Monday, December 12, 2011

Giving Up On Understanding



I have spoken to religious leaders who express how beautiful mystery is. They see the appreciation of mystery as being humble in the face of a complicated universe. They want us to love mystery like we might love the smell of apple pie.

It’s a lovely idea. And what could be wrong with appreciation? It turns out that appreciation of mystery for its own sake has a dark side.

Keith Stanovich makes an excellent point in his book The Robot’s Rebellion. It concerns people’s love of mystery. His point is that appreciating mystery is an intellectual surrender. It signals the end of critical inquiry.  

In the religious case, often the request to appreciate mystery is a request to stop asking why.

Let’s take the common phrase “God moves in mysterious ways.” This statement is used when it appears that God has done something counter to the values we ascribe to him. I see the phrase as a tactic to combat the devastating problem of evil.

The problem of evil is from the philosophy of religion. It is the apparent contradiction between the fact that there is preventable awful things in this world, along with the idea that there is a god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. If God knows about horrendous suffering, and has the power to stop it, how could he not if he is all good? That is the essence of the problem of evil. It’s a tough one for theists.

You can see how the love of mystery encourages people from looking too closely at instances of this problem. Why would a good person, doing great things, die early of a painful disease? A common religious reply is that God either caused it (or did not intervene) because of some greater good that we don’t know. It’s a mystery why it happened that way; trust in God.

Note that we hold our own doctors accountable to higher standards. If a doctor knew of a patient that was sick, and had the power to cure him, then, if she was indeed good, then she would be morally obligated to help. But because of our love of mystery, God gets a pass.
When you’re watching a magic show, sure, go ahead and enjoy the mystery. But when people are telling you to appreciate mystery, they are often trying to hide a problem with their own worldview, and protect it by disabling your critical thinking. 


Pictured: An angel sculpture at a flea market. From Wikimedia Commons.

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