hostile to – cognitive endeavours. Religion is all about things like loyalty, commitment, love, belief, hopes, desires, fears, wishes, consolation, community, tradition. Most of them good things, in the right place and used wisely, but not the right way to judge truth claims about the world. The weird non-sequitur of that absurd quotation – ‘All those enterprises I see as implicitly dependent on a Christian view of God.’ – is a good indication of that.

And it all goes round and round in a circle, because this very emotion-saturation is also what makes believers unable to see religion as a problem, unable even to hear what non-believers are saying. The two sides just talk past each other. As we saw in the discussion here: it wasn’t mere disagreement, it was complete incomprehension, even at the level of vocabulary. Which is interesting in itself. It’s interesting the way beliefs can shape what people are able to hear and perceive and take in – as my colleague put it, hearing not the argument as it is but the argument they want to hear.

That’s not to say that believers are all emotion and secularists have none, of course. But it is to say that emotions and commitments are central, avowedly so, to religion in a way they are not to history and science. And that does make a difference – an unbridgeable one.

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