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Religiosity belongs in a unique category

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By Martin Elfert

The September issue of The Atlantic features an article by Kurt Anderson, in which Anderson speculates about the origins of our culture’s frequent tendency to prefer feelings or personal opinions over facts. In some respects, Anderson’s piece is a fascinating read. But it is also an exasperating one. Because, as is so often and so frustratingly the case with articles that speculate about irrational behavior, Anderson talks about people who believe in God in the very same breath that he talks about people who indulge in wild superstitions, who subscribe to conspiracy theories, or who insist that they have had a run-in with Bigfoot or with a UFO.

One of these things, as the Sesame Street episodes of my childhood used to say, is not like the other.

The great religious traditions of the world – in contrast with, say, the notion that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing – have been road tested across the centuries by millions and millions of people. Over vast tracts of time, their stories have proven to be a source of comfort, their practices have proven to be a source of challenge, their symbols have proven to be a source of inspiration.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, during the seasons of grief or longing or lostness that are part of every human life, exactly no one has called out to Bigfoot for help.

If I am right – if faith has been tested and found true across the years and superstitions and conspiracy theories have not – then there can be little question that religiosity belongs in a unique category. Indeed, I will go even further, and say that it is or it ought to be obvious that religiosity belongs in a unique category.

So, why then do folks such as Anderson lump faith in with the most unproven and even preposterous life strategies and perspectives on reality?

My guess (and I wish I could have this conversation with Anderson directly) is that writers and thinkers such as Anderson have succumbed to a world perspective in which they privilege reason or rationality above all else, in which – whether they articulate this perspective explicitly or not – they dismiss both tradition and experience as serious sources of wisdom. The irony of such a perspective is manifest and deep. Because there is no proof, no reproducible experiment, that tells us that rationality is the only good or appropriate or accurate lens via which to encounter life. To privilege reason in such a fashion is to make a faith claim as bold and as baseless as any claim that I have ever heard made in a church.

Religious expression is irrational – or, to borrow a phrase that I first encountered via the writings of Richard Rohr, it is trans-rational. Like stories, like music, like theater, like love, faith operates in that realm of experience that refuses to be measured, weighed, or proven. But just like those other things, faith is still true. Your experience and mine tells us as much. The witness of the millions who carried the faith to us across the years tells us the same.

Martin Elfert
Martin Elfert
The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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James Downard
James Downard
6 years ago

Actually in the area of neuroscience it is possible to measure our beliefs, or at least observe which brain systems kick in (or not) when we think things. Religion isn’t actually more difficult to assess than anything else, music in the brain or why we like puns are just as tricky. Work on identifying the brain systems involved in religious belief has only just begun, eg a PLOS paper from 2009, “Neuroanatomical Variability of Religiosity”, but bit by bit the parts are being explored. Don’t presume that religion (believing in supernatural forces and entities) is somehow disconnected to what our naturally evolved brains have a knack for: devising stories about things that we’d like to be true, and in a sense make “true” by acting on that belief in guiding our behavior.

Brad Thompson
Brad Thompson
6 years ago
Reply to  James Downard

And that’s fine, if you grant the assumption that there is nothing “behind” religious experiences. True, you can (probably, eventually) account for them in terms of brain states, but that is no less true of any other experience, and it ignores the truly interesting question: what, if anything, is being experienced? What is the *object* to which any given experience is the subjective reaction? I don’t think neuroscience can help us out much on that one.

Brad Thompson
Brad Thompson
6 years ago

The ancient Greeks recognised, if my somewhat feeble memory is correct, three distinct *ways* of knowing: Mythos, Ethos and Logos. Over the centuries, the western tradition has grown increasingly infatuated with the explanatory power of Logos (as manifest in math and the natural sciences), and that infatuation has led many to believe that the messier truths of Mythos and Ethos can be tidied up and firmly established through sufficiently rigorous application of Logos. Notable attempts include, in the case of Ethos, The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values, and in the case of Mythos, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (both by Sam Harris).

Both of these are, in my estimation, spectacular failures, but their popular appeal points to something real, and I believe very important. Because what they promise (yet come nowhere close to delivering) is a scientific ethics, a scientific spirituality, with all the clarity, objectivity and universality that adjective has come to connote. They promise to erase ambiguities, to resolve apparent conflicts, to give people a final, definitive set of practices that are beyond question or dispute.

The problem I see in this approach, however, is that it denies something fundamental about human nature. Moral and spiritual truths are not, to use a tired but still useful metaphor, destinations so much as they are pathways. They are the response of unique, evolving individuals to unique, unfolding moments in an indefinitely complex and ever-unfolding cosmos. They are challenges, not assertions, and we understand them only to the degree that we struggle with them. The certainty of Logos, seductive though it may be, is incompatible with the lived commitment that Mythos and Ethos demand of us.

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