The Devil Is in the Denial

The religious, who possess only tacit knowledge of the pragmatic truths inhering in religion, should be forgiven their occasional intellectual backwardness, for the same reason we forgive the idiocy of someone who recently suffered brain damage in a car accident. The religious today are still in a state of cognitive whiplash from the scientific revolution.

A great deal of what the devout feel is no longer expressible in terms they can justify, but this is because science updates fast and wisdom updates slowly. Wisdom is a crystal leftover from that which goes fast and fails. The scientific revolution is a supernova that is still exploding; religion, as encoded wisdom, will never "keep up with" what is explosive, even if — for all we know — it turns out to be vindicated after the dust has settled.

In their whiplash, those who insist on the truth of religion despite modernity are often guilty of misdirection. Rather than give science all of its due and admit the consequences, the religious often insist despite their rational conscience (telling themselves this is the meaning of "faith"). It seems to me that if, despite everything, there remain honest religious people today, then they would have to admit that the epistemic character of their own religiosity is itself an utter mystery. Obviously, it was never justified by science but now it no longer even enjoys the social conditions for its traditional functioning as an extra-rational social-pyschological structure. It's hard for me to see how religious experience today could be something other than the experience of making no sense, which does not mean there do not still exist real religious people or that one should not be religious—it only means that if a religious person today makes too much sense, I doubt them. One may believe in God, but this belief is weak indeed if one cannot also admit that God is dead. These cognitively aligned religious types, these blessed souls who make good sense to themselves, it is as if they have closed their eyes to the empirical phenomena that can be summarized as the murder of God, which would mean their faith is little more than willfully out of date information.

Mary punching the devil in the face (13th century). Credit: ChurchPop, Public Domain via the British Library.

Insisting that God is not dead in a world in which God has been killed, tends to manifest as a neurotic dissimulation of unstated instrumental motives (and it often is). The religious are correct to be religious, I believe, but they tend to dissimulate on the grounds that only the human folly of overzealous science has made them wrong, and so it is just and true for them to ignore human follies as if they have not occurred, even if those follies have in fact taken over many national majorities the world over. The stubborn dedication of the devout is impressive but unfortunate, because it contributes to the impression that science is "right" and religion is "wrong," at best a dubious symbolic game that's not exactly up front about its real cognitive-emotional character, probably serving some ulterior purposes. Faith that does not confront the death of God is a signal that falls beneath the noise-gates of all modern communication.

The devil is winning, and the religious are failing to update, because the religious are too devout to let themselves be as wrong as they truly are. Allowing oneself to be wrong is a necessary precondition for updating; coming to terms with the degree to which science has rendered religion wrong, is a precondition for religion to determine how its truth might once again be correctly expressed.

3 comments on “The Devil Is in the Denial”

  1. I dunno. Are you maybe falling into the Whig trap of overestimating the epistemic gulf between the pre-scientific age and us? Imagining the scribes who composed the scriptures as childlike rubes? What religious convictions exactly have been killed by science? Sophisticated believers always understood Genesis as symbolic rather than literal truth...read Augustine. Difference being that, in a pre-Cartesian age, a symbol was seen as something real rather than epiphenomenal. That's an important distinction, and it does make it more challenging to be a believer in a society where scientism--the belief that the only valid knowledge is that which can be validated by objective testing--is rampant. But you can appreciate the scientific method without buying into scientism, and you can affirm subjective paths to truth without cognitive dissonance.

    As for magical thinking, that's as strong now as ever, as your buddy Nick Land can confirm...

  2. Maybe. It just seems to me that the dominance of science in modernity has affected the rhetorical style/strategy of the religious today. I totally agree you can "appreciate the scientific method without buying into scientism, and you can affirm subjective paths to truth without cognitive dissonance." But this requires a lot of sophistication, and for the sophistication to trickle down to the less sophisticated requires structures of authority which have themselves crumbled, as a matter of social infrastructure. So well-meaning religious people today often end up dissimulating about the epistemic structure of their beliefs I think. This is also why many high-IQ religion-sympathetic people refuse to consider themselves religious.

    1. I agree with all of that. Question is whether it even makes sense for sophistication to "trickle down". Has that ever worked? When less sophisticated people hear sophisticated people articulating their sophisticated positions, they naturally become suspicious. They suspect that Mr. Fancy-pants is trying to construct a system wherein he can indulge in sin and still feel sanctified. Sometimes they're right.

      Everybody needs to internalize their cosmic stories at the level that works for them.

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