Re: virus: Why people cling to faith

Tim Rhodes (proftim@speakeasy.org)
Wed, 27 Jan 1999 02:48:13 -0800

I wrote a very long reply to this letter a couple days ago, but of course, as the fates would have it, my computer locked-up before I could send it. Now, seeing that there are 50-some more messages on this thread awaiting my attention, I'm going to rewrite and (hopefully) post my original thoughts before catching up on what you crazy cats have written since the first message. So if what I'm saying here has since been rendered redundant by the passing of time... Oh, well! It wouldn't be the first time and probably won't be the last.

SG wrote:

>I find that few people really understand why a lot of christians hold to
their
>faith when there seems to be so much evidence destructive to the biblical
>world-view.
[snip]
>
>I believe it has more to do with a religious experience than anything else.
When
>I realized the logistics of one Santa bringing every boy and girl in the
world
>toys, I was able to discard that belief. Why? Because there was no
experience to
>cement that belief into place.

I think this is a very important area that is often overlooked in discussions of religion and a topic which could benefit all of our understandings if thoughtfully explored in a forum such as this.

The "cement" you're talking about is what William James describes in his book _The Varieties of Religious Experience_ as having the four qualities of ineffability, passivity, noŽtic quality, and transcendence. ("NoŽtic" is a little used word that comes from the Greek for intellect or understanding. The same root gives us the word "knowledge." "NoŽtic" refers to a knowledge that is experienced directly; an illumination accompanied by a feeling of certitude.) In the book James speaks of a "noŽtic sense of truth" and the authority these states impart:

"Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time."

In trying to understand religion it seems to me too seldom are asked the hard questions: How exactly does a /noŽtic experience/ impact the brain? What qualities does it exhibit and how do they come into play in the process? What is it about these noŽtic experiences that prompts the brain to assign a sense of certitude and authority to them which may be wholly (or seemingly) unrelated to their objective truth-value? And how does that all take place?

Personally, I suspect the answer lies somewhere within the workings of the limbic brain, a structure much older than the cortex, though equally well-developed (in humans at least), which deals which emotion and memory and provides the sense of conviction that individuals attach to their ideas and beliefs, in addition to prioritizing and managing incoming sensory data from the outside world. I'm quite curious what selective advantage these experiences _must_ have provided to those having them to have garnered such an overriding significance in the workings of the brain.

Now, all that being said, I should worn you that this possibility of having a fruitful discussion on the topics above here, on the Church of Virus list, seems completely unlikely. There are many who frequent these parts which find it hard, if not impossible, to accept the realms of emotion or experience as valid and are therefore quick to classify-and-dismiss anything that smells even faintly of subjective experience. Such thinkers would withhold the label "true" for only those things that can be objectively proven and are unlikely to place any experience, religious or otherwise, in that same category. (And yet, oddly, I suspect these same individuals would be just as unlikely to dismiss their own emotional experiences--say, the feelings they felt as they helplessly watched while a tragic Juliet awakes beside her poisoned Romeo and crushed, slowly raised the blade to her own breast--as "untrue" just because these experiences were provoked in them by obviously fictional characters.)

And I find it strange that many of these same learned ones often seem infinitely capable of extracting universal truths from any Star Trek episode and yet guffaw when someone suggests that similar truths might be found in the more ancient stories as well. But that's beside the point...

>That is an analogy to the christian experience in "meeting Jesus Christ".
It's
>like a whole new world opens up, and you want to tell everyone about it.
It's so
>real that no amount of evidence seems to be able to destroy faith in it.

Yes, I think we're talking about the same things here.

>I have had that experience, and now am trying to find out if this
experience is
>just a trick of the brain.

Love, anger, passion, fear, and comfort are also "just tricks of the brain." The real question is: What have we gained as a species by having this trick hard-wired into our brains?

-Prof. Tim