>Only theologians really understand religion
Only theologians really understand religion
Contemporary research that focuses on what people may say about God puts the cart before the horse
* Mark Vernon * Monday October 06 2008 09:50 BST
Søran Kierkegaard used to tell parables by way of doing philosophy. One went like this. An ancient Greek was asked to define religion. He asked for time to prepare an answer. When the agreed period had elapsed he asked for some more time, and then more, and more, and so on. In short, he refused to answer. “In this way,” Kierkegaard concludes, “he wished to express symbolically that he regarded the question as unanswerable”.
In the last few days, two pieces of research have hit the headlines purporting to show some aspect of how religion works, and indeed that it does work. One claimed that believers gazing upon images of the Virgin Maryfelt less pain than a control group. Another that religious convictions about the supernatural make us more honest and trusting. Both utilise common assumptions about belief, in the first case that it serves mostly to provide consolation, in the second that it is about avoiding the wrath
of moralising gods.
The researchers would do well to ponder Kierkegaard’s story, or even better, consult a theologian – that is to say, an expert – before presuming too much about the phenomenon they seek to study.
If they did, they might avoid some of the potty conclusions they reach. For example, the Virgin-eases-pain story included the possibility that Our Lady’s analgesic works as well for lapsed Catholics as mass goers. Should this be taken as support for the theological conviction that God is faithful even when we are not?
The serious point is that religions are massively diverse. Many Christians and Muslims may seek salvation from punishment in heaven. Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs don’t. And as for Jews, the third of the Abrahamic religions, “the idea of Hell and eternal damnation is foreign”, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Belief and Religions. Even within one religion, ideas will differ enormously.
Another thing that is striking about the researchers’ understanding of religion is how belief in God is interpreted as a kind of cost-benefit analysis. This piece of economics is, in turn, justified by a certain kind of evolutionary theory. But you don’t need to turn to theologians or philosophers to find unease with such Darwinism.
The primatologist Frans de Waal expressed the concern well in his book Our Inner Ape.
At the same time that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher preached that greed was good for society, good for the economy, and certainly good for those with anything to be greedy about, biologists published books in support of these views.
He is particularly concerned about the notion that altruism stems from egoistic motives, goodwill that arises from the mutual scratching of backs. “Love is unheard of, sympathy is absent, and goodness a mere illusion,” he writes. The critique is all the more powerful since it is not based on philosophical concerns but on empirical evidence. De Waal believes that the chimps and bonobos he has observed understand, demonstrate and even value genuine altruism and empathy.
That there is something distinctly post-Thatcherite about the cost-benefit approach to religion is also suggested by comparing what previous generations of sociologists and economists made of belief. Durkheim is the outstanding example, notably in his seminal study Suicide. It showed that the greater a sense of obligation people have, the less likely they are to want to end it all. And that religion provides the best ties of all.
However, Durkheim was enough of a theologian to realise that it is not beliefs about divinities per se that count. Rather it is the connection with other people that religious practice nurtures which is so valuable. Confessional statements are but a secondary expression of that belonging. Praxis counts, not doxis. In other words, contemporary research that focuses on what people may say about God, puts the cart before the horse. Religion is not the cause, it is the expression of the meaning and significance people find in their lives. It is that meaning and significance which – let us say for the sake of argument – leads them to, say, feel less pain or trust others more.
By interpreting religion from within an essentially economic theory, the researchers exclude what might actually be true about belief. For maybe agnostics, like myself, and atheists should be more open to religion’s challenge? Mightn’t it be the case that belief is associated with greater degrees of trust because believers have seen that the world can actually be trusted? Or to put it another way, just because we have evolved into meaning-seeking creatures doesn’t mean there isn’t meaning out there to be found.