Don’t Think Too Hard; You’ll Kill God (Day Nine)

Don’t Think Too Hard; You’ll Kill God (Day Nine) May 10, 2012

Amy and I covered Los Angeles on foot today. This morning we walked from Marina Del Rey to the Santa Monica Pier by way of Venice Beach, stopping for coffee on the pier. After lunch we walked over to a street called Abbot Kinney, which has been rated (by whom, I’m not sure) as the coolest street in America. I’m not entirely sure about that, but if coolness is measured by the number of storefronts with no names and containing items I couldn’t name, let alone use or afford, then yeah, it’s pretty cool.

When you spend several hours in a day walking, you have a lot of time to think. My mind wandered to a number of topics, but I spent some time thinking about the second article I mentioned being sent recently, which measured the relationship between people’s religious beliefs and the type of thinking they depend on in certain situations.

First, the study divides human thought into “intuitive” thought and “analytical” thought. The former is used in situations when you trust your gut, like knowing when someone is angry, or getting a sense for how to act in a certain social environment. The latter emphasizes problem solving, which is a slower, more intentional process of thought.

In other words, when you’re thinking analytically, you generally know you are. Intuitive thought comes more naturally, at least for most folks. When it comes to an aspie-type guy like me, the intuitive thinking actually is more of a challenge. That’s why we often connect with super intuitive types, like Amy. They act as socio-cultural interpreters and bridges for those of us who can’t read people and social situations as well.

And given the findings of this study, it makes sense that Amy was a minister and I wanted nothing to do with religion when we met.

Basically, the study found that people who thought more analytically tended to be less religiously inclined than those who were intuitive thinkers. Not exactly a revelation. I know, but they also found that religious sentiment could be manipulated. For example, when a survey about religious beliefs was given to a random sample of people but was printed in a strange font (which apparently triggers analytical, interpretive thought) the respondents scored lower on religious conviction than another random group who took the same survey in a more familiar font.

That’s pretty cool, if you ask me.

The title of the article was a little weird, I thought; it was called, “To Keep the Faith, Don’t Get Analytical.” However, the researchers were careful to point out that, even in manipulating people’s thought processes (and therefore their religious convictions, at least in the moment), they were “not turning people into atheists.” The differences were small but significant, statistically speaking.

But for me, it totally made sense. Amy is incredibly intuitive, and she enjoys a faith that I find sort of mysterious. This extends beyond God to faith in other people too: another quality I tend to lack. When I met her, she was already serving in ministry, while I hadn’t darkened the door of a church in a decade. I got in trouble in church in the first place for doubting and questioning, which seemed to rub up against the more intuitive faith of those in my church at the time.

The message I got was that critical thought and faith simply didn’t mix. But in the more “progressive” mainline churches, I found a space in which such challenging questions were welcome. Small wonder, I guess, that some folks view such denominations and churches as fomenting atheism beneath the cloak of Christianity. Although the following paragraph from the article really resonated for me:

“It’s very difficult to distinguish between what a person believes and what they say they believe,” says Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel laureate at Princeton University who has done pioneering work on the contributions of intuitive and analytical thinking to human decision making. “All they have shown, and all that can be shown, is that when you’re thinking more critically you reject statements that otherwise you would endorse,” Kahneman says. “It tells you that there are some religious beliefs people hold that if they were thinking more critically, they themselves would not endorse.”

So if this is the case, the fear coming from other religious folks might be precisely because they don’t actually believe, deep down inside, everything they claim to believe. So of course, when those claimed beliefs are challenged, folks tend to get a little defensive.

It seems to me that a number of postmodern theologians like John Caputo, Peter Rollins, Jacques Derrida and the like are exploring this more analytical mindspace and where – if at all – faith fits. To me, at the heart of postmodern theology is an effort to deconstruct these beliefs we claim, but which end up being emotional or psychological crutches rather than beliefs one can examine and still maintain. For example, postmodern theology challenges this idea of God as an anthropomorphic “other,” resting instead in the tension of what Caputo calls the “perhaps.”

It’s not hard to understand why lots of folks are howling that such postmodern theology is yet another subversive form of atheism, intent on killing God once and for all. But if, in fact, it helps strip away those things we cling to but which we really don’t believe deep, down inside, how can this be anything but a good thing? Yes, some worry that if they strip away the self-made and institutionally promoted constructs of faith on which we lean, there will be nothing left.

But if that’s really all there is to our religion, aren’t we better off without it anyway?

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  • I am highly analytical, so my faith looks very different than my wife’s, who is much more of a feeler. Yet that is how I relate to God and would be very unsatisfied with a “because I said so faith.”

    But one of the most important lessons I have had to learn is that the mind, as well as the heart, can easily mislead us. The problem with being analytical is not that the mind leads you away from God but the assumption that the mind is capable of understanding everything that needs to be understood.