Mark Vernon responded to Julian Baggini’s series on the Heathen’s Progress in a recent piece in the Guardian, and now, in his turn, Baggini has responded to Vernon. Since it seemed to me that, in his latest Heathen’s Progress piece, Baggini had lost the thread of the story, his latest contribution adds a new and important wrinkle; for here, at last, he comes to the question of the ground of or justification for religious belief. Of course, had he started this way, the series may have been over before it was well begun, but these are, after all, crucial questions to ask when confronted by any proposal of belief. What grounds it? On what basis do I consider this belief to be true? Is it appropriate to hold this belief on quite slender grounds, or on grounds that seem inadequate to the importance that this belief will play in the system of beliefs in which it plays an important part? And so on.
We hold all sorts of beliefs on very dubious grounds, yet usually such beliefs do not play a defining role in our understanding of ourselves and the world. But when a belief plays a central role in the structure of our beliefs, it becomes very important for us to make sure that we hold that belief on reputable grounds, and this, I think, is seldom the case when it comes to religion. Indeed, the scientific understanding of the reasons why religious beliefs have come to be held seems to show that religious beliefs fulfil certain psychological conditions which enable them to be held without and even in the teeth of the evidence. Take Thompson and Aukofer’s book, Why We Believe in Gods. In a general statement about the conclusions of their book they state:
Religion utilizes and piggybacks onto everyday social-thought processes, adaptive psychological mechanisms that evolved to help us negotiate our relationships with other people, to detect agency and intent, and to generate a sense of safety. [Kindle, loc 374-5]
This is important. If religious beliefs are, as Thompson and Aukofer claim, merely hitching a ride on already developed mechanisms that have evolved for other reasons having to do with social interaction and the detection of threats and benefits in the environment, then it is doubly important that we trace them back to their origins.
Since we no longer live in the primitive environments in which those mechanisms evolved it is very likely that, if they have been hijacked for other purposes, knowing this is important if we are to live most effectively in the cultural environments that have taken the place of the earlier environments in which our psychological mechanisms evolved. When agency detection in the environment was crucial to survival, where one false negative could mean that you became some predator’s lunch instead of your prey becoming your lunch, it might have seemed perfectly natural to think of agency as being a general characteristic of things. Falling ill and dying, being analogous to other forms of harm, might reasonably have been thought to be the result of unseen agency which might have given place, in turn, to ritual enactment, just as hunts were probably reenacted in song and story. The placebo effect is probably strong enough to produce the illusion that such rituals were effective in warding off unseen predators, just as spears and arrows protected against predators that can be seen. After all, dreams and drug induced fantasies can seem as real as everyday life, and for primitive peoples it may have been harder to distinguish waking from sleeping, and unseen from visible predators. However, since we can now make these distinctions readily, we have less excuse for confusing dreams and reality, and their closely associated realms of life and death.
In his response to Vernon, Baggini addresses this confusion right away:
What fundamentally grounds religious belief? [he asks] It’s one of the biggest questions concerning faith, too big in fact, because it’s really two questions, not one. The first is what as a matter of fact grounds people’s religious convictions, the second is what would justifiably ground them. People believe many falsehoods for bad reasons and fail to believe truths in spite of having good reasons to do so.
And then he suggests that Vernon’s response to the Heathen’s Progress series
.. helpfully shed[s] light on the importance of this distinction by demonstrating what happens when you fail to account for it properly.
As always, Baggini is graciousness itself; but this is a polite dig at Vernon, for Vernon is helpful only by showing what this failure looks like. What Vernon does is to deflect attention away from the real problem — that is, what would justifiably ground belief? — to the secondary question as to the origin of people’s religious beliefs. I believe, as you will see, that Baggini simply misunderstands the first part of the question about the grounds of religion. It is not so much a matter of “what as a matter of fact grounds people’s religious convictions,” as it is a matter of how people come to have religious convictions in the first place, and this leads him to the mistaken notion (as I think it is) that “experiences are indeed what generally ground faith.” I think this is simply false. Religion only takes this tack when it is forced onto the subjective, when it is made to think defensively, but I do not think that most people believe because of their experiences.
The problem here is a simple one. While it is true that some people have what they might think of as religious experiences, most people, in my own experience, think of their experiences as religious only because they already have a context in which to understand them as such. Kids who are preparing for confirmation, for example, often wonder whether with the laying on of hands they will finally have the experience that they think will ground the beliefs which they have been taught — not the other way around; and they are often disappointed. Nothing happens. They are the same after as before. This fact is abundantly evident in the zealous way that converts to religious belief behave. They become more punctilious in the observance of religious obligations than their fellow believers, and far more zealous in the expression of their faith, which tends, on the whole, to become more rigorous and literal, and much less nuanced than those who are to the manner born. The main reason for this, I think, is not that their experiences are more vivid or convincing, but that they are disappointingly less so, and their commitment, in order for them to take their new faith seriously, and deal with the cognitive dissonance created by the fact that their experiences do not change, must be expressed by more assiduously following the rules and more zealously commending their (new-found) faith to others, including to their own fellow believers, who will seem to take faith altogether too lightly. Religious belief is largely the product of a social practice, not a matter of individual experience — a fact which is brought out clearly by the research of Festinger et al. in their book, When Prophecy Fails.
It is at this point that Vernon’s response to Baggini starts to become relevant — or not, as the case may be. In fact, in most respects it is a collection of vague generalities about the role of the body in cognition. We are embodied. Bodies are not simply vehicles for brains. That embodiment plays an integral part in the process of coming to know was taken for granted long before cognitive science got underway. Stuart Hampshire’s book, Thought and Action, published as long ago as 1960, makes the role of the body in cognition vividly clear. Indeed, Vernon leaves the relationship between embodiment and religion unacceptably vague. He simply rehearses a few broad generalities about cognition and embodiment, and follows it up with a bit of familiar patter about “inside” and “outside”, the expressive body, and a few other platitudes, and then concludes with this:
The new cognitive and historical insights have further implications for the understanding of religion. For example, if religious narratives are to do with seeking patterns of meaning and a holistic view, the spiritual searcher will gain most from embodied ways of engaging with life. I suspect that this is why meditation can be so revelatory. It trains the attention towards aspects of embodiment like the breath. It exercises neurons that people never knew they had. Expansiveness is the result.
Or again, if a religious sensibility needs an embodied foundation, this would explain why spiritual directors advise individuals to make pilgrimages, to experience liturgies and rituals, and to discipline and pattern their lives. These are activities that are about letting go, which is also a letting in. Something opens up to a new experience of life. Illumination is gained. Faith known first in the body may be the result.
This is unhelpful. In fact, there is too much of the subjunctive about these conclusions altogether. It doesn’t really address any of the crucial questions that faith must put to itself, nor does it distinguish clearly between fact and theory. There is no suggestion here as to how religious beliefs (or faith) are grounded. Vague generalities like this really tell us nothing, as Baggini points out in a piece of plain speaking. As he says:
[Vernon's] argument is based on some uncontroversial truths, such as the fact that cognition is “embodied” and does not take place in some kind of Cartesian ego which is distinct from our physicality. Far from being inconvenient encumbrances, “our bodies play a vital role in how we engage with the world” and “are crucial for making the world a meaningful place too”. We know all this, not from fluffy spirituality, but from “contemporary research”, “cognitive science”, “evidence coming out of neuroscience” and “research into human development”.
And then he points out that Vernon can’t get from these uncontroversial truths what he seeks, because none of this can provide religious belief with rational grounds. You can’t go from “piling up a whole load of interesting scientific findings” to reasons for religious belief, because all you end up with, as Baggini says, is “a plethora of non sequiturs.” Just putting them side by side does not constitute an argument, and certainly not a justification.
The problem is precisely what Baggini says it is. We simply cannot get to objectivity by pointing out that reason is not just “a purely abstract, judgment and emotion-free process.” It is not that the modern sceptic simply denies outright the value of subjective experiences. Doctors rely on them all the time, for instance, and most of us acknowledge and welcome signs of affection and gratitude. But that does not mean that the problematic character of subjective experience in the acquisition of knowledge is a misunderstanding, for it is only when people began to take the inadequacies of subjective experience seriously that knowledge began to grow exponentially. Objective confirmation, that is, the ability to check the world for the reliability of our experiences of it, is essential to the claim to have knowledge of the world. While subjective experience may serve to justify (at least for you) your claim that you had the experience you claim to have had; it cannot justify my conviction that you had such an experience, and certainly not that I should understand the world in terms of that conviction. And, whether embodied or not, subjective experience is still subjective experience, and is unreliable in the way that subjective experiences generally are.
For the reason, after all, that embodiment is so important, is that reason and knowledge are social and not individual pursuits. Purported “knowledge” based on individual experience alone can only be accepted on authority — which is why authority plays such a large role in religious systems of belief, and cannot be considered to be (objective) knowledge. In order for knowledge to be well grounded it must (at a minimum) provide a precisely defined experience which a suitably qualified and observant individual will have in precisely defined circumstances. And this must be coherently related to other things which are known on the same basis. This is something that religion simply cannot provide, and despite Vernon’s collection of neuroscientific discoveries — if that is what they are — there is no direct route from any one taken individually or all of them taken together to the confirmation of the objectivity of what is experienced by religious believers, much less to the objectivity of religious beliefs supposedly founded on those experiences.
So, while I disagree with Baggini about what he thinks “as a matter of fact grounds people’s religious convictions,” the points that he makes in this latest article are, it seems to me, pretty solidly based. My main problem is the role that Baggini gives to religious experience in grounding the convictions of religious believers. This is no doubt a matter for empirical study and investigation, but my own experience of religious belief and believers does not support it. Religious beliefs are, I believe, grounded in authority, and then experience is interpreted in the light of those beliefs, not the other way round. That is why Catholics, in experience, tend to encounter the “Virgin Mary,” and not Ram, Sita or Parvati. The oceanic feeling, or sense of the numinous is simply not determinate enough to provide a foundation for religious belief, which is why the Buddha’s enlightenment was, in fact, not a state of cognition.
This is why embodiment won’t get Vernon to religious belief either. Embodiment and sociality may prompt individuals to tell religious stories or to fabricate myths as vehicles for their experiences, but they will provide neither an anchor for those stories in reality, nor a way of preserving the original experiences which prompted the stories and myths. By privileging religious experiences, as that upon which religious beliefs are grounded, both Baggini and Vernon give unwarranted support for religious beliefs, even if, as Baggini points out, this does not provide religious beliefs with rational grounds. But religious beliefs are held independently of experience, so independently, indeed, that most religious believers have only a very imperfect idea of the beliefs that are taught by the religions they adhere to, and very few indeed (if any) have any idea of the original experiences from which those beliefs derive. It is this disconnect between belief and experience, and belief and justification, that Baggini seems to have been missing all along. This disconnexion is, in fact, what permits religious believers to claim that religion is not about belief at all, for religions just are, when you examine them, a loosely connected jumble of experiences, feelings, practices, moral convictions, metaphysical beliefs, and stories. We lump these things together and call them religions, but there is scarcely any justification for claiming that any religion is in fact a unified body of such beliefs, experiences, or practices, because, in fact, there is so little to base them on in reality and in reason that can give them that kind of coherence.