Tuesday, February 8, 2011

other people's faith

OK, so the article in the New Yorker about Scientology was fascinating (but long, very very long).

Framed as a long form profile of Paul Haggis, a prolific and award winning screenwriter/director, the article uses Paul's longtime association with Scientology to segue into a bit of an expose` of the church.

Haggis had been an adherent for much of his life, and had attained a high level of status in the church (in Scientology, believers progress through a highly organized system classes and grades).  He had also been a very vocal and financial supporter of the church until a family issue brought him into conflict with church and he began a very public and at times vitriolic separation from Scientology.

Not only is the mini-bio of Haggis interesting (in my experience, I generally assume that people who enjoy a high degree of artistic success do not simply burst onto the scene one day and crank out a hit, but it is always revealing to see how long it takes for some people to see success), but the story of his relationship with his chosen religion provides a crash (ha!) course in cognitive bias and the intersection of faith and human nature.

“I had such a lack of curiosity when I was inside,” Haggis said. “It’s stunning to me, because I’m such a curious person.” He said that he had been “somewhere between uninterested in looking and afraid of looking.” 

“I was in a cult for thirty-four years. Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.”

There are more and better quotes in the piece that speak to my ideas, but I'm typing one handed, holding my little sleeping son in the other arm right now, so my internet navigating skills are compromised.  Suffice it to say that I see that there is always an emic/etic consideration with religion - by definition, really - and that consideration, or the tensions that arise from the emic/etic disconnects, have to be addressed in the quest for understanding.

And here's some Bible for you:
Test everything. Hold on to the good.


  1. I read this article last night as well...it was long but interesting. I always find it hard to believe how so many people, especially such successful people, could get sucked into such a crazy cult; however, you could definitely see from the article how the 'church' isolates people from others and waits until you're emotionally and financially committed before letting the other shoe drop, i.e. revealing the cosmology behind the beliefs such as Xenu, thetans, etc. I couldn't really tell what you were trying to get at from your post though.

  2. Thanks, Diamond, for your comment. And I saw the one on the "sex" post and will be fleshing (hehe) my thoughts out on that shortly.

    What I was trying to "get at"? Primarily, I wanted to share an interesting article about a religious group that is generally shrouded in secrecy. Beyond that, the post speaks to my general interest in why people are as they are, why we think the way we do, and how we interact with one another.

    I think one obvious question that arises is whether or not more established religions are not subject to the same scrutiny as Scientology, if it's not still worth asking if the cult of those first called "Christian" at Antioch operates in a similar way to the Scientologists, for example.

    My reference to the emic/etic issue speaks to that; it's my impression that most people that study religion come at some point to an understanding that being born in a given society significantly predisposes a person to the general beliefs of that society, and that growing up "inside" a value system makes it inherently more difficult to attain an "objective" perspective.

    I don't have any conclusions to offer just now, but simply the questions I have.

  3. I always find it interesting when people who belong to mainstream religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.) talk about the "crazy" religions like scientology. While the scientologists believe in alien race that created us (I really don't know if that's true, I'm just going on snippets I've heard here and there), Christians believe in a God split in three and reborn to a virgin. The only difference to me is that it takes a special kind of crazy to go out on a limb and decide to become a scientologist or something else openly mocked by mainstream society. But I find it amazing that Christians (I use Christians because that's who I was raised with) see no irony in rolling their eyes at Scientology.

  4. I have heard over the years a myth that LR Hubbard and Heinlein engaged in a bet to see who could better create a new religion, and that Scientology was Hubbard's entry. Both the myth and the details of Scientology as addressed in the New Yorker article remind me of the FSM stuff that emerged in recent years (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_Spaghetti_Monster).

    It's also why titled the post "other people's faith", because my perspective suggests that "faith", as a mechanism for understanding the world and managing one's place in it, is important. And it's possible that a given religions cosmology IS factual, objectively true, etc. But stepping from the "emic" to the "etic" in the pursuit of broader knowledge is a treacherous path in many ways.

  5. I agree with your comment that other religions are "deserving" of scrutiny. I would also argue that they do get such scrutiny--the Reformation was the result of a significant portion of the European population rejecting Rome's claims, for example. And their are others as well, from the Enlightenment to the current crisis facing the Catholic Church.
    I think Jessica has a point to point out the fact that Christians and others accuse other faiths of being crazy when their own faith involves a lot of "supernatural" elements that themselves silly. I think you could probably write a paper on this topic. On the one hand, as a Christian, I think that the bizarre elements in the Christian faith should be more emphasized. They tend to get downplayed in our modern, sanitized society, and I think its right to point out that the Christian faith makes very strange claims: God is three persons? What can that mean, etc? On the other hand, Christianity, as opposed to Scientology, or even Islam so far as I know, does make certain claims to rationality. Christianity makes claims based on history that can theoretically be proven or disproven. If they ever found Christ's body and conclusively proved that he never raised from the dead, then that would pretty much shatter the Christian faith. To my understanding, Scientologists don't have a similar historical claim with Xenu and his intergalactic warfare with the thetans. Also, while Christianity acknowledges that certain aspects of revelation are beyond the ability of the rational mind to know on its own, it claims that it cannot contradict reason. Oddly, the current pope is one of the few european intellectuals to defend the ability of human reason to attain knowledge.
    I want to talk about the treacherous path from emic to entic in pursuit of broader knowledge, but this post is probably too long already.

  6. @Diamond: I don't want to assume too much and allow my response to seem _ad hominem_ in an inappropriate way, so allow this to be a general continuation of the theme.

    The "treacherous" path of stepping from the emic to the etic is that it is naturally difficult for the adherent of a religious tradition to truly "set aside" the constraints of their emic perspective and apply a fully rationale critique to their faith.

    One of the Haggis quotes I put in my post suggested that his "normal" level of curiosity was absent in his religious life, and with the suggestion in the article that he was only aware of this lowered curiosity subsequent to his departure from the church.

    This presents some challenges to students of the circumstance; are we to "believe" Haggis in his "new clarity" or to disregard his current position as "backslid" or misguided?

  7. I think the Haggis story summarizes the point nicely, true. How can you truly judge when a person is being rational or objective in their critique of their own faith? Obviously you have to take people's perspectives seriously, but it seems like its equally possible to be guided by emotion in your thinking once you have stepped outside of your faith as must as when you were in it. On the other hand, it seems possible to objectively critique your faith from within (or from without). And vice-versa. However, since I think that any of these states are possible, it means you can evaluate someone's position more evenly, without regard to motive or anything. Frankly, I think its hard to get at Haggis from this article because a lot of it comes from the interviewer, but Haggis' perspective seems to resonate the truth.
    I find the whole emic/etic thing interesting (never heard those words before), because it seems hard--to me at least--to have an "etic", (outward turned perspective, if I understand?)from outside the context of faith. I'm also not sure I understand the "constraints" of the emic perspective or why its less compatible with a fully rational critique.

  8. @El Diamante: my use of the words "emic" and "etic" follow a slightly different connotation than the Wikipedia article suggests; for me they describe an "insider vs outsider" dynamic, but of a high degree. Perhaps I conceive of the "emic" as being in Socrates's cave, if it IS the cave and not the whole of reality that those in the cave suspect. I guess it's complicated.

    You suggest that it "seems possible to objectively critique your faith from within", which is echoed by your question of why "[the emic perspective is] less compatible with a fully rational critique".

    I'm not confident enough to say that it is not possible to fully, rationally critique a religion a person is part of, but I do maintain that it is difficult. Almost by definition, once a person has accepted "on faith" that a belief is to be held true, then any subsequent questioning has to be held in the mind coincident to that persistent belief. Otherwise, if the belief is truly "set aside" for the period of questioning, then the original faith is compromised.

    Not to change the subject, but to broaden this response to include another comment above: in reference to the possibility (admittedly remote, given our temporal separation from the events of the Passion and Resurrection) that the veracity of the Gospel's claims about Jesus could be conclusively addressed (sorry to be wordy - if it could be proven up or down about this core belief of Christianity), what would be the result on "faith", in either outcome?

    This subject of proof vs faith is an ongoing concern of mine. My reading of Christianianity suggests that the presence of proof would obviate the need for faith, but that the need for faith is what makes people distinct from angels; put another way, the Christian relationship between God and men requires that gap in proof.

  9. Does the cave metaphor necessarily flow from being a religious adherent? It seems as if there is an assumption there that, the religious adherent's view of reality is somehow circumscribed or limited in some way. I guess your response leaves that open.
    As for the rational critique for someone within the religion, I think I see where you are coming from, especially in the Christian perspective, where matters of right doctrine are so important. You're certainly right, if I understand you, that the Christian perspective on belief is that revelation is something that is received, so on that level, it is difficult to question belief and also hold it. I think that's why I think faith leads a person to a much more outward focused perspective, because reception is the fundamental stance, leaving one "other-focused." Whereas if one is searching for truth on one's own, there is a greater danger of being focused on the self, inward focused, especially in an intellectual climate that increasingly places doubt on the capability of reason to arrive at truth. I certainly believe that faith in reason and objective truth is an important component of communion between people, communication, equality, etc. In other words, I think I may have misunderstood what you meant by emic/etic, but I think I get what you're saying now about how it refers more to an insider/outsider dynamic.
    One question, does rational thought necessarily imply questioning? Can a person accept something, but still seek to understand it with their mind and think about it rationally? It seems to me that questioning something and thinking about it rationally are two different things--they're not unrelated, but not necessarily related either. I'm curious about your thoughts.
    Regarding the truth claim of Christ's Passion and Resurrection, admittedly its difficult to prove conclusively either way. But theoretically it could be proven that Christ never rose from the dead, or never existed. If that happened, then yes it would have an effect on faith. I for one would stop being a Christian. But you're right that it doesn't come down to proof, I agree with you there, I think I was just trying to make the point, that with Christian faith, there is not a disconnect from reason.

  10. Is it fair to say that this dialog has become extensive for the context of comments on a blog post?

    I DO think that adherents to a given set of religious beliefs are circumscribed - the act of aligning oneself or declaring an allegiance implies a set of choices for some ideas and against others. This setting-apart is what makes religion; the distinction between US and THEM is necessary...

    Skipping to the last paragraph in the previous comment, I want to try to tweak the direction of the dialog; I get that if it could be conclusively proven that Jesus did not, in fact, resurrect, that such knowledge would undermine the Christian faith. But my point was from the other side; if conclusive proof was available that the Gospels were fact, then there would be no "faith" - belief in God and his plan would come without election. My understanding could be flawed, but my understanding has been that the Christian God desires human choice to dictate fealty. Again to draw on the difference between humans and angels (am I confusing Milton with orthodox theology?) - the angels KNOW God, and therefore have no choice in belief, but the imperfect race of man was meant to find God across a chasm of faith. So rational proof of the resurrection would be an obstacle to a proper approach to God, right?

  11. Its up to you if its too extensive--its your blog. I enjoy the conversation, though. As far your second paragraph, I think I'm lost. I still don't see how religious belief is a circumscribed state of affairs, at least in comparison to the treacherous path of seeking truth outside of religion. I think it does involve believing in something as truth, whether you want to call that declaring or allegiance or not. In terms of seeking truth, I don't see how its different from the treacherous path, more or less circumscribed, in the cave or out of the cave. There are plenty of differences between religious belief and the treacherous path, but they are both assertions of truth. If you decide to leave or not accept a particular religious belief, then that's a statement of truth, but its hardly a step on a more open, rational perpsective. Its hardly stepping outside of the cave. Or at least, I can't see how it is. I also don't see how that leads to a necessary distinction between us and them...it seems like your own defintion of choosing to pursue truth outside of religion specifically involves an us/them distinction (those that decide to remain in the cave versus those that step outside of it), so I don't see how that is something necessarily tied to relgion. Regardless, I think we're coming from different assumptions, and the terms we're using are very abstract, but its given me some understanding of where you're coming from.
    The whole historical fact thing--I certainly agree that faith is not grounded in rational proof, strictly speaking. There are certainly elements of revelation that are outside of the human mind's capability of knowing on its own. I would say that they would not contradict reason. (Rational proof, and rational claims or thought are not the same thing). I was also trying to say that Christianity makes historical claims, which isn't quite the same as historical proofs, but it does say that our faith is dependent on a real person that did really exist, who we believe is the son of God. I don't know what it means for the Christian God to desire choice to "dictate fealty." I think the Christian understanding of choice, is that God desires a relationship with man, and that relationship requires a being with reason and free will, someone who can make an authentic choice to love God and be in a relationship with him, something that is not compelled. I don't know if that's what you mean by dictating fealty--again, there may be some misunderstanding in terms. However, I don't know if the difference between man and angels is that the angels have no choice in belief. The angels have perfect will and perfect intelligence, unlike man's fallen state, but the angels do have a choice, at least in Christian theology. Some angels did choose to reject God--Satan and the demons. Therefore, in Christian theology, rational proof is not directly tied to choice to believe in God (there are other examples as well, but I think that is the most evident). I definitely see your point that there is more to faith than rational proof, its just that the choice (to believe or not to believe) relies in the will, not the intellect.