I got in an interesting discussion with a religious academic recently. He argued that to understand another person’s religious beliefs, I need to treat those beliefs with respect — i.e. engage with their beliefs. To assume that God does not exist when explaining the behavior of the worshiper is to impose my own agenda: it was to push a secular, rejectionist view of the world onto the phenomenon I was trying to understand. Since science seeks to understand what’s there and not to push an agenda, it seemed to follow that the best science of religion would be in some sense open to, or respectful of, the possibility of religious truth.
He was adverting to Dilthey’s concept of verstehen, or understanding by empathetic identification.
It’s important to distinguish between two senses of engaging with a belief or taking it seriously. In one sense if I am on an island where they worship the palm tree and kill everyone who touches the palm tree with their feet, to take their belief seriously, to engage with it, means not to touch the palm tree with my feet when they are around. On this interpretation I had better take their belief seriously if I am to understand them — or they will throw me in a volcano! If I want to understand the United States invasion of Iraq I need to understand the Christianity of the U.S. people and their leadership, and their sense that their country had a divine mission. In another sense to engage with these beliefs means I should take it seriously as an existential possibility for my own life that palm trees are sacred — more sacred than oak trees for example – or that in some sense God has a plan for the United States in a way He does not have a plan for China. These two senses of “engagement with belief” are quite different.
We obviously need the first. If we want to understand human phenomena, religious or not, we need to understand the religious beliefs of the participants. This can be quite involved. So for example if I want to understand why the islanders will kill me if I mistreat the palm tree I may need to get deeply into the concept of tabu. If I want to understand U.S. foreign policy under George W. Bush I probably need to understand evangelical Christianity.
Do we need the second? Do I need to consider the possibility of damaging my own life by mistreating a palm tree in order to understand? Do I need to seriously think that God might actually be pro-American and a Republican to grok Bush’s foreign policy escapades?
Here is an argument that I do not. There are simply too many conflicting religious beliefs.
For example, when I lived in NYC in the late years of the twentieth century it was a cosmopolitan city with a lively marketplace of beliefs, religious and political. I encountered and talked with:
a)a devotee of transcendental meditation who claimed that if I paid for enough transcendental meditation courses I could learn to fly
b)a Christian who asked me to get down on my knees and pray to Jesus Christ in order to be saved
c)A Hasid who, hinting heavily that his 18th century Ukrainian teacher was the mesiah, suggested if I ever had a nocturnal emission I should say 10 special psalms which God had revealed to his teacher.
Is it secular rejectionism, or an atheistic ideology, to say to (a), (b), and (c) that their claims are unproven and unlikely? Call it what you will but in our day and age it is the only option. The different claims are expensive in terms of time and money. They conflict. We need to make a choice and that requires some sort of evaluation. If Jesus is the messiah then Rabbi Nachman is not, and if either is the messiah then it is idle to try to fly through studying the teachings of the Maharishi. On the other hand if the Maharishi is correct then it may be foolish to invest in airplane stocks.
Is the tone I am taking insufficiently respectful? That is, am I falling down on the job as a compassionate human being or objective social scientist if I consider the possibility that some of the above — the ne0-Hindu, the Christian, and the Hasid — may not have my best interests at heart? That they may be con-men, or self-deceived, or plain crazy, or in the game of promulgating religion for the money or power?
Again call it what you will, but since some people out there promulgating their religions are one or more of the above (self-deceived, power-hungry, con-artists) it cannot be a methodological mistake to consider the possibility. There is no scientific requirement for respecting everyone when we all know we live in a world where everyone is not worthy of respect.
That said — is there a kernel of truth to the fear about imposing a secular ideology on a religious phenomenon and thereby missing the boat? I believe there is. Every commitment is a risk, including foregoing a commitment. We have limited minutes and we have limited dollars. If we raise our children as Breslov Hasidism then they are not Christians and vice versa. If we spend our hard-earned money on a plane ticket from New York to California, we are missing out on the possibility of getting to Los Angeles by means of yogic flight.
When we seek religious truth we are at the same time seeking an answer to the question “How should I live my life?” It is a heavy question. My interlocutor, the religious academic was correct that it should not be treated, lightly, with a condescending smirk, or a sense of superiority based in the misplaced confidence that science makes me invulnerable.
We are all vulnerable. The Hindu, the Christian, the Hasid and the scientist without a creed. We all have a life and it could, terrifyingly, end any second — and, perhaps more terrifyingly, it could end many decades from now but be wasted. However the only way to treat this fact with the seriousness it deserves though is to take a moment when the world runs at us with answers and think and wonder and reflect. Not because we owe respect to anybody who knocks on the door with a pamphlet about how he and his cult know the one true way, but because we want to how to lead our life ourselves.