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Post Filling the God-Shaped Hole; from Gary Moore
Created by John Eipper on 12/27/17 2:57 PM

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Filling the God-Shaped Hole; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA, 12/27/17 2:57 pm)

Gary Moore writes:

Nigel Jones’s essay on religions (December 27) was so clearly written and comprehensive that I’m moved to write—though I’ve yet another take (and varying from A. J. Cave and Tor Guimaraes in their posts as well) on what Nigel intriguingly dubs “the God-shaped hole” in human understanding.

To wit: The mystery might be easier if either believers in beyond-reason creeds or non-believers were obviously smarter. But both groups contain some people of stellar intelligence (Nigel mentioned the classic case of Newton and his Bible literalism, though I didn’t know about Maxwell). This would seem to mean that the reasoning non-believer can’t explain belief as resulting from failure to be able to reason. So what is belief? Why would Newton, who could single-handedly order human knowledge, believe in the literal existence of Adam and Eve? Of course, only a non-believer would ask that question. Believers know the answer through personal experience. The answer is to just believe. Our rational understanding of ourselves would seem to be so primitive, or flawed, that we can’t even functionally define this basic process—“the leap of faith”—that sets our two worlds apart. And no one creed’s definition can work in this question (what is belief?) since there is the refutation that goes beyond any quibbles about superstitious miracles—that is, that all the creeds contradict, each one’s existence seeming to refute all the narratives told by the others.

But here we stray toward possibility: that some sort of enforced narrowing of view (as in not considering each creed in turn), may be part of the answer as to why one can believe in any one of the choices.

But wait, O Ye Believers, and know that I glimpse the thinness of this work-around, too--for facile talk about narrow-mindedness hardly explains the rich organicity and range of vision that many believers know, through personal experience, to be part of the equation.

So is it that narrowness is inherent in all cognition, and only the degree varies, creating a spectrum of cognitive selectivity which, at one end, can tighten and tighten until finally you’ve got, say, the English Reformation, where a woman was burned one year for saying Jesus is not literally present in the consecrated wafer, and then a year or so later another woman was burned, after orthodoxy veered, for saying he is present in the same kind of wafer—and the second one told her inquisitors straight out about the craziness of the precedent...and they burned her anyway?

Does an answer glimmer here—a possible bridge between the worlds—if belief is viewed as an individual variant in cognitive discriminatory process, which only on the far end tightens into fanaticism and elves and fairies (the pitfall which by common consent, even among popes, overtook the medieval Church), but in lesser degree might provide a workable way to deal with life’s fundamental inscrutability? Alas, my disowned mendacity increasingly peeks from its cover here. For even to seek this answer excludes the believer. But disingenuous as it may be, I’d be relieved if I could just narrow the focus enough to find an answer that works for me personally. And this blows my cover completely. Would I have ever tried to build this bridge if I lived in World Number One? Would I need to?

JE comments:  Earlier today Tor Guimaraes pilloried me for citing from Jared Diamond's 2012 The World Until Yesterday, but I'll try again.  Diamond argues that the more far-fetched a specific religious belief set appears to outsiders, the more fervently the faithful cling to it.  Hence Mormons are less likely to stray from their dogmas than, say, Episcopalians or Unitarians.  Speaking in tongues among the Pentecostals would be another example.

Is this related to what you're saying here, Gary?

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  • Clinging to "Ridiculous" Religious Beliefs; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 12/28/17 11:38 AM)

    Gary Moore writes:

    JE asked me to comment further, re Nigel Jones’s “God-shaped hole” in the divide between
    skepticism and belief, on the assertion (as I understand it from JE) in Jared Diamond’s 2012 book The World Until Yesterday, that assertion being that the more ridiculous a religion’s beliefs are, the more likely are believers to cling to it (John offered possible candidates for ridiculousness as the Mormons
    and the Pentecostals).

    By rephrasing it like this I may be telegraphing my punch, but I’d like to be sensitive and restrained about this: Sounds to me like best-selling crap, written by an astute performer with a sure ear for what may sound clever to a target audience.

    Or in other words, ridiculous to whom? Is Pentecostal glossolalia (tongue-speaking) and
    Mormon underwear and Indian lore any more ridiculous than, say, the Episcopalian Holy Trinity?
    Are Unitarians, by this measure, the least ridiculous of all because they avoid the miracle
    fireworks—or the most ridiculous, because they cling to the story even while rejecting its
    elements? And this is still not getting into Diamond’s specific charge, that ridiculousness equals
    strength of belief. Luckily, our society prescribes few tests, like thumb screws, for who clings
    most fervently to a challenged belief. And even so, once Diamond had rated relative ridiculousness,
    how would he then devise a scale to rate relative clinginess? Could it be that he is indisputably
    wise enough, having made a lot of money off this stuff, to himself be the test? But if so, and
    even if we admit ridiculousness and clinginess as measured by his inner radar, how do we
    correlate the two?

    True, maybe the ability to believe that the air is filled with invisible demons, and that special underwear will ward them off, might suggest some kind of approach toward contrary evidence. But this seems not to be the same as what (as I gather it) Diamond is saying, and anyway is not exactly news. For comparison, the Fort Mims massacre of 1813 in southern Alabama was part of a continent-wide Native religious war launched by Tecumseh/Tenskwataway in JE’s back yard, and the 250 or so settlers, slaves and mixed-bloods massacred at Ft Mims by Creek Red Sticks, allied to Tecumseh’s brother Tenskwataway, “The Shawnee Prophet,” sent the frontier into a panic.

    But few in the fleeing wagon trains remarked that the massacring band was using a local acolyte of their own, an Alabama apostle of the Indiana Prophet, so to speak, who was a mixed-blood sometimes called, with Longfellowan grace, Paddy Walsh. Paddy helped win Ft Mims by using magic. It was decided that four warriors would rush the fort first, distracting the militiamen inside, while vast numbers of other Red Sticks took the flank. The idea of picking who were to be the four was facilitated by Walsh’s magic, for he performed a ceremony, and all four became invulnerable to bullets. This was quite a relief, until three were immediately shot down. But one apparently did survive—enough for plenty of later apocrypha, had not Horseshoe Bend and northern battles greatly reduced desires to inscribe the prophecy for the ages. Invulnerability to bullets is one of the timeless relics, seen not only in the Ghost Dancers of the West, but in child guerrillas in the Congo, who say it comes from amulets around their necks, constructed, with all due ceremony, from old shower plugs.

    Is this more ridiculous than saying a cracker is God (or Richard Dawkins’s remarkable superstition
    saying, in effect, that science proves there is no mystery in life)? And as to clinginess and the Red Sticks,
    I don’t know if Paddy Walsh sanctified future warriors after Ft Mims, but perhaps not, since 100 or so slaves were captured alive from Ft Mims, and were used, in lieu of magic, as human shields at the last stand at Horseshoe Bend (Andrew Jackson’s troops apparently shot them down quickly to get at the Creeks).

    Will future ages ask whether Jared Diamond’s assertions can be measured in ridiculousness by the ardor with which he clung to the profits? Surely this is superstition; he’s got the money no matter what.

    JE comments: Neither Jared Diamond nor Yours Truly described any religion as "ridiculous."  (I said, perhaps insensitively, far-fetched...to outsiders.) Diamond referred specifically to religions that require the biggest sacrifices from their adherents. Specifically in the case of Mormons, this would be tithing (handing over 10% of your income to the Church).  Perhaps we can explain the resultant "clinginess" as the psychological effect of one's sunk costs?

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