The simple believer

In comments to my post on literalism, Rob L. has been concerned with defending the existence of “literal” religious beliefs, as opposed to what he sees as the tendency of religion scholars to explain away seemingly simplistic views (such as the idea that the Virgin Mary is “really” up there in heaven listening to our prayers). He seems to worry that such a view is patronizing or disrespectful to the simple religious folk, but I’ve seen a similar strategy at work among New Atheists: when confronted with more sophisticated theological reasoning, they will claim that theologians aren’t representative and you have to look at the religious beliefs of the majority.

This overlap between a well-intentioned and hostile approach gives me pause. What I’d like to argue in this post is that literalism is an unacceptable and ultimately patronizing approach to the faith of the simple believer — we must side with approach of the religion scholar or the theologian to deal with religious beliefs responsibly.

First: what is the structure of these simple beliefs? I think we have to say that they are unreflective. The person praying to the “literal” Virgin Mary “up in heaven” hasn’t thought through alternative views and come to the informed conclusion that there’s a woman standing on a cloud who is somehow hearing my thoughts or mumbled words. The person holding such simple views just hasn’t given the issue much thought — they take it for granted. They hope for something, and they express that hope in terms of the formulae that their community has given them.

It may sound derogatory to say that, since we academics tend to prefer reflectiveness to unreflectiveness. Yet I think it’s ultimately more derogatory to treat these simple views as though they were the product of reasoned reflection, because the inescapable conclusion then becomes that the person in question is an idiot.

Here it is helpful to step away from religion — which is often viewed by secular liberals as a sui generis type of opinion or belief — and think about other forms of belief. We all know people who say stupid things about politics, for instance, and in many cases, we know that they’re basically just repeating what they were taught as a kid. Similarly, we know people who do little more than repeat conventional wisdom in such discussions, just as a way of participating in the conversation. Now in what kind of scenario do we treat those unreflective opinions, those repeated formulae with no real thought behind them, as the person’s sincere views? When we are annoyed at them and want to attack! “Do you seriously think that every single black mother is mooching off the system?!” When we (the informed and reflective person) treat their (uninformed and unreflective) opinions as the equivalent of ours, the goal is to show that such views are precisely uninformed and unreflective. That is, the goal is to show that the person in question is being an idiot and spouting thoughtless bullshit.

Such behavior is perhaps understandable, but it amounts to intellectual bullying. And we can imagine another variation on that, where we are exaggeratedly “understanding” of the marvelous and unexpected beliefs of the common, everyday person who really does have sincere concerns about whether some single black mothers are taking advantage of government largess, etc., etc. That’s not quite bullying, but it is definitely a way of asserting one’s superiority.

The only fair way to go, if you want to argue against certain views, is to find someone who has studied and reflected and come to their political beliefs in a conscious way, rather than picking on people who are not inclined to do so and are content to repeat the formulae that their community has given them. And the only fair way to go, if you want to understand the “true motives” behind certain unreflective political beliefs, is to look at the sociological, psychological, etc., context in which such views take hold.

The same holds for religious views. If you want to argue against a religious view, argue against the view of someone who has studied and reflected and come to a conscious decision to hold a certain belief over against another (i.e., a theologian). If you want to interpret the human concerns that motivate a religious view, talk to someone who has studied those views in their sociological and anthropological and psychological context (i.e., a religion scholar). Just taking simple believers at their word is never the right approach — it’s either bullying or patronizing.

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5 Responses to “The simple believer”

  1. voyou Says:

    I think part of what supports the unreflective belief in the Virgin Mary “up in heaven” is the sense on the part of the believer that someone else has reflected on a way of understanding “up in heaven” that makes sense. So the meaning of “up in heaven” for the unreflective believer isn’t determined by anything they themselves believe, it’s determined by the beliefs of whoever her linguistic community trusts to be reflective about these things. Hilary Putnam has developed this idea – semantic externalism – quite a bit, though in the context of scientific terms rather than theological.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    So even the “simple” beliefs presuppose that “someone has thought this through” — i.e., they rely on the fact that the reflective, theological beliefs exist somewhere. Sounds right to me.

  3. Matthew Frost Says:

    As someone who finds himself occasionally engaging in intellectual bullying when he thought there was an equal-level discussion to be had, I’m willing to stipulate to the negative, sometimes abusive result of reflective scholarship dealing this way with non-reflective acceptance of authority-given points. It’s horrifying to realize that treating someone just as you would argue with them if they were a professional at this *is in fact* treating them like they are an idiot, because the process is simply the shredding of their rationales. It is the opposite of charity. But there must be something else besides patronizing “yes, yes,” pat-on-the-head acceptance. This is also treating the simple believer as simple, ineducable.

    The alternative is perhaps a form of deciding conflicts between massed armies by single armed combat. But it has this disadvantage: the simple believer doesn’t belong to the authority figure, for them to lose and reverse the position. The internalized position belongs to them, not to the scholar. Scholarly argument is necessary in the field of scholarship, but the simple believer responds to catechesis, to pedagogy, to teaching.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I never directly said how to treat the simple believer — the point of my post was essentially “pick on someone your own size.” My hope is that by breaking the supposed normativity of “simple” beliefs, one might stop viewing simplicity as a brute fact and especially as a good authentic thing, and instead start thinking about how to help them become more educated (if they’re open to it).

    My gut-level response here is similar to when people dismiss “theory” as irrelevant to the struggles of common people, etc. — the reason the common people don’t engage with theory is that they’re uneducated, and being uneducated is part of their oppression. Obviously philosophy isn’t for everyone, etc., but I think it’s much more elitist to view being uneducated as a “natural” feature of being working class or poor, than it is to view being educated as being better than being uneducated.

  5. Dominic Says:

    Bonhoeffer says something somewhere (in the Ethics, and this is from memory so I may be some way off track) about the importance of masks (citing Nietzsche: “every profound mind requires a mask”), and the violence of pulling people’s masks off them. IIRC he links it to the analysis of shame. The “reflective” intellectual is someone who impudently tries to unmask opinion, and this is an intrinsically violent operation: in particular, it is heedless of the shame that the mask is meant to cover. In learning to be this kind of intellectual, you learn to do this kind of violence to yourself, and to exchange violent unmasking gestures with others in the same game: the goal is to think without shame, or to think beyond the constraints that shame imposes (actually, most intellectuals are pretty burdened by shame – they displace their shame, finding other things to be ashamed of…). Exposure of shame does not remove it: education is the process of learning to live with (and not be determined by) one’s shame.


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