Monday, April 3, 2017

On the Impact of the Mind’s Infallible Assumptions in Declarations of Religious Belief

In religious affairs, we don’t typically notice the sheer declarativeness in the assertions of belief. In passing, we don’t isolate the underpinning assumptions. We are all human beings relative to the divine, and yet distinctions within our ranks are asserted or declared to be so, even if implicitly. All too often, the human mind overreaches with impunity. Rarely are the leaps themselves the subject of attention and thus subject to critique. Much more commonly, the substance of the religious belief is noticed and debated. I submit that the assumptions typically involved in making religious statements—even the very nature of the declarative assertion—are more worthy of note on account of the human mind’s vulnerabilities that are rarely noticed, much less subject to rebuke.

Visiting a Hari Krishna temple, I found myself speechless when the preacher reminded me after his talk that my religious beliefs could be wrong, whereas his own could not be. Fully aware beforehand that my beliefs about anything can be wrong, I was more struck by the man’s assumption regarding his own beliefs—that they have the status of knowledge. This man’s mind vanquished the gap between belief and knowledge on account of another assumption: that his religious view is (based on) truth. The direct, unfiltered access to truth is the underlying assumption that relegates the point that the divine source is beyond the limits of human perception and cognition, and thus cannot be known. It is the nature of the religious mind’s assumptions and the supportive cognitive and emotional defense mechanisms that can be said to be in need of transparency.

Regarding the defense mechanisms, the man’s lack of awareness concerning his own behavior and the nature of his assumptions was striking. The insult at my expense—in that only my beliefs could be wrong—seemed to elude the religious man, such that his veneer of kindness, present nonetheless, had a rather strange quality. He also seemed unaware that his ad hominem attacks were insulting, not to mention unbecoming of a cleric. Regarding his cognitive assumptions, such as that he has direct access to truth whose source is transcendent, he lacked the basic awareness of self-contradiction. In particular, it is a self-contradiction to assert that human knowledge is beyond the limits of human cognition.

The lack of basic self-awareness in religious matters can easily enable hypocrisy. The Christian Crusades provide a good illustration of how a lack of awareness can take on a life of its own, occasioning grave sin under the rubric of salvation. The four Roman Catholic popes in the Crusades lured Christian men in Western Europe to fight the enemy by promising salvation. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[1] That Jesus of the Gospels preaches love of enemies, even those who persecute Christians, was somehow lost on those pontiffs who were promising salvation for doing the opposite. If the popes regarded the Muslims as having stolen the Holy Land, the Christian response would arguably have been to give them additional properties, for “if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”[2] Fighting the enemy to take back the shirt is clearly anti-Christian, and yet four popes promised salvation to those Christian men willing to do the task. It is the pontiffs’ lack of awareness, cognitively speaking, of this rather basic hypocrisy that suggests that the human mind is actually rather vulnerable to cognitive lapses in the religious domain.

Given the severity of the lapses, presuming unfettered access to transcendent truth can be seen as yet another indication of the mind’s vulnerability. To use a loose analogy, consider the man who can barely see a nearby tree and yet insists not only that he can see the farmhouse in the distance but cannot be wrong about the color of the exterior paint! The rather basic fault in this man’s claim is somehow invisible in the religious domain, and yet is not salvation more important?

I submit that the human mind has great trouble grasping and holding onto the inherent mysteriousness in the religious transcendent—the divine object (e.g., a deity). Without being aware of itself in so doing, the mind leaps over the mystery in assuming inerrancy concerning that which goes beyond the limits of cognition and perception. It is much easier to be wrong about such an object than the color of a distant farmhouse, and yet the human mind tends to assume the opposite is the case. Strangely, no one calls out the mind, least of all the mind itself.

1. Matt 5:44. NIV.
2. Matt. 5:40. NIV.