Religion, imagination, and secret worlds

Connor Wood

Make-believe

Here, try something: Take a minute to think about one of your best friends. How did you get to be close? I don’t just mean how you met – at a party, taking Freshman Comp together, serving on the same top-secret CIA mission to Burma – I mean how you got to be friends. If you’re like most people, the chances are good that your friendship blossomed by sharing not real things, but imaginary ones. Relationships, research in anthropology and ritual studies suggests, flower best when people take part in shared, alternate worlds of imagination – subjunctive worlds that are cordoned off from reality, where our minds can play.

Want to hear a mildly alarming example of what I’m talking about? My girlfriend and I were leafing through an illustrated children’s book a few months ago, just for fun. (What, you don’t ever secretly skim through children’s books?) The book was about the stars and the night sky. About three pages into the story, the text began waxing poetic about the beautiful dots of light in the heavens, rhapsodizing that it almost looked as if you could sweep them up in your hands.

…Except that, unlike any other kid’s book I’ve ever read, this book unexpectedly made a big show of stopping the narrative right here to grandly emphasize that, of course, you couldn’t actually gather up the stars in your hands – not in real life. Get real, kids.

Wow. My imagination felt like a sponge that had been sat on by Bertrand Russell.

In mild shock, we stuffed the book back onto the shelf. Later that evening, the two of us began reading a great book by Roald Dahl, in which giants are definitely real and dreams can be captured with nets. Guess which one of these two books made us feel closer to one another? I’ll give you a hint: Roald Dahl made us feel closer to one another. Reading a wild story in which unrealistic things happen and the impossible becomes real is a great way to feel like you and another person are secret comrades, hidden away from the dreariness of reality like children in a tree fort – privileged inhabitants of a rich but made-up world.

Great, you’re thinking. The writer of this blog is an infantile who pines for childhood. Is there anybody writing about religion who isn’t developmentally compromised?

But hold on a second. Think back on your life thus far. When is it that you made friends the most quickly and easily? According to quite a bit of research, as well as the obvious facts of most people’s experience, it was probably when you were young. And what do we do with friends when we’re young? Well, we do lots of things: go on school trips together, share homework answers, attend birthday parties.

But we also play.

We develop imaginary worlds that operate according to rules we invent. We make up new games with rules that don’t match any official sport. We play make-believe. We enter into alternative realities together.

I’d submit that this same dynamic also continues even when we move beyond childhood and into early adulthood. I don’t know about you, but when I was in college my friendships certainly involved a lot of goofing off and playing – making up games, talking for hours about how the world would be if things were different. Since I went to the first two years of college on the shores of Lake Michigan, this type of conversation would often take place late at night, on the beach, as my friends and I watched the waves crash beneath the stars. Surrounded by elemental sights and sounds, it was easy for us to imagine different versions of reality – how our lives would be if entirely different rules applied.

It’s this “would-if” construction – known in grammatical parlance as the “subjunctive” tense – that is absolutely vital for friendships. You can never be truly good friends, deep friends, with someone unless you have sat around with them, preferably outside, and entertained wild visions of how the world could be.

Several puzzling human phenomena suddenly make a lot more sense when you look at them in light of this subjunctive, “what-if” facet of human experience. For example, it helps explain why social movements and revolutions create such tight bonds among the people who take part in them: if you’re working side-by-side with someone to fight for an entirely new and different vision of the world, you’re by default inhabiting a subjunctive reality together. It’s like playing, but with real consequences (like, oh, toppled governments). You feel bonded to your co-revolutionaries, in part, because you’re all living in the same imaginary world.*

The fact that the subjunctive sense is vital for social bonding also does a lot to explain why we stop making new, close friends as we grow older. By the time we’re in our 30s, how the world could be has generally given way to the immediate practicalities of how it is. You have bills to pay, a career to build, kids to feed. Most of the other adults you interact with day-to-day are sharing, collaborating on, or competing with you in most of the same sorts of basic practical tasks. So you might get to know and even like each other, but because you’re spending all your time dealing with the world as it is, you never fall into that deeper space where reality subsides and imagination and play begins. So you never quite become real friends.

Finally, this perspective does quite a lot to explain why religion plays a central role in many people’s lives, and how. The sociologist Adam Seligman and anthropologist Rob Weller – the guys from whom I’ve stolen my emphasis on the subjunctive tense – have written an entire book on this, arguing that ritual in particular helps to create shared social experiences of “what-if.” For example, the Catholic Eucharist wafer is clearly, to the naked eye, not a piece of flesh. But the ritual taking of Communion invites participants into a shared, secret reality: how the world would be if it were flesh. By shifting from the everyday and practical to the subjunctive and richly imaginative, ritual forges social worlds:

The creation of “as if” worlds is a central aspect of ritual action, which we see as necessary for human life.…(R)itual creates a shared, illusory world. Participants practicing ritual act as if the world produced in ritual were in fact a real one. And they do so fully conscious that such a subjunctive world exists in endless tension with an alternate world of daily experience.

That last sentence is key: ritual, and imagination games, only work if they are not repeating how the world actually is. Everybody already knows how the real world is – how much fun is that? Instead, they have to make claims that are self-evidently totally different from how things actually are. This is how shared imaginative worlds are created, and how communities and deep relationships are formed.

Over the past decade, a lot of research in the scientific study of religion has focused on how religion functions to bind communities together, for good or ill. But the precise mechanisms for how this binding works aren’t always clear. In light of work being done in ritual studies, as well as research showing that atheists don’t enter into imaginative worlds as easily and that accepting supernatural claims creates emotional bonds between people, it’s possible that religions help form communities, in part, by turning people into “secret comrades.” Like children hiding together in a fort, members of religious communities inhabit alternate worlds together – visions of reality that defy the logic and rules of mundane reality. If you’re a secular-minded rationalist, this idea probably makes you cringe. But it’s not rationality that brings people together into friendships that stand through the ages. It’s the power of imagination, of idealism, to envision worlds that aren’t real yet, but could be – or even that couldn’t be.

_________

* At least until you win the revolution. Then the imaginary world, of course, suddenly turns real, which means it loses darn near all its power to forge those idealistic friendships. This is why victorious revolutionaries are famous for guillotining each other as soon as the last shots are fired.

  • ortcutt

    Imaginative play and entering into shared imaginative worlds are great. I think this is part of the explanation of the huge popularity of immersive computer games, TV series, and movie franchises. The problem with the religious segment of the population is that they can’t tell the difference between their imaginative play and reality. Star Wars cosplayers have the advantage over religionists of realizing that Luke Skywalker and Tatooine aren’t real. Religion would be a much more positive force in the world if people realized that Yahweh is like Dumbledore, a nice character to think about, but nothing more.

    • connorwood

      Ortcutt, I appreciate your sentiments. But honestly, if you were in a Religion 101 course taught by me I’d give you a D- for this. You (apparently) conflate ancient Israelite religion with all “Religion,” everywhere, showing that you’re lacking basic religious studies knowledge. And you assume that all religious believers have an unreflective blind faith, believing whatever their traditions teach without questioning it. This is true for almost nobody, but this “religious people are sheep” narrative is a very easy stereotype to bandy around – see virtually the entire Internet as evidence.

      What I mean is that nearly all religious people (there are exceptions, and I’ll join you in calling out the most fundamentalist and cognitively rigid sects as being generally dangerous) understand that God and the spiritual claims of their faiths are much more complex than simple propositional statements, like “dolphins are mammals” or “I am an American.” Most religious claims, in fact, are much more semantically open than simple propositions. A secular example of a semantically open claim would be, say, Stanford University’s motto: “Die Luft der Freiheit Weht.” This German phrase means “The wind of freedom blows.” How do you falsify this statement? You can’t. Does it actually refer in a one-to-one ratio to any concrete external phenomena in the world? No, of course it doesn’t. The point of semantically open claims like this motto is NOT to terminate in a settled statement that forecloses other claims (ex: since dolphins are mammals, they’re not fish). Instead, a motto like “Die Luft der Freiheit Weht” is supposed to OPEN further semantic associations, inviting more and more synthesis upon further contemplation. The same is true for religious claims like “There is no God but Allah” or “The Dao that can be spoken is not the true Dao.” They’re not designed to function as simple propositions; they’re semantically open, meaning-rich statements that imply many further associations and axiological (value-setting) references. So entering an imaginative social world build on such claims is not as simple as walking into GenCon.

      The point isn’t that you’re necessarily wrong, although I think you probably are. The point is that the way you’re being wrong isn’t as rigorous or helpful as you could be. If you learn to stop thinking about religion as being a simple series of (fairly silly) truth claims, and realize that the situation is much more complex – and, frankly, interesting – you’ll find yourself in much more useful conversations and debates about religion. I’ve written all this partly for myself, to get my thoughts in order, and partly to show that I respect you enough to tell you when you could really produce some better arguments and more insightful analyses of the topic of religion. I hope you understand and do not take this as an attack, because it very explicitly isn’t. Thanks for reading.

      • ortcutt

        1. I haven’t and wouldn’t take a Religion 101 course from you because I’m interested in religion and not in apologetics masquerading as the study of religion.

        2. I never conflated all religion with ancient Israelite religion. Yahweh is simply an EXAMPLE of one fictional character that appears in one group of religions (Judaism, Christianity and its spinoffs). I don’t approve of religions that call their god “God”. No group should be able to appropriate the generic word for deities for their own particular fictional character.

        3. I never said anything whatsoever about blind faith, so I don’t know where you’re getting that from. Many religionists do fall back on faith, i.e. epistemic irresponsibility, when they can’t justify their claims with any epistemic reasons. Not all must, but many do and many religious traditions glorify this behavior.

        4. The claim that I am claiming that “religion as being a simple series of (fairly silly) truth claims” is simply a straw man. I made no such claim. Religions include rituals, story-telling which is not taken to be true (even within the religion), and much else. One other thing that religions include, however, is claims about how the world is.

        5. The claim that sentences are semantically open is attacking a straw man. All statements have some element of vagueness, and many have psychological connections to other ideas not contained in the claim. However, if someone claims that “There is at least one god” doesn’t relate to a concrete fact in the world, then he is an atheist or some kind of quietest who believes that it’s impossible to say anything about any deities. I have no problem with consistent quietists, but many quietists tell you on the one hand that it’s impossible to say anything about deities, and then on the other hand tell you all of the things that the deity forbids.

        There may well be atheist religionists who treat religion the way that Star Wars fans treat Star Wars, as a fun imaginative world and a community of people who enjoy that imaginative world together. This is certainly true of many atheist Jews on High Holidays and many practicing UUs around the country. This is undoubtedly form of religion with the least risk of harm.

        6. It’s also a gross underestimation of the complexity of fictional worlds to say that they are somehow less worthy than religion. I gave Star Trek as an example, but I could equally give The Odyssey, Hamlet, or The Wasteland as imaginative worlds that people coexist in without thinking them true.

        • connorwood

          I almost certainly shouldn’t be replying to this, but quickly:

          1. That’s too bad. My students (at a very secular university) tend to rate me pretty highly. As for the apologetics piece, I find it interesting that you and other atheists show up at this blog whenever I write something positive, or even neutral, about religion – and then accuse me of apologetics! – but whenever I write something that points out religion’s negative or destructive aspects, such as its tendency to promote tribalism and violence (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/09/ritual-creates-tribesand-tribalism/#more-872) or that religion may have contributed to the spread of Nazism (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/08/social-capital-and-religion-helped-the-spread-of-nazism/#more-809), ya’ll are nowhere to be found. It makes me think you’re looking for a fight more than a conversation.

          I was going to reply to all your other points, but I realized that I have other things I want to do with my Sunday night. So let me skip to this: you say you’re “interested” in religion, but your comments here and – from a quick glance at your comment history – everywhere else are mostly the same tired tropes about how religion is a social evil, over and over again. So, quite simply, the bad thing about your attitude toward religion is not that it’s wrong, it’s that it’s BORING. And how can I tell? Because it’s the same set of arguments that’s used by every anti-religion critic out there. That’s lack of creativity if I’ve ever seen it. And that lack of creativity extends to the substance of the arguments, too: I have literally never once read a comment or article by an anti-religion advocate that made me go, “Huh! That’s a really interesting point, and I’ve never thought of that before!”

          On the other hand, many scholars and scientists of religion – who are themselves not “apologists,” and are in fact generally atheists (cases in point: D.S. Wilson, Scott Atran) – have continually blown my mind with tractable new ways of understanding things about this ubiquitous human phenomenon. The anti-religion atheist’s attitude toward religion, belief, and ritual is something like, “This stuff is incomprehensible to me, and therefore I pronounce it atavistic and anti-rationalist, and I want to do away with it.” It’s as if you found a book written in Farsi and were personally offended by the fact that it was not in English. How intellectually unproductive! The scientist of religion’s attitude, on the other hand, is a much more fertile, and interesting, “Wow, this stuff seems to happen EVERYwhere in human cultures; why? What does it tell us about human nature and evolution?” So these scientists learn Farsi, usually without becoming Persian themselves. And the results are astounding: for instance, the idea that ritual serves as a signal-booster for social information (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/09/ritual-reduces-lifes-noise-to-signal-ratio/#more-883); or that religions are a form of cybernetics, motivating societies to achieve relative balance in their social and ecological processes (https://www.facebook.com/sharer/sharer.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fshar.es%2FDPAGt&t=Russell+Brand+is+wrong+about+Western+religions). These ideas might be wrong; but they’re sure a hell of a lot more interesting, and fecund in terms of producing testable hypotheses in the context of a progressing research program, than the same tired old “Religion is bad for human thriving!”

          This is why I take issue with the things you have to say about religion: they don’t make me understand anything new about it. The hypotheses of scientists and anthropologists who are largely much more sympathetic to “religion” (almost universally without being apologists for it, although there are exceptions) are the opposite: they say something real, and INTERESTING, about it, because they’re willing to take it seriously. You, who claim to be “interested” in religion, show every sign of quite the opposite: you are clearly bored to tears by it, which is why you say the same thing in virtually every comment you write.

          • ortcutt

            I raised a point about how people are achieving the ends of imaginative worlds without religion. More Americans read novels, play video games, and enjoy cult movies than give a damn about religion. Certainly people under 35.

            You have never been able to answer the question as to why religion is a better social phenomenon than Star Wars fandom. Star Wars fandom has many of the positive characteristics of religion without the whole believing ridiculous things part and the killing people who don’t believe the same ridiculous things part. I know that religion hates being compared to Star Wars fandom because if anything Star Wars fandom is not taken seriously, while religion demands to be taken seriously at all costs. We also don’t devote departments and schools at universities to Star Wars fandom, but for some reason the fictional characters of religion are given much greater attention. As someone who also lives in Boston, I enjoy the how this city completely ignores religion, and how people go about their lives in peace never thinking about religion until some religious nut tries to blow the place up. What you call a ubiquitous social phenomenon isn’t ubiquitous. There are plenty of people who don’t have a religion and don’t participate in any religion. If you’re not familiar with any of the sociological information on those people, I suggest you look it up.

          • Jim

            Star Wars fans don’t gather together to start schools or hospitals. I’ve never heard of a Star Wars convention that gathers supplies to send to disaster areas or has people spend their own money to do medical mission trips. They don’t meet for weekly rituals that build local inclusive communities. These examples are results of the statements in religion that Connor above says are “semantically open, meaning-rich statements that imply many further associations and axiological (value-setting) references.” (Correct me if I’m applying your statement incorrectly, Connor.) While there is social power in shared imaginative experience like Star Wars, it doesn’t extend beyond the celebration of entertainment.

            Sure, there are some negative effects that we see in some religious groups, but for the most part they aren’t inherent to the religion. It’s more about the fact that people suck (That’s a scientific term). People will use religion to further their own goals rather than the goals of their own religion. But this isn’t just an expression of religion. Secular people suck, too.

          • ortcutt

            Do you know who starts hospitals and schools though? People who want to start hospitals and schools. There are secular hospitals and schools everywhere around us. Maybe in the past, there was some utility in connecting religion with the provision of medical care and education, but not anymore. I also don’t see where secular disaster relief organizations are falling short. There is absolutely no reason why the group of people that you engage in imaginative play with have to be the same group that you volunteer to help the poor with. Religious people can only think in terms of a one-stop shop for social engagement. Not so!

          • connorwood

            Ortcutt, one of the the single best predictors of whether an American gives to charities – both secular and religious – is regular attendance at religious services. (http://ideas.time.com/2013/11/26/religious-people-are-more-charitable/) Religious people also volunteer at much higher rates than non-religious people. (http://scienceonreligion.org/index.php/news-research/research-updates/452-compassion-caring-and-charity-religious-or-not). And a very significant proportion of medical services in developing and poor nations are delivered by religious groups like the Catholic Medical Mission Board (http://www.cmmb.org/). There are few secular charitable organizations that even come close to rivaling the outreach and expenditures of groups like CMMB. Religion actually does play a huge role in people’s charitable activities, and non-religious people simply don’t participate nearly as much in such activities.

            However, the connection between religion and charitable activities is mediated not by beliefs, but by social connections (see the Time link above). People with greater and denser social connections in their religious groups tend to give more to charity and volunteer more. So if you got a secular group with the same strength and density of social ties, you’d probably end up a secular group that rivaled religious ones in charitable giving. I think this is unlikely to happen very often; religion offers tools for strengthening group bonds (such as those I wrote about in this article) that secular groups probably will always have a hard time leveraging as well. This is partly because people who are drawn to secular identities tend to be much more individualistic (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/10/why-are-there-atheists/#more-911). As long as secularism tracks individualism, you’re not going to get the same rates of charitable giving and volunteering among the non-religious.

          • Eli

            “While there is social power in shared imaginative experience like Star Wars, it doesn’t extend beyond the celebration of entertainment.”

            Oh really?

            http://www.501st.com/charity.php

          • Surprise123

            Although some Star Wars fandom (the 501st, for instance) has been known to perform charitable works, it’s unclear that that charity arises from common values that arise from George Lucas’s Star Wars Universe; natural, pooled empathy arising from them as individuals, values they were raised in (religious or otherwise); or as a defensive reaction against the charge that “those engaged in Cosplay are infantile.”

            In addition to the advantages successful religions deliver to human beings (see Connerwood’s comments above, and his previous posts for examples of those advantages), above what Star Wars fandom provides, is metaphorical resonance or “shared meaning” across generations. In successful religions, grandparents share, at least, some of the same primary points of reference as their grandchildren.
            Not so for Star Wars fans, whose children and grandchildren might be grounded in the metaphorical resonances of Manga comics, the new Dr. Who television series, the Twilight movies, or the World of Warcraft online gaming community.
            I’m certainly not saying that “shared meaning” or “metaphorical resonance” across generations is always a societal good: most often that shared meaning has meant restriction of women to domesticity and the reproductive sphere, but it definitely does have its advantages if your in-group is under immanent threat of violence.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I suspect you don’t spend a lot of time in the less affluent ethnic neighborhoods in and around Boston if you aren’t observing religion there.

      • stanz2reason

        Connor… I’m sure you recognize that there is a difference between complexity of beliefs & whether or not said beliefs are true or even rational to hold. That a phrase might sprout subsequent discussion and even create a rich tapestry of ideas seems irrelevant to that point.

        I’m not sure what you’re getting at with ‘the wind of freedom blows’ motto as it seems fairly straightforward that the phrase is a metaphor. Ascribing tangible attributes (possessing or causing wind) with an intangible concept (freedom) seems an effective method of communicating an idea, but in no way is to be understood that somehow the concept of freedom has acquired a physicality of sorts. Also, while I’m sure there is a rich history to the motto, I suppose were you to demonstrate that the winds of freedom are diminishing, so to speak, that you could in a sense falsify the motto.

        • connorwood

          The problem with continuing to ask this question about the truth of claims is that the inventory of claims that can actually be compared directly against concrete realities is vanishingly small. This is why positivism failed – and yes, it failed. The vast majority of the language we use is metaphorical. In fact, ALL of it is, when you peel back layers of etymology. Read Max Black and George Lakoff for more on this.

          So if you were to hold every belief to the standard of literal truth, you’d be left with just about nothing. Nothing we say is perfectly true, but plenty of things we say are “true,” by which I mean that the metaphors we deploy through language elicit useful insight into or understanding of something about reality.

          Finally, I did not claim that the Stanford motto made a concrete claim about the physicality of freedom. I explicitly stated exactly the opposite: phrases and statements like Die Luft der Freiheit Weht are not intended to refer to concrete realities. They are intended to evoke certain sentiments in their hearers – sentiments of loyalty, nobility, morality, and so forth. The power of such a claim is not in its literal truth value; it’s in its ability to serve as a projection net for people’s values and aspirations. This is a fundamentally necessary ingredient in any human community. No community can survive without some sort of projection net, which is always comprised of unfalsifiable, non-literal but connotation-rich claims (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité; Numen Lumens; God is Three in One; There is no God but Allah) onto which members can input their values, hopes, and identities. No human group can survive if its central unifying claim is a literal one. Imagination, then, is what drives human sociality, which is what I wrote this article about (remember?).

          Now, this is not a lab science. This is anthropology. If you’re always insisting on evaluating all claims according to their literal truth value, you will A:) always be disappointed with the seeming irrationality of the people around you (a common complaint of atheists), and B:) miss out on a lot of meaningful communication people and society might offer you.

          This doesn’t mean that some interpretations of religious claims aren’t worse than others. I think a belief that leads people to stone women for being raped is a bad belief and a bad interpretation. I think an interpretation of Paul’s letters that encourages an acceptance of slavery was a bad interpretation. So I’m not advocating not holding religious claims to any standards. But I am fundamentally more interested in their social effects than their literal truth value (especially since I don’t think any language offers literal truth value), and the fact is that imaginative, unfalsifiable claims are the basic stuff out of which community is forged.

          • stanz2reason

            It seems a retreat of sorts to say “the inventory of claims that can actually be compared directly against concrete realities is vanishingly small”. I mean if you really believed that you probably wouldn’t be spending so much time approaching religion via science (often admittedly softer sciences). Having demonstrable evidence isn’t limited to something literally physical, but it does require a reasonable data-set (say, like a survey).

            This (“The vast majority of the language we use is metaphorical. In fact, ALL of it is, when you peel back layers of etymology.”) is word games that doesn’t say anything, though maybe it’s a fun little thought experiment in academia to deconstruct the idea of language. Yes, the word ‘apple’ is simply a word used to describe the red fruit widely known as an apple, yet when people are communicating, there is a world of difference between ‘The apple was delicious’ & ‘The apple has fallen far from the tree’. The idea of metaphor under discussion is that being used within the context of a functioning language.

            I don’t hold the physically demonstrable to be the only source of knowledge & truth, however I find using your imagination to be the weakest evidence, if you can even call it that, for truth claims. Despite the complexities of the belief systems that follow, these systems are based on some very very questionable assumptions. When people speak of a belief in God, there is a wide variance in what they’re actually talking about. Perhaps they’re using ‘God’ as a metaphor for the sheer act of creation, in which case our very existence is proof of God. Perhaps they’re referring to the subtle ‘feeling’ of unity people often have with the world around them, in which case their own subjective experiences are all the proof they require for God.

            This blurring of lines as to what we’re talking about with regards to God again, might be a fun thought experiment in academia, but when a skeptic questions the existence of God they’re referring to the less-metaphoric version. They’re referring to a deity, a supernatural deliberate actor with the power to do so.

            My point of addressing the Stanford motto wasn’t to suggest that it be literally giving physical attributes to freedom, but to differentiate it from religious claims which ultimately go beyond speaking in metaphor to the physical world.

            I think studying religious belief in the manner you describe is an important an area of study. It’s effects on the development of local communities and greater societies really should be as understood as possible. There are plenty of valuable truths regarding religious phenomena that are worth the effort to discover.

          • Y. A. Warren

            Bravo for stating this primary reason why I am attempting to take that word out of my vocabulary:

            “When people speak of a belief in God, there is a wide variance in what they’re actually talking about. Perhaps they’re using ‘God’ as a metaphor for the sheer act of creation, in which case our very existence is proof of God. Perhaps they’re referring to the subtle ‘feeling’ of unity people often have with the world around them, in which case their own subjective experiences are all the proof they require for God.”

          • Surprise123

            And, if atheists do not experience that subtle ‘feeling’ of unity in the world around them, is that proof that God does not exist?

          • Y. A. Warren

            Science can neither prove, nor disprove what people dream, believe, or feel. We are stuck with that reality and have better ways to exercise our brains and spend our time than attempting to take away what keeps some people from killing us.

          • connorwood

            >word games that doesn’t say anything, though maybe it’s a fun little thought experiment in academia to deconstruct the idea of language.

            It sounds like you’re using an appeal to common sense to challenge what seems like an arcane intellectual exercise. But common sense told the pre-Copernicans that the sun revolved around the Earth and the pre-Einsteinians that the progression of time was identical everywhere. Common sense tells many people that women are stupider and weaker than men, or that blacks are inferior to Europeans. Common sense is clearly not a thing to be trusted. This is why we have the academy: to interrogate common sense and correct its errors. If you think that this is mere self-indulgence, then you may as well give up relativity, epigenetics, and all other lines of inquiry that confuse and rattle our everyday minds. But you don’t want to do that; I’d guess that you’re happy to countenance going beyond common sense when it comes to, say, physics (where, at the quantum levels, common sense is an outright enemy to understanding), so why do you balk at examining language in the same way? There’s no good reason.

            The fact is that language really is a radically flawed vehicle for conveying knowledge, and its only tools are useful metaphors. It cannot represent truth literally, and in fact “literal truth” is not a coherent concept. “Truth” as a concept implies some sort of reference or signifier/signified relationship, and in any such relationship you’re going to lose information between the target and the reference. If you want to get into metaphysics, which you’re doing by evaluating religious and spiritual claims, then you have to be willing to go where that line of inquiry takes you. And there’s no way to do responsible metaphysics without confronting the profound limitations of language head-on.

          • stanz2reason

            I’m not suggesting that language is perfect. I’m suggesting that it’s sufficient enough to be able to recognize that while all language is a symbolic representation (of an object, an action, an idea, etc.) created and used to communicate, that people typically understand the difference between language used to represent something literal (“The apple was delicious”) and a metaphor (“The apple has fallen far from the tree”). In other words we can adequately use metaphoric language to convey both the literal and the metaphor and differentiate between the two. In this instance, an appeal to common sense seems justified, and it’s not the same as dismissing something that is at first glance counter-intuitive (such as relativity & quantum physics). You’re overstating the imperfections of “radically flawed” language.

          • connorwood

            We’re talking here about a continuum, not a dichotomy. If you interrogate the statement “The apple was delicious,” you’ll find that the Latin etymology of the word “delicious” means “ensnaring.” If something is delicious to you, it has “ensnared” you. So show me the rope and the trap!

            You’ve already acknowledged that all language is metaphorical, but then you fall back on a common-sense defense of the literal-metaphorical dichotomy, which clearly is actually a continuum with no terminus on the literal side. All language is metaphor.

            Now, if we were talking about common-sense things in a conventional context, like whether or not you were on the right train to Buffalo, I’d be happy to give you that hard-and-fast distinction. It’s a useful distinction in the everyday world. But we’re not in the everyday world now. We’re talking about metaphysics – Gods, spirits, the ultimate ontology of the universe. And you started it! My original article wasn’t about metaphysics; it was about the practical ramifications of certain social processes that depend on imaginative constructions. The reason I appealed to specialized physics, and was justified in doing so, was to illustrate the fact that once you arrive at metaphysics and ontology you can’t rely on common sense any longer. If language is all metaphorical, even to the smallest extent, there is no sense in which you can evaluate metaphysical truth claims without running smack into its ultimate limitations – and, yes, they are ultimate. This is why there is such a long tradition of apophatic theology in all world religions – it doesn’t take too long before serious thinkers realize that language simply isn’t adequate to the task of determining metaphysics in a commonsense or discursive way.

          • stanz2reason

            Connor, my first comment was a response to one by you where I address, with regards to language, only that the particular metaphor you offered was indeed actually a metaphor so the notion that I began a discussion regarding metaphysics or even steered it that way seems incorrect. You thought it appropriate to respond with the bizarre notion that all language is a metaphor, which is irrelevant here, as for the purposes of this discussion it’s not whether language is a perfect vehicle for communication, but whether it’s sufficient enough to convey ideas that are to be understood both literally & figuratively. My points regarding language were simply this and nothing more.

            Metaphysics are ultimately incidental to my points about language, and I didn’t dive into them all that much here in subsequent comments, however I fail to see why that would make any difference. In a universe with more than one thinking actor there will inevitibly be imperfections in the means by which those beings communicate. The question then becomes are the means of communication sufficient enough to convey a level of understanding between the two. That you would spend so much effort on a site that uses language to discuss the metaphysical makes me wonder if you view the efforts of yourself and others as pointless or if you realize your points about language are self-indulgent academic exercises.

          • connorwood

            I certainly don’t view this line of inquiry as self-indulgent. I think you have to grapple seriously with the limitations of language if you’re going all the way to the foundational questions about what the universe is, which I perceived your initial comment to be getting at:

            > there is a difference between complexity of beliefs & whether or not said beliefs are true or even rational to hold.

            I think it’s fine for language to be pragmatically true, and for there to be a pragmatic difference between literal and metaphorical language. But in an ultimate sense that goes beyond pragmatics, all language genuinely is metaphor. Not many cognitive scientists or linguists would disagree with me here.

            The reason I’ve been pushing you on this is because you seem, here and in other comments on other articles, to be concerned with ultimate questions as well as pragmatic ones. You want to know, is it actually TRUE that God is three in one, or that Vishnu creates the universe by opening his eyes? Pragmatically, such claims would have to be metaphorical at best. But ultimately, all language is metaphorical, so it gets much harder to make such simple evaluations at the ultimate level. (It’s not actually “true” that the sun “rises,” for example; or that my fingers are touching my keyboard (Pauli exclusion principle and so forth).) Because of this messiness, I think it’s best to stick with pragmatic evaluations of truth. As such, a statement of faith such as “Vishnu creates the world by opening his eyes” would have truth value in my eyes if it elicited among its believers a useful understanding of or personal orientation toward reality.

            I certainly don’t expect you to agree; I think you hope for a much more commonsense, straightforward way in which we can look at claims and say “This claim is true, and this one isn’t.” All I’m saying is that 1:) I have the cognitive linguists on my side when it comes to the metaphorical nature of all language, not just some of it; and 2:) if you want to evaluate ultimate claims, you’ll never be able to do so using the commonsense, straightforward tools of everyday language. You have to figure out how to account for the limitations of human language, I think, before you set out on the task of rigorously evaluating religious claims or any other ultimate claims (if that’s actually your goal).

          • stanz2reason

            The metaphorical nature of language is irrelevant to the question of whether or not it’s adequate for approaching and even evaluating certain claims. It’s also not something i’ve argued against.

            I wouldn’t compare Galileo’s telescope to the Hubble nor would I compare either to the telescopes of tomorrow or even the prospect of studying the outer planets in person. Yet even the crudest of these tools was sufficient enough to discover the existence of such planets and allowed men who were primitive in a sense when compared to us to calculate things like orbits. We’re able to determine approximate mass & chemical composition to a reasonable certainty (amongst many other things) all from the comforts of our own planet. Our tools might not replace the details of our studies were we there in person, but they are entirely adequate to start making claims. We need not set foot on Mars to be able to reasonably conclude it’s size relative to Earth for instance.

            Language is just another of such tools, as crude as it may be, one used to communicate. Sometimes 1 word will do and sometimes 1000 is insufficient. As a tool it is successful without being perfect, and I don’t feel that the perfect tool is required to start making claims, even claims regarding the very nature of existence. Saying you can’t evaluate ultimate claims with language is like saying we can’t evaluate the existence of jupiter through the lens of a telescope.

          • connorwood

            I didn’t say or mean you can’t evaluate ultimate claims with language; I said it’s much, much more difficult than it initially might seem to do so, and you have to be prepared to do a lot of meta-analysis of the type you dismissed as academic game-playing:

            >You have to figure out how to account for the limitations of human language, I think, before you set out on the task of rigorously evaluating religious claims or any other ultimate claims (if that’s actually your goal).

            So we agree that imperfect tools can be successful; I only think that language is a much trickier tool than you do, and that you have to be much cleverer about how you use it than most people are when evaluating ultimate or religious claims. Think of a telescope that captures unique and valuable parts of the spectrum but distorts images wildly. You have to learn how to correct for the distortions in order for the telescope to be of any use. Unexpectedly, this skill takes years to master. But it’s worth the investment!

          • Y. A. Warren

            “No human group can survive if its central unifying claim is a literal one. ”

            I disagree. The need to eat is a unifying factor in all human groups.

          • connorwood

            But no group uses eating as its central totem – any group that did would not last long. You need inspirational and non-falsifiable symbols and totems to make long-term group life work.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I think you are wrong in this, and that this is why so much “sacred” ritual is focused on feeding the faithful. It has simply been taken out of the home and actual committed community into false tribal groups of religious “kingdoms.”

          • Surprise123

            “No human group can survive if its central unifying claim is a literal one. ” Interesting. I wonder how the modern, central unifying claim of “nationality,” loyalty to a literal designated land and the people who live there, plays out, and how that differs from other, unifying claims based upon loyalty to supernatural realms?
            I’m guessing that unifying claims based on nationality are less potent than unifying claims based on religion, in the long run.

          • connorwood
          • Surprise123

            All language is metaphor. I hadn’t thought it about it that way. Sure, some language does a better job at separating the “signal” (useful, empirical based reality useful to the individual) from the “noise” (useful, allegorical based reality required to create an in-group), but, still, it’s all metaphor. It has to be because language is a tool to create meaning between two or more people, based on their unique, SUBJECTIVE experiences. Experiences that are formed by their own unique and often faulty five senses, and past history.
            Perhaps “Signal” and “Noise” are not the most appropriate metaphors, however: “Noise” is a negative term. Perhaps “Particle” and “Wave” would be more apt? “Wave” seems to fit the need for metaphorical coherence in language, a coherence that is often provided by all-encompassing ideologies (both religious or secular).

        • Y. A. Warren

          There is a difference between metaphor and simile. Unfortunately, many people are not sophisticated enough in their thinking to understand metaphor, and the religious and other rulers use this to cause fear in their “subjects.”

          • Surprise123

            Employing metaphor to instill fear is certainly not uniquely confined to the religious and other rulers. Storytellers surround us, whether they be marketeers, intent on selling us physical services or products; or movie directors and gaming programmers, intent on temporarily suspending our states of disbelief; or posters on online comment boards, intent on convincing us of their positions.
            The important thing isn’t whether storytellers are religious or not, but whether they do so under false pretenses, or ignore / are in denial about the evident harm that their stories create.
            Anti-religionists make the mistake of 1) assuming (without empirical evidence) that most religious clerics operate under false pretenses; and 2) assuming (again, without empirical evidence) that all religious claims are harmful, which is patently false.
            No-one, anti-religionist or otherwise, has conducted empirically sound experiments based upon these assumptions, much less conducted peer reviewed systemic analysis of the advantages versus the disadvantages of religion in people’s lives.
            These are System 1 assumptions (as Daniel Kahneman might tell you in the video above), which have not been tested using System 2 empiricism and analysis.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I am painfully aware that not only religion seeks to reduce us to control by fear. The problem is in those who seek to make religion the greatest marketer of fear. How powerful are you when you can, not only kill people, but send them to eternal physical and mental suffering?

            This paradigm for control is many millenia in the making. it seems to be based on reducing humans back to our least sophisticated (evolved) animal instincts. We must tread lightly and compassionately in introducing humanity to another way of creating community.

          • Surprise123

            “The problem is in those who seek to make religion the greatest marketer of fear.” Yes, I completely agree with you: those that market fear alone, and especially those who do so under false pretenses, or who do so while ignoring the harm their fear-inspiring stories cause, are incorrigible. But, that has rarely been the religious clerics of my own religion (they were never that powerful as salvation was dependent upon one’s individual relationship with Jesus Christ — a Priest or Pastor could never “send a Christian to Hell”)

            Besides, even assuming that certain clerics emphasize the torments of Hell (which, again, the Priests of my religious sect don’t), they also preach hope, grace, and community.

            “This paradigm for control is many millenia in the making.” Wow. That’s quite a statement. Can you unpack that for me?
            And, frankly, in this modern day, atomizing, alienating culture of the West, should our #1 fear really be that of religion instilling fear? Commercial marketeers, while assuring us that, as adults, we all have free will and are never influenced by advertising (unless we want to be) are spending millions upon millions of dollars in scientific research in order to enflame the desires or anxieties of individuality and sell their products.
            I find it almost amusing, if it weren’t so tragic: anti-religionists are so very keen on expelling religion from our the public sphere, while remaining oblivious to commercial interests that promote individuality, greed, and self-absorption.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I am not a behavioral scientist, but I am aware of a great deal that is going on inn the behavioral scientist world of study. What motivates people is of great interest to many disciplines in thought, including psychology, psychiatry, religion, education, business management, and parenting.

            Fear is a very primal instinct, and can be instilled even when there is actually no threat. So much of the control of animals, including humans, over the ages has been by building bases of fear.

            Earthly rulers create shortages which they control in order to enforce the roles of fear. Religious rulers have used the same tactics to control the behaviors of others. What can be scarier than a “father” who creates a “son” to die as punishment for the “sins” of another “son” and “daughter” committed centuries before?

            What poses as followers of Jesus in much of organized “Christianity” is not true to what I believe Jesus taught. So many impose fear on others, rather than seeking to understand and soothe others. They even make “eternal salvation” a competition for only so many homes in “heaven.”

            Greed and jealousy have plagued humanity since the beginning of time. Only the individual can turn away from following these paths of self-imposed fear. Religions should provide antidotes to these issues, but instead they build great monuments to their piety, and spend their time and money on self-congratulation.

            Religions are following, and using as marketing ploys, the weaknesses of humans, rather than setting examples for the Jesus way of influencing others. We need more dedicated deeds and less dogmatic creeds.

      • Y. A. Warren

        My experience is that most people are not nuanced in their thinking. They believe all kinds of things that are obviously not true simply to continue to belong to a familiar group. People do take literally what they are told from birth… “All mothers love their children.”; God is a male (father)”; “Bad karma is the reason bad things happen to people.”; ‘People are born with sins on their souls.”

        This is why I am so against religions. They have been perverted by the powerful “priests” and “prophets” to gain control of the spirits of their followers.

      • http://joannevalentinesimson.wordpress.com/ ValPas

        Connor, the point is that a GREAT many people still believe that the myths they’ve been told in church or synagogue or temple or Madrassa are, indeed Truth.
        You may be limiting your interactions too much to academics and thinkers to see the dangers of the fantasies and magical thinking that pervade our contemporary society. It’s not that such fantasies didn’t pervade previous society. But humanity was much less numerous, less powerful, and less dangerous previously. It’s no longer a time for magical thinking.

        • connorwood

          ValPas, I think you overestimate the extent to which religion and religious belief poses a danger to society on its own merits. Ever since 9/11, it’s been de rigeur for intellectuals to look to religion as the source of all threats to civilization. But the terrorist actions against the West are rooted in colonialist tensions. A good example of how religion gets conflated with political agendas is the fact that Iran is generally thought to be anti-West for fundamentalist Islamic reasons. However, the biggest source of the Western/Iranian tension is the fact that the United States sponsored a coup in 1953 to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran and install a dictatorial shah. Religion is a proxy, and a convenient one for us Westerners – it allows us to imagine that the problem lies in others’ “magical thinking,” not in our own history of futzing with the affairs of other cultures.

          So where else is religion creating massive problems for society? In the environment? I’ll give you something there. But that’s not because people believe myths; it’s because religious people tend not to be oriented toward large-scale, systemic problems, but instead toward local and personal-scale problems. The way to fix this is to stop making religious people feel as if the scientific/cosmopolitan outlook is a threat to their communities, faiths, and ways of life – as I’ve warned on this blog before (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/08/steven-pinker-stop-bashing-religion-its-hurt-science/#more-816. As long as religious people feel that science-minded folks want their cultures and religions to disappear, you bet that they’ll be leery of scientific authority.

          The fact that, for example, Francis Collins, head of the NIH and former director of the Human Genome Project, is a devout Evangelical Christian shows that it’s not a contradiction in terms for someone to have a keen scientific mind as well as religious faith. Elaine Ecklund’s work on the religious beliefs of scientists backs this up. I can’t condone the position that religious “myths” are somehow to blame for all our problems; the truth is far more complex, and less palatable to cosmopolitan sensibilities, than that. The major threats coming to human existence right now are coming from ecological destruction derived from economic expansion, and that economic greed isn’t sourced in religion. It’s sourced in Enlightenment individualism, Smithian economics, and the irreligious assumption of the fungibility of human actors in an abstract, culture- and value-free marketplace.

  • nicooley

    Interesting point Connor. This is also how relationship and healing happen in my line of work, drama therapy. It relies upon therapist and client entering into the “playspace” together for transformation to occur. For some great reading, check out Winnicot on liminal space, and David Reade Johnson on drama thearpy, developmental transformations, and playspace.

    • connorwood

      “Playspace” is a great concept! And Winnicot is already on my list of favorite psychologists. It would be interesting to read him in conversation with Victor and Edith Turner, the two anthropologists who talk the most (in my experience) about liminality.

      I haven’t read D.R. Johnson, though – I’ll check him out!

    • Y. A. Warren

      It is a tragedy how many in the pastoral care and therapy fields misuse people in the “playspace.”

  • Jim

    As an example of the above, I was recently called to the emergency room to visit a woman whose husband had died suddenly. When I arrived, I saw the usual people who are there for this kind of situation: family and close friends. But one person surprised me. I saw a man who was at best an acquaintance of hers, who dropped everything when he heard. He raced over to the hospital to be with the widow. The only way he knew the woman was through the shared experience of ritual in a local congregation.

  • Robert

    There’s a line in the movie, Stand by Me, when the narrator (based on Stephen King) reflects on the adventurous journey he and his friends take to find a dead body: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” I never really understood that until I was well into adulthood. It was then I saw that so many relationships, including many of my own, were so much thinner and less satisfying than those I had when I was a kid.

    I think Connor touches on a big reason here. I remember when I was a kid, it was that sense of shared adventure, an appreciation of something that captures the imagination that binds us together. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes, “We appreciate what we share; we do not appreciate what we receive.”

    I’d just add, particularly in response to ortcutt, that what captures kids’ imagination–baseball, Star Wars, etc.–is not perceived of as unreal or an escape. Rather, they are different ways of looking at the world. Kids who are enthralled by Star Wars know on one level that it is not the reality they live in, but at the same time, it’s an alternate universe that enlarges their way of looking at the world. They know baseball is a game, but it doesn’t stop them from becoming passionate about the victories of their favorite teams. In both instances, after glimpsing something larger than themselves, they come back to their own worlds slightly changed.

    It’s the same thing, I think, with religious services. They is not real in the sense that it is not the reality we inhabit during our quotidian week, but they allow us somehow (when they work correctly) to view something higher so that when we return to the week we are refreshed and renewed. A world in which God is so close that you can drink his blood or eat of his body during the Eucharist in an alternate reality. But it’s one that expands our vision of our own worlds rather than provide merely an escape. And it’s this shared experience that makes for stronger bonds between people than the ones often tinged with commercial exchanges we experience in our competitive everyday lives.

    • Y. A. Warren

      “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes, “We appreciate what we share; we do not appreciate what we receive.”

      How true.

  • Y. A. Warren

    This is my all-time favorite blog post EVER!!! It is about time some science types stop making fun of the world’s dreamers. Scientists also have their own “secret” languages and societies. I’m simply tired of people stepping on each other’s joy. Thank you for this. I will be sharing.

    I still make good friends because I approach people from my six-year-old self, even though I’m 62.

  • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

    accepting supernatural claims creates emotional bonds between people

    As does the skill of understanding the wonders of the world, neat.

    youtube.com/watch?v=8g4d-rnhuSg

  • Aaron

    These thoughts throw into even greater relief the whole drama of the Christian claim, this “myth become fact.” Lewis puts it well:

    It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. “Look out!” we cry, “it’s alive.” And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back–I would have done so myself if I could–and proceed no further with Christianity. An “impersonal God”–well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads–better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap–best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband–that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God”!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?

  • amanimal

    Hi Connor, I’m new to ‘patheos’, but have been following the IBCSR’s ‘Science On Religion’ for a year or more, and reading the literature coming out of the cognitive science of religion for a few years. That said …

    When I have occasion to take my teenage daughter to the pediatrics office where her doctor practices, she reads the children’s books to me while we wait for her appointment. It is as you describe, a bonding experience, possibly ritualistic in the way that my daughter and I enact it. So, “mildly alarming”? – not in the least.

    “But we also play.”

    I’m still reading the Google Books preview of ‘Ritual and Its Consequences’, but this brings to mind shades of Robert Bellah’s ‘Religion in Human Evolution’ which I have yet to read, but have read much about:

    ‘The Big Bang – Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution waxes cosmic on the origins of faith’
    http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/018_03/8302

    One very minor criticism: “… friendships that stand through the ages.” – Doesn’t “through the ages” imply a span of time that exceeds a lifetime, ie hundreds, if not thousands, of years or more?

    To conclude, it should be obvious to all that we’re not a rational species and likely never will be. To my mind, our survival as a species is the result of the primacy of the unconscious and the spontaneous, and instantaneous, reaction to existential threats that it provides. To quote a recent piece that appeared at ‘Salon.com’:

    “The power of emotion over reason isn’t a bug in our human operating systems, it’s a feature.”

    ‘Scientists’ depressing new discovery about the brain’
    http://www.salon.com/2013/09/17/the_most_depressing_discovery_about_the_brain_ever_partner/

    … depressing it may be, but that’s simply the reality of the situation as we currently understand it. As Daniel Kahneman said:

    “If we want to communicate with people who are not experts, not scientists, if we want to be effective in communication, we should speak to their System 1[the unconscious] and that is a different way. It almost necessarily involves stories.”

    Daniel Kahneman, ‘Thinking That We Know’ from last year’s Sackler Colloquium ‘The Science of Science Communication’
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=di6kl4ViWgk

    • connorwood

      Thanks for this reply and video, Amanimal. I’m looking forward to checking it out!

      • amanimal

        You’re most welcome Connor – hope you find it as illuminating as I
        did. I went right out and picked up a copy of ‘Thinking, Fast and
        Slow’ and was rewarded with a fascinating read.

  • Guest

    Ya know what,I could get behind this except their are far to many people think it’s real. 30% of Catholics in thecU.S. think transubstantiation is real, not a metaphor, not symbolism, real. The Church teaches that it’s real. It is also busy teaching 6 day creation again, and that Noahs flood was real. The problem is that their are wwaaaaayyyyy too many people who think what they are getting is truh. Their are way too many people who then use those teachings in politics. The whole thing becomes toxic to society.

    • Brian

      Yes, there are times when it feels like the whole world is running on snake oil.

      There is this dude down in South America who claims he can cure things like cancer, by “operating” on your photo. You send him a photo from anywhere in the world and he cures you “remotely”.

      He now has a few promoters like Oprah and Wayne Dyer. They stress that he does all this for free, so where is the harm, even it is just a fantasy?

      Wayne is currently spicing up his endorsement by subtly implying that his remission from leukemia is some sort of rare event which should qualify as a miracle. He credits this miracle to several mystical sources including this faith healer.

      I also am in remission from leukemia following a course of chemo therapy. My Oncologist who has been applying rigorous medical science to the problem of cancer for over 40 years, assures me that remission is now quite common among leukemia patients; although relapses are still quite common.

      Anyway back to our cure for cancer by remote control.

      If you check out his website, you will find that the free of charge bit is not exactly true.

      In order for him to do his thing on your photo, you need to purchase about 50 quids worth of herbs.

      Now that is not a bad business model in my book. His costs amount to the cost of his herbs plus postage. The rest could easily amount to chucking your photo in a drawer while he enjoys the profits from the price of your herbs.

      So, where is the harm?

      Well, has anyone researched the potential harmful side effects from ingesting the herbs?

      And one thing I can tell you about being diagnosed with cancer is that it kicks off a real emotional roller coaster ride. To think of quacks exploiting this vulnerability for a quick buck, absolutely disgusts me.

      And of course, this guy is not an isolated case. Snake oil as a business model has been on the rise for at least 30 years. I gather that the strictures of the Great Depression saw people to be more cautious for a while, but from the 70′s onwards, gullibility seems to have become increasingly de riguer

      And peddlers like Oprah, Benny Hinn and Oral Roberts have a lot to answer for.

      And if you are worried about being labelled a closed minded skeptic, just remember that just because you are paranoid, doesn’t mean the bastards aren’t out to take you down.

      Save your faith for the scientific method.

  • http://joannevalentinesimson.wordpress.com/ ValPas

    And maybe this is why people become so entrapped in the fantasies that distort their experiences, and why they keep turning to mythology to frame problems that require a reality-based solution.
    This post has been sitting in my inbox for more than a week, and I finally read it just now. It brought me up short because of a disturbing conversation I had this afternoon with a would-be friend, who is looking for “magic” in a relationship. (She’s now an “old” person, still not finding what she wanted in life.) I didn’t know what to say to her, and I don’t know what to say to this blog post.
    Usually I’m a great fan, Connor, as you know, but this one feels all wrong – or if it’s right, then we’re doomed. Now I need to explore this issue in much greater depth in my own mind and try to figure out why it makes me discouraged about the whole future of humankind!

    • connorwood

      ValPas,

      It might help you to learn that the role imaginative games play in human relationships is one of my very favorite things about humans. What I’m essentially talking about it play, and play is defined by a relaxed field, freedom from immediate survival goals, and restrained capacities (holding back so you don’t beat up the smaller guy). Perhaps one reason why humans depend on imaginative collaboration for relationships is because such imagination games signify or even index the lack of immediate survival threats – that is, we enjoy playing imagination games with each other in part because playing games must mean that nothing is trying to eat or kill us right then, which is good news!

      Also, Rappaport, Atran, and other anthropologists of religion have pointed out that no culture can base its identity on falsifiable truth claims, for the simple fact that such claims probably would eventually be falsified – which would do major damage to the allegiance of individuals to the culture. For example, the US motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” is not a falsifiable statement; it makes no truth claims that are specific enough to ever be compared against concrete realities. Therefore, this is a good motto for a nation; it inspires, allows people to project their own meanings onto it, and won’t ever lose its power because something made it seem less plausible. “Every Family Will Own a House and a Car” is a terrible motto for a nation, because of course it won’t take long before reality diverges significantly from such a specific, falsifiable truth claim. People will look around and say, “Hey! LOTS of people don’t own houses and cars!” And the motto, and the nation that’s associated with it, will take a significant hit in credibility and trust.

      So don’t think of the human need for imagination as an infantile quest for falsehood; think of it as a creative expression of play in a biological world that is often trying to kill us, as well as a canny understanding of the limitations of specific truth claims when it comes to binding groups together.

      • http://joannevalentinesimson.wordpress.com/ ValPas

        Connor, Thank you for your lengthy reply. I better understand where you’re coming from. And I certainly agree that play (nonthreatening activity that exercises the body and/or the mind) is an important mode of human bonding, as it is with other social species. What is problematical to me is the notion that IMAGINARY play should be considered the foundational source of long-term bonding. I know that what you say is true of most church communities, and that is what disturbs me. I belong to the Unitarian Church, however, and our imaginative, social sorties are not construed as reality.
        I enjoy fiction as much as the next person (and even write it sometimes). But I have seldom–that I can remember–bonded around imaginary play since childhood. Moreover, other than with my sister, I have retained no childhood friendships. My childhood neighbors and classmates were mostly religious fundamentalists and not particularly interested in science or the way the larger world works. I was one of two children of my class in school who “believed” in evolution; one of my other friends said she was praying for me. I have long since left that environment.
        Adult friendships, going back to college days (more than half a century ago) are still alive and well, though, and virtually all of these are based on shared real-life experiences as well as journeys of the mind, trying to understand the nature of reality, whether romantic, scientific, social, or historical–studying together, going to events together, planning for our futures. O.K., I’ll grant that the latter involves imagination, but it’s the type of imagination that can be transformed into reality.
        The other type of imagination, fantasy (which seems to be what you are talking about here) leads to false assumptions and stupid life decisions if it becomes the core of community bonding. And I’ll agree that community bonding IS key to human survival. This is surely why religions formed and have been major human institutions since the beginning of recorded time.
        Maybe the comment by “Guest” (below, 3 days ago) intends to make the point I’m trying to make a lot more directly. I probably should have read the other responses before submitting my own.

        • connorwood

          See my reply above, ValPas. I don’t think it’s so useful to equate religion with magical thinking, although some religious thinking is magical and unhelpful. You seem to have been exposed to some very fundamentalist strains of Protestantism in your youth, but this groups are not very exemplary of religion in the US or around the world. They’re also very much the product of modernity; “The Fundamentals” were in a large part a response to scientific popularizing that cast religion as the enemy. Before the mid- to late 19th century, literalist readings of the Bible were rare. The defensiveness you’ve experienced in religious world views is in very large part a sociological reaction to existential assaults on the part of scientific popularizers and cultural currents that cast rational thinking as opposed to religious thinking. Those patterns have stabilized by now, leaving us with an increasingly large gulf between religious and scientific cultures. This is a very bad thing, because it means we’re not likely to get much agreement on how to tackle the big issues. The only solution I can think of is detente, and a backtracking on the 2-century-old strategy of boosting science’s public esteem by cutting away at religion’s.

        • connorwood

          ValPas, I just came back to this post to check up on some recently added comments, and happened to reread my replies to you here and above. I wanted to apologize; I think I did more lecturing than engaging, and that’s not how I like to come across. I still think it’s important not to overstate how much religions encourage magical thinking, but in the future I hope I express myself less heavy-handedly!


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