Faith that is known first in the body
This piece has just gone up at the Guardian's Cif Belief...
There is a crucial element missing from Julian Baggini's Heathen's progress, his careful sorting of the differences between an atheistic and religious stance towards the world. It has to do with the body. Not only is the body fundamental to any understanding of religion but helps, I suspect, with some of the issues that have recurred in Julian's discussions; matters like the relationship between belief and practice.
To get at the issue, take a step back and consider a couple of strands of contemporary research. They draw links between our bodies and how we know ourselves and the world.
The first comes from cognitive science, or rather, a radical questioning of cognitive science as it has been construed. A diverse group of philosophers and scientists are now arguing that the dominant 20th-century view of cognition, as a capacity of brains or minds, is inadequate. The alternative is often called embodied cognition. It examines the evidence that our bodies play a vital role in how we engage with the world. According to this view, bodies are not just life-support systems for the brain or sources of sensory inputs. Rather, bodies are integral to human thought.
For example, it is noted how people use hand gestures when reasoning. "On the one hand," you might gesticulate, "But on the other hand too." It is proposed that we toy with possibilities in this way because the body enables us to symbolise complexity. As a result, we are able to hold on to ideas that a brain in a vat, or dare I say an analytical philosopher, would dismiss as incompatible. Bodies enable us to live in a cognitively richer world.
Then there are other researchers asking why Google is still so stupid. One answer is that, although vast databases feed the online search engine, it lacks one crucial thing. A living body. And this makes all the difference.
Try asking Google whether it is foggy outside. Nonsense is returned, though it's a simple question for us. We intuitively know about inside and outside, having an inside and outside of our bodies. We spontaneously look out of a window. In short, it seems that bodies are crucial for making the world a meaningful place too. (Conversely, a common feature of schizophrenia is not to have a clear sense of the inside and outside of your body. Commonsensical meaning departs. What's inside and outside becomes confused and alarming.)
Or again, there is the evidence coming out of neuroscience, so brilliantly discussed in Iain McGilchrist's book, The Master and His Emissary. It shows that the right hemisphere of the brain has far more neural connections with the body than the left. The result, when engaged, is a capacity for broad attention, drawing new links, and remaining open to the unknown and unexpected. Conversely, the left hemisphere only grasps what it knows. It is very good at being focused. It loves delivering the products of reason and is wary of imagination and affect, you might surmise.
All this chimes with research into human development too. Here, it seems increasingly clear that what we take to be true or false, trustworthy or doubtful, is first and foremost an activity of the body.
The story begins young, very young, when an infant – a word that means "without speech" – is trying to make sense of the world. A wide range of studies suggest that it does so by what it takes into its body and what it rejects. Good food is deemed good because it nourishes the child both physically and psychically. When a child turns away from the bottle or breast, it is not only having trouble feeding but trouble trusting too.
This early experience looks like it provides a grounding for adult convictions, an echo of which is carried in our language. Hence, when you don't trust some belief, you will resist being "taken in" by it, like the infant who didn't take in the food. Alternatively, when you have a strong conviction, you might say that it becomes "part of you", like nourishing food. "Drink the waters of wisdom", invites the Psalmist. He was not deploying a metaphor.
Hold on to those thoughts, and consider a second area of research, now historical. The insights here revolve around the beginning of the modern period, when a profound shift occurred in the way the body and belief were conceptualised.
One crucial moment was the discovery of the circulation of the blood in the 17th century. After that, the body was regarded as a closed system. Doctors became increasingly preoccupied with infection and contagion, what should and should not be allowed into the body. This clearly makes great sense in terms of medicine. But it has knock-on, epistemological effects too.
Consider, say, the tradition of British empiricism which developed at the same time. It deploys a similar logic in that it is sceptical about what comes into the body via the senses. That "data" must tested to see whether the beliefs it implies can be allowed to inhabit the mind. Similarly, knowledge that can claim objectivity, a validity independent of the body, comes to be valued more than subjective knowledge, which is gained by introspection, turning inwards.
The upshot is that the modern sceptic is suspicious of subjective convictions. They fixate on the many ways in which individuals can be self-deluded, and forget that they can also be wonderfully discerning. They miss truths that can only be known by acquaintance, which is to say, by letting them in.
Alternatively, the modern atheist may admit that going to church can be tremendous and saying prayers valuable to cultivate thanks. But they will ensure that these activities remain contained – quarantined, you might say – by interpreting them as of strictly aesthetic or instrumental merit. They must not be allowed to become processes by which the individual becomes porous to the divine.
The new cognitive and historical insights have further implications for the understanding of religion. For example, if religious narratives are to do with seeking patterns of meaning and a holistic view, the spiritual searcher will gain most from embodied ways of engaging with life. I suspect that this is why meditation can be so revelatory. It trains the attention towards aspects of embodiment like the breath. It exercises neurons that people never knew they had. Expansiveness is the result.
Or again, if a religious sensibility needs an embodied foundation, this would explain why spiritual directors advise individuals to make pilgrimages, to experience liturgies and rituals, and to discipline and pattern their lives. These are activities that are about letting go, which is also a letting in. Something opens up to a new experience of life. Illumination is gained. Faith known first in the body may be the result.
Of course, that faith may well seek creedal expression too, though reason best serves the experience, discerning and deepening it. "Excarnation" as the poet Yves Bonnefoy has called it, is "wrong-headed religion."
So, it is this embodied dynamic that, for me, Julian's reasoned articles have missed. As Pascal had it, the heart has its reasons. The new research appears to be confirming that the old insight is quite true.