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 in­tro­duc­ing the idea of be­lief in be­lief, has also sug­gested that much of what is called “re­li­gious be­lief” should re­ally be stud­ied as “re­li­gious pro­fes­sion” in­stead. Sup­pose an alien an­thro­pol­o­gist stud­ied a group of English stu­dents who all seem­ingly be­lieved that Wulky Wilkensen was a retropo­si­tional 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, she wasn’t even try­ing to be per­sua­sive on that front—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.1 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.

1 Of course, theres noth­ing wrong with ac­tu­ally march­ing naked in pride pa­rades; this isnt some­thing that truth can de­stroy.