The Comparative Cure

This study, analyzed by Tom Rees at Epiphenom, illustrates the value of comparative studies vs. science.  On my blog I emphasize the insights I have gathered by studying more than one faith, more than one form of medicine and more than one form of government.  I was a science major but it was comparative experiences that influenced me more than science.

All of us partition our minds to keep irrational areas, some more than others.  Scientists do this too.  If you don’t leave your safe circles, it is easy to be a rational scientist and keep your religious mind sectioned off and secure.  But exposure to different social values can help break down these walls.  Here is a quote from Tom’s article:

… humanities and social sciences, much more than biological and mathematical sciences, challenge you to imagine the world through the eyes of others. And this exercise in imagination undercuts religious dogma far more effectively than any science lesson can.
–Tom Rees

My undoing was Hinduism (see here), not science. However, Hinduism was only this icing on the cake.  My undoing was due to jumping around many different cultures (both home and abroad) and comparing different worlds.  I jumped from a secular large university (Cornell) where I was a Jesus freak and charismatic Christian, to a small evangelical Christian College (Wheaton).  As I compared and contrasted these forms of Christianity, I started to think.  But it was not the philosophical doctrines I was comparing, it was the hearts of the believers I respected.  I then hitch-hike from Europe to India and mingled with people of many faiths.  Meeting Hindus in India was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but all the folks and all the worlds on the way proceeded that last straw.

It was not science, that cured my Christianity.  It was not philosophical arguments or the contradictions or short-comings of Christian scriptures that changed me.  It was people.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

17 responses to “The Comparative Cure

  1. I was just reading about the pluralism at the University of Paris as Aquinas went there for study. Augustine was living even more so in an environment of pluralism. Thus, it has never seem sensible to me that Christianity was at some weakness when exposed to other religions, although I have heard this mantra many times. People are a different matter, since what we see in people, or the affirmation we desire, can influence.

    Since you mentioned India, there is a Christian minority which is rumored to be almost 2,000 years old. Perhaps a parallel would be the Jewish minority in the US and Europe. Any thoughts on how they keep going when they face the “science” meta-narrative, competing religious doctrines, and routinely interact with others from different faiths?

  2. Temaskian

    It was exposure to many different churches that probably opened my eyes too, to the fact that there can be many different truths out there.

    Wonder what made me shift around though, in the first place. Think it was discomfort. Discomfort with the cognitive dissonance that was going on, the contradictions between theory and practice.

  3. “It was not philosophical arguments or the contradictions or short-comings of Christian scriptures that changed me. It was people.” (Sabio)

    I agree, a lot can be learned in the process of observation of what is happening in the world. This has helped me to change and adapt the way I think, from learning about the social science, to cultures, to observing people’s behaviors and the effects of those same behaviors (reactions). That has basically helped me to change my worldview and still does, I am always open to more change and more respect for the people in society.

  4. @ Looney :
    Scientific facts & Embracing all loving people in spite of creed are only two factors to eat at Religious Exclusive soteriology and tribalism. Such ugliness continues in subgroups of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and many more exclusive tribes who feel more special than others. Turning from such destruction needs many more assisting factors for some people — leadership, prosperity, security and much more. Traditionalized hatred, as you know, unfortunately persists in times and places we can’t imagine — its cure can never be boiled down to only two elements.
    Was that your question?

    Tradition itself, without the ugliness of exclusiveness, can persist as a weak minority in many places: Muslims in China, Koreans in Japan, Sufi in Iran — the list goes on. Persistence is a human trait — not the sole property of any religion.

    @ Temaskian:
    I think sometimes the shift is aided when we also see benefit. For me, the benefit of losing all my friends when I de-converted is that I could now honestly and sympathetically love and befriend many, many more people without thinking the were incomplete.

    @ Society:
    It is good to know people matter more than ideas — I agree!

  5. “It was people.”

    You gotta tell them Sabio! It was people!


    Sorry. My mind went immediately to soylent green. And it’s only thinly related at best…

    But a little more seriously, a Jehovah’s Witness came to the door today. I told her pretty flatly that I have to believe in my neighbours more than any book, and that right now the whole world is made up of neighbours. She paused for only a beat but then changed her tack to how the JW message is so very misunderstood these days. Apparently they just want everybody to get along too.
    I declined the magazines but asked if there was a chance anyone would like to be interviewed for my blog. I swear, I almost got through to her.

    If we can make a JW think comparatively for a moment, maybe there is a hope for people… 🙂

  6. Many things opened my eyes, from churches to people to doctrines. But what put the last nail on the coffin was going to college to take a writing program.

    There, I was taught critical thinking. I was also taught to listen to myself, to my doubts. Being forced to be more open minded and thoughtful I came face to face with my deeply buried doubts about Christianity.

    I’d been to university, yes. I’d studied Computer “Science.” But that type of science doesn’t help a person look at claims critically.

  7. @Sabio, maybe my thought would be clearer from a different angle: A place like Lebanon, Kashmir, or Cyprus where different religions exist historically in close proximity are areas where faith is quite strong and religious attendance highest. Historically Christianity has grown during periods of sectarian conflict, such as the Reformation or the early years of the church, while it has rotted when conflict isn’t there. My short street has Hindu, Sihk, Buddhist, Christian and Whatever, but the faith is strong, whereas the situation was much squishier when I lived in the Bible Belt.

    What we do learn from close interaction is rapprochement (OK, we have counter examples like Iraq), which seems to me to be quite valuable.

  8. @ Lorena — thanx, that is exactly the point of this research paper.

    @ Looney — Many religions grow in strife. We know economic uncertainty, physical hazards and social instability feed religious thinking. Did you read Epiphenonom’s article? I don’t feel you are understanding the post or my last comment.
    I agree that neither science nor studying others can be enough to undo religious thinking (be it Islamic, Shinto, Evangelical or whatever), because religious sentiment and attachments are complex. The article just shows that studying others in a way where we are encouraged to question values (as Lorena said) is often [surprisingly] more effective at changing people’s faiths that studying science — because science, which undoes the myths of many religion is also one element that can undo faiths based on counter factual myths.

    I agree, obviously people can cling to their religions when being surrounded by other faiths — heck, that can make them feel more special and chosen. That is not my point.

  9. @Sabio, sorry, I didn’t check the article at the time, but had read about the study a few weeks earlier. Being an engineering-science-math major myself, an issue is that the degree is high stress, so that “Religious Importance” necessarily takes a back seat. Humanities classes are to “boost the GPA”!

    I am reading a book by C.S. Lewis – The Abolition Of Man, written in 1943 – which discusses the mechanics of how the humanities is so effective at killing religion. He was the head of the English department at Oxford and one of the best observers. The other famous book on the subject is God And Man At Yale, by Buckley.

  10. Tim Smith

    ” And this exercise in imagination undercuts religious dogma more effectively than any science lesson can.”
    ( Tom Rees)
    The sentiment of this statement can cut both ways. It (this exercise in imagination ) may indeed undercut religious dogma. This seems a very reasonable statement depending on how we define dogma. I personally stiffen up mentally when I hear the word dogma but that is because the word has a negatively loaded connotation for me. Here, this, mine, ours only. No thank you!
    Yet if dogma is seen as a set of core principles that provide spiritual direction to those who utilize, refer and/or are guided by them, then imagination may undergird rather than undercut. We can be imaginatively creative within the strictures of a bounded set of accepted precepts. All faiths exemplify this. Cosmopolitan outlooks are not limited by, logically entailed or preferred by any one particular group , society, belief system, etc. To disagree seems in itself dogmatic. To say comparative studies provide a ‘cure’ is to be dogmatic that the patient is diseased. Comparative studies may enrich a persons perspective without shifting the “boundaries’ by effecting a ‘cure.’ It may be that the cognitive area within the boundaries is enriched rather than enlarged, made more healthy rather than cured. This is a form of ecumenicism that ‘does no harm.’ There is indeed a real problem in exclusivism but the problem is not solved by over-relativizing and can be made worse by being under analyzed through a posture of ‘outright’ dismissal of exclusivists faith/s. Nicholas of Cusa was right when he said that truth is better imagined to be a polygon of many sides rather than a tight circle with no discriminate facets. In this model we approach a given form and do not ‘try on’ other geometric models for size. Total open endedness is problematic in its own way and sits on the other side of dogma on the conceptual teeter totter. Aristotle anyone?

  11. Process Theology states that the only interpretive lens you need is relationship. if you understand the relationships of the subject, you understand the subject. in fact, they claim, nothing can be described without a relationship. and of course, Jesus is the pinnacle as he resets the divine/human relationship and translates it from an angry God/awful sinners to a loving God/repentant community.

    i dig what you’re getting at. for me i went the opposite way. it was people who got me back into religion. but we’ve had divergent paths before.

    i also think of Reihold Niebhur’s quote (forgive the noninclusive language) that states “Reason won’t save us. you can show the oppressor the reasons of his oppression and that will not stop him as rarely do those in power give it up freely without violence. No, reason won’t save us unless we are motivated by impulses that aren’t reasonable.”

  12. @ Ghost
    Sorry, dude, I don’t get the Process Theology relationship thing — well, especially the point you are trying to make.
    People have not “relationship” with Jesus. I wrote about that here. But maybe that is not what you are talking about.

    And if it is just the preciousness of relationships, I agree, that is En (Yuan). But that is a human thing – no spooks needed. Using spooks is fine, I guess, as long as you don’t think you have a special connection and aren’t willing to question without quoting your favorite holy papyrus scrolls.

    But I agree, when it comes to oppressors, reason rarely works. We must be more clever.

    Suggestions, on comments, don’t try to cram too much ideas, nuances, allusions and/or names into a sentence/paragraph. Keep your points focused and easier to discuss. Just a thought.

  13. nope, not talking about a “relationship with Jesus” i’m talking about the frame of relationships in general. but i’ve crammed too much into the last comment. just read the Niebhur quote and that should suffice 😉

  14. @ Zero
    I agree. Human are indeed the sort of creature that Niebhur describes in that quote. I think hyper-rational atheists misunderstand that. Hyper-divine-inspired theists have their own special pitfalls.
    Relationships can speak much louder than logic.

    Back to the Post:
    Thus, friendly, cooperative, productive relationships with those of different ideologies/faiths can soften our rigidity and exclusiveness much faster than philosophy, science, debates or arguments. Not that those aren’t valuable, but they don’t address a critical side of the human mind — relationships.

  15. i agree with you completely. while you and i have very differing worldviews, it is my hope that we are both learning something not only about each other but about ourselves and our wider context. we are differentiated enough to say “well, we’ll agree to disagree” in certain areas, specifically the means and metaphysic of the world, yet i believe our end is the same. a better world with an emphasis on good and healthy relationships between all people. or am i being naively optimistic?

  16. Sabio Lantz

    “yet i believe our end is the same. a better world with an emphasis on good and healthy relationships between all people.”


    May may not learn content from each other, but more importantly we learn of relating.

  17. “May may not learn content from each other, but more importantly we learn of relating.”

    that is tattoo worthy. if i were a ink’n kinda guy that is. brilliant!

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