Contra Pinker on religion

-The content of Pinker’s observations about the connection between religious ritual and human cognitive mechanisms all ring true, but he frames these observations as debunking religion when in fact they might just as well be sermon material for priests who are seeking to explain the purpose of their rituals. I’d bet that Pinker himself knows this, and if he were challenged he’d explain how he was simply shocked, shocked that anyone would take his description of psychological mechanisms as proving that their objects were false. This would save him from the charge of being uninformed about something psychologists have known clearly since William James, but it would place such an absurdly large disclaimer on his comments that it’s hard to see why he would bother to make them.

-Religion is unnatural in the same way any education is. We might naturally learn language or know how to nurse, but the higher achievements of human life require symbols with powers of totem and taboo. I hand out a lot of grades, I work in a place that has both uniforms and dress codes, I’ve had to participate in ceremonial pomp and meals, we have sports teams that are treated as vicarious personifications of the school and are supported with chants and symbols etc. Schools* do all this to recognize the great good that we offer through the education, and the sense in which this overcomes our natural desires is only a sense in which natural desires must be overcome.

-The science of the scientist is, of itself, just as hidden as the God of the priests and consecrated persons. The great majority of persons have no more direct or distinct experience of God than they have a justified insight into scientific claims, and the way in which they could learn the science for themselves if they only had the time and talent is the same way in which they could become preternaturally holy and achieve the unitive way if they only had the time and talent.  If I, lacking the science, trust your testimony about dark matter or global warming (probably after it’s backed up by anecdotes, a gesture at some data, the social pressure to believe, and my sense that you just sound like a smart guy) then I’m in a cognitive state called faith. Taking a pragmatist approach, we come to know the value of science by its fruits in technology just as we know the value of religion though the holiness of the saints. In good logic, Pinker sees the value that many give to holiness as disordered and mistaken,  but there are all sorts of persons who say the same thing about technology.

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*And the military, and (some) corporations and all nations and supreme polities…

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1 Comment

  1. c emerson talmage said,

    March 24, 2016 at 5:24 pm

    I enjoy your blog, but I feel you do a disservice here to both science and religion by comparing them as the same form of knowledge or faith about something. Science is a methodology about testing an hypothesis about physical events, and then gradually improving the statement of theory that best describes the results, or rejecting or revolutionizing that theory if empirical results falsify it. The faith one develops about a religious hypothesis is not similarly based on empirical analyses. “Jesus is the Son of God” versus “Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah” is not testable by any scientific methodology. Faith in a religious proposition and confidence in scientific theory are not coterminus. Best wishes.


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