Category Archives: worldview

A challenge for evangelical apologists: brain scans and Bible reading

Let me start with a real-world example from regular church-going folks: two adult men, both toward the conservative-evangelical or perhaps fundamentalist end of Protestant, both of whom I’ve known personally for decades, one a full-time pastor, the other a lifelong participant in lay leadership. (Then we’ll get to the scientific study.)

When on separate occasions I pointed out to these men the discrepancies between the two accounts of creation in the Old Testament book of Genesis, they both said, essentially, “Wow, I never noticed that.”

They didn’t say, “Yes, I noticed that, and I’ve read a scholar who can make sense of it.” Nor did they say, “Yes, I noticed that, and I really wrestle with it.”

They had never noticed the discrepancies despite having read the book of Genesis many times over the years. (I’m referring to the two distinct creation stories, with different orders of events, in Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Genesis 2:5-2:25.) In fairness, I never had noticed, either, until around 20 years ago when I tried to start reading more about the Bible.

My surprise was context-dependent: I grew up in churches and schools that believed the Earth was made in six 24-hour periods, and that insisted there were no contradictions in the Bible. Now I had discovered there were two different accounts, back to back, that contradicted each other, without any explanatory connective tissue between the two.

Yes, some people within the Christian and Judaic traditions have speculated about possible purposes behind the two different accounts of creation, but that’s a different matter from not noticing the different accounts.

I think I know why we never noticed, if I may generalize a bit just at the start here: When some people read the Bible, they read with a kind of altered mentality.

Here, I’m referring to my own experience and the experience of the two men I’ve just mentioned. I’m not referring to all Christian experiences of reading the Bible.

At best, we might have been reading with our hearts, which I will leave mostly undefined here because most of my audience will know more or less what I mean (although I will briefly point to the enduring influence of pietism in evangelical churches). Or, at best, consider how humans approach any number of not-strictly-informational experiences of the written word or artistic expressions. Or, again at best, an individual’s encounter with a text co-creates the meaning.

At worst, some people could be reading in a kind of situation-induced trance state. At worst, they could, for reasons we’ll consider with the scientific study below, approach the Bible with a state of mind that is less than analytical or properly critical.

Either way, these Bible readers, like the men I mentioned earlier and my younger self, don’t scrutinize what they read; rather, they sort of listen to it in a completely different way than if they were reading something technical or dryly informational (more about this shortly).

And, if I can make an association between religious reading and religious listening, there might be a scientific measurement for reading-in-an-altered-state, according to a Feb. 16, 2017, article in Nautilus, which read in part:

In 2011, a team of Danish researchers led by Uffe Schjødt, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University, examined the brains of individuals experiencing one of the most extreme demonstrations of charismatic influence—charismatic healing. To do so, the team recruited 18 devoted, young Christians from faiths with a tradition of intercessory prayer (mainly from the Pentecostal Movement), all of whom reported a strong belief in people with special healing powers. They also recruited 18 secular participants, who did not believe in God and were skeptical that prayer could cause healing.

Both groups of participants were instructed to listen to 18 different prayers performed by three different speakers—and told the speakers were either non-Christian, Christian, or Christians known for having healing powers. The speakers were all unremarkable churchgoers randomly assigned six prayers apiece.

The researchers found profound differences in brain activity based on assumptions made about the speaker. In the Christian subjects, activity spiked in analytical areas of the brain in response to the non-Christian speakers, but plummeted when they listened to the speaker they believed was known for healing powers. These changes were not present in the secular group. The researchers drew parallels to similar experiments done on subjects on hypnosis, noting that hypnotism, when it works, was usually preceded by the massive frontal deactivation—in effect, a “handing over” of executive function to the hypnotist. Further, they found that “the more the Christian participants deactivate their executive and social cognitive networks, the higher they rate the speaker’s charisma post-scan.”

We’ll connect that to Bible-reading in a moment. First, the only problem, in my view, with this study is its focus only on Pentecostal Christians and a vaguely defined (at least in Nautilus‘s telling) “secular group.”

Sure, I find the results of the study very easy to believe, having grown up in so-called neo-Pentecostal or charismatic churches—some types of worship shut down analytical faculties, or at least get the analytical part of the to temporarily step aside. Once that state of less-mind is achieved, the congregants can accept an awful lot from a sermon, and become more open to suggestion.

However, many times over the years, in a mainstream newsroom and later in a state university, I’ve noticed how critical thinking skills soften to accept claims from left-leaning politicians. We’re all human here, and we probably experience “massive frontal deactivation” around anything we love, and when we are thinking about anything or anyone we love. Maybe “love is blind” really means “love massively deactivates your frontal lobe.”

For example, I couldn’t believe my ears during the last election: I could easily agree with critiques of Trump, but when it came time to discuss Clinton, well, sometimes, around some people, it was like I was watching a group of Sunday School children imagine Hillary walking on water and multiplying bread and fish for the masses. Why couldn’t critical faculties be applied in all directions? Just because one party was already hated? Yes. Just because one party was already hated. And because one party was already loved, perhaps leading to the massive frontal deactivation discussed in the study above. (At the end, I’ll link to another study that makes a similar suggestion.)

Yes, of course, I’ve noticed the same thing among advocates for right-leaning politicians, too. Cultists come in all political persuasions, as Michael Shermer has noted regarding followers of Ayn Rand.

People hand over “executive function” to many different kinds of influencers, not just those among faith and politics, but those among market brands and trendy ideas, too.

What’s interesting about Bible-reading in this respect is people might alter their mentality when they prepare and settle down to open the Scriptures. They may transition into a different mode. Their expectations of the text have nothing to do with mind as commonly conceived and everything to do with the heart as commonly understood. The “heart versus mind” concept isn’t well-defined in our culture, but it is everywhere, like cultural furniture. I mean, “heart versus mind” or “head versus heart” is not well-defined among everyday people, but a lot of people use it . (Like Wittgenstein said, “Don’t think, but look!”—at how language is being used.)

Of course, we can’t blame the Biblical texts themselves for this. And the way contemporary middle-class people approach church and Scripture is not a verdict on any of the numerous historical, ethical, moral, and metaphysical claims in institutions and books. (If not a verdict, though, sometimes I wonder if it is a reflection of church and Scripture.)

After all, if you are a nonbeliever and you were to go to hear some non-religious person speak, someone you think very highly of, in a place where you were surrounded by people with similar enthusiasm, would your brain scan be pretty much the same as those of the Pentecostal youths who thought they were listening to a minister with healing powers? My money is on yes.

On a related note, see Tali Sharot in this Big Think video (here linked to the 2:26 mark) on research into how people respond to others with whom they agree and with whom they disagree. The research used brain scans to notice what is happening during agreement and disagreement—and it seems similar to the outcome of the Danish research mentioned above.

The big question of our time, of course, is whether neuroscience says or can reveal all that there is to say about being human, or about the essence of humanness.

Philosopher Roger Scruton takes a kind of both-and view that acknowledges both an historically older sense of the self and the contemporary insights offered by neuroscience. If you’re a believer over-troubled by the studies referenced above, it’s worth listening to this interview with Scruton just for a sense of what might be ultimately relevant to tradition religious worldviews.

But maybe the biggest takeaway from all this is an exhortation to sharpen how we read and listen — to anything, to anyone, for any reason.

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When You’re Certain You’re Right

Is it possible to know you’re right on a controversial subject and not be proud? Are certainty and pride just peas in the same pod?

Is it possible to believe in a position, stance, doctrine, law, worldview, etc., with certainty while also having real empathy and understanding for someone who does not see the same way? If you are certain about a stance on a controversial issue, do you really have the capacity for empathy and understanding of someone who differs?

Is it possible to write a blog post without a sense of certainty?

Are certainty and pride, or certainty and humility, always operating together? Is either pair ever operating together?

If I say I am submitting to the authority of a school of thought, or to the authority of a text, doesn’t my appropriation or my interpretation ultimately reflect back on me, the appropriator, the interpreter?

Does my decision to submit to an authority, of any kind, ultimately become self-referential? (I decided to submit, after all.)

Can I make my way in the world with contingent operating beliefs that are open to correction, clarification, modification, and addition?

If I make my way in the world with contingent operating beliefs, am I certain? Hopeful? Squishy? Humble? Indecisive? Uncommitted? Judicious? Poor in self-esteem?

Maybe just arrogant enough to get through the day?

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Functional Ignorance

It’s not what he says that bothers me. It’s that what he says is all he knows. His worldview is informed only by his worldview, and maybe by his worldview’s prefabricated responses to other worldviews, so investigation won’t be necessary. And of course he’s sure he’s right.

Nothing Against Logicians! Promise!

A properly functioning mind can destroy itself. It can think itself, in a logical and rational pattern, into madness. But that’s really more about the motive than the mode. It’s not logic and rationality themselves that are the source of the problem. In that respect, my recent quotation of G.K. Chesterton might have been misleading in regards to my outlook. Chesterton wrote, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” But I don’t have anything against logicians! Promise! I have no campaign against logic or rationality. From classical Stoicism to contemporary psychological therapies like logotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and rational emotive behavior therapy, logical and rational thinking has been a sturdy pattern for healthiness. But logic and rationality also could be used in an unhealthy way. In quoting Chesterton there, my point was to identify a problem that was once explained by an evangelical psychologist, Larry Crabb. “There is an enormous difference between the joy of discovery and the passion to explain,” Crabb wrote. “The former gives life a sense of adventure. The latter makes us hate mystery.” And, I think, as Chesterton suggests, that passion to explain gets exhausting, overwhelming, and eventually, devastating. So his single metaphorical dichotomy provides me inexhaustible help: I’m not trying to get the heavens into my head; I’m just trying to get my head into the heavens. And by heavens, I’m thinking figuratively. I’m thinking about all the questions and all the data and all the good theories and all the history and all the apparent unknowns—better to sit within it all than to insist upon a perfectly systematic account for it all. The former is wonderful; the latter is exhausting. I think someone could simultaneously say discovery in any field is an amazing, exhilarating journey, and logical, rational methods help discovery on its way. Motivation makes the difference.

‘We are symbols and inhabit symbols’

“We are symbols and inhabit symbols; workmen, work, and tools, words and things, birth and death, all are emblems; but we sympathize with the symbols, and being infatuated with the economical use of things, we do not know that they are thoughts.” — Emerson, in “The Poet”

To clarify a little bit, a symbol is fully itself, and it stands for something else.

Marilynne Robinson on ‘the felt life of the mind’ and beauty and strangeness

“Assuming that there is indeed a modern malaise, one contributing factor might be the exclusion of the felt like of the mind from the accounts of reality proposed by the oddly authoritative and deeply influential parascientific literature that has long associated itself with intellectual progress, and the exclusion of felt life from the varieties of thought and art that reflect the influence of these accounts. To some extent even theology has embraced impoverishment, often under the name of secularism, in order to blend more thoroughly into a disheartened cultural landscape. To the great degree that theology has accommodated the parascientific world view, it too has tended to forget the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time. But the beauty and strangeness persist just the same. And theology persists, even when it has absorbed as truth theories and interpretations that could reasonably be expected to kill it off. This suggests that its real life is elsewhere, in a place not reached by these doubts and assaults. Subjectivity is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.” — Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, in Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (The Terry Lectures Series)

Please also see “The objectives of metaphysics, the objectives of science.”

Worldview

A single interpretive tool can save you from the work of understanding.

Easily repeatable narratives often become absolute truths.

When an easily repeatable narrative becomes a socially accepted truth, beware and be wary.

— Question it.

If someone claims to know your motives, be suspicious of his motives.

— What might he gain from your agreement?