Pro­fess­ing and Cheering

I once at­ten­ded a panel on the topic, “Are sci­ence and re­li­gion com­pat­ible?” One of the wo­men on the panel, a pa­gan, held forth in­ter­min­ably upon how she be­lieved that the Earth had been cre­ated when a gi­ant prim­or­dial cow was born into the prim­or­dial abyss, who licked a prim­or­dial god into ex­ist­ence, whose des­cend­ants killed a prim­or­dial gi­ant and used its corpse to cre­ate the Earth, etc. The tale was long, and de­tailed, and more ab­surd than the Earth be­ing sup­por­ted on the back of a gi­ant turtle. And the speaker clearly knew enough sci­ence to know this.

I still find my­self strug­gling for words to de­scribe what I saw as this wo­man spoke. She spoke with… pride? Self-sat­is­fac­tion? A de­lib­er­ate flaunt­ing of her­self?

The wo­man went on de­scrib­ing her cre­ation myth for what seemed like forever, but was prob­ably only five minutes. That strange pride/​sat­is­fac­tion/​flaunt­ing clearly had some­thing to do with her know­ing that her be­liefs were sci­en­tific­ally out­rageous. And it wasn’t that she hated sci­ence; as a pan­el­ist she pro­fessed that re­li­gion and sci­ence were com­pat­ible. She even talked about how it was quite un­der­stand­able that the Vik­ings talked about a prim­or­dial abyss, given the land in which they lived—ex­plained away her own re­li­gion!—and yet non­ethe­less in­sisted this was what she “be­lieved”, said with pe­cu­liar sat­is­fac­tion.

I’m not sure that Daniel Den­nett’s concept of “be­lief in be­lief” stretches to cover this event. It was weirder than that. She didn’t re­cite her cre­ation myth with the fan­at­ical faith of someone who needs to re­as­sure her­self. She didn’t act like she ex­pec­ted us, the audi­ence, to be con­vinced—or like she needed our be­lief to val­id­ate her.

Den­nett, in ad­di­tion to sug­gest­ing be­lief in be­lief, has also sug­ges­ted that much of what is called “re­li­gious be­lief” should really be stud­ied as “re­li­gious pro­fes­sion”. Sup­pose an alien an­thro­po­lo­gist stud­ied a group of post­mod­ern­ist Eng­lish stu­dents who all seem­ingly be­lieved that Wulky Wilkensen was a post-uto­pian au­thor. The ap­pro­pri­ate ques­tion may not be “Why do the stu­dents all be­lieve this strange be­lief?” but “Why do they all write this strange sen­tence on quizzes?” Even if a sen­tence is es­sen­tially mean­ing­less, you can still know when you are sup­posed to chant the re­sponse aloud.

I think Den­nett may be slightly too cyn­ical in sug­gest­ing that re­li­gious pro­fes­sion is just say­ing the be­lief aloud—most people are hon­est enough that, if they say a re­li­gious state­ment aloud, they will also feel ob­lig­ated to say the verbal sen­tence into their own stream of con­scious­ness.

But even the concept of “re­li­gious pro­fes­sion” doesn’t seem to cover the pa­gan wo­man’s claim to be­lieve in the prim­or­dial cow. If you had to pro­fess a re­li­gious be­lief to sat­isfy a priest, or sat­isfy a co-re­li­gion­ist—heck, to sat­isfy your own self-im­age as a re­li­gious per­son—you would have to pre­tend to be­lieve much more con­vin­cingly than this wo­man was do­ing. As she re­cited her tale of the prim­or­dial cow, with that same strange flaunt­ing pride, she wasn’t even try­ing to be per­suas­ive—wasn’t even try­ing to con­vince us that she took her own re­li­gion ser­i­ously. I think that’s the part that so took me aback. I know people who be­lieve they be­lieve ri­dicu­lous things, but when they pro­fess them, they’ll spend much more ef­fort to con­vince them­selves that they take their be­liefs ser­i­ously.

It fi­nally oc­curred to me that this wo­man wasn’t try­ing to con­vince us or even con­vince her­self. Her re­cit­a­tion of the cre­ation story wasn’t about the cre­ation of the world at all. Rather, by launch­ing into a five-minute diatribe about the prim­or­dial cow, she was cheer­ing for pa­gan­ism, like hold­ing up a ban­ner at a foot­ball game. A ban­ner say­ing “GO BLUES” isn’t a state­ment of fact, or an at­tempt to per­suade; it doesn’t have to be con­vin­cing—it’s a cheer.

That strange flaunt­ing pride… it was like she was march­ing na­ked in a gay pride parade. (In­cid­ent­ally, I’d have no ob­jec­tion if she had marched na­ked in a gay pride parade. Les­bi­an­ism is not some­thing that truth can des­troy.) It wasn’t just a cheer, like march­ing, but an out­rageous cheer, like march­ing na­ked—be­liev­ing that she couldn’t be ar­res­ted or cri­ti­cized, be­cause she was do­ing it for her pride parade.

That’s why it mattered to her that what she was say­ing was bey­ond ri­dicu­lous. If she’d tried to make it sound more plaus­ible, it would have been like put­ting on clothes.