Saturday 25 June 2011

Why is Christianity incomprehensible to the modern mind?


What I find striking about the modern mind (and I speak from fairly recent experience) is how it finds meaningless the major concepts, the vocabulary, the discourse of all previous human generations.

Not wrong, but meaningless - incomprehensible. 


It is not that people explicitly deny the existence of the soul, or a super-natural world, or continued existence after death, or objective morality ('Natural Law'), or angels, or miracles, or prophecy, or sin, or God...

It is that these things are vague, feeble, incomprehensible - they lack subjective reality.

Moderns just cannot make sense of the major concerns of previous human generations.

Such matters don't feel important - not important enough to worry about.


But why do modern people think so differently from those in the past? - how do they think so differently that past categories just dissolve away without argument.

What is it that devalues, renders nonsensical, those things which used to be considered the most important things?

What traps them - traps us - inside the bubble of our own bland detachment?


I think that the root of this is the functional specialization of discourse which characterizes the modern world.

We start out as children thinking the same way as the mass of humanity. But to become a competent adult in the modern world is to have been trained in compartmentalization of discourse.

And a side effect of specialized discourse is that general discourse become impossible.


The nature of religious, Christian, metaphysical discourse cannot be captured by specialized discourse, therefore cannot be captured by modernity; therefore is either excluded or trivialized by modernity - therefore this whole domain of life has simply dissolved away.

It is not that modernity (or 'science') has discovered that there is no soul, or God, or that reality is a matter of subjective opinion, or else a social construct - rather it is that the discourse of modernity cannot make any sense of such concepts as such - but can only evaluate them sequentially, a bit at a time, using narrow and inappropriate criteria - and inevitably reject them as meaningless, unnecessary...


The process ought to be obvious. How could science disprove religion, for example, when the very first assumption of science is to exclude religious causes explanations and use only material causes and explanations? Surely that is easy to see?

But no. People learn to do science, learn think scientifically (disciplining the spontaneous human tendency to make religious explanations for phenomena), and at some point science-thinking becomes a habit - and people 'discover' that they no longer 'need' religious causes and explanations.

All that has happened is that they have developed a habit of thinking (including the habit of excluding religious explanations); and the habit has become so ingrained and socially-supported, that they have forgotten that it is just a habit - itself having no justification other than the pragmatic.


In sum, the problem of modernity is not only that it destroys our ability to understand religion and the supernatural; but that it destroys our ability to understand anything at all - or, that 'understanding' is now framed in such a narrowly specialized sense that it becomes a matter of indifference.

Because, although we habitually regard scientific truth as being the only kind of truth which is really solid, in practice almost nobody cares about scientific truth - certainly scientists do not care about scientific truth, since they do not try to discover truth nor do they speak truthfully.

So we are in the bizarre situation that our paradigm hegemonic mode of thinking, i.e. science, has become so narrow and partial that we no longer care about scientific truth; yet the habitual exclusions which led to science have prevented us from conceptualizing what has happened.  


Modernity merely evaluates one thing in terms of another, and perpetually displaces the question.

The process is eventually circular - except that people get bored and their attention wanders before the circle is completed.

In modernity, nothing is valuable in itself, but only in promoting 'something else' - that 'something else' not being valuable in itself, but only in terms of another 'something else'.

Which is to say, everything depends on everything else.

Which is to say everything is incomprehensible - including Christianity.

Which is to say that nothing feels like it matters.



Anonymous said...

There is a very good essay on this at The Social Pathologist:

The SP postultates that throughout the ages people took seriously what was "beyond the sense barrier" - they were literally able to 'sense' what was not immediately available to the 5 senses:

"By sense barrier, what I mean is that stuff on the other side of (the barrier)--real stuff that exists--is not directly accessible by our senses. The important part about this is that the mind is capable of knowing whats on the "other side" but there is no way to physically perceive it and hence test it scientifically."

So with the Scientific Revolution (which he doesn't at all diss but credits with its achievements) what had once been obvious to almost all people in all ages suddenly became unknowble and therefore non-existent.

We live in an age where the 'God muscle' doesnt get any exercise, and possibly like any other faculty
'if you dont use it you lose it'.

The fact that this is hapapening on a civilisational scale is our great tragedy.

Alex said...

Some excellent insights, Bruce.

Yes, the ability to communicate a sense of the numinous or to discuss transcendental questions has been lost (or is deliberately excluded) from the specialised discourse which, as you say, characterises the modern world.

This predicament is contingent, I think, on something analogous to what T S Eliot described as a 'disassociation of sensibility' that the birth of modern scientific thinking produced in the 17th century, and from which we have never recovered.

In unlikely supposition that you don't know, the term 'disassociation of sensibility' was first used by Eliot in his essay, The Metaphysical Poets. It was conceived for a literary theory that sought to explain how ratiocinative elements in seventeenth century poetry began to displace emotions, or make them cruder.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Alex - thanks. I've never read the Eliot essay tho' Ive often seen it referenced.

My feeling is that the 17th century was when the problem became clear, rather than the point at which the problem arose. The problem of dissociation arose at least as early as William of Occam and Duns Scotus (dismantling Aquinas) - and probably even earlier with Peter Abelard.

What is striking about this whole thing is that the logical flaw is so obvious, yet this seems to make no difference.

Having made what is obviously, certainly an *error* it seems to be impossible for Western culture to back-track to the point before the error was made.

Instead, the error is compounded and compounded by further fragmentation - as if more of the same was going to heal the disintegration.

Alex said...

....the error is compounded and compounded by further fragmentation - as if more of the same was going to heal the disintegration.

The intellectual fragmentation of which you speak is of course reflected in the arts, the law, the mass media, public entertainments, etc. You've commented a number of times on the totality of this moral collapse. Not even Christianity, as presently institutionalised, is a holdout against disintegration.

I have no idea how 'reintegration' will come about - if it ever does. Maybe the four horsemen of the apocalypse are already riding out on reconnaissance duty.

Thursday said...

The process ought to be obvious. How could science disprove religion, for example, when the very first assumption of science is to exclude religious causes explanations and use only material causes and explanations?

Well, since science has been so successful at providing explanations without recourse to religious explanations, it isn't completely ridiculous to infer that religious explanations simply aren't needed. How often have we heard something like, "Science will never discover an explanation for such and such thing." And then science does provide an explanation.

Add to this the fact that many religions, including Christianity, in its institutional manifestations, have made claims about the empirical world that have been proven to be outright false, and one can see why people do reject religious modes of thought.

Of course, a little reflection will remind one of the following:

1. Such a conclusion is an inference, so it can never totally disprove the existence of religious explanations.
2. Science seems totally incapable of explaining important features of the world, like subjective experience.

Brett Stevens said...

I think people like what they can control.

Spiritual concepts, eschatology, and other heady stuff they cannot control or even make sense of us.

Material objects, desires, legal obligations and linear logic (single factor cause/effect judgments, contextless) are things they can grasp.

They do not like architectonic thinking, which is probably what is required to make heads or tails of spiritual concepts.

In my view, this is the root of what you describe -- you describe the mechanism more eloquently and accurately as I can. The distant ancestor cause in my view is the Dunning-Kruger-Downing effect; an empire of people with IQs in the 95-120 range are not going to make sense of any concept they cannot touch, purchase, make a rule for or consume.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - agreed.

"Well, since science has been so successful at providing explanations without recourse to religious explanations, it isn't completely ridiculous to infer that religious explanations simply aren't needed."

That was my main argument (as an atheist) when I spoke in a large atheist versus Christian debate about 15 years ago. The idea that Christianity is 'not needed' because science offers alternative (better) explanations.

However, I did not at the time see the implications of this 'pragmatic' argument; because when rejecting an entire world view (Christianity) and replacing it with another (science), then one must take into account all the implications.

I did not follow up the implications of trying to use pragmatism as the ultimate evaluation.

I did not follow up the wider implications of rejecting religion in general and Christianity specifically.

And I did not perceive what would happen, had already happened to science itself, when it had no foundation but pragmatism (when professional science lost any relation to transcendental Truth).

Anonymous said...

Well, Bruce. I have read some post of yours and I find them insightful.

But I haven't found a detailed description about why did you change your atheist worldview for a Christian worldview?

It would be useful for people, like me, that are trying to walk the same path.

You give a summarized description in your last comment, but, of course, you leave the details out.

Have you some link to a text that describes the process in detail?

Thank you in advance.

Bruce Charlton said...

An explicit spiritual autobiography?...

No, I can't do that I'm afraid.

Even the idea of it makes me feel queasy. It would surely do me harm if I even tried it.

Anonymous said...

I'm the previous anonymous. I had lost the link and it's only until now that I have been able to find it.

I understand you don't want to do a spiritual autobiography. But could you please provide the intellectual reasons for thinking that Christianity is true? This could be the reason for several posts of your excellent blog.

If even this is not possible, could you give the books you have read and that have convinced you about the truthfulness of Christianity? Of course, there are lots of books about apologetics, but I am interested about the ones that have helped to your conversion.

I don't want to bother you. It is that this spiritual quest is so important for me (and I guess for many people more). I admire you. And being a scientist, I think you think in a way similar to myself so your reasons can make sense to me.

Let me explain a bit about me. I was an atheist. But, after having been exposed the evidence about the existence of God, I became a theist (for me, the argument from design and the fine-tuning of the Universe was overwhelming while the multiverse was only an awkward attempt to deny the evidence).

In spite of that, I am not happy being "only" a theist. And I admire the beauty of Christianity (reading "The reason for god" has made me realize of this beauty). I would like to be a Christian, but I want to be persuaded by arguments, because I don't want to believe something that it's not true.

Of course, I don't want a conclusive proof. Only some clue that Christianity makes more sense than any other faith (including atheism and intellectual theism).

Anyway, even if you can't answer my question, I'm a fan of yours and I enjoy very much your blog.

Greetings from a Spanish guy living in Latin America.

Bruce Charlton said...

Anonymous - my path to Christianity went via an increasing research interest in 'animism', neo-paganism and shamanism - and comparative mythology (Joseph Campbell etc) through reading a lot about Jung, and thinking about 'synchronicity' (which is the main topic in the modern self-help spirituality/ psychotherapeutic of James Redfield - The Celestine Prophecy etc).

Synchronicity seemed to be true by my experience, but I eventually worked-out that if it is true it implied a purposive universe and a personal God - so that was theism. That was the hardest bit.

Which religion? *Now* I would say read Pascal's Pensees, probably in the selected and commented edition by Peter Kreeft called Christianity for Modern Pagans - but I only discovered that a year ago.

For me it was mostly CS Lewis; Mere Christianity and Miracles, the example of JRR Tolkien - and also the 'scholarly' research I was doing on Mormonism - which convinced me of the power of religious life even in the modern world.

The above account probably misses out some key things. For example it misses out my estrangement from science as it became ever more dishonest; and decades of thinking about the philosophy of science. And the reaction from a very intense belief in progress and evolution as the basis of the world, which peaked with my book The Modernization Imperative, but whose implications gradually became recognized.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Bruce. I guess this is the answer I was looking for. Your answer (and the books you refer to) give me food for thought.

(By the way, I read "The Modernization Imperative" on the Internet.)

I will keep on reading your blog. Have a good vacation.

Anonymous said...

I think you can get to God through two different ways: through intellectual discourse or through mystical/spiritual experience. Both ways are discouraged for the modern man.

Regarding spiritual experience, this is the work of right hemisphere and, as the "Master and his Emissary" book explains, the left hemisphere has taken over the Western culture during the last centuries. You see this in the worship of Reason (identified with scientific materialism). People are trapped in a virtual world created by the left hemisphere and all the ways of escape (nature, art, religion) had been subverted and closed.

Regarding intellectual discourse, the problem is that former generations used to live in the culture of book: where imagination was king. To believe in God you have to use imagination and this is a dying art in the modern audiovisual and interactive culture, where everything has to be seen and touched.

I see in my students: they have trouble to program in an object-oriented manner because they can't imagine "software objects". Only when I use BlueJ (a program that depicts objects on the computer screen as red squares that can be manipulated), they can understand the concept.

This is why many people have problem to think in God. Our materialism and scientism does not help either: they are told that everything that can't be translated into sense data (metaphysics, etc.) is only BS.

Bruce Charlton said...

I found The Master and his Emissary an impressive and very worthwhile book - although somehow it didn't quite clinch matters for me.