Belief in religion is something that can be hard in Western culture. Yet, it is something worth working towards. This idea is something that Terryl and Nathaniel Givens discussed in a recent interview on the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk. The context of their discussion has to do with a book they recently published called Into the Headwinds: Why Belief Has Always Been Hard–and Still Is (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2022). What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion).
The publisher of Into the Headwinds describes their book as follows:
Acclaimed author Terryl Givens and his son, Nathaniel Givens, combine their respective areas of expertise to offer a fresh take on religious belief through the lens of contemporary research on psychology, cognition, and human nature. They also address two of faith’s foremost modern-day antagonists: rationalism, the myth that humans can or should make the majority of their choices based on logical thought, and scientism, the myth that science is the only reliable means of discovering truth. After reckoning with the surprising fact that people often don’t even understand their own beliefs and are influenced in ways they seldom perceive, the authors go on to describe genuine faith as an act of will—an effortful response to the deepest yearnings of the mind and heart—that engenders moral responsibility, the ability to embrace uncertainty, the motivation and means to relate to others, and the capacity to apprehend reality through nonrational means.
Much of this is reflected in their interview.
Rather than saying that rationality and science need to be ignored to believe, they do make it clear that their book is more of an effort to recognize the limitations of science and rationality. For example, they write that:
We’re not writing an anti-rationalist book. It’s not about less reason. I think pretty much everyone could always stand to act with more reason in their life.
What “worshiping reason” refers to is the idea that reason alone is sufficient. That’s the critical error. We should all strive to behave rationally, but not only rationally. Intuition—empathy, moral reasoning, emotion—these are not optional and they are certainly not detrimental.
Further explaining their goals and direction, they stated that:
We refer to the book at one point as a “plea for faith,” and that’s really at the heart of our motivation for writing this book. Critiques of faith that originate in rationalism and scientism are effective because they have a lot of truth to them.
We are right to be concerned with wishful thinking and to be skeptical of believing things without evidence, for example. But these critiques are often presented in a one-sided way that papers over the reality that all facets of human inquiry must grapple with uncertainty and the limits of reason and the paucity of data. The idea that we can do an end-run around uncertainty by appealing to reason or science is a myth.
One of our aims is to help people recognize that myth, and in so doing to reconsider faith. For the believer who may feel besieged by appeals to the authority of science, we hope this perspective offers encouragement.
And for non-believers, although of course we invite them to reconsider that non-belief, we hope that at least it affords a better appreciation for the reasonableness of faith. Because, in the end, if there is no escape from uncertainty then faith—properly understood—is all any of us can ever lay claim to.
Thus, it’s a broader discussion about how reasons, science, and religion aren’t necessarily at odds with each other.
Part of the discussion revolves around comparing the unconscious parts of our mind to an elephant and the conscious parts to a person riding that elephant. As they shared in the interview:
One of the reasons that rationalism can be a dangerous trap is that it leads us into a confrontation with the elephant (that is, the unconscious parts of our mind) that we’re never going to win because the elephant is, as we say, hidden and dominant.
We can’t consciously observe our unconscious mental processes (by definition) and in the long-run we can’t override them, either.
But if we stop there, then we have a really depressing picture, right? The last attribute of the elephant—that it is beneficial—is crucial to giving a full picture of what we human beings are like (for one) and providing some real optimism (for another). It’s also the case that we need many of our mental processes to be automatic, to free up our minds for conscious engagement with those matters of ultimate concern.
So, we go into the ways that the elephant has other really positive attributes, especially empathy. Our ability to connect with other people, to experience belonging, and in fact pretty much all of our moral faculties are inseparable from the elephant.
This is really crucial to understand if we’re going to move beyond a kind of self-hatred (where we lament that we’re not exclusively rational beings) to a positive integration of the elephant and the rider, where we accept our whole selves and work to create an integrous identity that embraces the best of both our rational and intuitive sides. …
Our solution to the elephant/rider situation isn’t to try and have one dominate or expel the other. It’s to integrate them. Because reason and intuition are both valuable. They’re both part of who we are. That’s on an individual level.
They are approaching the topic of choosing belief and faith from a standpoint of current research on psychology, cognition, and human nature as they tackle this approach of integration of rationality and intuition. As they explained during the interview, their project in writing this books is:
To show how the case against religious faith–coming from rationalism and scientism—is misleading.
The way to make that case is to take reason and science on their own terms, and show where they fall short. Not to replace them or criticize them. This book is not anti-reason or anti-science. It is pro-reason and pro-science. But it sees reason and science as necessary but not sufficient on our personal and social journey towards greater light and truth.
So, it’s an argument for faith from a holistic standpoint.
For more of Terryl and Nathaniel Givens’ thoughts about belief, faith, and the book Into the Headwinds, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk to read the full interview.