T. M. Luhrmann is a professor of anthropology at Stanford and a frequent contributor to the New York Times’ op-ed pages. In a column in this Sunday’s Times, she goes to elaborate lengths to explain how even intelligent people tend to sometimes sidestep the facts in favor of their beliefs.
She says that quite a few scholars are proceeding from the notion that religious belief, for example, and factual belief are, in her words, “different kinds of mental creatures.” These pointy-heads say that people process information differently when they think with a religious mindset rather than with a factual mindset, and that they may even consider the information itself differently. Thus, they are motivated to act differently.
Luhrmann begins digging herself a hole when she says that people use different language when talking about religion. Say the subject is Jesus: When people say “I believe Jesus is alive,” they do so knowing that other people may not think so. Their statement asserts their piety. It is a different type of statement—a whole different class of statement, Luhrmann says—from all other statements, which presume certain unassailable facts. You would never say “My dog is alive,” because its existence is a fact; you would only make statements with that fact as an assumption, such as “My dog is short-tempered”—that you own a dog is a given. Luhrmann says this means that people think differently about the realness of their dog and the realness of Jesus, and she chalks this up to different “cognitive attitudes.”
Besides all the obvious objections and qualifications we could make to this, after all it’s only a roundabout way of saying that people talk differently about what is really real and what seems real to them.
Luhrmann then says that the scholars have noted that when people consider the truth of a religious belief, often what the belief does for them matters more than the facts. “We evaluate religious belief more with our sense of destiny, purpose, and the way we think the world should be,” she writes.
I believe that outside of cultural anthropology this is known as “wishful thinking.”
Luhrmann says that beliefs and facts play different roles in interpreting the same events—“Religious beliefs explain why, rather than how.” She tells the story, with a touch of smugness, of a woman who had been cured of tuberculosis by taking medicine who told her noted doctor that she was going to get revenge on the person who’d used sorcery to make her ill. The doc asked her why, if she believed that, she had taken her medicine.
“In response to the great doctor,” Luhrmann crows, “she replied, in essence, ‘Honey, are you incapable of complexity?’”
Maybe he was incapable of superstition.
Finally, Luhrmann says that scholars have concluded that people don’t use rational reasoning when they rely on their religious beliefs, and that such beliefs may even have different “neural signatures” in the brain. (In un-scholarly language: People seem to shut off part of their minds when they discuss their beliefs.)
Luhrmann says all this to say that we should take into consideration the bases of people’s religious beliefs when we talk—or negotiate—with them. “People aren’t dumb in not recognizing the facts,” she writes. “They are using a reasoning process that responds to moral arguments more than scientific ones, and we should understand that when we engage.”
In other words, we should be nice and overlook their willful ignorance.