Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wool-gathering in the third week of Lent

Two interesting bits from Huffington Post's "Religion" section that I just want to highlight during the season of Lent.

First, an atheist among evangelicals finds out the latter are people, too:

There's a widespread impression among evangelicals that secular progressives would like to see them flushed out of the culture. Look at the strange currency of the war on Christmas, an annual pageant of outrage that from my point of view seems like goofy satire. Many evangelical Christians buy into it because in them resides a potent fear of endangerment, for which there's plenty of real-world evidence: a lot of secular progressives treat evangelicals with derision, the media feeds a public appetite for exposes on their churches, and we celebrate when their leaders are disgraced, humiliated, or revealed as enjoying the same behaviors they built careers on decrying as sin.

So the notion that they'd trust a liberal, atheist writer to fairly represent their stories, or that they'd act naturally around me, knowing the filter through which I was viewing them, was just unrealistic.
As for the dogmatism of evangelicals:

A secondary surprise was that I felt implicated in the ignorance I observed -- relating to gay rights, to the environment, to feminism. I started to believe that their reactionary attitudes on these subjects were a result of profound insularity, which itself seemed the legacy of a culture that rejected them: mine. Why would they open themselves up to influence from a culture that made no space for their beliefs?
And then there's that question of understanding the other:

The book's appeal for secular progressives, I hope, is implicit. I think we like to think of ourselves as very tolerant, but we're comfortable being nasty to evangelical Christians. I think Internet culture has really exacerbated this attitude. It allows for hostility that would be unacceptable in life, where interacting with flesh and blood people counteracts any budding impulse to reduce someone to a disgusting cartoon. So I want this book to restore some humanity.

I'd hope that evangelicals would be interested in reading the book to see how their ideas and culture translate to a person working very hard to take them seriously, who nonetheless doesn't share their central beliefs.
Interesting what responses resentment breeds; they are seldom helpful ones. I have family members who could easily be described as very conservative in their religious beliefs, if not "evangelicals" in the Thomas Road Baptist Church sense of the word. I keep my theology to myself around them, mostly out of respect. I have friends who are very conservative religiously, and I treat them with the same respect. I find it works better than demonizing them, and I find it hard to demonize them since I know them personally. On the intertubes, however, who do I know personally, except those I already agree with?

And then, although I'm hardly an expert on neurobiology, neurology, brain structure, or even how much neuro-science explains how we think, this seems to me to be contrary to the popular press reports that religious belief is the product of a particular, and peculiar, part of the brain:
Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, used functional MRI to evaluate brain activity in 15 devout Christians and 15 nonbelievers as the volunteers assessed the truth or falsity of a series of statements, some of which were religious (“angels exist”) and others nonreligious (“Alexander the Great was a very famous military ruler”). They found that when a subject believed a statement—whether it was religious or not—activity appeared in an area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is an area associated with emotions, rewards and self-representation.


“The fact that we found the same brain processing between believers and nonbelievers, despite the two groups’ completely different answers to the questions [about religion], is pretty surprising,” says Jonas Kaplan, a research psy­chologist at U.C.L.A. and co-author of the study. The finding adds to the mounting evidence against the notion, popular in the scientific community as well as among the general public, that religious faith is somehow different from other types of belief, explains co-author Sam Harris, also of U.C.L.A. In contrast to this assumption, he says, “Believing the sun is a star is rather the same as believing Jesus was born of a virgin.”
Some of this leads directly into what Wittgenstein would call "language games," as the word "believe" is subject to varying interpretations depending upon the context (does a religious believer really "believe" in her religious doctrine the way another "believes" the sun is a star?). But the fact that the same brain function is involved in processing either type of information is...interesting.

BTW: I'm pretty sure The Onion has been reading my blog.


  1. Yup. Yet again, the dividing line is obscured; scientists have faith in their conclusions, and the assumptions underlying them, as much as anyone has faith in anything. If one wants to distinguish science, that isn't the place to do it. Richard Feynman noted his father's observation that, while a moving object has inertia, nobody knows why. It may well be turtles all the way down, but human beings can't see all of 'em.

    So here's an interesting article:

    A dangerous idea has taken hold in modern politics, and the sooner it is discredited, the better. The idea is that political disagreements can be resolved by science. Its basic logic seems sensible: As good children of the Enlightenment, we should turn to science to establish the facts about problems such as climate change before deciding what policies to implement. Yet the types of things that scientists are good at figuring out don't have much to do with the types of things that politicians need to decide.

    It's been tempting for many of us, with the example of the Busherregnum before us, to applaud the Enlightenment uncritically. Worth reconsidering, that...

  2. Anonymous7:54 AM

    Having been busy the last several days with unimportant stuff, I'd come here to make a query, which oddly dovetails with this post.

    Leading from reading William James a lot this past year, I've become interested in Borden Parker Browne but am having trouble finding his books. I was wondering if you had any clues as to how I could find them.

    Personalism, not as a philosophy of the universe but informing human thought and action has interested me a lot more as I go on. While some of the Catholic personalism - mostly French but some through Catholic Worker --- I'd known most about before is good, I find its contemporary manifestation, especially online, disturbing and off-putting. I don't think that it's how it necessarily had to turn out. I'm not advocating a wholesale revival of personalism but the little I've read about Browne is enticing.

    Anthony McCarthy

  3. Anonymous7:57 AM

    And that Onion post, I never use photos or graphics. And my typical post runs at least seven hundred words. I got flack several times this past week for using long sentences too.

    Just wait till I've read more late 19th century stuff.

    Anthony McCarthy

  4. Just wait till I've read more late 19th century stuff.

    Yeah, I'm back on my 19th century novels binge; reading "The Count of Monte Cristo," which is SO GREAT! (Really!). But no pictures! and great blocks of text!

    Still, it's not Proust, whose sentences can go on for over a page....

  5. Love 'Count', and Bester's rewrite of it, too...

  6. Love 'Count', and Bester's rewrite of it, too...

    Yeah, I'm mentally comparing the two, because I love Bester's version.

  7. Sherri6:30 PM

    I have a complicated relationship with conservative evangelicals, having been raised in that culture. I don't discuss religion with anybody in my family; it never goes well, because anything I say that disagrees with what they believe tends to result in my being told that I need to "get right with God." I'm not interested in demonizing them or evangelicals in general, but I do question the notion that evangelicals want respect from the secular culture. In the environment I grew up in, a lack of respect from the world at large was a badge of honor; you were supposed to be converting the world, not being converted to the world.

  8. I'm not interested in demonizing them or evangelicals in general, but I do question the notion that evangelicals want respect from the secular culture. In the environment I grew up in, a lack of respect from the world at large was a badge of honor; you were supposed to be converting the world, not being converted to the world.

    That's actually more my experience than not. Oddly, evangelicals embrace "the world" far more than many: no problem with TV, or technology, or the comforts of modern American society. "The world" they reject is often the one where they aren't in charge. The world they are interested in is the one where they are in charge.

  9. Anonymous10:49 AM

    Of course, that should have been Borden Parker Bowne.

    I must have been a lot more tired than I'd thought, yesterday.

    Anthony McCarthy

  10. Sherri9:33 PM

    A friend of mine grew up in an even more conservative evangelical world than I did, and he observed that Star Wars was considered evil and anti-Christian for a while, and then it wasn't anymore. It seems to me with popular culture that evangelicals are "against it before they are for it" - they rail against it until they can find a way to co-opt it or convince themselves that it has the message they want it to have, then it's okay. See Christian fiction and Christian music - pop culture with a great big OK stamped on them. As long as it keeps women in their place, that is; can't have the women getting uppity.