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.