Interesting Study, Wrong-Headed Approach

Here’s a study from a website by a self-described “humanist” who is interested in “why some people believe in gods, and what the psychological and social consequences of those beliefs are.”

The study show something that doesn’t surprise me a bit: “symptoms of autism correlated with lack of belief in God”. This does not, of course, mean that atheists are all on the autism spectrum. Nor does it mean “autism necessarily leads to atheism”. But it does suggest that the reason so many Evangelical Atheists come across as having radically impaired abilities to relate to normal social and emotional cues is because they do. And a radically impaired ability to relate to other persons is going to impact one’s ability to relate to a community of persons like a Church, not to mention the community of Persons who is the Blessed Trinity. So I think the study worth paying attention to.

At the same time, I’m highly skeptical of projects like sociology or, worse yet, sociobiology of religion. The attempt to track down biological origins for religious belief seems to me to be a fool’s errand. Even getting at a definition of what we mean by “religion” is vastly more difficult than most naive Westerners suppose. Is it a belief in the supernatural? Then Buddhism is not a religion? Belief in an afterlife? That leaves out a number of things we would normally call religious. Use of various symbolic rites to convey beliefs about Ultimate Reality? That would make the Inauguration of the President or a Boy Scout Court of Honor a religion. Ethics? Atheists have ethics. It’s a hugely thorny problem. And adding the bogus dimension of some sort of biological basis for it just muddies the murk more.

More than that though, is the overlooked dimension of hubris in attempting to talk about “religious” people as though they are another species from oneself. I profoundly distrust that. It’s better than the Evangelical Atheist attempt to characterize the “religious” as though they are a *lower* species than oneself, but it still seems tone deaf to me. Humans are made in the image and likeness of God, including atheists and sociologists. You cannot stand outside the human race and try to analyze its religious character “objectively” when you are a human being. You can only enter into the experience of being human. Some things are better understood, not be dissecting them, but by experiencing them. You don’t find out what Hamlet is by going back stage and analyzing the costumes, sets, ropes and pullies of the theatre. You learn what Hamlet is by “looking at surface” from out in the house, entering into the world through the door Shakespeare provided you right there at under the proscenium arch.

Likewise, is somebody wants to understand a religion, they should learn about it the way the religion itself tells us about itself. If I want to know about Judaism or Islam or the Catholic faith or some Protestant group, I don’t come up with some theory about why these foreign creatures believe what they believe. I ask them and experience their rites and listen to the people who believe what they believe and ask, “Are these things true?” My reason for becoming Catholic came down to this: All other religious traditions (including the intensely religious belief system called Evangelical Atheism) seem to me to borrow from or anticipate Jesus Christ and the Church he founded. I’ve never found a more reasonable explanation for the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth than Peter’s: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

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