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 isn’t something that truth can destroy.