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Why We Believe and Why We Don’t – an interview with Prof. Graham Ward

Why We Believe and Why We Don’t – an interview with Prof. Graham Ward

When I interviewed Rowan Williams last year about his book The Edge of Words, I suggested that his book was written to counter the idea that there are two ways of talking – literally and metaphorically. It seems to me that Unbelievable has a similarly simplistic dichotomy in its sights: the idea that there are people who believe, who have ‘faith’, and those who don’t, who are ‘rational’ (or who know things rather than believe them). Is that a fair assessment?

Yes I do have such people in sight. That seems such a reductive understanding of ‘belief’. 

I’ve been working for a number of years on a systematic theology. The first volume has just been finished. I’d come to a chapter in that project on defining theology as ‘faith seeking understanding’ and I came to a full stop. What was faith? What was belief? Did they differ? How did they differ? And a book I had a sometime promised to write on believing suddenly became very important for finding answers that would enable me to go on with the systematics.

I took two and half years out of the larger project and set out trying to answer a question that came to me very abruptly following the attention Radical Orthodoxy received (a question phrased by the French theorist Michel de Certeau): ‘What Makes a Belief Believable?’

I increasingly came to see as I worked on it that we dwell within systems of belief, some of them we are conscious of and most of them we just assume in making sense of our experience of the world. Faith is a mode of this innate disposition that is even more than human, because it’s evident in varieties of pre–Homo sapien existence.

There are not believers and non–believers. That’s the point. We are creatures who, because we see the world as, inhabit a multiplicity of beliefs. Faith is the self–conscious acceptance of believing as a creaturely condition; the self–conscious entrustment that we are created to believe and search for an understanding of what and why we believe.

One of your prime targets is the idea that beliefs are purely cognitive, calculated ‘reasons for’ things. You write that they are “deeper, earlier and more primitive” than this.  What precisely do you mean by that?

I’m trying to get at the way beliefs have enormous power (like myths). Religious emotions are extremely powerful emotions and they form emotional communities with strong adhesive qualities. That power is not simply cognitive. Like myths, beliefs are resistant to argumentation. Beliefs are not changed by rational processes alone. Consciousness is a very small proportion of what goes on in our embodied minds. Beliefs are often not expressed, do not reach conscious articulation, and are frequently concealed from those who actually have been shaped by and act in accordance with them. I want to recognise beliefs as affect–heavy in ways that inform behaviour and cognitive choice–making. My precise target was certain philosophers and writers like Lewis Wolpert who hold to such reductive appreciations of ‘belief’. 

Your first part of the book, which asks what a belief actually is, makes a great deal of human physicality – our spatial orientation, our sense organs, our locomotion, the use of our hands. Can you explain how this might shape the idea of belief?

Part of what I am doing here is putting the body back into the equation. This links up with my examination of the diachronic changes with respect to the language of ‘belief’.

We are just emerging from a historical and cultural legacy in which belief as ‘weak opinion’ and knowledge as aspiring to ‘certainty’ held sway. It was also a time when a whole raft of dualisms were dominant, including the body/mind dualism. Much of the work done over the last thirty years in neuro– and cognitive science has been recognising the profound relation between embodiment and cognition, emotions and intelligence. This has frequently then swung the other way – towards the kind of reductive physicalism popularised by Daniel Dennett et. al., though I point to the way the mind/brain issue is still very much an open question.

I understand believing as a disposition like desire and hope. It is a pre–cognitive disposition, but unlike desire (specifically linked to certain endocrine discharges) it is associated with not just a continual, embodied reading of the environment, but also our making sense of that reading. There is a link between sensing and making sense.

As I said in the book, some philosophers of biology have wished to speak about a ‘proto mentality’ with respect even to the single cell. Certainly the language describing operations at a molecular cellular level between ‘ligands’ (receptor cells) and the way they block or allow communication with the environment to impact the activity within the cell, suggests a proto–mentality that goes deep within creation.

Our bodies are not machines; they are processing the environment and that processing involves an evolutionary adaption that runs both ways – what is frequently termed co–evolution. That is, as creatures change, so they change the environment that fostered that change, and that changed environment now fosters new changes. Encephalization, the increase in size and complexity of the brain through evolution, is a case in point here. I want to see our disposition to believe as an evolving somatic, affective and cognitive phenomenon – hence my appeal to human physicality.

You discuss Iain McGilchrist‘s work quite a bit in one of your chapters on what belief is and, in particular, his big contention, in the The Master and his Emissary, that modernity has prioritised the left–hemisphere’s tendency to engage with the world in a narrowly analytical and cognitive way, over the more creative and imaginative engagement of the right hemisphere. Do you agree with this and if so, do you think it is at the heart of our contemporary problems with ‘belief’?

I think belief is at the heart of our contemporary culture – hence the appeal to belief and believing in adverts etc. Whether that is a problem is a different sort of question. In many ways it draws attention to our creaturely status in ways that emphases upon ‘knowledge’ (with belief only as ‘opinion’) masks. My real debt to Iain’s work lies in his account of bicameralism,  the idea of the ‘two–chamberedness’ of the brain. His historical analyses (and he recognises this himself) are very general and open to endless caveats, modifications and contradictions. I’m even more wary of big concepts like ‘modernity’. I’ve used them in my earlier work in defining ‘postmodernity’ and ‘postmodernism’, but history is so much more complex. Historians will often now refer to ‘modernities’, even ‘multiple modernities’.

Having said that, I spent six years at the University of Manchester in senior management and the managerial culture is certainly systems–based thinking that is cognitive and analytical. It’s as if institutions do work on linear logics and even call them scientific when people don’t function according to these logics. Even contemporary science doesn’t seem to me to accept these logics. Some of the best and most imaginative writing is by scientists explaining ‘emergence’ (in biology) or ‘parallel universes’ (in quantum physics). Look at the latest book coming out of New Scientist on Nothing. It’s free and imaginative thinking about possibilities and impossibilities, multiplicities and unpredictabilities. I see that most of the cognitive and narrowly analytical work is within institutions, their management and operations. And it points to two things: a desire for control (that’s what systems are all about) and fear (which is rationalised in terms of ‘risk’).

In the light of that, what can religious – and artistic – worldviews do in response?

In two words: be imaginative. I’ve come to see the power of the imagination (linked to what I say in the book about the power of myth) as crucial. It links the affective levels of our condition with the cognitive. In my book The Politics of Discipleship  I argued for the need to change the ‘cultural imaginary’ by opening up new Christian possibilities for conceiving transformation in the world. I would deepen that ‘opening up’ now through an appeal to not only the teachings of Christ, but the spirit of Christ. In short: the need to become enfolded within a Trinitarian operation that reads the ‘signs of the times’ and waits before God for creative and imaginative inspiration.

True imagination, as Coleridge understood it as distinct from fancy, is not wandering and arbitrary. It is attuning what some have called the ‘deep mind’ (pre–reflective, pre–cognitive) with Christian truth (in the Scriptures, in the Tradition, in liturgy). This is not unrelated to reading the ‘signs of the times’ because the living Christ is spoken of elsewhere, beyond the church, sometimes in wild but suggestive ways.

And this is where the artistic comes in: watch Bill Viola’s video installation ‘Emergence’ on Youtube, look at Damien Hirst’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ or read Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. These artists do not self–identify as Christians or even religious but each offer ways of imaginatively exploring how Christ is spoken of today outside the church.

The Christian Mythos is still strong, culturally, but we have to engage this Mythos. If Iain McGilchrist is right, then to ‘correct’ the predominance of left–hemisphere instrumentality we need to engage right–hemisphere nuance, ambiguity, tonality, empathy and caring. The brain is highly plastic. So Christian belief that is dogmatic, senatorial, proposition–heavy just capitulates to left–hemisphere dominance.

Similarly, the church has to take great care incorporating managerial structures and methods into its operations, for these too are left–hemisphere emphases. That doesn’t mean these tools are useless, but it does mean that they cannot dominate liturgical expression. Liturgy is a fabulous space for the imaginative – to allow the elemental symbols to ‘speak’ in creative ways; ‘speak’ salvation in creative ways. 

One of the key ideas within the book, at least as it seemed to me, was the idea that we perceive intentionally that “consciousness is always a seeing as”.   What does that mean, and in particular what does it mean for belief?

Yes, this is key. First we have to recognise that we do not just simply see an object or a person. We are involved in any number of complex relations with the world around us.

Some of the most sensitive areas of our brains and bodies, like the limbic area that handles sensing and emotions, are teeming with what are called ‘receptor cells’. And these cells do not just passively receive environmental communications. They are continually moving and shape–changing as they reach out into that environment. We are actively engaged with what is around us, continually reading and interpreting it.

When I speak of seeing as I’m trying to capture the complexity of that immersion in, response and adaption to, what is there. Most of this goes on pre–reflectively – 95%. Images emerge that give shape to consciousness – consciousness of what we believe, what we have come to see is a regularity. But, as such, seeing is intentional (certain things are not seen in actually seeing something). It is affect–heavy, freighted with interests, desires, hopes, suggestiveness that we are only minimally in control or even cognizant of. Recognising that we see as enables us to understand that we do not ‘see’ what is. We creatively engage in the creation of ‘what is’. We are borne along in our negotiations in the world upon tides of interpretation with strong emotional and somatic effects (that, in turn, impact upon the way we behave and experience the world).

I liked your line half way through the book in which you said “I’m far from sure that people are oriented towards attaining maximal logical consistency among their beliefs”. It seems to me a masterpiece of understatement, not least as you go on to chart the astonishing growth in the number of books about angels over recent years. I don’t recall reading the famous Chesterton quote – about people, when they stop believing in something, believing in anything rather than in nothing – in the book but it certainly came to my mind. Was he right?

Yes, Chesterton is right and his view is now shared by sociologists of religion like Grace Davie and social theorists like Charles Taylor. Both of these academics have pointed to how believing persists, it just finds different, even vicarious, objects. In A Secular Age Taylor talks about the supernova of believing that takes place following the great cultural disembedding and disenchantment ushered in by ‘modernity’. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was I sensed a major cultural change has taken place and believing and making believable are right at the centre of this shift.

Some cultural analyses want to talk about a ‘re–enchantment’ or a ‘post–secular’ culture. Religious piety can speak to this change. Indeed, it is frequently religious pieties that are used as resources for this new re–enchantment – seen clearly in James Cameron’s film Avatar. There is enormous potential for the development of good religious practices and transformation of the cultural imaginary when there is so much investment in the mythic imagination. But there is also enormous potential for what I sometimes call ‘pop transcendence’. A lot of the new re–enchantment is capital–led and feeds hyper–individual life–style choices.

One of our repeated messages at Theos is that there is no view from nowhere, including no spiritual view. Everyone holds certain beliefs, or at very least behaves as if they do, which are underdetermined by the evidence available. Judging by the claim you make several times in the book that “disbelief” or “unbelief” are also forms of belief, this is a view you would presumably agree with. But it’s also – we’ve discovered – a view that many atheists get very indignant about. How would you persuade them that they are wrong?

I have been asked to debate with atheists on a number of occasions. I persistently refuse because they are unable to hear anything other than their own creed. I’m most struck by the tone and style of much of the atheist writing from the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett. The tone is visceral and polemical, riding rough–shod over facts with arguments and details not being registered, and with superficial analysis. So I’m more interested in that tone because it’s reactive, even defensive. It is the tone and style of their writing that has enabled the work to go viral. My real question to them is not about the content of their arguments or their ideas, but what is driving the affect that bears all before it. Put in psychological terms: just what are they frightened of or threatened by?

Do you think that Miguel Farias’ work, which you mention, purportedly showing that “there is nothing experiential distinguishing an atheist from a religious believer” would make a difference to them?

No, it wouldn’t. They cannot see that they are ‘radicalised’. They are prisoners of an ideology. Okay, no belief system is without its ideological elements. But it’s what’s going on behind the screen of their conscious ideas that interests me. Behind most religious pieties lies notions such as ‘peace’, ‘healing’ and ‘reconciliation’. Their polemics are wantonly aggressive and we know that aggression is, hormonally, adrenalin that suppresses empathy and issues out of perceived threat. They should look more into the evolutionary biology that is given rise to their agonistics and proclamations of war. They are profoundly attuned, to my mind, with the religious radicalisation that is going on elsewhere.

Taking what you say about belief in the book, would you care to make any predictions about religion in the 21st century?

Goodness, that is a tall order! I tried both in the Introduction and Conclusion to point to a certain watershed, in part arising from McGilchrist’s analysis. Homo sapiens are still evolving. The plasticity of the brain means that this is continually being shaped in a certain direction. If we close down certain neural operations then those operations atrophy and this has evolutionary consequences. There’s a lot of research money going into projects about the ‘post–human’ condition at the moment. Although AI seems to have reached a certain impasse the cyborg may be just around the corner. The cyborg mythology is seductive because it is a left–hemisphere fantasy.

Religions, and the cultures they spawn, can be (not always) one of the resistors to such a mythology. They turn the human condition from such Promethean dreams and return it an assessment of its mystery and potential, while not shying away from its frailty, its vulnerability, its limitations, its finitude. Religion is one of the resources for readjusting the dialectic between the master and the emissary such that we might recognise certain values as sacred.

I certainly think religion will not disappear. In fact, it will gain in prominence while the heterogeneities of specific traditions will become increasingly evident. Beyond that I’m not sure. I’m not apocalyptic. And I’m not pessimistic. But choices will have to be made, collective choices, in the face of dwindling resources and climate changes. Those choices could well involve deeper forms of religious piety that usher is new, more ascetic lifestyles. That may be utopian, but my utopianism is part of a critical strategy to transform the cultural imaginary: there are alternative ways of seeing as

Stepping back from the substance of the book, Unbelievable struck me as a good example of how theology can interact with other disciplines – not only philosophy, literature and cultural studies, but also archaeology, psychology and sociology. I wonder if that’s how you see Christian thought best engaging in the world of ideas today.

I’ve just finished a year of reading theologians from across the country as a panel member of the REF and I’m preparing a paper to deliver at Cambridge on the ‘Future of Christian Theology’. It is evident from what several of us saw about current research that inter–disciplinarity is very much an aspect of theology today. To treat the complexity of our human condition, its immersion in the environment, and its adaptations to that environment, we need complex, flexible and hybrid approaches to exploring and examining – especially when it comes to faith seeking understanding.

We live, for example, with multiple forms of invisibility (from thought and gravity to the bacteria in our gastrointestinal system). To make these entities visible requires complex technology; to examine and reflect upon these entities also requires intellectual tools that cannot be found in any one discipline. How much more is this the case with religious studies? We’re at last returning to older models of doing theology; when theology was not some glass–bead game.

Hugh of St. Victor in the twelfth century was already telling his students that you should not approach reading the Scriptures, never mind doing theology, without a grounding first in the liberal arts. And he was generous in how wide he considered those arts to be. When Aquinas came to write the open question of the Summa Theologicae and define theological study, he too recognised it drew upon all the sciences and was both theoretical and practical.

This approach to doing theology changed – the late 16th century with Phillip Melanchthon’s late dogmatics is a good indication of the change: cerebral, concerned with tight definitions and clearly formulated propositions that referred to nothing else than other theological concepts. Dead end!

As I said, I’m just preparing a paper for Cambridge on the future of Christian theology and what I find myself saying is that the inter–disciplinarity of theological enquiry is going to get radical. What do I mean by that? Well, the REF demonstrated that much of the interdisciplinary approach related theology to what loosely might be termed ‘cognate disciplines’: literature, philosophy, politics, sociology – discourse–based subjects.

‘Radical’ interdisciplinary is crossing faculties – medicine, law, engineering, physics, chemistry etc. I’m not talking religion and science. There are already projects being conceived in which theology and hydrology are speaking to each other (see Christiana Z. Peppard’s book Just Water, for example) or theology and the study of crystal formation. Nothing is out of bounds and nothing should be if we view creation as just that: created by God. Interdisciplinary theology only provides what the cultural anthropologist, Clifford Geerzt, called ‘thick descriptions’.

Graham Ward is Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford.

Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don’t is published by I.B. Tauris

Image from wikimediaavailable in the public domain.


Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 12 January 2015


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