Keep Thinking

by Dr. Benjamin Wiker

keep thinkingAs the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, scholars have a tendency to dig up what they themselves have buried—that is, their presuppositions determine the results of their studies. They therefore "discover" exactly what they wanted to find. That is no less true of, say, historians or sociologists, than it is for psychologists and scientists.

So we are told in an AAAS article "To Keep the Faith, Don’t Get Analytical." The article claims that "a new study finds that prompting people to engage in analytical thinking can cause their religious beliefs to waver, if only a little. Researchers say the findings have potentially significant implications for understanding the cognitive underpinnings of religion."

First of all, note the "only a little." The design of the psychological experiments had the following general form: get some people to engage in an analytical task, while some do not; then have them rate the strength of their religious beliefs; the result is that those who engaged in some analytical task beforehand reported a very slight difference in the lessened strength of their religious beliefs.

From this very slight difference, astounding generalizations were concluded. "Researchers say the findings have potentially significant implications for understanding the cognitive underpinnings of religion….Psychologists often carve thinking into two broad categories: intuitive thinking, which is fast and effortless…and analytic thinking, which is slower and more deliberate… ‘Recently there’s been an emerging consensus among [researchers] … that a lot of religious beliefs are grounded in intuitive processes’… If intuitive thinking encourages religious belief…analytical thinking might encourage disbelief….the findings suggest that intuitive thinking, likely along with other cognitive and cultural factors, is a key ingredient in religious belief….. ‘Through some combination of culture and biology, our minds are intuitively receptive to religion….If you’re going to be unreligious, it’s likely going to be due to reflecting on it and finding some things that are hard to believe.’"

In other words, faith is essentially irrational. If you think about religious faith for even a few minutes, it crumbles. The lesson: reason destroys faith, or less broadly, science destroys religion, exposing it as based upon primitive cognitive processes.

But that is merely the assumption of the secular-minded. A sign of its being an assumption is that there is such an enormous gap between the miniscule effects in the psychological studies, and the grandiose conclusions drawn from such tiny beginnings. The authors want to believe faith is irrational, therefore even the slightest evidence is taken to be decisive proof.

So, how about we turn the tables on them, and take a deeper analytical look at the studies and their effects on the secular-minded?
Note what should be obvious. This kind of a study could be done in regard to quite literally anything, as the philosopher Socrates demonstrated so diligently over two millennia ago. Most of us think we know what "courage" or "justice" or "good" mean, but when pushed a little we find that our opinions were not very well grounded after all. From this we don’t conclude that there is no such thing as courage or justice or goodness, or that knowledge of courage, justice, and goodness is merely intuitive. We conclude, with Socrates, that we really hadn’t taken the time to think more deeply about what we thought we knew, and that we had better get on with the task.
The exact same all-too-human pattern will be found in countless other areas of human endeavor. We think we know about proper nutrition, until pushed on it. We think we know all about what the best political program to enact, until pushed on it. We think we know what marriage is all about, until pushed on it. In all such cases, the problem is that we’re relying all too comfortably on unexamined opinion (not some quasi-mystical power "intuition").

I’ve even done this kind of trick with students in regard to science, asking them, "How many of you can actually demonstrate to me that the earth revolves around the sun?" I think I’ve found one or two that could make a little headway. I didn’t conclude that belief in heliocentrism was "intuitive," but that most people rely on what they’ve been told and don’t give much thought to it. They don’t take the time to examine what they hold as unexamined opinion.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to find that pattern with regard to faith—and here let me speak only of Christian faith, because that is undoubtedly the main target of the AAAS barb. I’m sure that there are all too many Christians who do believe that faith is "intuitive," and even glory in its alleged irrationality. But that is not Christian. Christianity has a long and deep history of thinking about the faith, of pushing beyond our own comfortable opinions to deeper and often uncomfortable truths. Imagine saying to Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or C. S. Lewis that faith is merely "intuitive," and that we’re far safer if we never think about it and stay comfortably muddled. What was Lewis—one of the greatest Christian apologists of the 20th century—doing if not thinking ever more deeply about the faith, and pushing his readers to do the same? This "push" is the move (to quote St. Paul) from milk to meat, from a faith appropriate to little children to a faith appropriate to grown men and women.

The real lesson of the studies (if any such "lesson" can be drawn from something so ill-conceived) is this: If we are pushed to think about our faith and it wavers, then that is a sign that we’d better be thinking more about our faith, rather than less.

The Poached Egg ApologeticsArticle courtesy of tothesource


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