Anthropolgist Scott Atran’s book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion is excellent. From it I reproduce the following quotation, from a section titled “Relevance and Truth: Why God’s Word Cannot Be Disconfirmed.” It’s a long section (three pages in the book), but I think it’s worth reading because the problem of the inability of religion to be factually challenges is so frustrating and incomprehensible to nonbelievers. It’s a problem that is a brick wall that both sides smash their heads against with little to show for it and is, I think, the basis of much of the contempt on both sides. Here is Atran’s explanation of this phenomenon. All italics are from the text. I have not indented to preserve what shortness of (physical) length I can.
One clear and important distinction between fantasy and religion is the knowledge of its source. People generally attribute their personal fantasies and dreams to themselves and to events they’ve experienced. They also know or assume that public fictions (novels, movies, cartoons, etc.) were created by specific people who had particular intentions for doing so.
A religious text is another story. Followers believe it to be the work and word of deities themselves. Believers assume that sacred doctrine was first heard or transcribed in some long-forgotten time by chosen prophets or sages who were faithfully repeating or imaging what the deities had directly said or shown to them.
Accepting a text on authority and faith implies that the listener or reader suspend the universal constraints on ordinary communication, that is, pragmatic considerations of relevance (Sperber and Wilson, 1996). In ordinary communication, the listener or reader “automatically” attemps to fill the gap in understanding between what is merely said or written and what the communicator intends the listener or reader to think or do as a result.
In ordinary communication, there is almost always such a gap. For example, if someone says to you “That’s just fine,” you willimmediately try to figure out what in the previous conversation or immediate environment “that” could possibly refer to, what is “fine” about it, and why it is “just” fine. This search, in turn, takes cues from the phonetic and syntactic structure of the utterance istself (e.g., phrasing, stress, intonation), surrounding environment (the presence of a broken wine bottle in the dining room floor), recent memory (you had just asked to taste your dinner host’s special reserve), and background knowledge (your host tends to be ironic whan angry).
Moreover, you, the hearer, automatically assume that the speaker also shares many of these same background assumptions with you and, furthermore, that the speaker made the utterance knowing that the two of you shared enough of these background assumptions for you to readily understand what the speaker intended. Both of you also automatically assume that you, the hearer, will make the appropriate inference to the speaker’s intentions on the basis of considerations of relevance: you will attempt, with the least cognitive effort, to infer sufficient information to understand the speaker’s intentions. You stop cognitively processing information the moment the communication makes sense. (If there were no such stopping rule, inference and interpretations would go on forever.)
Depending on the circumstances and what you know or don’t know about the speaker’s past intentions, you may suspect that the speaker is attempting to lie or deceive. Alternatively, you may doubt that the speaker really knows what he or she is talking about, or is adequately aware of the kind or extent of knowledge that you share, or properly assesses your readiness or willingness to make the appropriate inferences. Finally, you may have reason to interpret the speaker’s utterances figuratively, say, as a metaphor or parable, or perhaps simply as a bit of fanciful fun.
In everyday communication, humans effortlessly, but necessarily and unmistakably, make these many assumptions and inferences. Often, they do so very many times in a single minute of ordinary coversation. In interpreting a religious utterance or text, however, people need to do very little of the sort. Ordinarily, believers assume that the utterances or texts connected with religious doctrines are authorless, timeless, and true. As a result, people do not apply ordinary relevance criteria to religious communications.
Because divine statements are authorless, it makes little sense to try to infer intent from their mode of presentation. For example, the bodily gesticulations, phrasings, and intonations in the utterance of a biblical, Quranic, or Later Vedic passage cannot be God’s, Allah’s, or Vishnu’s. They can be only the speaker’s (unless there is cause to believe that God is directly communicationg through the deity, as in a public revelation). Interpreting what the speaker intends by uttering the passage is one thing; interpreting what the deity intends can be indefinitely many things (expressed, in part, by indefinitely many speakers and interpreters).
Timelessness implies that cues from the surrounding environment, background knowledge, and memory are all irrelevant – or equipotentially relevant, which amounts to irrelevance. God’s message, therefore, can apply to any and all contexts and to each context in indefinitely many and different ways. To be sure, people interpret God’s message in particular ways for specific contexts, but they have no reason to ever stop interpreting.
Finally, the fact that God’s word is accepted as true on faith – come what may – entails that it can never be false or deceptive or merely figurative. Ordinary preoccupation with lying and false belief in communication therefore plays no role in interpretation (or at least no consistent role). Neither can failed attempts at verification or confirmation of this or that aspect of the information represented in a religious statment, or inferred from it, undermine the audience’s belief in the statement’s truth.
On the contrary, apparently disconfirming evidence only seems to make believers try harder to understand the deeper truth and to strangthen religious beliefs. For example, after reading a bogus article on a new finding from the Dead Sea Scrolls that seemed to contradict Christian doctrine, religious believers who also believed the story reported their religious beliefs reinforced (Batson 1975). For believers, then, confidence in religious doctrine and belief can increase through both confirmation and disconfirmation of any factual assumptions that may accompany interpretation of those beliefs.
Faith in religious belief is not simply another manifestation of a general psychological propensity to reduce “cognitive dissonance” by ignoring or reappraising information that is contrary to one’s views (cf. Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter 1956). It is the direct cognitive result of suspending the relevance criteria that universally apply to ordinary communication. If faith is, in part, willingness to suspend ordinary pragmatic constraints of relevance, then beliefs held in faith become not only immune to falsification and contradiction but become even more strongly held in the face of apparent falsification or contradiction. Apparently disconfirmed religious beliefs show only the superficialty of one’s current interpretation and point to an even deeper but more mysterious truth.
End quotation. pp.91-93