Sunday Night Journal: February 2006

February 5     February 12     February 19     February 26    

February 5                                [page top]         [permanent link]

Wired for Belief

We—my wife and I—subscribe to too many magazines. We don’t have time to read them all, and the time we do spend on them leaves too little for reading books. Magazines are by nature bound up with current events and therefore create a certain pressure on one to read them within a reasonable time after they’re received, so if you have more coming in than you can read, you’re perpetually behind and perpetually putting off something that will probably be of more lasting value, such as the Evelyn Waugh novels I got for Christmas and haven’t yet taken up.

A shakeout is needed, and now and then I think I’ve settled on a magazine that’s expendable. But then something appears in it that I would be sorry to have missed, so it gets a reprieve. This has happened a couple of times with The Atlantic. A typical issue has a few things of great interest to me, a few that I would consider a waste of time at best (like the food and travel columns), and a good many of relatively minor interest. But I’d hate to lose those few in the first category: Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Hitchens on books, Caitlin Flanagan on men, women, marriage, and family. (Hitchens requires his own partitioning of really good from pretty bad stuff, owing to the weird assortment of ideas he holds, but that’s another story.)

And then there’s the occasional piece from which I learn something significant that I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise, such as Paul Bloom’s “Is God an Accident?” in the December 2005 issue. I expected this to be just another predictable materialist’s attempt to explain away religion, and it is that, or at least attempts to be. But Bloom, a professor of psychology and linguistics of Yale, instead offers some pretty impressive reasons why an atheist might want to reexamine his position.

The particular object of Bloom’s study is the psychology of religion—why do people believe? And although he comes at the question with a Darwinian materialist’s presuppositions, the research findings he presents give us a picture of religion as a much more peculiar and anomalous thing than traditional atheistic opinion (wishful thinking, primitive science, etc.) would have it. His argument is much too big and rich for me to summarize, but here’s the intro:

Despite the vast number of religions, nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe. Recently psychologists doing research on the minds of infants have discovered two related facts that may account for this phenomenon. One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry.

The whole piece is only online to subscribers, but if you’re not one it’s well worth your while to go find it at the library. The research and reasoning supporting his first point are fascinating for a believer. The assertions supporting the second point are pretty thin stuff for anyone who doesn’t already accept Darwinian doctrine. Let me quote his final statement:

But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.

That’s a huge admission, because the second of those three sentences is by no means proved between the opening summary and the final sentence, and in fact is probably unprovable. Bloom does provide plausible arguments for religion being an error of the same type that leads us to infer social purpose and design where there is none, as in the famous case of the grilled cheese sandwich that was said to bear the image of Mary. But the fact that the intuition of purpose sometimes or even often goes awry doesn’t mean that it’s always or mostly wrong. And the perception of purpose is not the only important intuition Bloom discusses (you really should read the article). In the face of these universal intuitions, Bloom can offer little more than the assertion of materialist dogma.

I see no compelling reason, on the face of it, to pick that dogma over the religious one. There will never be a scientific proof for the existence or non-existence of God, so if you’re the sort of person who wants to appropriate consciously the fundamental axioms on which your world-view is based, you have to make a deliberate choice. You have to have faith. Bloom and his fellow researchers are actually making the case that religion is a reasonable choice, because it’s clear that they have no firm factual foundation for choosing materialism: it’s a doctrine they bring to the data, not something they derive from it. In this case the data actually suggest to me that they could be wrong.

Non-believers typically think of themselves as the questioners of convention, and in a provincial situation where most people are religious believers by default, this may indeed be true. But in scientific-industrial societies it really isn’t anymore. How many village atheists can there be before it becomes an atheist village, and the religious person the maverick? I like Professor Bloom: he’s a hard-headed fellow who’s instinctively impatient with dismissive and reductive explanations of mysterious phenomena, even as he tries to prop one up. If he continues to question the conventional wisdom he may find himself in a difficult position.


February 12                                [page top]         [permanent link]

The Chilly Cocoon of Materialism

I’m still thinking about that Paul Bloom piece in The Atlantic that I wrote about last week. What’s most striking about it is Bloom’s determination to hang on to the doctrine that materialistic natural selection is responsible for everything in human nature even as he admits that his own research undermines it. Unable to credit simplistic explanations for the evolutionary utility of religious belief, he falls back on the assertion that the mental processes that lead to religious belief must be accidental by-products of other more easily explained features.

The first of many responses that came to me is to ask how an accidental and non-adaptive byproduct of an evolutionary development could ever come to dominate the organism as religion does the human. But, setting aside specific objections for the moment, I wondered why Bloom is so committed to the natural selection hypothesis. Serendipitously, I found an answer in this Godspy article by Michael Behe. The crucial insight here comes, not surprisingly, from Chesterton:

The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle.

Of course. Behe (who as you probably know is one of the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement) adduces this passage in his exploration of the reasons for the intense hostility with which the design hypothesis is often met. The objection to ID is usually that it isn’t science, in the sense of being a hypothesis that is empirically verifiable in the laboratory, and I think that’s a valid objection. But the people who are outraged by ID are unperturbed by the entanglement of materialist philosophy with science. It’s pretty clear that the two philosophies are not accorded equal treatment. Materialists are passionately defensive of the ground which they erroneously believe has been conquered by their philosophy. No one likes his deepest convictions challenged, and materialists certainly show the same signs of distress as any Christian when it happens to them.

The curious turning of the psychological tables continues. I noted last week the way the roles of challenger and defender of conventional thinking, habitually assigned to science and religion respectively, are being reversed. The same is true for conventional emotional categories, in which religion is seen as a security blanket for those who can’t face the world as it really is, and science as the domain of those bold enough to follow the trail of facts, however distressing.  Dogmatic materialism presents us with a pretty chilly world, but also with a safe one—it is at least in theory knowable and controllable by the human mind. But a world which is the product of an active and purposeful intelligence greater than our own is not

The irony of the situation is that it is now the Christian who is urging the materialist to shake off the chains of his dogma, summon his courage, and step into a larger world. My conception of the world can include all the physical processes found in the materialist’s, but it also includes much more, conceptions of spiritual life and purpose that trouble the soul of the materialist even as he denies that he has one.


February 19                                [page top]         [permanent link]

Something Broken

I’ve been intrigued by the question of the psychological differences between men and women since the attempt to deny their existence which was mounted by the feminist eruption of the early ‘60s and ‘70s. I took that attempt seriously for a while, but it soon became clear that the movement had two impossible dogmas: one, that men and women are the same except where women are superior, and two, that men and women are to be treated identically except where it is to the advantage of women that they be treated differently. At that point the feminist movement began to be of more interest to me for what it got wrong and what it inadvertently revealed than for what it consciously asserted; it became a spur to my fascinated consideration of woman as a species, so much like my kind and yet so different.

In pursuing this research I often make my wife the sole spokesman for her entire sex. When I’m wondering aloud and at length about what some female characteristic really means, or why men think or do X but women think or do Y, she doesn’t usually say a great deal. This is constitutional: against stereotype, I’m the more verbal of us, and she isn’t much given to the kind of abstract rationalizing that I do all the time—or if she is, she keeps her conclusions mostly to herself. But she has deep insight and a way of somehow coming up with something brief and pithy when I push her for an answer.

So it was a year or so ago, when, as is now usual around Valentine’s Day, the topic of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues was in the news. I had run across a statement that completely baffled me: an actress—I think it was Glenn Close—had said something like “Eve [Ensler] gave us back our souls.” What, I wondered, could she possibly mean? How or why could an extended discussion of one’s genitals seem soul-saving? The same news story in which Close was quoted included similar sentiments from other famous women, mostly or perhaps all actresses. After rattling on about it for a few minutes, I put the question directly to my wife: what makes them say things like this?

There was a little pause, and she answered, “There’s something broken in their woman-ness.”

Another Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and another round of dealing with the Monologues. There have been the usual controversies about whether the play should be performed at Catholic colleges. I haven’t read it, but if descriptions of it both pro and con are accurate, the answer is obviously “no.” More interesting to me remains the question of why it was written in the first place, and why some women seem to respond to it with such fervor. In a discussion on Amy Welborn’s Open Book a few days ago, I made this statement:

The way it looks to me as a male observer is that a woman is her body in a way that a man is not. A man's body is more like something he operates. I conjecture that the increased exposure and objectification of the female body in our sexualized culture is helping to produce aberrations like these plays.

That was an off-the-cuff comment. To elaborate the thought a bit further, maybe the psychology of the thing is something like this: erotically charged images of beautiful women are impossible to avoid in our culture. It’s not just female beauty that’s forced into our awareness all the time, but female beauty with a definite and direct sexual charge—the woman is first of all, and to the exclusion of almost everything else, a sexual object (as the feminist movement used to say, and perhaps still does) in the narrowest sense. Nobody, male or female, really wants to be an object of use by other people. But if it’s true that a woman is more closely identified with her body than a man is, then the anxiety generated by this objectification would be greater for women. The same sort of anxiety is generated by a woman’s participation in sexual activity in which she is treated as an object—which is to say, the kind of activity which has become the sanctioned norm for both sexes since the 1960s.

Women are thus simultaneously more vulnerable than men to the effects of this objectification and the main targets of it. Moreover, the technologically exaggerated sex appeal of the women in advertising and entertainment is both more pure, in the literal sense of having less of anything else in it, and less human than that which any actual woman (including these very models and actresses, if one were to meet them in person) can wield. Even the models and actresses themselves must know that they can’t live up to the images of which they are the raw material. So the real woman is made to feel not only like an object but an inferior object.

Adding to the disorientation is that the whole point of woman’s allure, from the simple biological point of view, is to induce the act which produces a baby. And yet it’s precisely in the context of sexual pleasure that her fertility is despised. It’s no wonder that there might be something broken in a lot of women, and some pretty strange phenomena ensuing.

Perhaps Eve Ensler’s play says some of these things. Perhaps I ought to read it, although I really don’t want to. But here’s something else which I strongly suspect may be true and which I’m pretty sure Ensler does not say: a woman who signed herself simply as “Caroline” agreed with my comment at Open Book, adding that

For women there is no earthly solution to this identification of self and body which makes, in effect, the imperfect body into the imperfect self. What I am getting at is that women are best positioned to enjoy their glorified bodies and their total selves in the hereafter.

If it turns out to be true, this would be another instance of the last—that is, those who suffer most—being first.


February 26                                [page top]         [permanent link]

Staying Put

The extremely interesting discussion of so-called “crunchy conservatism” continues at National Review Online. These folks obviously have a lot more time for such talk than I do, and I can’t keep up with it, but I was struck by an exchange lamenting the unfortunate tendency of people to move away, often very far away, from the place in which they grew up, which of course in practice means moving away from their own parents and other family. You can read the two initial posts here and here. I should use words like “pressure” or “incentive” rather than “tendency,” because much or most of the time there are strong economic reasons for this mobility.

Some twenty-plus years ago my wife and I were faced with this decision. We were newly-converted Catholics with young children, living in small-town north Alabama where Catholics number five or six percent of the population, and with a growing group of like-minded Catholic acquaintances in other parts of the country. Both of us are Alabama natives. I come from the extreme northern end of the state, where we were living at the time, near my family. She comes from the extreme southern end, three hundred miles away.

We still had a certain amount of the back-to-the-land, commune-founding spirit that was abroad in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. We talked to some of our scattered Catholic friends and acquaintances about forming some kind of Catholic community which would involve, at a minimum, living near each other.

Nobody wanted to move to Alabama, of course. And, parenthetically: it has always slightly amused and slightly annoyed me that so many people, conservatives particularly, who admire rural life and social conservatism want absolutely nothing to do with the Deep South, where those characteristics are more dominant than in most of the rest of the country. No doubt part of the blame for that goes to George Wallace, Bull Connor, et. al., but part of it, too, is that hardly anyone with any interest in intellectual life, which included most of our long-distance friends, really wants to live in Hicksville, however much they may praise its virtues from a distance. I don’t entirely blame them, but the syndrome does cause me to maintain a certain skepticism when city-dwelling intellectuals get sentimental about rural life and the common man.

These talks never got all that far, but they did get far enough for us to consider very seriously whether we wanted to move away from our extended families. It was something that we talked about a great deal, the kind of soul-searching conversation that goes on between a husband and wife after the children have gone to bed. Since our families were not Catholic and there were so few Catholics around, we had to assume we would be somewhat isolated religiously if we stayed where we were. On the other side there was the possibility of living in a seriously Catholic environment, but that was certainly not guaranteed: who was to say that whatever community we joined would last more than a few years? Or for that matter that it would be a healthy place, not a pressure-cooker of eccentricity and fanaticism? And if it failed we might end up with the sort of rootless Flying Dutchman life that I’d long since decided I didn’t want, for myself or my children.

In the end it came down (for me, at least—my wife might remember differently) to the question of whether or not our children would grow up knowing their grandparents. I wasn’t willing to answer “no” to that question, family won, and we decided to stay put.

I don’t intend to discuss the following twenty years or so in detail, but suffice to say things didn’t work out all that well, certainly far less well than we had hoped. As far as raising our children in the Faith was concerned, we were constantly in the position of having to choose between isolation and influences we didn’t want them to have—just to take one dominating example, there was the problem of omnipresent television in the homes of almost everyone except us. And of course the dreariness of the typical Catholic parish didn’t help. I might also mention the sad irony that in 1990 we moved down to my wife’s country, where Catholics are somewhere in the range of a quarter of the population, where we were part of a Catholic home-schooling group which was something of a running disaster.

Still: if I had it do over again, knowing what I know now, but absent some direct guidance from God, I think I’d make the same choice. It just seems fundamentally more sound, more healthy, even more human. And the long run in which all human decisions are measured has a good deal longer yet to run.