Monday, December 22, 2014

Disenchantment as Truth

I've been mulling over the relevance of Dante for secular readers lately, drafting a forthcoming article for PopMatters, and this reflection deepens into the impact of what Max Weber called Entzauberung, "disenchantment of the world." Once religion loses its hold on one's psyche, and one's society, what holds it together? John Messerly at Salon (a very erratic site given over to "I married a Republican," "My endless [female] orgasm," and "outrage over white male privilege" types of clickbait, but one which does excerpt religious content, if in earnest, endless book excerpts from humanists and skeptics) argues in Religion's Smart People Problem: The Shaky Intellectual Foundations of Absolute Faith: "With the wonders of science every day attesting to its truth, why do many prefer superstition and pseudo science? The simplest answer is that people believe what they want to, what they find comforting, not what the evidence supports: In general, people don’t want to know; they want to believe." Furthermore, he tries to figure out why highly educated people, then, continue to believe.

Messerly sums up two theories for religion's persistence. Cohesion of society, or causation as explained. It stimulates in-group solidarity, and it accounts for just-so stories, which comfort us. For the smarter among us, rationalization means they may seek to support by tenuous claims what they had originally "believed for non-smart reasons." They may also not back up, deep down, what they say they believe. Hope and solace, after all, may rely on faith. Also, and this seems true to me, they may publicly affirm what they privately may doubt, as if religion is better used to comfort the masses. Messerly makes an aside to Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, to show the palliative nature of religion. He defines a third function for the educated: religion at an advanced level may not match that of the common folks. Process theology, Teilhard de Chardin (my example) or panentheism aren't common.

In a twist on the subtraction theory explanation, where religion retreats as science progresses, Messerly propounds: "Among the intelligentsia it is common and widespread to find individuals who lost childhood religious beliefs as their education in philosophy and the sciences advanced. By contrast, it is almost unheard of to find disbelievers in youth who came to belief as their education progressed. This asymmetry is significant; advancing education is detrimental to religious belief. This suggest[s] another part of the explanation for religious belief—scientific illiteracy." I like this retort: "we should remember that the burden of proof is not on the disbeliever to demonstrate there are no gods, but on believers to demonstrate that there are." If one claims "invisible elephants," then one does not make one's proof convincing by challenging a doubter who cannot disprove the pachyderms.

Passion, goodwill, and conviction, as I labor to teach, do not equal verification for a thesis or truth-claim. I challenged a speaker in my speech course when his assertions that the world was created less than ten thousand years ago, in my opinion, failed to make his intense presentation persuasive. His evidence was faulty, and the few discrepancies he uncovered in carbon dating could not undermine the massive evidence. For, "if you defend such beliefs by claiming that you have a right to your opinion, however unsupported by evidence it might be, you are referring to a political or legal right, not an epistemic one. You may have a legal right to say whatever you want, but you have epistemic justification only if there are good reasons and evidence to support your claim. If someone makes a claim without concern for reasons and evidence, we should conclude that they simply don’t care about what’s true. We shouldn’t conclude that their beliefs are true because they are fervently held."

That also leads to fideism, putting faith up as the sole arbiter of proof, and this, Messerly mentions, makes faith itself arbitrary. Or, the modern spin that might say that student had every right to his views as much as I do mine, and who's to stay which is true? This erodes our shared foundation of truth, when insufficient evidence is peddled as if proving unsubstantiated claims which can harm.

Faith without reason, he concludes, fails to satisfy the more discerning among us. Religion may help us in the way that whisky helps a drunk, but we don’t want to go through life drunk. If religious beliefs are just vulgar superstitions, then we are basing our lives on delusions. And who would want to do that?" He concludes: "Because human beings need their childhood to end; they need to face life with all its bleakness and beauty, its lust and  its love, its war and its peace. They need to make the world better. No one else will." But my students have often answered this bluntness, as community, ritual, and meaning accompany theological practice. Thomas Merton, according to his biographer Michael Mott, shortly before his sudden death reflected on "existential contemplation" as a condition he approached, and he helped "unbelieving believers." These elements of a belief system persist too. Culturally, religion may strive even now to provide an aesthetic immersion or emotional uplift which the humanist insistence on "is that all there is?" may not, for those educated or not, in darker times.

I reply that most of those whom I teach continue as unswayed as ever by their childhood belief system, but some do reveal they are disturbed by what they learn as other religious systems, and then none as I also try to include tangentially, are introduced as we go through two months together, exposed to varying answers to the great questions of existence and endurance. And, there is always at least one student who has believed and now does not, to spice up the discussions. This makes me speculate that what I have started in motion, as a kind of Primum Mobile, if not Uncaused Cause, may result in further collisions between one's past and one's future, as the present shifts and brings us face-to-face with belief, and what we are to place our faith in. The cost of education tallies as doubt.

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