Wednesday, July 24, 2019

On the Pull of Religious Belief

John Blake of CNN asks, “Have you ‘walked the aisle’ to ‘pray the prayer?’ Did you ever ‘name and claim’ something and, after getting it, announce, ‘I’m highly blessed and favored?’ . . . If this is you, some Christian pastors and scholars have some bad news: You may not know what you’re talking about. They say that many contemporary Christians have become pious parrots. They constantly repeat Christian phrases that they don’t understand or distort.”[1] Making matters worse, such Christians treat their religious beliefs as if they constitute knowledge. This, as well as the presumed wherewithal to claim anything due from God, is highly impious and yet the claimers are certain that they have true belief.
For example, some Christians refer to “the rapture” without realizing that it is out of sync with historical Christian theology before 1850. Marcus Borg, a theologian, makes the point. “’People who speak Christian aren’t just mangling religious terminology’, he says. ‘They’re also inventing counterfeit Christian terms such as ‘the rapture’ as if they were a part of essential church teaching.’ The rapture, a phrase used to describe the sudden transport of true Christians to heaven while the rest of humanity is left behind to suffer, actually contradicts historic Christian teaching, Borg says. ‘The rapture is a recent invention. Nobody had thought of what is now known as the rapture until about 1850,’” Borg says.[2] Representing something as a part of essential church teaching without knowing what one is talking about evinces the “I can’t be wrong” attitude that goes with the de facto presumption, even if implicit, of infallibility. Conveniently, the Christians who evoke the rapture tend overwhelmingly to take it for granted that they will be going to heaven rather than staying around to suffer, but is not the presumption of omniscience worthy of impiety, which, along with greed, is one of the foremost sins?
Many Christians are not aware of the effect that the pull of greed has had through the centuries in decoupling greed from wealth—even from being rich and yet presumed saved. For someone to say, “I name and claim this house as mine" is really just a desire to possess it; the expression "name and claim" is simply a subterfuge for greed (i.e., an instinctual, basic desire for more).  The prosperity gospel, for example, facilitates or enables greed, rather than constraining it. According to Blake, prosperity Christians, who believe that God rewards true belief with material wealth, “don’t say ‘I want that new Mercedes.’ They say they are going to ‘believe for a new Mercedes.’ They don’t say ‘I want a promotion.’ They say I ‘name and claim’ a promotion.”[3] However, it is impious to claim anything, not to mention something as profane as a job promotion. This claim itself reflects a vaunted self-importance that does not account for the flawed nature of man.
Even rational thought, which is typically assumed to be objective, is distorted by ideology and even religious belief. The brain is weak in holding itself accountable, such as in adequately checking its own assumptions (which are subjective).
Perhaps anger (i.e., emotions) can preempt the brain from performing a check-and-balance function on its own products (i.e., assumptions), or, as I believe, the brain has a very weak self-corrective feature, though higher education can strengthen it. If nothing else, in being told, incorrect!, enough, a student can realize just how fallible the mind is. Put another way, the ideational products of the human mind are not as foolproof as we tend to assume. This holds when the mind enters the religious domain too; beliefs are almost always assumed to be facts, and thus knowledge. If this were so, what use would faith be? The religious scholar Joseph Campbell once asked a priest this question only to find the conversation instantly over.
Euthyphro suddenly realizes he had an appointment so he scurries away from Socrates, who has just demonstrated that Euthyphro’s certainty regarding the ethics of turning in his own father for killing a slave is erroneous; Euthyphro does not know what he thinks he knows. Each of us should internalize Socratic questions, as Socrates’ goal in his dialogues is to convince his interlocutors that they really don’t know what they assume they know. We can impose our respective wills on our own minds to prune off branches that claim to be alive but are actually dead, for our brains do not contain enough machinery on their own.
Unfortunately, the defense mechanisms of ideology (e.g., political and economic) and religious belief tend to block any real self-Socratic dialogue from occurring. I suppose this is similar to the denial in an addiction. Are we addicted to our political ideologies and religious beliefs? Do the beliefs we value so have too much pull in the human brain? If so, it seems to me that we could consciously recognize this and fortify checks to counter the defense mechanism. It is so very hard, admittedly, to keep in mind the faith-belief dynamic as distinct when the beliefs feel like empirical facts or facts of reason (i.e., knowledge). It is also difficult to remember to circumscribe assumptions as they are made, for we naturally tend to overestimate what we know and thus can assume.  Of course I’m going to heaven.


[1] John Blake, “Do You Speak Christian?” CNN, July 31, 2011.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.