Don’t believe everything you hear about belief.
A few months ago the RSA and New Humanist magazine tried to move along an important discussion that had become a little tired – New Atheism: What now for the Science Religion Debate?
It seems that many are a little fed up with the tired exchanges that take the approximate form: “You Believers are deluded wishful thinkers and scientifically illiterate (or at least scientifically challenged) vs You Atheists are soulless and methodologically blinkered, with little philosophical nous and no imagination.” And so it goes on. Lots of heat and very little light.
The event featured a few promising notes, but my overall impression is that we probably didn’t move the debate along a great deal. Indeed, Religious commentator Mark Vernon wrote as much in the Guardian the next day.
Perhaps the reason this ‘debate’ seems stuck, and each side appears to be talking over the other, is that there is a lack of a shared ontology. Words like ‘faith’, ‘belief’, ‘God’, ‘reason’ and ‘science’ are bandied about without sufficient pause to consider the assumptions on which such big terms ultimately rest.
To take one example, ‘belief’, what it means to believe something depends upon broader assumptions about human culture and cognition. There is a tendency, I think especially on the atheist side, to view belief propositionally i.e. To believe is to unproblematically endorse a factual state of affairs e.g. ‘God exists’. So “I believe in God”, on this account, means something like I(isolated reflective agent) believe(think/ascribe/accept) in(I opt into the idea)God(a personal deity with certain divine properties).
However, there is a strong argument that belief is not like this at all. The whole premise of Social Brain, as unpacked in our reports is that we need to move beyond simplistic accounts of individual rational agents, and think of what follows from the idea that we are fundamentally social creatures, by which I mean that we evolved through and for social interactions, such that our thoughts, feelings and actions are constituted by the myriad of relationships in which we are invariably embedded.
Professor Gordon Lynch, FRSA, has developed this idea in his scholarship, including the following series of thoughts from Object Theory: Toward an Intersubjective, mediated and synamic theory of religion, in the book: Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief.
“The unquestioned status of propositional models of belief within the sociology of religion arguably reflects a lack of theoretical discussion within this field about the nature of the person as a social agent. A common default is to emphasize the autonomous, reflexive individuals striving to construct their own religious belief-system and lifestyle which becomes a centre for their way of acting in the world (…)”
Why is this default problematic?
“An emphasis on individuality fails to recognise the ways in which our lives are embedded and negotiated through a network of relationships with family, partners, colleagues and friends, as well as through face-to-face, mediated or imagined relations with other communities or groups.”
“The exercise of choice-removed from the commitments, emotions, memories, possibilities, aspirations and constraints associated with these relationships- is a rare phenomenon. We are-quite literally, in developmental terms-relational beings before being autonomous, and whatever autonomy we experience in our lives is always nested within our relationships.”
And so what?
You are not going to bulldoze your way through belief with rationality, because it is not ‘rationally’ constituted. That said, there is a huge difference between belief being supra-rational(transcending rationality), or perhaps a-rational(not related to rationality), than belief simply being ‘irrational’(non rational) which is the charge that is most often made.
The argument that belief is socially constituted is philosophical in nature, but it is scientifically grounded, and might help to advance the discussion on belief.
So what now?
Well, maybe that’s one promising way to try to re-set the Science-Religion debate.