Religious Models

All of us have models that we use to understand the world. There are religious models, scientific models; models given to us by our parents, and models ingrained in our culture. Models allow us to separate things into categories, then to attach rules to those categories: rules about how those things work, and about how we should act in response to them.

There are unlimited ways you can divide things up and categorize them. There are unlimited models. But they are not arbitrary. Some models are more useful than others: they are better at allowing us to understand how things work, and they provide better motivation for our actions.

In my grandfather’s generation, race was an important cultural model. It grouped people into races, and attached information and rules about those races and how to act in response to them. Some of those bordered on the complimentary, most were derogatory. We are learning that race is not a good model for human character and behaviour, let alone for how we should respond to people. Even using race as a functioning model can be an indication of racism, whether or not you are specifically denigrating any particular race.

Religions seek to build models of the world. They group phenomena together: people (who’s saved and not, who’s enlightened and not), practices (the sacred and profane), events (naturally caused, and miraculous), texts (divinely or humanly inspired), morality (commandments and prohibitions, or else divinely mandated duties) and so on. The question is, are those categories useful? Do they allow us to understand reality better, and act appropriately towards it?

This question, it seems to me, is at the heart of the atheist response to religion.

In the comments of previous posts, John has shown an instance where a religious model may be deeply useful: in Alcoholics Anonymous or other “12-step” programs, the model of a higher power can be directly useful to motivate and give strength to someone battling their addiction. To me religious models of sacred experience and ritual can be useful to organize myself around. To some atheists, I think, there are no useful models in religion. To others, any useful models are irredeemably tainted by their historic association with the vile models (the sectarianism, the misanthropy, etc): they are to be avoided on principle.

Does any of this resonate with you? Are there models that you think are useful and important?

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Religious Models

  1. Hmmmm, “models”? Can I play devil’s advocate please:

    “Models”, in this context, makes me think of complex, organized, conscious, intentional, coherent association of concepts. It is just a word of course and means different things to different folks, but that is my image. So instead of “models”, when I think about us, I think of us as being a bunch of likes, dislikes, emotional habits and such that flux into different bundles depending on our different settings. Much more chaotic than a model.

    Your example of “race” seems more like a simple “like” or “dislike” that would fit into how I see fundamental modules in our mind. I think academics love the concept of models.

    On “Splintered Mind”, recently, I was reading about Ethic Professors having no better ethics than those who have far less elaborate “models” of right behavior. So perhaps our “models” are deceptive. Our “models” act as banners, perhaps — telling people what we want them to think we are organized around.

    I think pastors and such would like to think their parishioners have theological models — but I think we know that this is generally not the case.

    Some Atheists may think they have a model of the universe that is drastically different than the theists they criticize (present company excluded, of course), but instead, their bundles of hates, fear, greed, and habits are surprisingly similar in a much more significant way to the theists than they’d be comfortable admitting.

  2. Ian

    It isn’t preference for one or other race that is the model. It is the idea that differentiating people by race is a sensible way of categorizing people; that the properties and actions one associates with different races are useful. That is the model.

    You propose counter-models of “like/dislike”. A preferential model, where you categorise things or phenomena as being liked or disliked by a person, and then use that model to reason about people’s actions toward related phenomena.

    Similarly you can group behaviour according to the model of a “habit”. And have a model whereby different people display the same or different habits. So a habit becomes a thing (this is called “reification” in the lingo), which you can reason about.

    That is all modelling.

    And, as you implied, the concept of a model is also reified, and therefore ‘model’ is another ‘model’ (not, as some have said, a ‘meta-model’).

  3. John Clavin

    There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who grew up in my home town in northern Illinois, and those who didn’t.

  4. there are two types of people in the world, those who use models and those who don’t 😉

    i like the religious model i’ve found in my denomination. of course i would, i’m totally bought in and biased… yet i find great truth in our order of worship. how we’re called to look outside ourselves, confess our shortcomings, to learn we’re accepted and at home in the universe, to study our life orienting myths and to place them in context in the sermon, and to offer peace to one another. i find great truth and power in this… it’s not always comforting though which nixes the “opiate of the masses” thing, but it is always liberating.

    i find the Christian* model very helpful.

    “To some atheists, I think, there are no useful models in religion”

    i was just trying to talk to an atheist about this who was speaking out of both sides of his mouth.. that science is unbiased and will go where the “truth” is yet that religion has no “truth” in it. i put quotes around truth because it was never defined and the author seemed to want to leave it undefined so he doesn’t have to defend his understanding or approach to it as well as to cover up his bias and explain it away. upon seeing this, i left the conversation as there was nothing to be learned from it.

    *and by Christian i mean my strange UCC understanding of it which is in no way monolithic.

  5. Hi Ian, Yes, I think I agree with you here; we all use models to translate the sense of the world into a conceptual form that our qualia-obsessed brains can deal with. Sometimes when the reality is something we cannot accept (such as Mary Magdalene confronted with the death of Jesus the Nazarene), we flip, and mad things happen.

    Incidentally, on that latter, I really could use a little help from you brainy bible scholar people over on Answers in Genes: http://answersingenes.blogspot.com/2011/01/great-resurrection-debate.html – my commenters wax loquacious, and it would be great to have some proper scholars pitching in their bits in relation to supposed reliability of crazy ladies’ testimonies and reliability of rabbinic oral transmission, and how resurrections were conceptually untenable for C1CE Jewish crazy ladies, and even how Luke and Matthew do not show literary dependency on Mark!

    Gawd help us!

    I’ll make cake…

  6. Ian

    I’m sorry I don’t comment more on your blog, Shane. Unfortunately I find blogger absolutely appalling for keeping up with conversations, and for commenting generally, so I only see the comments when they’re pointed out to me. You ought to consider switching to wordpress sometime 🙂

    I’ll head over there now.

  7. Ian

    Ah. Also, Shane. I can’t post comments on your blog, because you only allow OpenID and Google logins. I have particular work-related reasons for not wanting to leave that trail. Maybe I’ll post here on the topic.

  8. I do? Feck! I’ll have to fix that. Just a mo, and I’ll re-enable Anonymous comments…

  9. OK all you lurkers – anon is re-enabled! http://answersingenes.blogspot.com needs you 🙂

  10. I was reading something recently about how language is maybe a predicting tool more than anything else. I’ll have to look that up again, but is that kind of what you are getting at here?

    The better the model, the better the accuracy?

    The religious model then, in general, might be inaccurate or might use mysticized language (vague or ambiguous or paradoxical even) but can in fact model reality and predict certain things well. Get the outcomes wanted, sort of thing.

    There are certain models that have certainly resonated with me personally. Some even literary, like the Hero’s Journey, for sure. The ‘believe God as the answer’ model is quite baffling to me but some ideas around the ‘God’ model I find intriguing enough to play with.

  11. Pingback: Minds in Pieces — Four Reflections | Irreducible Complexity

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