Is religion so pliable that it can be contorted against itself “with a straight face?” That is to say, does the human mind lack the machinery necessary to recognize contradiction in religious matters? I submit that the answer is yes. This is not necessarily to be “anti-religion;” rather, the implication is that acting from a religious motive ought not to be done without critical self-examination and care. The case of a Christian minister fighting in the Ukrainian army provides a useful case study of the vulnerability.
In 2014, Sergei Reuta “set aside his work as a Pentecostal pastor to put on camouflage and pick up a Kalashnikov rifle.” He treated his decision as a seamless move. “I understand that as a Christian I should defend the land where God put me,” he said in an interview. Actually, his justification sounds more Jewish than Christian. To my knowledge, nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus preach defending land; rather, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” seems a closer fit to what Jesus might say. Reuta’s distance from Jesus does not stop here. The Ukrainian pastor went on to say, “And I understand there was no escape from armed conflict.” This understanding ignores Jesus’s teaching to do good to those who prosecute you, and, moreover, to turn the other cheek. Holding a rifle, Reuta was not about to do that.
Strangely, the contradiction seems to have eluded the Christian minister. First, he assumes a rationale that is not in the Gospels, and then he contradicts relevant teachings that are in the Scripture. He seems oblivious to this—even stating that the army “is morally strong because of” him and other ministers fighting alongside the other troops. That is to say, not only does he fail to recognize even the possibility that he has been acting contrary to how lambs are to be among wolves—even being a wolf himself—he also claims to be a positive moral role-model. He is two degrees of separation away from being the sort of disciple that Jesus describes as carrying on his work.
I suspect that the underlying culprit here is a short-circuiting in the brain’s thought process, perhaps backed up by pride. In reasoning through his rationale, he missed key checks that might have debunked his conclusion. For example, he omitted relevant preachments from Jesus, likely going instead to the Old Testament. Additionally, I suspect that he assumed that he could not be wrong regarding his conclusion. To the extent that people assume that their religious claims have a sort of de facto validity, our construal of religion itself is blameworthy too. This sort of “anything goes” pertains to political assertions, as evidenced by some of the more implausible conspiracy theories. The human brain appears to have difficulty assessing whether its own theory has crossed the line in terms of being reasonable. The same lapse in the thought process takes place in the religious domain, where the presence of an otherwise-obvious contradiction renders the thought process there particularly flawed. Unfortunately, the assumption of not being capable of being wrong in even a contradictory religious assertion enables the defense mechanism of denial to circumvent any internal check from kicking in.
If my analysis is correct, more attention should be paid to both internal and external checks. Internally, the cognitive lapse and airs of pride would need not only to be kept in mind, but linked with motivation to critique the person’s own conclusion. External critique should come from both coreligionists and people from other religions and non-religionists (as neutral and even oppositional stances can be quite helpful in punching through contradictions standing as though on stilts during a flood). This extra effort is justified on account of the brain’s “looseness” when it comes to religious matters. In fact, even after the proposed assertion seems to survive the fortified efforts to shoot holes in it, making the claim should not be done with the tone of certainty, for it is still possible that the claim survives on the strength of an organizational or societal blind-spot. If this methodology were to become the norm, then religion itself would be recalibrated more in sync with the limitations of the human brain and our presumption of pride.
1. Andrew E. Kramer, “A Pastor’s Turn Fighting for Ukraine,” The New York Times, December 14, 2014.