The Totalitarian Ambition of the Religious Mind

February 9, 2011

Atheists struggle with penetrating the minds of religious believers. We get exasperated by religious convictions, because it seems so obvious to us that those convictions should not satisfy any intelligent mind. But somehow those convictions are satisfying, to smart minds as intelligent as ours, to normal minds that suffer from no mental illnesses or dementias. 

Religious convictions bewilder atheists. We turn to any available explanation for such a strange phenomena, strange because we can't see how they could exist. Reason and evidence can't justify religion, so there MUST be some other explanation, some cognitive failure or emotional override happening somewhere in a religious believer's brain. Religious minds must be distinctively crippled or warped, held back by bad wiring or distorted by odd desires.

And so there is an entire atheism industry devoted to propagating explanations for religion that point to this or that deficit in rationality, or diminishment of intelligence, or dereliction of logic, in the minds of believers. This industry goes way beyond complaining, as skeptics always have, about how believers stubbornly match atheist arguments with their own. We all see how arguing about God only gets so far. But this new irrationality industry is ready to just quit. It is one thing to keep arguing with believers over reasons to believe in God; it is quite another to start assuming that believers lack enough reason to profit from debate.

Probably some religious believers do suffer from lapses in logic; we all do from time to time. But that atheist industry devoted to denigrating religious minds has accomplished little beyond inspiring tribal contempt towards believers as subhuman and unworthy of intellectual respect. Even worse, social and cognitive scientists are turning away from atheists selling that irrationality story, since good evolutionary and cultural accounts of the emergence of religion don't have to postulate any intellectual deficit. There isn't even any need to rely on a knowledge deficit, since "primitive" peoples had sufficient motivation to tell and re-tell stories of gods even if they had understood where lighting came from and what the sun was made of. No longer can responsible accounts of religion's origins start from the stupidity of the first religious people.

I suspect that atheists who are happy to throw believers into the irrationality bin are ignorant of some cognitive psychology. The human mind naturally seeks explanations so desperately that it will habitually prefer bad explanations to no explanations. The triumph of modern scientific rationality is not really about its capacity to supply knowledge -- rather, its genius rests on a novel ability to tolerate ignorance. Knowledge has been accumulated of course, thanks to modern science. But the modern scientific mind, so grateful for explanatory knowledge, is even more grateful for its liberation from the tyranny of explanation. Scientific minds are the ones which are artificially abnormal, not religious minds. In order to have a scientific mind, you have to be trained to be comfortable with not knowing everything. You have to be comfortable with small facts, dimly perceived laws, and huge explanatory gaps. You have to be comfortable with leaving unknown things unknown for a while, perhaps for a lifetime, and perhaps forever.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, the famous French anthropologist, died last year at age 100. You can read a nice survey of his work over at The Nation . I was reading his classic work, Myth and Meaning , and was struck by his version of the difference between scientific and non-scientific minds. The difference is not that one cares for evidence and explanation, while the other does not. Quite the opposite: the unscientific “primitive” mind has an intense practical obsession with every minute particle of evidence available in the environment, to a degree that makes us moderns seem blind by comparison. Rather, the difference lies in the degree to which an all-encompassing explanatory web is pursued by the mind. The primitive mind spins out mythologies in order to guarantee that all evidence enjoys some rightful place in a total unified explanation of everything.  

In Levi-Strauss’s words, the function of mythology is

“... to reach by the shortest possible means a general understanding of the universe -- and not only a general but a total understanding. That is, it is a way of thinking which must imply that if you don’t understand everything, you don’t explain anything. This is entirely in contradiction to what scientific thinking does, which is to proceed step by step, trying to give explanations for very limited phenomena, and then going on to other kinds of phenomena, and so on.... So this totalitarian ambition of the savage mind is quite different from the procedures of scientific thinking. Of course the great difference is that this ambition does not succeed. We are able, through scientific thinking, to achieve mastery over nature -- I don't need to elaborate that point, it is obvious enough -- while, of course, myth is unsuccessful in giving man more material power over the environment. However, it gives man, very importantly, the illusion that he can understand the universe and that he does understand the universe. It is, of course, only an illusion.” ( Myth and Meaning , 1995 edition, pp. 5-6)

This “totalitarian ambition of the savage mind” isn’t really “savage” (the better translation of ‘sauvage’ is “wild” or “primitive”) but only undisciplined by science’s modern ways. The foremost disciplinary lesson of science is not to seek knowledge – human minds naturally try -- but instead to restrain one’s quest for comprehensive explanation, to rest content with only firmly connecting a few strands of nature rather than entangling all of nature’s ways into one thin net. The religious mind is the more natural mind, not the less intelligent mind. The mythological ambition is everywhere; it’s not only in religious traditions, but it has persisted throughout most of philosophy as well. Aristotle’s four modes of causation and his drive to prove one First Cause of everything is a totalitarian manifestation, as is Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason. We hear echoes of this “totalitarian ambition” in our contemporary theologians who demand explanations for everything and complain that faith in God must be preferred to science’s halting steps towards partial knowledge. We hear the mythological mind at work when religious people challenge atheists to explain the whole universe if there wasn’t a Creator.

The human mind naturally seeks explanations for everything – this is the glory and the curse of a large cortex. Religion demands, and too easily finds, “explanations” for all evidence. Science likewise demands explanations for the evidence, but finds knowledge instead of myth by demanding that a genuine explanation must demonstrate an actual natural process at work. Religion does not originate in any lack of rationality, but rather in an excess of exuberant intelligence. Science is content with partial, fallible, and revisable knowledge, while mythology offers totality, infallibility, and certainty. Finding the totalitarian mythology so satisfying to the intellect, religious believers do not understand why they should abandon their religion. When atheists complain that believers just don’t care for good explanations, believers reply that they already enjoy the best explanations. When atheists complain that believers must suffer from a rationality deficit, believers reply that the worse irrationality is to ignore a satisfying explanation when science has nothing by comparison. What looks like trivial illusion to the scientific mind actually looks like glorious reality to the mythological mind. This confrontation is not ultimately about evidence or rationality, as if one side has more of it than the other. This confrontation is about how two different kinds of intelligent minds do their work.

This stand-off between the mythological and scientific modes of intelligence cannot be overcome by more intelligence. That would be like trying to deal with an overflowing bathtub with a firehose of water. Intelligence has to be harnessed and tamed -- scientifically disciplined minds are made, not born. All the same, there is no need to give up arguing with religion, as if nothing can be done. Understanding the mythological mind does not authorize yet another hasty call to surrender the argumentative effort. Quite the opposite: atheists must try all the harder to encourage religious people to respect intelligence and science, and atheists must exemplify that respect themselves by respecting their opponents’ minds. Yes, atheists, you do have to respect religious believers’ minds even as you explain why you can’t respect their beliefs. Would atheists really demonstrate how to properly respect intelligence by first announcing that little intelligence can be found among believers? Besides, appealing to science and restrained rationality can have a real effect on religious minds, since most people nowadays have at least an acquaintance with science’s ways. And there are other ways, emotional ways, to argue with a religious person that their God can’t be quite so good as they think.

So scientific culture will have to continue to do what it always has done: instruct the young, and enlighten the old. Mythology will always be with us, but so will science. Myth cannot ultimately prevail. In the long run, mythology does not strengthen the human mind. A strong mind finds satisfying comfort in knowing what it actually does know, and knowing what it does not know.



#51 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday February 14, 2011 at 3:48am

REM, so you have to admit that Jefferson’s ideas were greatly informed by religion, very much so by the teachings of Jesus.  He wasn’t the atheist hero or even a deist that is the creation of the Kurtzian mythology that infests would be scientific blogs.

If you can’t understand that I’ve cited the decisive and predominant role that Christians had in instituting secular government in the United States and their role in securing freedom of thought, from my first comment @19 of this comment thread, as a refutation of John Shook’s dishonest and absurd assertion that “the religious mind” is wedded to totalitarianism, then you’re way out of your depth.  Which is generally where the new atheists are. 

They hand out those philosophy degrees up there in New York like certificates from a massage school, apparently.

#52 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday February 14, 2011 at 3:59am

Are the comments about evolution supposed to be for my benefit?  I’ve always accepted the fact of evolution, probably for a number of decades before you were born, REM. 

The idea that in the approximately 150/3,000,000,000+ years of the scientific study of the enormous numbers of evolution has done more than barely scratch the surface of it is an absurd overreach by those who want to turn science into an ideology.  Just for a start, the vast bulk of necessary information to a comprehensive study of evolution is lost and unrecoverable, which is a fact.  And even if it was all available the incomprehensible complexity of evolution would make it, effectively, a task infinitely greater than the scientist/hours available for its study.  But turning science into an ideology is the devout wish of pop-atheism.  Trying to force the science of biology into the pseudo-scientific standards in psychology and its allied fields is not going to do much good to science.  If the human species continues for long, Richard Dawkins will be an obscure footnote in the history of scientific folly.

#53 DAniel Mann (Guest) on Monday February 14, 2011 at 5:20am


Not that I would question anything that has issued forth so glowingly from such a “Bright” and “Free-Thinking” mind, but I just wanted to humbly point out that you must have innocently overlooked my challenge to provide just one stitch of evidence for naturalism.

#54 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Monday February 14, 2011 at 10:22am


The way you take shit out of context is unreal.  I never said Jefferson wasn’t influenced by religion.  Of course he was influenced by religion.  Everyone at that time was influenced by religion.  There were religious laws at the time; how could one not be influenced by religion.

I wrote that he was a secularist and a deist.  I wrote that he insisted that the constitution have a bill of rights.  I wrote that many of the founders were deists.  I wrote that even those christians who were part of the constitution most put aside their religion and behaved and thought like secularists. 

But the most important part of the entire process was that deists, such as Jefferson, had as much, and at times more influence, in the constitutional process as did christians.  Without the deists it is doubtful we would have had an explicitly secular government because it is the bill of rights that explicitly separates government from religion.  And that came at Jefferson’s insistence.

And you either misunderstood and just don’t understand how the word totalitarian is being used in this thread: the religious use religion to explain everything; it offers a total explanation.  So, once again you made a straw man.

Anthony, it is quite apparent that you have your own agenda here.  It is quite apparent that you use sites like this in an attempt to elevate yourself.  But, taking comments out of context, ignoring the point of the argument, inventing your own argument, lying about what people write, not only makes you annoying, it makes you a TROLL.

And no one thinks much of trolls.  That would be because trolls are losers.

#55 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Monday February 14, 2011 at 10:43am


You are now being willfully obtuse.  I gave a very thorough answer to your question.

What you’re asking for is to disprove that a god exists.  I went through that:  Your god idea gets dismissed because it is logically unverifiable, thus it does not belong in a scientific explanation.

When you can adduce a falsifiable idea of for a god and when you can then construct an experiment to prove the existence of your god, get back to me.

It seems that you consider your argument pretty slick.  But it is the typical ID double talk: proving naturalism doesn’t make sense.  Science operates by asking specific questions and does specific tests.  When looking at the fossil record, one does not need to bring a god idea into it to understand it.  By saying I need to prove that a god didn’t have a role in the fossil is the same same thing as saying I can’t disprove a god exists.  I’ve been through that all ready. 

This is a not so clever trick to rebut that question that plagues christians and muslims: what falsifiable idea can you adduce for a god and then what test and evidence can you adduce to prove it exists.  You can’t.  You never will.  So, you attempt to phrase a question about naturalism in the same way hoping that this will keep you from providing the evidence for your god. 

I may have been wrong about you and Anthony being the same person.  But, until you discuss this honestly and provide an answer to the question, you’re just as big a troll as is Anthony.

#56 Daniel Schealler on Monday February 14, 2011 at 12:18pm

@Daniel Mann

You’re being funny now.

You say:

//I just wanted to humbly point out that you must have innocently overlooked my challenge to provide just one stitch of evidence for naturalism.//

But again, earlier you said:

////You ask for criteria by which ID (supernaturalism) can be dis-confirmed. Just give me criteria how naturalism can be invalidated, and I’ll be glad to give you mine.//

Now. I’ve given you an example of how I think naturalism could be invalidated.

I’ve tried - several times - to draw your attention to this.

Yet I haven’t seen anywhere yet that you fulfilled your end of the bargain.

Did I innocently overlook something?

#57 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday February 14, 2011 at 3:18pm

REM, I think when someone does what you’re doing it’s the knee jerk habit of the new atheists to start whining about moving goalposts, just one of a vocabulary of outs when you are refuted. 

Joseph Priestley, who Jefferson endorsed several times, was not a deist, he explicitly identified himself as a Christian, specifically in the book that Jefferson endorsed. 

Here is how Priestley put it,

“All the time I was at the academy [Daventry] I never lost sight of the great object of my studies, which was the duties of a Christian minister, and there it was I laid the plan I have executed since.”

“All I wish as a Christian from the powers of this world is that they would not intermeddle at all…and that they would give no countenance whatever to any mode of it, my own or others, but show so much confidence in the principles of what they themselves deem to be true religion, as to think it able to guard itself.”
“I never preached a political sermon in my life, unless such as, I believe, all Dissenters usually preach on the Fifth of November [Guy Fawkes Day], in favour of civil and religious liberty, may be said to be political.”

A deist who said, “I have read his Corruptions of Christianity, and Early Opinions of Jesus, over and over again; and I rest on them ... as the basis of my own faith. These writings have never been answered.”  As almost always, the CSI-new atheist line on Jefferson is horse feathers.  NOT that the faithful faithless care if what they say is supported by evidence.

Who comes to a blog like this one without an agenda?  I certainly didn’t come in the expectation that CFI had become a hotbed of real free thought based in evidence.

#58 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Monday February 14, 2011 at 3:57pm


You ignored what I wrote and turned into something else.
Jefferson was a deist.  Jefferson insisted on the bill of rights.

You’re a troll.  A big troll.

#59 Daniel Schealler on Monday February 14, 2011 at 4:31pm


I linked to the wrong article before. I tried posting the actual link but it didn’t make it through validation.

Shook has an article on this site titled: “Why should I be moral?”

If you have the time (you may not) look it up and have a scan through the comments. You might get a chuckle out of some of it. ^_^

#60 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday February 14, 2011 at 5:50pm

REM, you’re just upset because I can back up what I said and you can’t.  It’s typical of the new atheist blog boys.

#61 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Monday February 14, 2011 at 6:02pm


That is certainly not true. 
Jefferson was a deist.  Jefferson insisted on the bill of rights.
This is common knowledge.

You’re a troll.  A big ugly dumb troll.

#62 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Tuesday February 15, 2011 at 4:39am

REM, produce the quote from Jefferson that said “I am a deist”. 

Jefferson was in France when the Bill of Rights was adopted, he may have favored it but he isn’t solely responsible for it being in the constitution. That is why George Mason is generally called it’s father.  Jefferson, the slave holder, even as he had a family by one of his, certainly didn’t have much to do with the Civil Rights amendments of the 1860s or the Civil Rights Act of 1965. 

Hard to face that what you’ve been told about a hero is inaccurate, isn’t it.  Might make you wonder what other parts of the CSI-new atheist mythology is also junk, huh.

#63 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Tuesday February 15, 2011 at 11:03am


Jefferson did not believe Jesus was divine.
Jefferson did not believe any of the miracles.
Jefferson was as influenced by the morality of Epicurus as much as by what he admired about this alleged Jesus.
Jefferson was a deist.

It is clear you’re an adherent of James Kennedy, but none of you right wing christians can make the argument Jefferson was a christian.  Influenced by some of the writings of this purported Jesus, but just as influenced by Epicurus and enlightenment principals.  He never referred to himself as a deist but as a unitarian, which in Britain and the colonies was just about the same.

Madison didn’t think the constitution needed a bill of rights.  Jefferson said he wouldn’t agree to it without it.  If Jefferson didn’t go along, neither would Virginia.

It is clear you have a high opinion of yourself that is why you come to sites a badger people.  You argue badly and you are misinformed. You were wrong about the totalitarianism because you’re so preoccupied with reading your own words and you’re wrong about Jefferson for the same reason.

You’re not special and you’re not that bright.  You think you are but there are people who think the world is flat.

You’re are a troll.
A misinformed, ego driven Troll.

#64 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Tuesday February 15, 2011 at 11:26am


May that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe, lead our council to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity—First Inaugural Address.  viii 5. Ford ED. vvvi, 6 (1801)

This is the language of deism.  In an 1823 letter to Adams, Jefferson goes on to define what he views on a deity.  It is typical deism of the day.  I suggest you find and read it.

#65 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Tuesday February 15, 2011 at 3:26pm

  DEAR SIR,-In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798-99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis
through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you, that one day or other, I would
give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.

If you read the rest of the letter, you’ll find that Jefferson used the word “deist” pretty much to mean monotheist.  Not the way it’s usually used these days.  I’ve read some people call him a “Christian deist”, which is a pretty odd juxtaposition of concepts.  But apparently he’s on record as calling himself a Christian so he apparently was influenced by the teachings of Jesus.

#66 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Tuesday February 15, 2011 at 3:29pm

It’s clear I have a high opinion of myself?  Why do you say that?  Because I back up what I said with evidence?  I’ve had new atheists complain about that before, but, you see, back when I was in school there wasn’t anything unusual about doing that. I didn’t have recourse to such infallible sources as James Randi and the catalog of Prometheus publications so I didn’t have the advantage of recourse to an absolute authority.

#67 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Tuesday February 15, 2011 at 3:42pm


Yes, you have an elevated opinion of yourself.  Although it is undeserved.

You lied about what I wrote.  You didn’t stick to the topic.  You cherry picked quotes.  You didn’t understand what Daniel S meant by totalitarian and went on a rant about it.  You ignore all the evidence about Jefferson’s deism.

Not believing Jesus was divine.
Not believing in the miracles.
Holding Epicurus as high a moral teacher as Jesus.
All signs of deism, certainly not signs of a christian.

It is clear you’re a christian although you lie about that.
It is clear you have a personal, pathological need to prove something to secular humanists.

All you have proved is that you’re a troll.
Trolls belong under bridges.

I’m done.
Good riddance, you dumb troll.

#68 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Tuesday February 15, 2011 at 3:51pm

And yes he was influenced by the the alleged words of Jesus.
I never denied that.
He was just as influenced by Epicurus.
He was just as influenced by enlightenment writings.
He believed reason superseded revelation.
He often referred to himself as a Unitarian, the name for deist in that time.
Add that to not believing in a creation (see letter mentioned earlier), to not believing in the divinity of this alleged Jesus, and to not believing in any of the miracles and you have a deist.

I’m done.
So, good bye, you dumb troll.

#69 Daniel Schealler on Tuesday February 15, 2011 at 4:03pm

Don’t worry too much REM.

He’s easier to take the second time around.

#70 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Tuesday February 15, 2011 at 7:19pm

You could be mistaken, REM, I just might not have a very high opinion about your thinking, which wouldn’t necessarily mean I’ve got an inflated opinion of myself. 

Gee, have you ever heard Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett or Pinker?  They make me seem meek and mild. 

I’m not bothering with this anymore, I’ve found out what I wanted to.

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