Jesse Bering, columnist for Scientific American has a intriguing book coming out February 7, 2011 titled, The Belief Instinct:  The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life. You can see a preview in this Scientific American article:

One of the important, often unspoken, implications of the new cognitive science of religion is the possibility that we’ve been going about studying the God question completely wrong for a very long time. Perhaps the question of God’s existence is one that is more for psychologists than for philosophers, physicists, or even theologians. Put the scripture aside. Just as the scientist who studies the basic cognitive mechanisms of language acquisition isn’t especially concerned with the particular narrative plot in children’s bedtime stories, the cognitive scientist of religion isn’t much concerned about the details of the fantastic fables buried in religious texts. Instead, in picking apart the psychological bones of belief, we’re going to focus on some existential basics. Perceiving the supernatural isn’t magic, but something patently organic: a function of the brain.


Yesterday, I got to hear Krista Tippett (of Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith) at a meeting of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes.  She shared delightful stories on how her life path led her to create Speaking of Faith, and how she believes that there is a space in our public life to discuss religion and meaning-making in such a way that no one has to check their intellect at the door.

Tippett‘s reflections centered on 3 guiding assumptions that lurk in journalistic depictions of religion, and then refutes or nuances these assumptions one by one:*

Assumption 1:  Religion is a crutch

This assumption comes from misunderstandings of religion as a retreat; towards supernatural comfort an away from the complexity of real life.  To debunk this assumption, Tippett makes the following points:

  • The energy around spirituality today is not a rejection of “rational” disciplines like law, politics or science, but rather is a recognition that those disciplines have limited scope.
  • Religion has a function–to help fill the gaps in the areas those other disciplines can’t teach us:  what matters in life, what matters in death, how to love, how to be of service to one another
  • Religious & spiritual traditions also function as keepers of conversations–especially intergenerational conversations–about discerning truth in everything we do

Assumption 2:  Religion is subjective

Religious convictions have been treated as “soft” in the realm of the public sphere, because it is assumed to be subjective, in distinction from other (also subjective) realms like political analysis or even economic forecasting.

  • Take the example of the economic turmoil we’re in.  The kind of subjective perspective offered by a religious lens in all of this is to help us make sense of the aspects economists weren’t talking about–what the economic crisis meant in terms of what had happened in human and cultural terms…beyond the dichotomies set up by seemingly “subjective” disciplines (the economic turmoil is about predators & victims, about greed & gullibility etc.
  • Tippett & her team pursued these questions and found a lively community of response in a project called Repossessing Virtue.  She referred to an insightful response offered by Martin Marty who draws from Ephesians in making sense of the moral and spiritual dimensions of the economic turmoil:  we are all members, one of another, and we forgot that.
  • Another powerful response from Repossessing Virtue came from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, who makes sense of the economic turmoil through the use of a Hasidic legendTippett claims that stories like these are in fact very practical tools in a world so full of images of suffering that would otherwise overwhelm us if we couldn’t do this kind of sensemaking.

Assumption 3:  Religion is about what people believe

Equating religion with belief is one of the most narrowing instincts in American culture.  Yes, convictions are one part of religion, but religion is also about how you live–when and how you work and pray.

  • Religion is more often about the questions people find themselves asking than about the answers (beliefs.)  These questions help us to live more peaceably with the ambiguity all around us that will not go away, regardless of what we believe about it.
  • The risk of the belief language is that it puts religion solely in the marketplace of certainty–a place where religious passions become flattened out, and can be used as blunt instruments.
  • Religion is something that must be understood in its totality–it can’t be treated as an object

*I paraphrase here from the notes I took during her talk, including some of the delightful gems of language that Tippett used (those are as close to verbatim as I could get them.)  I invite fellow conference attendees to tweak my recollection or share a different perspective on what she said.