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Consistent or Crazy?

Thesis research can be a tad monotonous at times, but every once in a while, in the midst of wading through page after page of different versions of the same arguments, you come across a book that really surprises you—where you read something that you’ve never come across before that forces you to rub your eyes, sit up, and take notice. That happened for me this week when I was introduced to Loyal Rue.

At this stage of the game, I’ve come across more than a few evolutionary accounts of the origins of religion. It’s usually a fairly simple strategy: demonstrate that believing in imaginary entities provided our distant ancestors with some evolutionary advantage (i.e., it promoted social cohesion, led to the requisite amount of respect/fear for authority in the young, assisted with predator detection, etc.) and any supernatural component of religion is thought to be disproved. The general assumption seems to be that if it can be shown that being religious was adaptive in some way (i.e., it helped our species evolve), it was and is thereby nothing but adaptive—its supernatural claims make no contact with anything objectively real.

In By the Grace of Guile, Loyal Rue seems to largely buy this story (I say seems to because I’ve only just started to read him so it’s entirely possible I’m misconstruing his thought in some way), but he takes it in an entirely different direction than, for example, Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett. Where the latter take evolutionary explanations of religion as providing good grounds for finally getting rid of this loathsome phenomenon, Rue argues that the religious impulse should be actively nourished.

Rue is bluntly pessimistic regarding the true nature of the world: Does the universe contain inherent meaning or purpose? Not a chance. Is religion a response to an objectively real supernatural realm? Of course not. Is it little more than an evolutionarily useful deception? Absolutely. Is nihilism the only intellectually honest conclusion one can come to when faced with the cold hard facts of reality? Without a doubt. But why on earth should we be so concerned about things like honesty or truth?

The difference between Rue and some of the neo-atheists who use evolutionary “explanations” of religion to bolster their case against religion, is that Rue thinks that religion is a lie that we continue to need. It may not be too much of an overstatement to suggest that for Rue, deception takes on almost salvific overtones”

The paradox of the human condition is that we are both damned and saved by deception. And the challenge emerging in our time is ultimately an aesthetic challenge. It remains for the artists, the poets, the novelists, the musicians, the filmmakers, the tricksters, and the masters of illusion to winch us toward our salvation by seducing us into an embrace with a noble lie. Nihilism disenchants the universe—it tells us there is no objective meaning or purpose or value inherent in it. The universe just is. The challenge of a noble lie is to reenchant the universe by getting us to perceive, in spite of ourselves, that its significance is objective.

Biocentrism is your story and mine. It is everybody’s story. It presumes to tell us how things are and which things matter. It is, nevertheless, a lie. It is a lie because it is not nature’s own story, not told by the earth, not the authorized version. It is merely a tale told by humans, full of contingency and distortion, signifying hope. But it is a noble lie, one that washes down with a minimum of deception and offers up a maximum of adaptive change. And if it is well and artfully told, it will reenchant the earth and save us from the truth.

Nihilism may, ultimately, be the only true description of reality, but truth, it turns out, is maladaptive. What is needed is deception – we must do what we can to convince ourselves that some other story about the world is true. Far from being the lamentable blight on human history that it is presented as by Dawkins & co., religion ought to be embraced and encouraged—we ought to do whatever we can to trick ourselves into “reenchanting” the world in order to make it a more human place.

There’s a lot that could be said in response to this argument, but I think that whatever one may make of Rue’s conclusions, his attempt at consistency is admirable. Where, for example, Dawkins feels free to pick and choose which “evolutionary misfirings” he wants to keep (altruism, compassion for non-kin who suffer—”blessed, precious Darwinian mistakes”) and which he wants to get rid of (religion), Rue seems to say “if it was necessary to get us to this point, I guess we need it. Religion may be a lie, but it is a noble one and without it we can’t survive.”

Consistent? Crazy? Confused? All of the above? At the very least, my reading may be interesting over the next couple of days…

27 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    To me this is an extraordinarily odd effort to get away from the conclusion that there may be an actual objective point of contact for such a pervasive aspect of human experience. It is certainly a more consistent view than Dawkins’ but it seems to introduce more problems than it solves.

    Personally, I wonder how satisfying Rue imagines life would be if we all achieved this state of enlightenment and then felt forced to medicate our nihilism with what we knew to be a lie. If we know it’s a lie, how is it supposed to help us? To me this would just exaggerate the hopelessness. If this is really how things are then the unfortunate few who ‘get it’ should do everything in their power to make sure no one else ever finds out (as opposed to writing books championing their insights).

    September 26, 2007
  2. The idea of making public a “truth” that you feel is going to require unlearning is a curious course of action isn’t it…

    September 26, 2007
  3. Dave Chow #

    You know, some cultures do promote the noble lie. Take for instance, in some asian cultures, when a loved one is in the hospital, let’s say for cancer. The doctor would then tell the family that the person is going to die if the cancer was found to be terminal. However, unbeknownst to the dying patient, he would be told that ‘everything’s okay’. There you go – the noble lie. It really does exist.

    It does, however, introduce a few conundrums.

    Does the noble lie actually accomplish anything? Does it actually shield people from pain? Does it make the fact that someone is dying any less real?

    How ‘noble’ is the lie anyway? I echo Gil’s comments above.

    By the way, I think the Flames are going to win the ‘Cup this year (whoops, another noble lie…)

    September 26, 2007
  4. Gil #

    That lie about the Flames is neither noble nor helpful. That’s just sick.

    September 26, 2007
  5. jc #

    I would like to know how evolution explains the pervasive belief of the people of Iceland in “Hidden People.” A place where “Literacy is 100 percent. Poverty is zero. And high-technology is pervasive.” Yet still around 50 percent of the population thinks that these elves and trolls exist. I think that evolution and naturalistic worldviews fall short of explaining why these mystical views are so prevalent in this advanced culture. Maybe we should more seriously consider the possibility of the existence of these fanciful beings.

    Please excuse my cheekyness. This is sort of how I understand your argument for the validity of the belief in the supernatural. I am pretty sure you would disagree with this analogy.

    I don’t really want to spend time defending Dawkin’s but does he give any criteria for picking and choosing what evolutionary misfirings that he wants to keep or do you feel he just chooses them arbitrarily? It seemed to me he was choosing them on the basis that it was his opinion that altruism etc… promote life while religion is anti-life.

    September 26, 2007
  6. Gil #

    Is there no qualitative difference between believing that building a road over subterranean elves will lead to bad things happening and believing in a supernatural creator behind the bare fact of existence?

    This seems sort of like Dawkins equating belief in God with belief in a flying spaghetti monster. It sort of works at a rhetorical level because it sets up God and elves (and spaghetti monsters) as similarly ridiculous.

    Do you believe that people who believe in elves and people who believe in God are believing things that are equally unlikely? I would submit that there are degrees of plausibility between belief in God and belief in elves.

    September 27, 2007
  7. Thanks Ryan,
    Maybe Nietzsche was right about the eternal return after all. It sounds like he is back among us. I couldn’t help but think of him as I read your post. “We need lies to protect us from the truth.”

    I’ll leave a few of Nietzsche’s bits about truth from “Beyond Good and Evil.”

    “It is surely not the smallest charm of a theory that it is refutable: this precisely attracts the subtler minds. It seems that the theory of ‘freedom of the will,’ a hundred times refuted, owes its permanence to just this charm. Someone always comes along who feels strong enough to refute it once more.” (19)

    “Man, a complex lying, artificial, and inscrutable animal, weird-looking to the other animals not so much because of his power but rather because of this guile and shrewdness, has invented the clear conscience, so that he might have the sensation for once, that his psyche is a simple thing. All of morality is a continuous courageous forgery, without which an enjoyment of the sight of man’s soul would be impossible. From this point of view, the concept ‘art’ may be much more comprehensive than one commonly believes.” (231)

    September 27, 2007
  8. jc #

    I don’t know if there is some qualitative difference between belief in hidden people and the belief in the Christian God. The latter has a numerical advantage over the first but I don’t know why that should matter. I think this kind of argument does draw attention to the qualitative difference between a worldview that is based on revelatory knowledge and one that is based on some form of empirical knowlegde. I think that plausibility is in favor of the latter in this case. I have noticed at this point in the discussion you or Ryan like to point out both worldview’s make assumptions about the world that can’t be proved and therefore try to equivocate them on that level. Maybe I am wrong on that point. But then you go on to say that the explanatory power of the narrative of each worldview must then be reviewed in order for us to make a decision on which one might be more plausible. I would object to the equivocations of these “assumptions” (if you want to call them that, I don’t think that term fits when applied to certain empirical worldviews). Have I mischaracterized your position?

    September 27, 2007
  9. Gil #

    I guess I would say that it probably DOES matter that belief in the Christian God (or any god) has a numerical advantage over belief in elves. It seems to me that the more pervasive a phenomenon is the more you need to offer some kind of account of it. It would be fairly easy to explain a village of Icelanders believing in elves as an anomaly. It would be harder to explain the religious phenomenon that way.

    Regarding my equivocation on the assumptions that lie beneath every worldview: I can understand the difference between the assumption that an unseen God exists and the assumption that the what we see is all there is. I guess it’s a different kind of assumption to assume the existence of something (i.e. God) as opposed to the absence of something (like transcendent purpose or meaning).

    I would still argue that all of us deal with an ambiguous reality that begs interpretation. That interpretation is never made with the degree of certainty that we would like and, in my opinion, requires an element of risk and commitment.

    September 27, 2007
  10. Hey Eric, I think you’re right – Rue does sound very Nietzschean at times, especially with the heavy emphasis on deception. From what I’ve read of Nietzsche, it seems to me that he sought to somehow transcend the human propensity toward pleasant fictions (i.e., somehow learn to will all of reality), whereas Rue seems to just advocate embracing it. That might be a gross and inadequate oversimplification, but make of it what you will…

    Incidentally, I read your piece over at Faith and Theology the other day – very well done!

    (For those who are interested in Eric’s reflections on Bonhoeffer’s and Barth’s conceptions of ethics , here’s the link).

    September 27, 2007
  11. Thanks Ryan,

    Confessing that I haven’t touched Rue’s book (and haven’t read all that much Nietzsche for that matter…), I’m not sure that the difference between them is all that great. Nietzsche thinks that he is undercutting all our deceptions by calling them lies. On some level, we could call this a “transcendence” of the fictions, but the big turn in his thought is not to overcome or get beyond lying somehow, but rather to be the liar rather than the dupe.

    “For it is the intrinsic right of masters to create values.” (207)

    Nietzsche doesn’t think that the values are actually there in any sense but a social one. But the paragon of superhumanity will be the one who throws off (“transcends” I suppose) all the shackles of morality and religion in order to shape the world as he sees fit–according to his own knowledge of good and evil… This is an “embrace” of sorts as well, though hardly characterized by good faith. (That’s the ol’ slave morality talking again though…)

    My problem with Nietzsche is that he takes Christianity and morality more generally to task for being “life-negating” because they focus us on something beyond the present world (either God or virtue, I suppose). Meanwhile, the version of “life” that he recommends is solitary, manipulative, distrustful, conniving, and power-hungry. Nietzsche’s ubermensch ends up alone, like Descartes ‘cogito’ in the world he has constructed around his own will to power. This picture lacks… well… life!

    How does someone who uses deception to gain personal advantage have genuine friendships? Does “life” happen outside the context of family, friends, and productive work?

    Rue’s response seems a little more interesting, perhaps a bit more plausible. From what you’ve said, he sounds like Nietzsche without the polemic against slave morality. Is Rue ready to settle down with the rest of us slaves (even though he thinks the whole thing is a sham)?

    Sorry to throw out a comment (earlier) composed mostly of quotes, my mind was in research/writing haze and I couldn’t put sentences together…


    p.s. a nit to pick:

    “equivocate” means to decieve by deliberately avoiding the truth, using ambiguous language.
    “equate” means to identify two (or more) thoughts, ideas, numbers.

    September 27, 2007
  12. jc #

    Well I was certainly not meaning to imply that Gil deliberately trying to deceive anyone.

    I think maybe a more powerful argument for the existence of God that you may want to pursue is that if there is no God then what are all the churches for and who is Jesus’ dad? Nice to have The Office back.

    September 27, 2007
  13. That is a compelling argument, jc. And not to worry, I’m not superstitious… Just a little stitious.

    (Nice to have The Office back indeed…)

    September 27, 2007
  14. hey can I ask all you logic nerds an ‘honest’ question (to use a very poor coloquial term that is meant reference the desire for genuine inquiry vs. a type of ‘setup’ question that corners people for future filleting)?
    Is our investigation of the veracity of a theology more a qualitative or a quantitative enterprize?
    I am assuming that if the investigation is to lie predominantly in the qualitative arena then it must be held that all worldviews/metanarratives are equally prone to fallibility (even let’s say any of the miriad of evolutionary/scientific views). Is this correct?
    If it is actually more of a quantitative pursuit is true that we must assume that empirically measuarable knowledge is superior. And if it is so, is this a rational position to take or would rationality actually be mute due to the nature of reality?

    September 30, 2007
  15. I’m not sure exactly what you’re getting at re: the qualitative/quantitative distinction Dale. Do you mean that a quantitative pursuit of truth produces more empirically verifiable results than does a qualitative approach? I just want to be clear that I know how you’re using the terms.

    (“Logic nerd?!” Dale, I’m hurt…)

    October 1, 2007
  16. mdaele #

    Yes I think we are on the same page.
    Part of what I am asking is about the validity of using qualitative investigation (this might examine for instance how prevasive notions of religious concepts affect or determine the nature or reality) vs, quantitative investigation (for instance, what does emperical evidence allow for in terms of rational belief in gods of any sort?)
    So which type of investigation yields more valid rationale?
    the other thing that I am asking is about how we use the type of information we glean from these different types of investigation. It seems to me like in the responses to this post that there has been a fair bit of interplay between types and so i am wondering if there are some basic assumptions about which one is more valid and in what context?
    Gil for instance referred to the qualitative differences btwn belief in elves and a belief in a creator God. Others here have references emperical data that reinforces their perspectives. At times in debate it seems that one is assumed ot be superior to the other.
    Don’t know if that helps at all – and I know it does not follow the topic strictly speaking – so feel free to ignore it…

    October 1, 2007
  17. Thanks for clarifying Dale.

    “So which type of investigation yields more valid rationale?”

    I’m not sure I would make such a rigid distinction between “qualitative” and “quantitative” investigation. Even someone who claims to be committed only to the latter has reasons for doing so – empirical investigation of reality is thought to be valuable for some end or other (even if this end is not always explicitly stated). In every “quantitative” investigation of the world there are “qualitative” assumptions being made.

    So I guess in that sense I am saying that one of the two is “superior” to the other. As I see it, the “qualitative” is the canopy under which the “quantitative” does its work.

    October 1, 2007
  18. It seems kind of like the question:

    Which has more meaning, math or poetry?

    Perhaps we need a good dose of both (without writing formulaic poetry, or getting too interpretive with our numbers)…

    October 1, 2007
  19. Thanks for wading through my drivel, Ryan.
    That is a helpful perspective. It seems at times in various forms of discourse that one type of investigation is regarded more highly in some cases over another – as though it somehow trumped the other. what I interpret from your comment is that both type funtion in concert with one ‘qualitative’ often serving the investigator first even if unknowningly.
    Especially when one is working toward proofs for a particular proposition it seems as though the quantitative investigation is regarded as more significant – to the point where it seems as though the qualitative ‘reasons’ for doing the investigation are often overlooked.

    October 1, 2007
  20. Thanks Eric – that’s a good way of putting it (not to mention, much briefer than what I usually churn out…).

    October 1, 2007
  21. jc #

    I am trying to follow along here with these distinctions that are being made. I had an interesting experience today talking a friend of mine at work who is Sikh. I am a little ignorant of what Sikh’s actually believe but I do know that they believe in the supernatural. I have heard that there is a certain God they believe in who is represented as a statue in a temple or shrine of some sort. I think the God’s name is Ganeesh or something. Anyway, my friend has had what I would call a supernatural experience. He brought this statue a bowl of milk or something and put it up to the statues lips and it appeared to drink the milk. I asked him if he believes that the statue actually did this and he says yes he does. I also know of this guy who is a self-proclaimed paranormal investigator who goes around investigating these types of claims. He did a test on this statue to see if it really would drink milk. At first it appeared as though it was. Then he put red dye in the milk and this revealed that it was somewhat of an optical illusion as the milk was now clearly seen to be running down the statue where as before it was invisible.

    All this to say my friend had a qualitative[i guess?] belief that he was having a religious experience. This paranormal investigator comes along and empirically shows that this experience has nothing to do with the supernatural. I think it is obvious here that the natural explanation trumps the supernatural one. Or is it that both my friend and the investigator have both qualitative and quantitative elements working for them. And how do this distinctions help us?

    October 1, 2007
  22. Ryan sorry for cluttering up this comment section with a tangent like this…
    hey jc – (hey i tried emailing you my response but found no information to do so)
    I am not sure that a belief can be qualitative. I think beliefs can only really be described in terms of strength – weak, strong, dogmatic. There is a corresponding standard of proof for each level of belief.
    balance of credibility = weak
    beyond reasonable doubt = strong
    infallibility = dogmatic
    in dialectic discourse an exposition (or presentation of a proposition) can be investigated qualitatively or quantitatively. As I understand it – a quantitative pursuit seeks to establish validity based on measurable realities. A qualitative inquiry seeks to establish meaning by investigating causal perception. (ie. how are perceived human needs seen to implicate the veracity of the paranormal?)
    I’m not really trying to correct you jc just stating my frame of reference with regard to beliefs.
    So from my perspective you’ve only really asked one question above: Is your friend’s experience empirically valid?
    There are many other questions that you could ask though: – what purpose does the belief in the supernatural serve in this individual? what does understanding that purpose mean in terms of supernatural reality? or Why does belief in the supernatural manifest itself in many similar modes across individuals?
    With the one type of question (empirical inquiry)we may be able to get the answer we are looking for but the question is: is that all there is to see?
    Shapes, for instance, do not actually exist – they are instead what our brains do with the light waves that our eyes receive – perception. However, we bet our lives daily on the function of certain shapes to keep us alive. So what actually exists elicits beliefs that are based on how our brain interacts with those realities. That forces us to look for deeper meaning behind shapes – as infantile as that example seems.
    That is why for me it is important to clarify the distinction between the types of questions we are asking. I think it really determines what answer we are satisfied with. Empirical data lends us a strong sense of validity but it is essentially on dimensional if we do not prompt for the causal perceptions that might reveal what else there is to investigate. If we are responsible empirical data can serve us well giving us clarity onthe pursuits we are invetigating.

    October 2, 2007
  23. jc, I think that I would be just as skeptical as you were re: the milk and the statue – just as I was when a group of Christians around my hometown began to claim that God was miraculously placing gold fillings in their mouths a couple of years ago. This or that specific miraculous claim can always be scrutinized to see how or if it is legitimate or not. As Rue (and others) point out, human beings are masters of deception.

    But proving that a specific claim of a supernatural experience is false (as I’m quite convinced the claims of gold fillings were) does not thereby warrant moving to the further claim that a supernatural realm is an impossibility. Enough accumulated instances of fraudulent claims may make the supernatural seem more unlikely, but the claim that it is impossible goes beyond what the physical world alone can tell us.

    (I’m not suggesting that you claimed that the supernatural was an impossibility; I was just trying to illustrate that there always metaphysical assumptions at work in our investigation of the world).

    October 2, 2007
  24. Perhaps the qual/quant distinction is helpful precisely here.

    The phenomena in question–gold fillings or milk drinking statues–seem to be quantitative considerations by the way the terms are being used in this conversation.

    But if such things were quantitatively true, I’m not sure what we would do with them qualitatively.

    In other words, two qualities that we expect an event to have in order to deserve the label “true” are:
    1. empirical substance
    2. coherent meaning

    Dropping new terms into the conversation midstream is probably utterly unhelpful, but they might get at the point of the distinction (as well as the reason that the two sides cannot remain utterly distinct). Were the gold filling claims to be verified in some empirical manner, or were the statue actually to drink milk, we would all be left wondering, “What does this mean?”

    And perhaps it is because we aren’t able to see a very clear answer to that second question that we doubt the validity of the phenomena in the first place. We expect events, even really strange events, to fit into some greater context of meaning. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, even though it inevitably raises questions about the assumptions each persons pre-established web of meaning (and how we might begin to judge between them).

    It seems to me that the qualitative and quantitative aspects of truth are helpfully distinguishable, but ultimately inseparable…

    October 2, 2007
  25. Sorry, there should be a “behind” before “each person’s”

    Each person needs a “behind”…


    October 2, 2007
  26. jc #

    I was only posing the story of my Sikh friend to hopefully get some further clarification on the definitions of the two words that start with ‘q’ that are being tossed about here. I wasn’t trying to argue against supernatural belief with this particular story. I am not sure I really understand what Dale was saying but don’t worry about it. Seems like the rest of you know what you are talking about.

    October 2, 2007

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