The importance of false and oxymoronic religious claims

June 4, 2006 | By | 5 Replies More

Quite often, our use of language is puzzling, indeed.  For instance, we often walk up to each other asking, “How are you doing?” or “what’s happening?” when we would be annoyed if the person we addressed tried to answer our question.  We spend a lot of time talking about the weather when it really doesn’t affect most of us.  We crave to talk with our friends and co-workers about entertainment such as the performance of professional sports teams, as though our lives and moods should depend upon such things. And we love to gossip.

What is language for?  Most people consider language merely as a means of preserving and communicating ideas.  In “Magic Words: How Language Augments Human Computation,” Andy Clark set forth six additional ways in which we use language, each of these uses serving to “re-shape the computational spaces which confront intelligent agents.”  

Clark discusses Lev Vygotsky, the Soviet psychologist of the 1930’s who “pioneered the idea that the use of public language had profound effects on cognitive development.”  Vygotsky focused on the role of private language and scaffolded action in guiding behavior by focusing attention and controlling action.  For instance, he found that children who are working on their own internalize the verbal directions previously given to them by responsible adults in order to guide complex tasks. 

Clark makes a strong case that his “supra-communicative” account of language can transform, re-shape and simplify computational tasks that confront our biological brains in six ways.  According to Clark, we use language to

  1. Augment memory (by use of texts, diaries and notes)
  2. Simplify our environment (e.g., using labels and signs)
  3. Coordinate and reduce on-line deliberation (e.g., collaborative problem solving, where we use language to focus attention on things we might otherwise ignore).
  4. Tame path-dependent learning (previous learning highlights certain locations in state space, as opposed to others.  Clark cites Paul Churchland for the proposition that public language allows human cognition to be collective)
  5. Focus attention and resources (e.g., writing notes “to create an externalized control loop for our own future behavior.”); and
  6. Manipulate Data (by tagging ensembles of ideas, we move them and interact with them in ways “alien to the on-board repertoire of the biological brain.”  Associating an external word with an idea or set of ideas “effectively freezes the concept into a sort of cognitive building block” that we can more readily manipulate than the original idea or set of ideas).

[I had the privilege of attending several cognitive science seminars led by Andy Clark.  He is a superbly clean and precise writer.  I highly recommend his works. For a terrific introduction to many cognitive science issues, see his Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science (2001).]

What Clark has shown, is that, in addition to using language to communicate ideas, humans use language for a variety for other tasks.  In short, we should not assume that any particular use of language is solely for the purpose of communicating ideas. As Clark points out, humans are usually oblivious to these important functions of language. When we navigate the world using these functions of language, we often give all the credit to the naked brain: 

We often marginalize the special contributions of these external manipulations, and speak as if the biological brain did all the work.  No parallel temptation afflicts the person who uses a crane to lift large weights, or a motorized digger to plough trenches!  In these cases, it is clear that the person uses additional tools whose capacities extend and complement those of the unaided laborer.  The relative invisibility of the special cognitive roles of text and words are a reflection, I think of their ubiquity and ease of use:  a reflection, indeed, of our tendency to think of these operations as proper to the biological agent rather than (like the crane) as technological additions. 

At this point, I need to stir in the work of Robin Dunbar.  Like Andy Clark, Dunbar is also a highly accomplished writer.  In The Human Story: A New History of Mankind’s Evolution (2004), Dunbar discusses the role of gossip.

In another terrific work, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (1996), Dunbar discusses the close relationship between Neo cortex size and the group size in primates.  This almost-straight-line relationship would predict that the social group size for humans is 150; human groups of the size “seemed to be a common feature of human social systems the world over.” 

The principal mechanism used by other primates for bonding within their groups is grooming.  The time spent grooming relates directly to the typical group size of that species.  “The bigger the group, the more time the animals spent grooming each other.”  (Page 113).  Based on a group size of 150, if humans bonded to their groups using grooming “in the same time honored way as other monkeys and apes, grooming would have to occupy something in excess of 40% of our active day.”  (Page 114).  But no other species of primate devotes more than 20% of its day to social interaction-there is simply too much else to accomplish in a day. 

There’s a problem with physical grooming for humans.  We resort to grooming only in intimate relationships.  We find close physical contact deeply arousing, separated by a thin line from full-blown sex.  (Page 127). Dunbar suggests, though, that music, laughter and emotions triggered by smiles, for instance, are ways that humans enhance their language to get the endorphin kick that other primates get through grooming (Page 128; GG&E, p. 191). Studies have shown that, like other primates, humans devote about 20% of their time to social interaction.  We tend to use language rather than grooming as her bonding mechanism.  As Dunbar describes, language allows us to interact with more than one person at the same time (although conversations become unstable when they involve more than four people-they tend to split up at that point into two separate conversations).

What makes an everyday conversation work is the fact that we interact.  Each of us needs to have his or her say at some suitable juncture in the narrative.  But more important than this is the fact that we engage in a genuine dialogue with the speaker (and perhaps the other listeners).  We comment as they speak (“oh yes!”  . . . “they didn’t!” . . . “Uh-huh?”), reinforcing what they say, encouraging them to continue like grooming, it’s a way of saying, “I’d rather be here with you than over there with Jim,” a statement of interest, a declaration of intent.   . . . one of the things that language allows us to do is to exchange information about the social networks into which we are embedded.  We can catch up on news of Aunty Flo and Uncle Fred, find out where nephew Bill is these days, and why cousin Penny’s marriage failed.

(Page 116). Language in the form of gossip, then, is far more than the transfer of the literal content of the statements uttered while gossiping.  Yes, social gossip primes us with up-to-date knowledge of what everyone is up to, but it is far more than that.  The manner in which we engage in gossip, and with whom, tells us where we stand with those other people. Like so many others these days, I’m working toward a theory of religious rituals—one important issue is the function of religious language in rituals. 

Andy Clark and Robin Dunbar have opened up new ways of considering language used in rituals. Their work can be used to show that the words spoken during rituals can be important even if the literal content of such words is vague or even oxymoronic. 

Sincere talk that a virgin had a baby (a self-contradiction) might yet have many of the computational benefits delineated by Andy Clark.  Public pronouncements and discussion about a pregnant virgin might serve to clarify the social landscape in the same way that we benefit by gossiping.  Uttering oxymoronic religious beliefs might help us to determine who is friend and who is foe.  Since I am not personally comfortable declaring that any virgin ever got pregnant, believers would immediately see me as an outsider.  This social sonar would be important to any group working hard to exclude cheaters (those who want to limit group benefits to loyal insiders).  This protection (against people like me who choke on claims that a virgin got pregnant) is available regardless of whether the believers themselves truly believe in virgin birth (in my experience, most of them don’t, although they utter it in public religious ceremonies). 

This approach to analyzing the use of language in rituals dovetails well with the theme of The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle, by Amotz and Avishag Zahavi (1997).  The central claim of this book, thoroughly substantiated by the authors, that “in order to be effective, signals have to be reliable; in order to be reliable, signals have to be costly.”  It occurs to me that for those who value their credibility, oxymoronic public proclamations would indeed be an expensive and, therefore, a reliable display of in-group loyalty.

I will be exploring these ideas in more detail in future posts.  What intrigues me at this point, however, is that the public use of language to articulate oxymoronic religious views might be important to participants even though not literally true.  This was a huge breakthrough for me, personally.  Until a few years ago, I was convinced that absurd pronouncements simply could not be important for any purpose whatever. 

Now, however, I’m convinced that oxymoronic religious pronouncements might serve as expensive (and therefore reliable) public displays (Zahavi) that facilitate bonding among participants (Dunbar) and further allow participants to more accurately manipulate their oxymoronic ideas as well as compute the risks and benefits of their complicated social and intellectual environments (Clark). 

None of this is to claim that belivers are aware of the true function of their oxymoronic proclamations.  To the contrary, we are often unaware of the functions of our conduct.  In my experience, believers are oblivious to the potential functions of their statements of faith.  For background on this point, see here and here.

The above approach presents an opportunity to further explore the process of religious rituals.

Using these ideas, skeptics like me can now appreciate that something truly important might be going on when believers utter unproven (and even oxymoronic) supernatural religious claims.   


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Category: Language, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    In his book, "How We Believe," Michael Shermer also discusses the linear relationship of brain size and group size in primates. He observes that studies of address books (e.g., Palm Pilots) confirm that humans have, on average, about 150 names in their address books. Also, military groups apparently tend to average around this number. Likewise, when aboriginal tribal groups and insular religious sects (e.g., Mennonites) reach a population of about 150, that's about when they divide themselves into two smaller groups. Many business operating units also tend to average about 150 people. Why would 150 be an upper limit? One suggestion is that this is the average size of a human family after four generations, which is the maximum that any prehistoric human family would have likely achieved.

    A curious corollary to this is the size of the typical business meeting or dinner party: six or seven people seems to be the optimal number. More becomes unwieldy; fewer, less effective. Military teams and backpacking groups also often consist of about six people: people can easily split up into various equal-sized subgroups without completely losing the benefits of teamwork.

    Breaking this pattern are groups such as the fifteen members of the U.S. president's cabinet, the twelve people on a jury, or the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. This author can only speculate on what impact such supernormal sizes might have on the functioning of those groups. Perhaps groups whose primary goal is to be cooperative work best with about six people, while groups that, to some extent, are intended to be adversarial work best with about twice this number. Perhaps this encourages the group to divide into two groups of six, with each group taking an opposite side in the debate (and thus giving each side a thorough defense).

  2. Emily Harris says:


    I enjoyed your ideas about language and appreciated your comments about believers (though, being a believer, I do respectfully disagree).

    I have a wonderful example of how language is indeed a tool that we use to connect to one another. I'm originally from Mississippi, and when I meet another native Mississippian we first find out where each other is from. This is then used to play the "do-you-know" game – where we find out if we have mutual friends. I submit that we actually do this to see where the other fits in our "story" – our life. I want to feel connected to this other person and by having positive affections for similar people, this is accomplished more quickly.

    Now to address the idea of oxymorons in Christianity – and I will only address Christianity because that is the only religion in which I feel well versed enough to comment. Mary of the Bible becoming pregnant outside of normal generation is seemingly oxymoronic but true none-the-less. This is what miracles are – when the Lord works outside of the normal operations of the science and nature that he created. There are other doctrines of Scripture that are paradoxical as well, but I don't have time for several dissortations…My point is that these truths are paradoxical and not oxymoronic.

    And, Erich, you made a comment about believers conduct. I have to agree that our behavior most often does not line up with our beliefs. In fact, I am part of a small group that meets once a week to discuss passages of Scripture and one comment that one seminarian (who is a part of the group) says is that we believers often function like non-believers. I have to agree. Belief and behavior are very difficult to keep consistent – for anyone, though, not just believers in Jesus of Nazareth.

    Well, there's my two cents. Thanks for letting me get it in!

  3. Deb says:

    There is a decent chance that our common greeting, "how are you" is a cultural norm, not a human norm. An English friend living temporarily in the U.S. complained to me after a few months, "People keep saying, 'Hi, Steve, how are you? and I keep trying to answer. But they don't want to know." I told him to practice responding with, "Fine thanks, and you?"

    l'd be very interested in knowing more about the range of initial greetings. Is "hi, how are you?" an Americanism? What do people in other cultures say when they greet?

  4. I disagree with Emily that belief and behavior are difficult to keep consistent. The fact of the matter is that humans do tend to act in accordance with their beliefs, but that every human being has a plethora of beliefs, both reasonable and unreasonable, that cannot neccesarily always be well integrated into behavior that shows integrity to every single belief a person holds. As we age and mature and gain experience in human reality and the experience of mind and thinking, hopefully we become far more aware of contradictions in our perceptions, beliefs, knowledge…and how that relates to our behavior so that we can constantly resolve such contradictions that we have allowed to develop in our mental perspective.

    Language is most certainly a social tool with many powerful functions that oftengo unnoticed by the majority of those who are affected by it, not to mention those who wield it. Included in its many uses are the aspects of description, selection, and control. These elements serve many purposes from the social selection process to the fascinating and "mesmerizing " processes of social ritual as in the case of perpetuating the aforementioned paradoxical and/or oxymoronic traditional religious notions such as virgin birth or the perfectly omnipotent and ominiscent god who supposedly still needs or wants something.

    I notice that Emily claims that the virgin birth is true. Based on what does Emily make this claim? Based on what she has been told through language. I would assume her beliefs have followed the language and its social and mental structure that her thinking process developed in.

    As for what is oxymoronic and what is not, or even whether a miracle would be required for a supposed virgin to give birth, the mind of the average person can certainly dwell on the present day reality of artificial insemination or the reality of an ancient woman who was not truly a virgin protecting herself from shame and harm. Those two ideas alone should give the average mind reason to question the religious claim of "virgin birth" ….and reason in fact to even question the real value of using the term in the first place. If man can do with science what was supposed to be a miracle of god….then how exactly does that present god… a god?

    Perhaps the real question is whether such claims are oxymoronic or just plain moronic. On the other hand, the true working value of such claims is, as Erich suggested, not to the outsider who does not believe them and cannot echo them, but to the ring of those who seek others with whom they share an affinity.


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