Varieties of disbelief

On March 15, the Washington Post website put a link to a small ethnographic study by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola entitled "Preachers who are not Believers." In this remarkable piece, the authors present interviews of five protestant pastors who have lost their faith, and analyse their predicament. This is stirring a growing debate not only at the WaPo website, but also on the religious blogosphere (e.g. here, here, and here). It is of cognition-and-culture relevance because the interview, the analyses, and the arguments go into fine-grained discussions of the variety of cognitive attitudes involved in ‘belief', which, with a few exceptions, have been sorely lacking in the ethnography of religion.




1 Comment

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    Helen De Cruz 15 April 2010 (11:27)

    Dear Dan, I read this report with much interest, especially given its possible implications for some issues in philosophy of religion. Alvin Plantinga and other reformed epistemologists argue that religious beliefs might be properly basic, i.e., natural, self-evident for the believer, and not based on further argumentation or premises. There is quite some discussion on the connection between cognitive science of religion and this position, especially in the Cognition, Religion and Theology project at Oxford, of which I am taking part. If the studies by Jesse Bering on afterlife belief, Paul Bloom on intuitive dualism, and Pascal Boyer on minimally counterintuitive ideas are valid, this indeed seems to suggest that elementary dispositions to believe in an afterlife, a separate soul and body and minimally counterintuitive agents could be basic. However, Dennett’s small ethnographic study sheds doubt on the idea, voiced by Plantinga and others, that very counterintuitive doctrines (e.g., trinity) are basic. My many personal conversations of people from religious orders and priests also suggests that they have difficulty believing even minimally counterintuitive ideas (e.g., virgin birth, resurrection of Jesus). For them, the act of belief requires explicit cognitive work, even after they have made the Kierkegaardian leap of faith.