Why ‘Theology Is a Simple Muddle’

Sunday, August 28th, 2005

Lee Harris has written a lengthy essay, Why ‘Theology Is a Simple Muddle’, on religion and philosophy, and especially Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Evolution.

He takes a sympathetic look at the farmers — on the “wrong” side of the Scopes Monkey Trial — who didn’t want their children taught evolution:

If an elite group of men enter into a community and claim to possess a truth that no one in the community can judge for himself, by the standards of common sense that the community normally falls back upon to make judgment calls about the ordinary questions, then this elite group may be said to possess a gnosis — a Greek word that we shall use to indicate a special source of knowledge that gives cognitive authority to those who have it, and where those who lack this knowledge are in no position to be able to evaluate it. For example, if you tell me that a long series of numbers add up to 123, and if I can check your addition by adding these numbers for myself, either in my head, or on paper, or by means of a calculator, then we are not dealing with gnosis, because we each are capable of adding the sum, and because we both recognize the legitimacy of the other’s method: if our tallies conflict, we both agree that one of us has made a simple error in our calculations, and we will redo them until we find the error and are thus able to come to an agreement.

This, however, is not how gnosis works. With gnosis, one party claims to have a method for discovering truth that the other party lacks. It may be because the party claiming gnosis has received divine revelation whereas the other party has not. Or it may be because the privileged party has keener intuitions than the less privileged. The influential English literary critic F.R.Leavis, for example, argued that certain persons, like himself, have a special faculty for identifying great works of literature which normal people lack. Leavis could intuit the greatness of the novels of D.H.Lawrence by a process that is frankly a mystery to less gifted mortals such as myself, who would rather have an important appendage removed than to read another monstrosity like Women in Love. Or the elite claiming gnosis may base their cognitive superiority on their access to secret traditions and esoteric lore, passed down from generation to generation, and forever guarded from the undiscriminating eyes of the vulgar, in which case the cognitive elite approximates the sociological entity called a priestly caste.

When we discuss a priestly caste, the assumption is often made that the priests have deliberately chosen to make their knowledge inaccessible to the ordinary person. For example, the Chinese literati spared no efforts to keep a monopoly of reading and writing to themselves; and a similar tendency can be found in virtually every priestly caste. From this perspective, any claim about esoteric knowledge that cannot be shared with the general public is viewed as hogwash; if anything, the priestly caste has gone to trouble to make their pretended secret knowledge appear to be far more difficult to access than it really is-a device dubbed obscurantism.

Yet what about quantum physicists? Where do they fit sociologically? Their knowledge is inaccessible to the average person, at least without elaborate initiation into the mysteries. Yet do we wish to accuse quantum physicists of engaging in esoteric hocus-pocus in order to baffle and bewitch the masses into accepting their cognitive authority over them? That is going too far-and yet, what happens to a society where so much of what constitutes science is no longer comprehensible to the average layman, and where questions that touch very close to home can only be decided by an intellectual elite whose process of inference cannot be checked and verified by the man in the street?

I love this metaphor:

The Baptists and Methodists were missionaries to the periphery, and because they appealed to the laboring class and those who got their hands dirty, it had to address them in metaphors that they could understand — and not in bloodless abstraction. Logical arguments felt them cold; but stories they could understand. And that was what the Bible was — a set of entrancing Arabian night tales that allowed a man to hover for a spell in another world that was still so much like his own. To ask whether the stories were true was like asking a fan whether professional wrestling is real — We’d rather not think about it, thank you just the same, because we are enjoying our willing suspension of disbelief to the max, and we’d prefer not to have anyone quiz us about where Cain got his wife. It is like having a brainy kid sitting next to you during a sci-fi movie, who every now and then whispers smugly, ‘You know, that can’t really happen,’ in reference to some minor violation of the special theory of relativity.

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