Epistemological Naïveté and Hubris

Tanya M. Luhrmann is a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times with a Ph.D. from Cambridge and a professorship in anthropology at Stanford. She’s no intellectual slouch. And she’s focused some of her writing on the particular sub-species of homo sapiens in which I happen to belong: homo evangelicus, having written a book entitled When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.

To maintain my classic arm-chair blogger status, I did not read her book, but… I did read her article, and that’s more than many bloggers do. She writes recently in the Times that

religious belief and factual belief are…different kinds of mental creatures. People process evidence differently when they think with a factual mind-set rather than with a religious mind-set. Even what they count as evidence is different.

I can see some truth here. The way to know the boiling point of water at this elevation above sea level is different than the way to know how water was invented in the first place. The way to know an orange is different than the way to know your Creator God.

But she goes on:

The very language people use changes when they talk about religious beings, and the changes mean that they think about their realness differently. You do not say, “I believe that my dog is alive.” The fact is so obvious it is not worth stating. You simply talk in ways that presume the dog’s aliveness — you say she’s adorable or hungry or in need of a walk. But to say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is alive” signals that you know that other people might not think so. It also asserts reverence and piety. We seem to regard religious beliefs and factual beliefs with what the philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen calls different “cognitive attitudes.”

I have to believe that her book is more epistemologically rigorous than her article, and I do recognize that the work of popularizing scholarly arguments can introduce some unfortunate ambiguities. But on the face of it, this is a bad analogy. How many things that I “know” do I know from the kind of direct sense experience she refers to in her “my dog is hungry” example? I know my shoes have laces; I know I’m six feet tall. I know those things directly. But a lot of other things I know I don’t know through direct, empirical means. I know who won the battle of Trafalgar. I know how to write a joke. (Sometimes.) I don’t know these things in precisely the same, empirical way I know my shoe color. Even knowledge of my own internal mental states isn’t strictly empirical: I know my favorite colors. There are various ways human beings feel justified in claiming “knowledge” of various kinds of objects. It depends on the object. The issue isn’t as simple as saying that religious propositions are known by faith while other propositions—”facts”—are known by experience. Taken alone, Luhrmann’s statement seems to me to be epistemologically naive.

These next statements, by contrast, seem hubristic:

When people consider the truth of a religious belief, what the belief does for their lives matters more than, well, the facts. We evaluate factual beliefs often with perceptual evidence. If I believe that the dog is in the study but I find her in the kitchen, I change my belief. We evaluate religious beliefs more with our sense of destiny, purpose and the way we think the world should be.

And this one:

Scholars have determined that people don’t use rational, instrumental reasoning when they deal with religious beliefs.

And worse:

The danger point seems to be when people feel themselves to be completely fused with a group defined by its sacred value.

Grab the sword, Christian reader, and swing it back (in your mind, not literally!):

  • There are many beliefs held by the average secularist for which they have no direct, empirical justification. Evolution is one. The idea that utopia would come if only people would stop believing religions and start admitting facts is another.
  • Secular people have senses of destiny and purpose, ideas about the way the world should be, which do not at all arise out of scientifically rigorous, peer-reviewed studies.
  • Secular people don’t always use rational, instrumental reasoning when they deal with their beliefs—see the flare-up over the Indiana RFRA.
  • And many secular people are, it seems to me, past the danger point of being fused to a sacred value—see the flare-up over the Indiana RFRA. And please, please read Jonathan Haidt on this.

Everybody’s a believer. Everybody’s a fundamentalist. Some of us just know it, and others of us think we have direct access to the “facts.” Which group is more likely to be humble? Which group is more likely to turn totalitarian?

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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