Science, Religion, and Family

Many families have members that span the spectrum between religious and secular worldviews (and sometimes, anti-religious worldviews). Do these differences make the existence of shared family values impossible?

Confirmation Bias

Members of the LDS church are taught that God has a physical body. This factual claim is considered either obviously false or extremely unlikely (and in any case, unsupported by evidence) by those who hold a secular/scientific worldview.

When I was younger I felt it was very important that the LDS church made concrete claims like this because otherwise the gospel wouldn’t actually say anything real. The scientist in me understood the importance of making falsifiable claims. And the particular claim about the corporeal nature of God was important because it was associated with related claims about my own physical resurrection and eternal progress. For me, without it, the death of the body meant the death of meaning. So the idea that eternal life is real was necessary to feel like life itself was worth living.

One of the main reasons I eventually stopped identifying with the church is that I decided that my reliance on factual claims about the reality of the afterlife was really just wishful thinking. I understood the power of confirmation bias (i.e., that we subconsciously ignore or explain away contrary evidence), and separating myself from the church was the only way I knew to be honest with myself.

I decided that the claims of my religion effectively weren’t falsifiable, so they couldn’t really be true in the same way my scientific beliefs were true. In other words, I left my community and my beliefs behind because I valued Truth. I never denied that participation in the Church provided me with a heightened feeling of purposefulness. I just felt that this sense of purpose was an illusion that prevented me from seeing reality.

Collective Consciousness

Recently, my understanding of religion has undergone a transformation. In a way, I have embraced one of those wishy-washy concepts of symbolic meaning that I used to despise as a gutless substitute for real belief. Specifically, I now hold that religious concepts correspond to innate psychological archetypes (see, e.g., Carl Jung and his idea of collective consciousness).

But the real difference between what I believe now and what I used to believe is that where I used to think factual claims were the proper basis for what is real, I now believe that the very sense of purpose I wanted to distance myself from in order to see Truth is, in fact, the basis of Truth.

This is a bit different from saying that I think our sense of meaning is a good indicator of true factual claims about the external world in the scientific sense. It is more like saying I no longer hold that the modern/scientific concept of factual reality is the best way to understand Truth. Our brains know what Truth we need, and so we seek out those stories that we need. Holding too strongly to a skeptical worldview might promise a clearer view of the world around us, but at the cost of rejecting the world within us.

In more scientific language, the stories and ideas of religion have meaning for us because we are predisposed (i.e., based on evolutionary psychology) to have an emotional response to certain idea patterns. Our brain is constantly barraged with an incomprehensible amount of physical information (e.g., from our physical senses). We brutally filter everything down and mark only that information that is consistent with certain patterns that are deemed meaningful. Some of the most fundamental patterns correspond to religious archetypes. These are the patterns that allow us to feel 1) a sense of progress and enlightenment, and 2) a sense of peace and security.

Human beings share a common set of underlying psychological archetypes, and despite their different appearances, all worldviews must connect and trigger the same patterns. All worldviews (both religious and secular) more or less have to say the same thing because on some level there are only a finite number of things that have meaning to us. If these stories don’t exist within a certain worldview, they have to be invented. Worldviews that are better carriers of meaning tend to win out over those with less effective stories.

Even those who espouse a completely secular worldview are going to end up collecting ideas and stories that are remarkably similar to their religious and mythological counterparts. For example, we might find a movie (say, Star Wars) that becomes an important cultural touchstone because it is an expression of a basic archetype (the hero’s journey).

Faith and Community

Once we embrace the idea that falling back on religious-like patterns is inevitable, we might as well embrace those manifestations that serve as the most effective carriers of meaning for us personally. We shouldn’t reject stories that include implausible factual claims because underlying those seemingly implausible claims might be something that, on a deeper level, is important for us to understand. However, we also shouldn’t choose our stories solely based on our own personal emotional reactions.

Cultivating effective stories (and the associated behavioral patterns) is essential to self-actualization. But stories aren’t just a personal choice. They are also a signal to other people regarding whether we are part of a community (and therefore, whether we can be trusted). In fact, in some cases implausible claims serve better to signal group identity because they are “costly” to maintain.

Choosing a set of stories and symbols is like putting on a jersey. Even when I left the church, I never stopped being a BYU football fan. I held on to it as a reminder about where I came from. But perhaps retaining my BYU fandom was also foreshadowing that I would eventually return to the faith and put the LDS “jersey” back on.

It is well known among sports fans that almost as important as supporting your own team is having contempt for your rival. Similarly, the way we choose to express ourselves not only represents what we support, it can also represent what we reject (as well as trigger rejection and contempt from others). In fact, sometimes we adopt stories and the accompanying behaviors precisely because they represent a rejection of something (consciously or subconsciously).

Family Identity

When it comes to building a family identity, lack of attention to our stories results in the risk that our sense of unity can be undone by ways of communicating and behaving that represent a rejection of other people in the family. It is difficult to form a unified in-group if we don’t have a common way of expressing our most basic archetypes and group identification signals. In other words, in order to feel unified we need to wear the same jersey.

In some ways, committing to finding a common set of symbols, stories, behaviors, etc. might seem like a rejection of our individuality. But I would argue that what we commonly think of as individuality is often just an attempt to identify with a different group. We are all sheep, so the most we can do is try to choose our herd.

Of course, our lives and identities are complicated. We don’t just identify with one group. Every member of a family is going to have a number of overlapping identities, as well as a few individual notions. This is not necessarily a problem. What is important is that two conditions are satisfied:

First, the family must develop a shared identity (e.g., a shared set of stories, symbols and behaviors) that are unique to the family. In some cases, these stories can be drawn from a larger cultural context, but they must have a unique meaning or interpretation to the members of the family.

Second, no one in the family may strongly identity with any group (or faction) that represents an explicit rejection of anyone else’s identity. For example, many in the LDS church understand it to be the one true church. Furthermore, many members believe that conversion to the faith is necessary to achieve salvation. These beliefs are fine if everyone in the family holds them, or if no one holds them. Similarly with secular belief systems that hold religious faith in contempt. But if some people hold beliefs that classify others as outsiders, no true sense of unity is possible.

Those who study marriages have identified contempt as the single strongest indicator that a marriage is likely to fail. The same is true for a family. And the trouble is that our contempt for others is often subconscious, or it feels justified as a result of things we truly believe. How can we truly respect others who are so ignorant that they hold implausible beliefs? Or that engage in self-destructive (or soul-destructive) behavior seemingly out of spite? I’m not sure, but if we don’t figure it out some of our most important relationships are doomed to fail.

Because the fact is that different members of our families do hold identities that imply mutual contempt. So we are faced with two possibilities: members of the family can either seek to align their beliefs, or they can accept that the family identity will only be a loose association. We often interact with others at work and in our communities who don’t hold our own beliefs. Tolerance of others is a pillar of modern democracy. But because of this constraint, our work relationships are fundamentally limited.

The process of aligning beliefs in order to create a shared identity is the more difficult path. But I do not think it is impossible. One path forward is to begin not with changing beliefs, but with prioritizing them. For example, if everyone agrees that family unity is more important than any particular theological, philosophical or scientific doctrine, there’s a lot to work with.

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