NPR’s Hidden Brain has aired an hourlong show that is mostly about imaginary friends. It is an interesting episode, and one that contains what I think is an interesting error.
Host Shankar Vedantam, a former Washington Post reporter, takes listeners through a series of encounters with voices in people’s heads, beginning with a dyslexic woman who spent much of her childhood hearing the voice of Cher in her head, encouraging her not to think of herself as stupid or limited. Another story is that of an atheist anthropologist who has a supernatural experience after a series of encounters with occultist Gareth Knight. The program then moves on to God.
Vedantam ends the program by saying that there are occasions when the questions “Is this real?” and “Did this really happen?” (I am summarizing) matter and matter greatly, e.g. when you hear what you believe to be the voice of God telling you to kill someone. But, he says, in other circumstances it doesn’t really matter at all. For instance, he says, it does not matter whether people who derive comfort from a religious experience actually had an encounter with God, whether the voice they hear in their heads is God or just them talking to themselves.
That is the sort of thing that you can really only say with conviction if you’ve preemptively decided that religion is not true in the way orthodox Christians, for example, understand Christianity to be true. It’s perfectly sensible to say that even if there is no God the comfort people derive from religious beliefs is valuable in and of itself, irrespective of the fiction at its foundation. I.e., if there is no God, then religious belief per se doesn’t matter all that much and need only be judged in consequentialist terms. But if God is real, then that fact is the most important fact in the universe, something that should be perfectly obvious even to a committed atheist.
(In fact, it seems to me that the atheists who are the most active and energetic are the ones who most keenly appreciate that fact, which is why they end up so closely resembling fervent believers and why meetings of atheists so often have the character of a tent revival. Christopher Hitchens brought a great deal more evangelical zeal to his atheism than most Englishmen brought to Christianity back when there were English Christians.)
But, of course, NPR comes from a point of view in which to say the preposterous thing Vedantam said seems entirely reasonable. It is not reasonable, if you think about it, but that is what bias is, mostly: an unthinking assumption.
Christians should remind ourselves from time to time that we believe radical and implausible things, that Peter’s understanding of the world was (and is) not only fundamentally different from that of Tiberius but ultimately and finally irreconcilable with it. Ezra Pound was on to something with his caustic observation that the “Catholic Church went out of business when its hierarchy ceased to believe its own dogma.” A world in which Christians acted like they believed the things we say we believe would be a very different world.
(It is a tedious necessity of the stupid and stupidly arrogant times in which we live to here explicitly note that I do not exempt myself from that criticism.)
If the Christian account of God is true — actually true, not metaphorically true or true in some ineffable way but simply true — then it is, as Father Richard John Neuhaus put it, the truth about everything. Of course it matters whether that is actually the case. Vedantam’s preemptory offhand dismissal of the relevance of the truth of the proposition makes sense only if you already have discounted the possibility of its being true.
It’s a little thing — maybe Vedantam and his NPR collaborators did not put too much thought into it. And that, of course, is the point.