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Iain McGilchrist on Christianity and clarity of belief

Posted April 28, 2024 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

Iain McGilchrist on Christianity and clarity of belief

Posted April 28, 2024 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

“The mythos of Christianity is to me the richest one that I know in the world. It is endless in its profundity and what it gives rise to. Not always good, of course. Heaven knows, anything that involves such frail creatures as human beings will be interpreted and used by some for ends that are contrary really to the spirit of Christianity.”

World-famous neurosurgeon Iain McGilchrist is a former Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World and The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World.[1]

McGilchrist continues, “There are always the left-hemisphere types in a religion, who want laws, rules, procedures: ‘I’m right and you’re wrong—it’s all written in the Book here and, if it says so, that’s it.’ That is absolutely typical left-hemisphere [thinking]. And fundamentalist atheists and fundamentalist religious people, be they Islamic or Christian, you can hardly get a razor blade between them. They’ve got the same problem with their thinking, as far as I’m concerned.”

When McGilchrist speaks of left-hemisphere thinking, he refers to the black-and-white absolute certainty that the brain’s left hemisphere brings to the discussion and practice of both religion and atheism. His point is not that all religion and all atheism is left-brained, but only that fundamentalist atheism and fundamentalist religion are. This is what makes them—opposites though they are—almost indistinguishable. They both approach the topic of religious belief and how we should live in the world with absolute, black-and-white certainty. The fundamentalist Christian or Muslim says, “Believe as I do or you’ll go to hell.” The fundamentalist atheist says, “Believe as I do [that there’s no God] or remain deluded,” such delusion being the fundamentalist atheist’s this-life equivalent of “hell.”

In so doing, both types of fundamentalist strip the world of its wonder and what McGilchrist calls its “enchantment.” I believe McGilchrist would say that the key issue is not whether or not people believe in God. It’s whether they’re open or closed to seeing more of Truth than they currently see. Tragically, being closed to Truth leaves us locked into our own limited understanding of reality.

It’s not that McGilchrist is against clarity of thought or expression of our beliefs about God and religion. He says, “I’m all for clarity of thought and expression, as far as clarity can go. But no further than that.” Christians, Muslims, Jews, and atheists all run into problems when we take clarity too far. This usually leads to a tell-sell-yell approach, where resistance to our ideas has us ultimately shouting down “our opponent” in a zero-sum game. The alternative is to accept that, whatever our beliefs, we still have much more Truth to discover, and people we disagree very strongly with may well teach us some of it.[2]

[1] For a helpful introduction to McGilchrist’s thought, watch his Best of the Web talk on it. For a longer, more helpful introduction, watch the documentary film The Divided Brain.

[2] The quotations in this article are all from “A Holistic Response to Cultural Decline,” Dr. Luke Martin and Dr. Iain McGilchrist.

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