Religious nonsense is easier to understand than regular nonsense

I’m sure the implications of this are huge, but what do you suppose they are? “Religious nonsense is easier to understand than regular nonsense” by Tom Rees (no, not the Jesuit once with America) at “epiphenom.”

H/T: Adam Wood


  1. It’s sort of surprising to read that a scientist like Tomas Rees is still defaulting to the anthropomorphic ascription of the male gender to a deity. I wonder how the N400 wave would have responded in the questioning to a consistent presentation/description of the Divine as female/feminine.
    At root seems to lie the same old same old surprise that faith and religious belief don’t come from the same place and aren’t measurable by the same criterion as physical phenomena. Christianity, for one, actually embraces what is non-sense-ical … an ever-living God who dies? Come on, does God really fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty?
    To return to the Collect of this past Sunday, the acknowledgment that we are always in the presence of mystery is, it seems to me, essential if we are to be empowered to be counter-cultural and non-sense-ical. O Magnum Mysterium!

  2. Could it be even simpler than that? We expect a certain amount of non-sensical stuff in religious statements, and so maybe as soon as we categorize at statement as religious, the surprise value goes down and it ‘makes sense’ in that context of being a religious statement.

    Not sure I expressed that at all well – sorry.

    1. I’m with you on this.

      Not only do we expect a certain amount of ambiguity, we are accustomed to dealing with it. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is nonsense at one level, and the route to a higher level of thinking, enlightenment. The not-making-sense is how we learn the truth about what does not make sense, how we come to find meaning in the world.

  3. There is a basic problem in the presentation of this research (it might not be a problem in the research itself, but just in the presentation of it), namely that they have made an easy equation between “unexpected” and “harder to understand.” Not a valid point. Unexpected just means “unexpected.”

    Take a non-religious example. How many persons actually understand meteorology or how electricity works? Yet if we hear on the weather channel that the barometer has fallen, or someone says “turn on that light switch” we have no response to the unexpected. We know certain things will follow from the statement, that is all. Is that what they mean by “understanding”? I guess they ought to define “nonsense.”

    Bring up transubstantiation among Catholics of a certain educational and catechetical level, and you will not get an “unexpected” brain wave. Yet this is a mystery quite beyond human understanding, and therefore not actually understood, just, well, expected!

  4. I think in part is because religion is steeped in God-talk and metaphor. Any serious discussion of religious faith has to express itself in this way.

  5. This research just follows along a path that I have frequently mentioned:

    Our brains are wired so that on the continuum of novelty we prefer slightly novel stimulation to either boring or very strange stimulation and on the complexity continuum we prefer slightly complex stimulation to very simple or overly complex stimulation.

    The important thing to note about all this is that whatever the dimension, e.g. novelty or complexity, it is all in the brain of the beholder.

    The problem with regard to 1) the management of great number of options in the OF, 2) the many choices of music that can be made, and 3) the various ways of translating the liturgical texts is that the brains of the decision makers of those choices are in a very different cognitive world because they have processed much of novelty and complexity out of the worlds of liturgical options, music, and writing.

    When these managers make what for them are more enjoyable choices because they bring them slightly more novelty and complexity, they usually bring more complexity than the people in the pews want, desire or can handle.

    The result of too great novelty or too great complexity is the same as when things are too boring and too simple, people simply tune the whole thing out. They just go to Mass without trying to figure it out, or sing the hymns or understand the prayers.

    When people go to classical music concerts they often find they don’t like new music, at least at first. The history of music is full of things that were hated when they were first played. People are often pleased by the classics played well. If they are musically trained they can even enjoy rating them. But the truly inspired performance is often one that takes us slightly beyond our expectations and understandings of the piece.

  6. Since this research is about language and words, naturally the translation issue comes to mind.

    One can make the case that the 1973 translation made us too prone to boredom. The language is too simple and too close to our common language; we can easily assume we know what it says and means and therefore do not have to pay attention to it and can tune it out.

    On the other hand the 2010 translation may be too strange both in words and syntax for most people to try to make sense out of it. The brain ends up saying “more of those same strange words and that strange new syntax, I don’t use any of them, so I don’t need to process them. They are just part of the church environment. I can tune it all out.”

    If one were designing a Missal to replace 1973 according to neurological principles, the ideal would be to introduce just enough new words to make it more interesting.

    We need a church vocabulary that is somewhat different from our every day vocabulary but not too different. We might even chose to have a slightly different syntax, but again not too different.

    As the article correctly says, we expect the “religious world” to be different, but not too different. That is our minds are set up, as in music, art, and other things that inspire us to be taken a little beyond our thinking and experience… but not too far beyond!

    This research can be seen as supporting Greeley’s notion that religion is experienced as poetry not prose.

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