Reasoning against Faith: When Clerics Intervene in Popular Religion
In their recent book The Enigma of Reason (2017), Mercier and Sperber debunk the popular view of reason as a source of disinterested, accurate knowledge about the world. The function of reason, they argue, is polemical rather than hermeneutic, as we mostly produce reasons to justify our actions to others and to evaluate the arguments other people use to convince us. This provocative argument opens up interesting avenues for further ethnographic investigations that would flesh out how argumentative reasoning functions across different cultural and socio-historical settings. As an anthropologist of religion, I find the question of how reasoning interacts with belief in the religious context particularly intriguing.
How Can a Painting Make One Lose One’s Faith?
In 1867, the deeply religious Fyodor Dostoyevsky visited the Basel Art Museum and saw for the first time the original of Hans Holbein’s painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. His wife later reported in her memoirs that the painting had such a powerful emotional effect on the writer that, in violation of the museum’s rules, he stepped on a chair to take a closer look. His face turned white, she recalled, and she had to drag him away from the painting fearing he would have an epileptic fit. “Such a picture might make one lose one’s faith,” Dostoyevsky later told her.