Women should be made aware, so says a computer programmer emerging from a Catholic church, that birth-control pills have dangerous side-effects. Not having any medical training, the man of around fifty-five declares that the source of his knowledge is “common sense.” He quickly relegates the remonstrance of physicians in spite of their medical education. “They are not telling the truth,” the programmer says. “Besides,” he adds, “the pill interferes with the creation of the egg. It can therefore be difficult for a woman to get pregnant for years after taking the pill, and if she does get pregnant the child is likely to have health issues.”
This actual interaction took place amid the controversy over whether Catholic hospitals and universities should be required to provide employee health insurance that includes birth control. The programmer’s decision to bring up the subject was not an accident; his priest had doubtlessly been bringing up the topic in homilies. I mention the vignette because it can serve as a case study on whether cognitive dysfunction and over-reaching are part of how the human brain functions in the domain of religion. Nietzsche refers to the weakness as a brain sickness. In diagnosing the illness, we can distinguish the various strands so it can be more transparent.
First, the programmer presumes that his common sense gives him medical knowledge. Furthermore, he presumes that his source of knowledge is superior to that of physicians. “They are lying,” he claims. In actuality, he is projecting the salience of ideology that is in him onto physicians. The cognitive lapse here is in ignorance being incapable of being wrong, while knowledge is of doubtful validity and ought not to be trusted. The first part of this couplet makes it extremely difficult to cure the ailment because the lapse resists treatment as an alcoholic refuses to give up drinking.
Second, the programmer presumes that his religious basis gives him license to enter into another domain, that of medicine. No boundary is recognized concerning his religious domain. In addition to the underlying category mistake that categorizes the medical issue as religious in nature, or at the very least as subject to a religious basis, a presumption is entailed in dismissing the native experts in the other field. That is, a certain attitude, which includes passive aggression, overlays a cognitive lapse wherein two distinct domains are treated as though they were one. This, by the way, is the basic structure of the sickness: a psychological condition or attitude that impairs cognitive ability.
Third, rather than refer to an egg being made, the programmer says it is created. This word-choice is no accident. It is an attempt to 1) classify the biological process as religious in nature and 2) to justify treating the issue of birth-control as important in the religion. Besides being an incorrect use of the verb, the “creation” of an egg, or a cake for that matter, takes place within the created realm, rather than from the “outside,” as God functions as Creator. The programmer’s belief that birth-control is a priority in his religion hinges on an incorrect application of a theological concept. Human eggs are not “created” as God creates day and night. Moreover, human reproduction constitutes a perpetuation of human life to another generation (i.e., offspring) rather than the creation of human life. To liken a biological process to a theological concept is to make a category mistake in assuming a congruence that does not hold.
As yet another diagnostic of the programmer’s illness, one could investigate whether Jesus is represented anywhere in the four Gospels as preaching on birth-control or the workings of the ovaries. He is not even represented as opining on abortion, yet the very church that the programmer attended at the time had at least six campaign-style signs on its grounds (one directly outside the front doors of the church) advocating a “pro-life” partisan stance. The signs point to an underlying obsession perhaps stemming from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Doubtless the faithful had already been subject to the message; the signs were probably intended for any “pro-choice”members who had not yet gotten the message that they were no longer welcome. What of poverty? What of sickness? Was abortion really the only issue? If not, was it even the most important? I think someone was spoiling for a fight.
Should a very general or abstract theme discussed by the religion’s founder (e.g., lilies in the field) be conveniently interpreted as necessarily referring to a specific partisan position on contraception or abortion, that reductionism can be understood as dogmatic, or arbitrary, in nature. The denial of the arbitrariness involved is yet another type of cognitive lapse that is occasioned by the illness. More abstractly, the sickness interferes with logic of the following axiom: If X, then Y. X is presumed to imply Y when Z could also be entailed.
To treat issues that are non-existent or minor with respect to the teachings of the religion’s founder as the most important, and to obsess on them as well as impose them on others indicates not only a cognitive warping, but a lack of judgment and perspective as well. All of these faculties are impaired by the underlying psychological condition. It goes without saying that the programmer believes he cannot be wrong about how important the birth-control pill is in the Christian religion. Perhaps he is bored with the old stuff about soteriology and eschatology, one essence in two natures, and three manifestations of God in One. The psychological condition relegates these in favor of ideology and political partisanship—essentially remaking the religion in the process. The programmer is not conscious of having made this shift; denial protects it from reaching his consciousness.
As much as it might be fun to play with classifications and priorities, it is the sheer extent of knowledge that the programmer presumes he knows—and, even more striking, that he assumes he cannot be wrong about it—that stands out to me as particularly glaring in this case study. Should a physician try to correct him, he would doubtless clutch even more on to that which he presumes is a fact. It is hard enough to correct misguided opinions; when scientific results are inadmissible to put down erroneous facts, there is virtually no check on the lapses. The illness must run its course, as it is at least currently without a cure. At least the symptoms can be recognized by the healthy, who naturally keep at a distance from the weak, according to Nietzsche. To assume that the weak can be strong is misguided, he claims. Even so, it is difficult to keep from being astonished in listening to a computer programmer presume infallible scientific knowledge based on his own “common sense.”
At the macro level, the significance of the illness may be in the warping of a given religion as well as in what people understand to be religion as a phenomenon. David Hume wrote of the anthropomorphistic “humanness” that the human mind naturally applies to religion even if it had been oriented to the wholly other. In other words, the transcendent nature of religion (i.e., being oriented experientially beyond the limits of human cognition and perception) tends to be pushed aside or marginalized as “religious” people push doctrines that reflect their political or even moral ideologies. In actuality, those people are not religious, even if they happen to be clerics. Their “treasure”—where their hearts are—is human, all too human, being of this world. Ultimately, the ailment is self-idolatrous pride, which like greed has a certain psychological dynamic that impairs the faculties of cognition, judgment and perception.
Lest it be wondered whether humanity can experience religion that does not reduce to convenient ideological stances, I believe this is possible, though a certain amount of health is necessary at the outset. In other words, it is not likely that many current religious leaders or their epigones will ever be well enough to be capable of, or satisfied with raw religion. They would not even recognize it were they to happen to experience it. It is possible, however, that a remnant that is currently relegated or pushed aside quietly rediscovers religion as a phenomenon. Such discovery can take place either through symbol, myth or ritual or in utter simplicity of the experience itself. If Hume is correct on how the human brain “processes” religion, the process of humanization would soon begin yet again and the center of gravity would shift to the human, all too human, under sacred (i.e., protective) “religious” auspices. Yet between the cracks of our own creations, a human being can briefly encounter “beyond,” even if only in glimpses.