Sunday, January 23, 2011

Faith and Pyschosis

Thanks, John, for the comment and your patience in posting it.  It's amusing that we're talking here given  our parallel political involvement in the 60s and 70s.  That collaboration, you'll no doubt be pleased to hear, will probably be the subject of future postings.

I think the acceptance of those "pesky little things" you mention, such as transubstantiation, the resurrection and the existence of God is related to one's understanding of them and to the world view within which they are situated.  They are irrational only if understood as akin to empirical facts.  If such tenets of faith are viewed as metaphores within a certain tradition that are not to be taken literally, acceptance of them wouldn't be any more irrational than any other poetic understanding of the world.  Some Christian faiths adopt such an approach, but not Catholicism or fundamentalist Christians.

It once seemed possible, perhaps still is, to understand those beliefs neither as metaphors nor empirical facts, but as having their own, unique meaning within the world view or language game that is Catholicism.  As such what those beliefs mean and their particular truth is to be found within the teachings of the Church.

If we take transubstantiation as an example, it's not as if anyone believes that a chemical examination of the wine, once blessed,  assumes the chemical composition of blood, tagged with the DNA or Our Lord.  Most believers would, appropriately, be horrified at the thought.  At the same time, within the Church the drinking of Christ's blood is not seen as merely metaphoric.  It has its own signification and truth within the tradition of the Church.  The fundamentalist, literal understandings of the articles of faith and the objections you raise commit the same category mistake: assuming that there is only one meaning of "truth".  Fundamentalists assert that science must be wrong in assuming that evolution is a fact and "rationalists" assume that religious tenets are in blatant contradiction of empirical observation.  Both fail to ask the wise and politic question of Pontius Pilate, "What is truth?".

The importance of situating such seemingly absurd beliefs of faith within a world view or a community of meaning is illustrated by the fact that a lone individual believing that the dead shall be raised or wine becomes blood would be seen as psychotic.  It is only the fact that such beliefs are shared by a large, coherent world view that leads believers not to be seen as psychotic. If it were really supposed that the articles of faith are intended as empirical facts, how would it be understood that intelligent people can believe them to be true.  How would it be understood, for example, that Tony Blair, a seemingly intelligent person (though one might have doubts based on his support for the invasion of Irak), could become a convert to Catholicism or that as eminently intelligent, sensible man as the  Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor would consider himself a Catholic?  Is it reasonable to assume that people of such intelligence have "swallowed" some blatant absurdities?

Catholicism is not alone in being a sophisticated world view with it's own criteria and understanding of the truth of its tenets.   Freudian theory stipulates the existence of entities, such as ego, superego and death wish, the meaning and truth of which are to be found only within that theory.  It's not as if it's a relevant objection to point out that those entities have no empirically proven existence.  Their explanatory power within a system gives them their truth and Freudianism has proved remarkably resilient in surviving assaults based on "evidence supported" psychotherapies.  Nevertheless, there are fewer and fewer Freudian practitioners.

In my opinion the criticism that you raise is an example of an assault on the structure that is Catholicism that cannot not score a fatal blow.  It glances off the walls of the castle because a defense from within can be mounted.  It  is not because any one such assault is launched that a believer ceases to consider himself a Catholic.   Rather, it is when responding to many such assaults becomes too heavy or onerous a task that the castle under siege is abandoned.  That was my experience as I sat in the Cathedral of Marie la Reine du Monde in Montreal.  Mass was being celebrated by an auxiliary bishop I thought was probably gay, based on what I experienced in his presence and observing him several times walking about in an area near the Cathedral that was a hang out for hustlers.  The leader of the liturgy was a guy we used to call "Slither" because of the way he emerged out of nowhere and was suddenly dancing beside us at the Disco Luv.  At the time when the Church was closing ranks to maintain its exclusion of gays and lesbians,  I felt the weight had become too much.  I could no longer in all honesty and self-respect defend and live within the structure that was the Church and I abandoned it.

1 comment:

  1. I'll post for the moment just a few obiter dicta related to your latest analysis, as I'm getting ready to leave for a short holiday in the sun.
    I agree there are many objectively intelligent people who believe in the existence of god and all the rest. But there are also many intelligent people who don't. You can name them as well as I can. Moreover, intelligent believers in other cultures and at other times believe(d) in a very different god or even families of gods. Everyone finds it easy to dismiss the religious beliefs of other cultures or sects as mistaken, but not their own. Logically, it seems much more likely that they all are mistaken, rather than that one's own is, coincidentally, true. It is likely the case, as B. Russell put it, that man is born with a cruel thirst for worship, for which evolutionists like Dawkins have tried to explain its survival value.
    Your Freud analogies gave me momentary pause. But aren't concepts like superego, etc. just short-hand identifiers for a constellation of traits that would be too tedious to spell out at length? Like "love", for example, which also has no physical reality, but exists only as a useful concept. But we do not pray to (as opposed to "for"!) love, or ask it to make intercession for us, or to forgive our sins.