Part three of the four-part epic I started a few days ago :). Outlined in part 1:
“[I like to ask people about causes.] People have said ‘climate change,’ and go on to detail the work they’ve done in that area. ‘Social change,’ and describe their PhD work. ‘Healing.’ ‘Family.’ ‘Faith.’”
And now we’re going in backwards-order: faith.
I went to an International Students dinner a few days ago. I love the International Student dinners—they’re free dinners put on every few months by the Cambridge Christian Graduate Society, and I have never failed to meet thoughtful and interesting people there. This one was my best one yet, because I was seated across from three great people who were open to talking to me about their faith. This isn’t the first long discussion I’ve had with Cambridge students about religion—my roommate and I often end up downstairs in the kitchen as I learn more about Islamic culture.
My personal thoughts on religion boil down to: I believe in human spirituality and the power of religiosity, but not in a “right” religion. This translates onto being an atheist, and my discussions with fellow atheists are almost embarrassingly easy: I’ll mention a story of someone drawing upon religion in a frustrating way and my conversational partner will immediately sympathize and make a disparaging remark. Being around like-minded people, especially sociable and agreeable people (which most at Cambridge are) is soothingly pleasant. Listening to things I don’t believe in always leaves me with the urge to complain to like-minded people afterwards, but I do find it more rewarding.
When thinking about things I don’t believe, one of the ideas I return most often is righteous indignation. Righteous indignation, or righteousness in general, is one of the most fascinating and damaging qualities we have. It arises easily, and prevents me and others from absorbing information to an unparalleled degree. It’s also motivational, and often wrong. Some beliefs are more wrong than others, of course, and perhaps may only be wrong in failing to take into account all the situational variables, but righteousness reflects an inflexibility and narrowness of thinking that I’m always fighting against. It drives how we process information, so we can’t be rid of it, but I’ve come to define open-mindedness as the conscious repression of righteousness.
My conversational partners that night were all tremendously open-minded, as I’ve mentioned in the earlier parts of this post. It was visible from the tone, and from the thoughtfulness and time to contemplate questions and formulate responses. I asked them loads of questions (I’m still working on how to frame disagreements respectfully!) and came out of it unchanged on the large points, but with an increased appreciation of the subtleties: still unconvinced of the truth of the Christian faith specifically, but impressed as always by the details and degree of belief. I love these groups of people: they’ve spent a lot of time and effort evaluating what they believe, and it’s wonderful listening to people who have well-developed and deep convictions.
I was also challenged to think through my own beliefs, which is always an excellent exercise. I was telling Rachael about how I believe that humans are wired—have a deep instinctive pull—towards religion, and how I think that finding a greater force / story / explanation for the world is a deeply human desire, though none of our creations exist outside human minds. She listened thoughtfully, nodded, and asked: “What makes you think that we have this instinct? Do you think there’s an evolutionary explanation?” (I met an unusual number of scientists during this dinner—almost everyone I spoke to, actually.)
I was startled because the reasoning behind my thinking is mostly intuitive, in the same way that I posit religion is intuitive. “I don’t know,” I told her. “I feel like it should be evolutionary? I’ll have to think about that; what do you think?” But in relation to why I believe what I do: “I guess there isn’t a lot of evidence for everything that happens in religious texts.” (She said: there is for some of it, like the fact that Jesus lived. I nodded.) “And, like, intuitively it seems right. That people want to believe something greater—I mean, you see it, everywhere.”
In superstitions and karma and religion and causal explanations and all sorts of psychological experiments like the “hot hand” phenomenon in basketball or our belief in chains of random coin flips. We—humans—aren’t that good with dealing with random chance events. We like our stories and explanations.
I came up with an evolutionary example at some point later in the evening. “I was reading a news story a long time ago of a ship that capsized in the middle of the ocean. The survivors had to cling to the floating detritus, hoping for a helicopter to realize they’d sunk and to rescue them. But the question is, how long do you hold on—how many days—before you give up and sink under? I think… I think that if you believed in something greater, that you’re here for something, that your life serves some purpose, that you’d hold on longer. Rather than someone who believes anything we do is confined to the human race, and it’s composed of chance events and this happens to be one of them. I think, then, that believing in something greater would help.”
But this is a weak argument, right? Too specific and nebulously useful. Here’s a better one I came up with just now, when I was writing down what I knew from psychology. (Ah, the intuitions come from somewhere! It’s so strange how we don’t know the sources of our own hunches. It makes them very hard to evaluate.)
Why do we care so much about causal explanations? There’s a scientific literature on this: because if something unusual happened, if there’s a cause you want to know about it so you can better predict whether it’ll happen in the future (especially if it’s a bad thing). For example: everyone’s running away from you while you’re gathering food in the savannah. (Forgive the weird examples: when I’m trying to work within evolutionary theory I have to attempt to fit it in the context of when we were evolving.) If you don’t search for a causal explanation (predator) and continue gathering food, you’re dead. It seems likely that humans have evolved a tendency to search for explanations and relationships between events—I’m sure there’s good evidence for that.
Maybe that example works better—it’s not well argued, but I can see how I’d flesh it out. The odd thing for me, however, was that I hadn’t thought to justify my intuition before— my intuition of human spirituality, just like their intuition of religious truth. And because I hadn’t been questioned, I didn’t have pre-built arguments ready. It’s so strange to me that we believe so many things, but unless we’ve thought about it explicitly, we can end up bewildering stuck. It’s happened to me with regards to science many times. I always have to prepare things beforehand—consciously justify the unconscious.
Another thing that struck me was the fact that I agreed with many of the answers given to me, and they fit within the structure of how I view religion. (Confirmation bias, likely.) One of my favorite ideas they described was this: there are many tiny turning points in our lives, and they seem miraculous. From the Christian perspective, this is evidence of a guiding hand. I personally bring up this phenomenon all the time. My life is miraculous, and I talk about the random and chance events and incredible people and little miracles all the time on this blog. But from my perspective, I don’t see this as evidence in itself that something greater than chance and human nature is guiding our lives. And moreover, I think intuitively it is tempting to find a governing force behind all of our life events. It fits into my conception of religion that I’d find it easier to believe in this deliberate power, rather than being left baffled and in debt to all the mysterious fortune I have experienced.
We did run into a few conceptual conflicts down the line. One friend has described it as “the awkward part” when we get into the fact that I’m going to hell. There is also the frustratingly indeterminate aspect of religion which entails trying to justify why people suffer. (Me: “Okay, so you’re saying that some people need a push in order to move towards a better path.” A greatly simplified response from my tablemate: “Yes, essentially.” Me: “So do some people reach a greater sense of religion than others?” Response: [Please clarify]. Me: “Like, the people who struggle, it seems like they must reach some greater religious depth than people who kind of just grow up in it.” My tablemates, again very simplified: “No, there aren’t different degrees of Christianity: everyone is in the same place.” Me: “That seems weird. So then why do people have to suffer?” We went back and forth for a few rounds, trying to come up with an answer. In the end, we concluded that: “Yeah, that’s something everyone has struggled to understand.”)
(Compare it to what I now know about Muslim culture, in which there are definite degrees of how much you believe and practice according to my housemate. That’s where a lot of my questions came from, actually, comparing the two. This comparison also made me realize that Christianity is in many ways easier for me to grasp, because I grew up with many of the values. It’s all interesting.)
(Finally, I did find that this debate about suffering fit into my conception of religion (oh, the confirmation bias :)). My argument is that back-justification is something people do outside of religion as well: it’s much nicer to believe that there was a purpose for something rather than it being needless suffering. It’s just depressing to think that there was pain that could have been avoided and that you didn’t even learn / grow from it. But I’m a bit off the norm here—I tend to say hard things I go through were pointless much more than other people in general. And I’m only presenting pro-arguments for my version of religion here, which makes this an acutely unfair monologue.)
It was a great discussion, and I left grateful to them and with the realization that I needed to take care of the reasoning in my own head just as much as I thought anyone else might. It was wonderful that everyone felt comfortable enough to voice their own opinion, which can be challenging when it’s easier socially to just disagree in your own head. Being challenged, too, is a beautiful process, resulting in some frankly amusing examples while everyone scrambles to figure out how their reasoning works. And then you can probe and find out if there really is a justifiable conclusion in there. (What are the many objections to my own views? And, speaking of, do atheists even have a common standard, or does everyone come up with their own?)
In the end, I asked Rachael what her “cause” was, and she said, “Faith.”
“Oh, cool. So you think that spreading the faith will improve peoples’ lives?”
She kind of smiled at me.
“Yes,” she said, and I’m not even simplifying that answer due to poor memory.
I believe it—that she believes it, and that it’s probably true for a lot of people.
It doesn’t get clearer than that.