Ultimate Beliefs

Avatar

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

Related Post Roulette

16 Responses

  1. Avatar Kyle Cupp
    Ignored
    says:

    This might be the best explanation I know of for religion: It’s better, on the whole, for one’s absurdities to be shared. That way, fewer call them for what they are, time sanctifies nearly everything, and the persecution complex sublimates the whole question.

    Am I reading you to say here that religion is best explained by the motivation to share one’s absurdities?Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kyle Cupp
      Ignored
      says:

      Yes!

      Don’t tell me that Christianity isn’t absurd, either. A fellow by the name of Paul begs to differ. Answers to ultimate questions — Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are we here? Why is good good and evil evil? — These soon lead to absurdity. At least it’s easier not to go it alone. Right?Report

      • For at least a few people, participating in the community of discourse means not just sharing but investigating and working through apparent absurdities — “apparent” because they might be resolved, or they might remain absurdities.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to William Brafford
          Ignored
          says:

          William,

          Which absurdities of Christianity have been resolved?

          (I wish I could remember which theologian it was who wrote, “I believe because it is absurd.”)Report

          • Avatar William Brafford in reply to James Hanley
            Ignored
            says:

            It’s more a general point than a historical one — when you start investigating something puzzling, you don’t know whether a solution will come easy or not.

            As for what’s considered “absurd” in Christianity, that often depends on where you’re coming from. For example, the absurdity of the idea of God’s action in history depends on what alternatives are available to you: it’s only obviously absurd to a certain type of modern person. But I’ll happily admit that the central mysteries of the faith, such as the Incarnation and Resurrection — are not going to be resolved.Report

      • Avatar Kyle Cupp in reply to Jason Kuznicki
        Ignored
        says:

        Would you say the people sharing their absurdities recognize their beliefs as absurdities? I’ll grant you that the sharing of beliefs is a big part of what motivates religious people as religious people, but religious people, at least the sincere ones, consider their beliefs intelligible, even if they are extraordinary, and many have gone to great lengths to make sense of their beliefs.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kyle Cupp
          Ignored
          says:

          Would you say the people sharing their absurdities recognize their beliefs as absurdities?

          Perhaps sometimes. But I think the real motivation to group together comes from the facts that

          1. Any answers we give are likely to be found absurd by others.

          and

          2. People who at least share our own beliefs are not as likely to give us grief about it.Report

          • Avatar Kyle Cupp in reply to Jason Kuznicki
            Ignored
            says:

            Hmm. I don’t doubt the phenomenon you’re describing happens, that people of shared beliefs group together so they can more easily hold to beliefs that others deem absurd, but I fail to see how this really explains the religious impulse. No doubt people share their religious beliefs for a variety of reasons, some well-intentioned and some not, but many seem, at least in my experience, to share them because they believe they are true and that the truth should be shared.

            I’ve also known not a few religious people who are eager to engage with people outside the group, people who consider their views absurd or wrongheaded. They’re not the least bit worried about getting an earful.Report

  2. Avatar Chris
    Ignored
    says:

    I’m not exactly sure what you mean by absurdity (maybe the one you’ll find here?), or by what standard we’re measuring it, but this seems like a piss poor explanation of religion. Even if we established what this absurdity stuff was all about, whether we really do inevitably have them, and whether it really is better to share them, the best explanations for religion will probably start with what religions are really about, that is, the social/community aspects, and relatedly, the practical aspects. The “absurdities” are really just there to serve the social/practical purposes that make religion important and perhaps inevitable. Now, in that regard, it’s good to share the stories, so that people tend to behave in consistent or complementary ways, but the behaviors don’t serve the absurdities; it’s the other way around. If this is what you mean by “It’s better, on the whole, for one’s absurdities to be shared,” then sure, but it’s not about the absurdities, no matter how much we’ve convinced ourselves it is (because the real absurdity may be our persistent belief that the specifics of the “absurdities” are really important).

    By the way, one of the consistent findings in the psychology of religion over the last decade or so has been that religious beliefs, at least those that tend to spread enough to be widely held and held over generations, tend to be “minimally counterfactual.” That is, they’re “designed” to diverge from real things only a little bit, to make them easier to understand, remember, and perhaps believe. So, to the extent that reality isn’t absurd, these “absurdities” of religion are set up to be minimally so.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris
      Ignored
      says:

      Even if we established what this absurdity stuff was all about…

      I mean that one person’s ultimate beliefs are almost always another person’s absurdities.

      and whether it really is better to share them,

      I strongly suspect that members of well-established religions are less conscious of the parts of their faith that strike others as absurd. There is a tendency to want to share ultimate beliefs with others — I can’t even imagine doubting it. Shared belief makes believing in the ridiculous easier. But “better”? Well… Perhaps I overstated things.

      religious beliefs, at least those that tend to spread enough to be widely held and held over generations, tend to be “minimally counterfactual.” That is, they’re “designed” to diverge from real things only a little bit, to make them easier to understand, remember, and perhaps believe. So, to the extent that reality isn’t absurd, these “absurdities” of religion are set up to be minimally so.

      How does one define “minimally counterfactual”? Because a dead guy getting up and walking, and then ascending to Heaven, seems very highly counterfactual to me. The same seems true of creationism, yet creationism is incredibly popular as a matter of religious belief.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki
        Ignored
        says:

        First, I just saw that I said minimally counterfactual. What I meant was minimally counterintuitive, though the point is the same. The concept is simple: the religious concepts and narratives that survive are minimally counterintuitive in the sense that they violate our naïve or folk physics, psychology, biology, etc., but do so “minimally,” i.e., on one or two dimensions and then only to a small degree. So, Jesus (or Lazarus, or Zarquon, or any number of religious figures) rises from the dead, but he is in pretty much every other way like a human (he has a body, he walks on two legs, he talks with his mouth, and so on). It’s true that in theology or religious philosophy you sometimes get wildly counterintuitive concepts or agents or whatever, but the fact of the matter is, no one but the theologians (and perhaps them only in certain contexts) actually believes that shit. It’s certainly not what the religious “masses” believe.

        The ideas of other religions may seem absurd to you, because you have a set of minimally counterintuitive beliefs that are either counterintuitive on some other dimension, or on the same dimension but in a different qualitative fashion, but that doesn’t make them absurd. It just makes them different. Different is not absurd, no matter how often we like to feel that our beliefs are the sole standard for measuring reality.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris
          Ignored
          says:

          Re: Minimally counterintuitive religions.

          I’m still not quite sold. In a time and place when expiation was often a matter of sacrificial ritual, it may have been minimally counterintuitive to think that someone else could pay for my sins on the Cross. But I wouldn’t even know where to begin if I were to try to start believing this. “Someone else can pay your (financial) debts” seems to assume far too much about the fungibility of sin.

          But anyway. I don’t see the point of shying away from the claim that all ultimate beliefs are, on some level, absurd.

          If the ultimate beliefs of others do feel this way within myself — and if my ultimate beliefs are likewise subjectively absurd to others — then it seems better to be frank about it. Perhaps we can all learn some humility that way. I judge myself saved from provincialism because I appreciate the subjective absurdity of my own ultimate beliefs in the eyes of others. I don’t think that they are the sole standard for measuring reality. Not by any means.Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki
            Ignored
            says:

            Partly because, if all ultimate beliefs are absurd, then in the end, none of them are, eh? I mean, what does it mean for something to be absurd if everything is? Even worse if all we have to judge the absurdity of other people’s absurdities is our own absurdities. It’s sort of like the voice of Odin inside a schizophrenic’s head telling him that his neighbor’s life goal’s are crazy.

            It seems more accurate to me to just say that the sense that other people’s beliefs are absurd (but not ours) is what is actually absurd, as it has no basis in reason, but is simply a form of world-view hubris. This is not to say that I don’t think there are absurd beliefs out there. In fact, I think many of the formal theological beliefs of major religions are absurd, but for the most part, no one, not even theologians, use these beliefs in everyday reasoning about the world or even about god(s) and other religious topics (this has been one of the more interesting findings in recent research on religion). Instead, they revert to the simpler, “minimally counterintuitive” concepts.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris
              Ignored
              says:

              It seems more accurate to me to just say that the sense that other people’s beliefs are absurd (but not ours) is what is actually absurd, as it has no basis in reason, but is simply a form of world-view hubris.

              But the various answers can’t all be right. The meaning of life can’t derive both from the voice of Odin and from Christ’s sacrifice. Because all of these beliefs — or, at least all but one of them — must greatly diverge from what actually is correct, we aren’t unjustified in calling them absurd. It’s not saying anything at all favorable to our own beliefs, but only pointing out a truism about propositions generally.Report

  3. Avatar Heidegger
    Ignored
    says:

    Chris, Mixed Memories, Chris–how happy I am to see your name up there under the gift of gab column! I have really missed you and your always interesting comments–maybe you should a “t” at the end of your name for the fun of it. And I love it that you’re sticking up for our “absurd” believing Deists. Can someone be a “Christian” without believing Christ was God Incarnate? If so, what are we worshipping, a pretty good carpenter with a way for words? A mystical year 1 version of Deepak Chopra? The Unitarians seem to get close but in the end, Jesus is just wise old hippie.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Heidegger
      Ignored
      says:

      Check out johnshelbyspong.com/publicsite/index.aspx

      As someone who is not a theist, I don’t know that I have the competence to say whether this person is or is not a Christian better than the person him or herself would.

      If Spong says that he’s a Christian, who am I to gainsay him?

      And yet…Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *