Category Archives: Atran: In Gods We Trust


2013-05-26

Fantasy and Religion: One Fundamental Difference (Or, Why God’s Word Will Never Fail)

by Neil Godfrey

Fantasy&ScienceFiction_cover_Oct1978Some theologians like to study what they call the intersects between science fiction (which is a sub-genre of fantasy) and religion. That might be a cute way to spark interest in the gospel message, but in reality there is no intersection between the two at all, at least not cognitively. Scot Atran explains:

One clear and important distinction between fantasy and religion is the knowledge of its source. People generally attribute their personal fantasies and dreams to themselves and to events they’ve experienced. They also know or assume that public fictions (novels, movies, cartoons, etc.) were created by specific people who had particular intentions for doing so.

A religious text is another story. Followers believe it to be the work and word of deities themselves. Believers assume that sacred doctrine was first heard or transcribed in some long-forgotten time by chosen prophets or sages who were faithfully repeating or imagining what the deities had directly said or shown to them. (In Gods We Trust, p. 91)

As I have been showing in my posts on Dennis Nineham’s lectures collated in The Use and Abuse of the Bible, theologians of the modern day have salvaged the Bible from the ravages of standard literary and historical criticism by declaring that its authors were imbued with remarkable spiritual insights into the meaning of the events they witnessed and modern readers who have faith will recognize this gift of theirs in the Scriptures. This is, in effect, a more sophisticated version of the “divine inspiration” of the Bible. It’s a neat device for justifying the Bible as the fundamental source of their faith, filled with divine insights (a more intellectually respectable way of expressing the concept of “divine inspiration”), even though there are human errors evident in the text and even though some texts reveal a humanly flawed author.

sacredtextsThe need by some Christians to affirm the apostolic authority of the Gospels is worth commenting on in this context. It appears that affirming the traditional authorship — two apostles (Matthew and John) and two associates of apostles (Mark and Luke) — is necessary in order to further elaborate the faith narrative that holds these works are indeed products of divinely chosen eyewitnesses. Normal evidentiary means of confirming authorship are dismissed as “overly sceptical” in the need to affirm the faith that a religion grounded in historical events is indeed “historically true”.

But what does it mean to accept a text on faith as authoritative?

Why God’s Word Cannot Be Disconfirmed

Accepting a text on authority and faith implies that the listener or reader suspend the universal constraints on ordinary communication . . .

In ordinary communication, the listener or reader “automatically” attempts to fill the gap in understanding between what is merely said or written and what the communicator intends the listener or reader to think or do as a result.

Atran illustrates. Normal communication works like this: read more »


2013-05-23

Science and Religion: Four Fundamental Differences

by Neil Godfrey

Religion has not gone away since the end of the Europe’s religious wars and the ensuing Age of Enlightenment. Indeed, scientific advances and the rise of secularism may even be largely responsible for religious revivals. Anthropologist Scott Atran writes about current research on religion, including his own. One of his online 2012 articles, God and the Ivory Tower: What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us. Now I used to love Richard Dawkins’ colourful critique of religion. Who could possibly argue with:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (God Delusion, p. 51)

atran

Scott Atran

But Scott Atran is one scholar who is forcing me into a rethink lately. He argues that it is misguided to think that religion will go away if we can rationally disprove all of its beliefs and premises. Fighting religion with reason and facts just doesn’t work because that sort of tactic completely misunderstands what religion is. Religious people know their beliefs are counter-intuitive and do not conform to the commonsense systems of thought that govern our everyday functioning in the physical world. Indeed, Atran argues, that’s the point of religion, and there is a clear benefit to groups and individuals within groups because of this. I will explain the arguments and evidence in future posts.

Till then, there is a clue to Atran’s conclusions in the following observation:

Thus, a century ago, while visiting the United States, Max Weber (1946:46) observed that even the most hard-headed capitalist would make it his business to advertise his faith in order to display his trustworthiness to others. . . . [P]eople apparently infer that explicit professions of faith carry the implicit message that trustworthiness matters — in the unblinking and forever watchful eyes of God — and commitments will be met even at great cost and even when there is no hope of reward. Science and secular ideology are poor competitors in this regard. (In Gods We Trust, p. 276. )

I expect to post more articles referencing Scott Atran’s works (In Gods We Trust is only one of his titles that I have beside me to read) on the nature of religion in the coming year and more) but till I start in earnest I leave here his concluding distinctions between Science and Religion. read more »