The Authenticity of Faith: Part 8, The Trade-Off of Anxiety and Hospitality

Once again, the big issue tackled in The Authenticity of Faith is assessing the claim of Sigmund Freud that religious belief is solely motivated by a need for comfort and consolation. Tackling that question requires a new sort of apologetics, a turn away from debating metaphysical propositions to examining the psychological motivations of religious believers.
So, was Freud right?.

Taking a cue from William James, the answer is no. There appear to be varieties of religious experience.

So, William James was right and Sigmund Freud was wrong. That conclusion, I think, is worth the price of the book. Still, this exploration of religious psychology only really matters if the these religious experiences differ in how they affect behavior.

Again, fear makes people behave badly. This includes Christians. So our interest here is if religious experiences are associated with a variety of behavioral outcomes. And, of course, we're most keenly interested in how religious believers treat other people, especially people who are different.

So having identified the Winter and the Summer Christian types in The Authenticity of Faith, I go on in the final part of the book to explore, in studies I have published, how these believers react and respond toward things like outgroup members, artwork, and the body.

The big take-home message is that Winter and Summer Christians do respond differently to the world. Winter Christians, in the studies I've published, are more tolerant of difference, have different aesthetic sensibilities, and are more comfortable with the human body.

Summarizing this work, in the final chapter of The Authenticity of Faith I make the argument that religious experience involves a trade-off between anxiety and hospitality.

Certainty, conviction, and dogmatism reduces our anxiety in the face of life. Having all the answers feels good. That's the upside. The downside is that certainty, conviction, and dogmatism makes you suspicious and wary toward people who have different beliefs. And that suspicion sows the seeds of intolerance.

In contrast, if you don't have all the answers in the face of uncertainty and tragedy, if you can't tie a neat theological bow on top a cancer diagnosis or a hurricane, there is an emotional price to be paid. You will carry a burden of anxiety. Meaning will be harder to secure. Life will be more uncertain and perplexing.

But there is an upside here. If your questions outweigh your answers, you're in a much more open posture toward people who have different beliefs. If you don't have all the answers, maybe they can be of help. In short, doubt can make you more hospitable.

The trade-offs explored in the final chapter of The Authenticity of Faith have recently been independently summarized and given empirical support by Van Tongeren, Davis, Hook, and Johnson (2016) in their article "Security Versus Growth: Existential Tradeoffs of Various Religious Perspectives."

Van Tongeren, Davis, Hook, and Johnson describe the religious experiences we've been exploring (Summer vs. Winter Christians, healthy-minded vs. sick soul) as Security versus Growth. Security-focused beliefs are focused on dealing with existential anxieties and concerns, providing us comfort and consolation. By contrast, growth-oriented beliefs are beliefs that are concerned with bridging the  ideological divides that separate groups. This is the same dynamic explored in the final chapter of The Authenticity of Faith.

Van Tongeren, Davis, Hook, and Johnson have a nice summary illustration of the trade-offs between Security and Growth-focused beliefs:
This is a great visual for the trade-offs involved. Security-focused beliefs have greater meaning, less anxiety and more comfort. But there is a price-tag: Less tolerance.

By contrast, growth-focused beliefs have greater tolerance, but pay an existential price (greater struggle for meaning, more death anxiety, less existential comfort).

So, summarizing the last eight posts (BTW, there's one more post tomorrow about where my work went after The Authenticity of Faith), in the words of Ecclesiastes, what is the conclusion of the matter?

Two conclusions.

First, Freud was wrong. There are religious varieties. There is more to religious belief than existential consolation.

Second, this debate matters because there is a trade-off in religious experience between anxiety and hospitality.

As I write in final paragraph from The Authenticity of Faith:
Perhaps, then, in the final analysis, faith, dogmatically understood, must be traded off for love. Doubts are the burden the believer must carry to keep her eyes opened to the suffering of others. It is as Moltmann described it, “The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world.” What, then, might be the ultimate proof of the authenticity of faith? Perhaps it is as simple as St. Paul suggested in the First Epistle to the Corinthians:

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

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