Dr. Valerie Tarico Responds to the Triabloguers

She does so in the form of a letter to me:
John, you have asked me to respond to a critique at the site, Triablogue, of my chapter, “Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science” for The Christian Delusion. Reading the critique, I am struck, primarily, by the perception that the reviewers, in attempting to state their case, overstate mine. Psychology is a profession focused not on possibilities but on practicalities – not on how things might function in an abstract, philosophical sense, but rather on what we can know about how they do function in the ordinary lives of ordinary humans (and sometimes other species). Psychology asks and attempts to answer a set of questions regarding the contingencies–-replicable cause and effect relationships—that govern people’s lives. At this level of analysis, there is a tentative but useful distinction between knowing and not knowing.

The process of inquiry to which I refer asks and answers questions about the natural world—the physical world as it is represented in consciousness. It seeks out regularities that allow us to predict and control events to better shape life according to our values and preferences. My own writing makes no attempt to rule out the possibility of a god or to assert that the plane of our conscious experience is the only one that exists.

Why then is it relevant to the multi-faceted debate about Christianity? For several reasons:

1. Christianity makes many testable assertions about events and contingencies within our natural world. The role of the historian, linguist, biologist or—in my case-psychologist is to address these assertions using the tools of his or her trade. For generations Christianity has implicitly or explicitly exploited certain psychological phenomena-the born again experience, mystical visions, glossolalia, or a quiet certainty of God’s presence-insisting that they were the unique domain of believers, evidence of salvation. Thanks to advances in the social sciences, we now know otherwise. As I commented in the chapter, “Humans are capable of having transcendent, transformative experiences in the absence of any given dogma. We are capable of sustaining elaborate systems of false belief and transmitting them to our children. We are capable of feeling so certain about our false beliefs that we are willing to kill or die for them.” Because of advances in our understanding of the human psyche, we have a better and better understanding of the circumstances that trigger such experiences. Understanding these phenomena means that believers or potential believers or former believers need no longer be bound by the explanations offered in the service of recruitment or retention.

2. Christianity exists not because it is philosophically possible but it is emotionally and intuitively gripping. Religion would be impotent in this world if it were dependent on the arguments of theologians and philosophers. The power of religion to shape society for better or worse relies on human behavioral and cognitive tendencies which appear to operate independent of the content of beliefs and independent of whether or not some supernatural plane exists. Whether or not a god or gods exist, these tendencies are worth examining. For those who are concerned that humanity is developmentally arrested, stuck in a competition between mutually exclusive tribal religions, understanding the problem is a crucial first step in crafting alternatives.

3. My perception is that Christianity is bled dry morally, empirically, and rationally not by a single swath of logic, but by a million cuts. Again, in the interest of efficiency, I will quote myself, this time from Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light: “When one examines the evidence related to Evangelical beliefs — the content and history of the Bible, the structure of nature’s design, the character of the Evangelical God, the implications of prayer and miracles, the concepts original and universal sin, the mechanism of salvation by blood atonement, the idea of eternal reward and punishment, the behavior of believers — when one examines all of these together through a lens of empiricism and logic, the composite suggests some kind of reality that is very different from the ideas that dominated my thinking for so long.”

The possibility that Christianity—along with say Islam, Hinduism—is a human construction raises fascinating questions about the human potential to be simultaneously sure and mistaken. It raises questions about the power of culture to script a world view. Religion contemplated as a natural phenomenon begs exploration. Consider, for example, the status of the Triabloggers—all intelligent, knowledgeable, articulate thinkers capable of more abstraction than most. To contemplate the possibility that they are wrong—you and I believe they are—about the uniqueness and supremacy of their religious beliefs means that the existence of such believers must be explicable in natural terms. If I am correct, then their presence provides a powerful example of how very sophisticated our lines of logic can be in the service of fallacy. I suspect the same of the 9/11 Truthers and the Zeitgeist Movement, which is to say that these basic psychological questions have implications for every area in which we humans struggle to understand ourselves and our societies and to shape both according to our deepest values.

Is it possible to weave a web of logic that carves out room for Christian—even orthodox—even Calvinist belief? Can someone imbedded in such a perspective justify what outsiders might perceive as fatal contradictions inherent in his or her worldview? Yes, absolutely. Has this ever really been in doubt? Given the limitations of logic (look how far philosophy got us without adding empiricism to the mix) I suspect this will always be the case, regardless of the arguments put forward in criticism of traditional dogmas. I do think that the abstract machinations of theologians should be answered by philosophers and thinkers who, like yourself, are not imbedded with the troops, if for no reason other than to keep foolishness like C.S. Lewis’s trilemma or Pascal’s wager from entering the vernacular as glib defenses of dogmas that are indefensible in a broader empirical historical context. But I am also grateful that reshaping ideology and religious practice doesn’t rely on someone winning these arguments.

Since Christianity is a social, historical, natural world phenomenon, it is accessible to the same scrutiny as any human activity. Religion often convinces us to set aside the basic evidentiary standards that we use in making financial investments or legal decisions. It is a peculiar sort of exceptionalism that subjects economic and political ideologies/activities to empirical evidence and Occam’s Razor, while insisting that these are irrelevant in assessment of religion. Great teams of scholars--with no interest in religion whatsoever--spend their lives trying to understand basic patterns in human history, thought, and behavior. To me, it makes sense to apply this knowledge, to ask what we can know about how religion operates in this world--how it has evolved, how it shapes societies, how it ensconces itself in the human psyche--only then returning to the speculation of the ancients about what lies beyond.