Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

Richard Norman examines the “‘belief-lite’ version of religion”

Posted by Clamence/The Chaplain on November 24, 2009

Beyond belief:
Some sophisticated arguments for God have been made in response to the New Atheists. Richard Norman puts the ‘New Believers’ to the test.

When I read the following passage from this article, I immediately thought about my fellow MKs:

Most people give their allegiance to a particular religion not because they judge that its doctrines are uniquely true, but because it is the religion in which they find their cultural roots. It defines their identity. And it does so through a particular set of practices and rituals, and a particular set of metaphors, and a particular set of stories. And it is this above all, I think, that explains why, for all the intellectual implausibility of the traditional doctrines, intelligent and sensitive people continue to identify themselves as Christians or Muslims or whatever.

As I’ve noted numerous times on this blog, the MKs I know are overwhelmingly Christian. They tend to have a belief either in a fundamentalist, evangelical form of Christianity, or they have what Norman calls “belief-lite.” In fact, the more I read and write about the issue of superstitious religious beliefs, the more I am convinced that the “liberal” believers I know are Christians because of identity. I have been driven to frustration too many times to count by Christians who seem absolutely unable, despite their intelligence or education levels, to follow the path of their arguments to their logical (or illogical) conclusions. These folks aren’t idiots, so what gives?

One way I wrap my brain around it is to think about my own past experiences with automobile repairs. I am still ridiculously ignorant when it comes to the functioning of the internal combustion engine. Usually when I visit the repair shop, I notice an interesting phenomenon: as the mechanic explains in detail (they love to give the details–I suspect they find sadistic pleasure in the look of confusion on my face) the problem with my car’s engine, my mind instantly stops trying to process the information. It’s not that I am too stupid to figure it out; it’s just that I have no interest in my engine. It doesn’t matter to me whether the problem is a leaky valve, a blown gasket, the alternator, or the battery. This haze of non-comprehension descends on my mind like a pair of foggy glasses and essentially stop the wheels of cognition from turning. Or, it redirects those wheels, so I end up thinking about completely unrelated topics.

The subconscious putting on of the foggy glasses is one thing when it comes to engine repair. It might hurt my wallet if a mechanic attempts to rip me off, since I’ll be clueless. However, wearing those glasses when it comes to belief in alternate realms of reality and the existence of a god, based only on the words found in a book written ages ago by people who were massively ignorant compared to modern humans, is much more important. Since those of us raised in religious homes and communities cannot help but find our identities within our upbringing, it is vital–if we value truth–to get out the X-ray glasses instead. It is a scary thing to do, since it could result in the utter destruction of a portion of one’s identity; this is the reason why so few do it and why those of us who do are usually helped out by a little push of one sort or another.


3 Responses to “Richard Norman examines the “‘belief-lite’ version of religion””

  1. Sarge said

    The cultural identification seems to be spot on. In this town at one time, if two people met, became acquainted, one of the first things that was asked was, “Where do you go to church”?
    Since most people back then DID go to church, there would usually be an answer, “I go to ____”.
    At one time these few words would tell where the person lived, his ethnicity, his socio/economic status, and perhaps even his politics.

    I stopped believing in any deity before I was six years old, but until I hit my teenage years if someone asked me, I said, “We’re southern baptist”. Culturally I was, really, until I could get away.

    We used to host missionary families home on furlough, and I was always got along pretty good with the kids. A lot of them thought like me (but deep down) but really couldn’t act on or develop their way of thinking, really. Not the way they lived.

  2. Steve said

    Don’t assume that people who lived ages ago were “massively ignorant compared to modern humans.” This is terribly arrogant and ignorant. As a historian and religious scholar, I find people of the ancient world to be far wiser than we are in so many ways. In fact, I find that we moderns, in many ways, are the “massively ignorant” ones. This is what I teach my college history students.

    • The Chaplain said

      When it comes to humans’ understanding of how the world functions (what causes rainbows to appear, what shape the Earth is, etc.) I can’t see how you can call my assertion that they were massively ignorant “terribly arrogant and ignorant.” Obviously, you are choosing to define “ignorance” differently from how I intended it to be understood.

      Still, I take your point: modern humans could stand to learn lessons from people in the past. In fact, they do this everyday by living life according to the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and those ideas attributed to the character of Jesus in the Bible, etc. But, this stuff is so obvious, I assumed it went without saying. My point about the ignorance of the past refers specifically to belief in unsubstantiated superstitions that science has since shown to have far superior and reliable explanatory powers over. That is putting it kindly! The truth is that supernatural and religious explanations are just flat out false and wrong almost entirely across the board. That is simply because those people existed prior to the discoveries of the scientific age and had to rely on methods of acquiring knowledge that were no where near as reliable (or reflective of reality) as the scientific method.

      That is all I meant by what I said, and we definitely should learn from the past.

      I’d be interested to hear which narratives you point your students to when you make the case that we have a lot to learn from those who came before us.

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