Book Review: Unbelievable, Why We Believe and Why We Don't -- by Graham Ward

Graham Ward, Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don’t (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014), 246pp.

By Derrick Peterson

Belief, it seems, has fallen on hard times.

From political deception, to media bias, to constructing idealized images of ourselves through outlets like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, we have learned to be suspicious of believing too hastily, for the world is not as it seems.  But in our skepticisms, have we stopped believing?  Or have we simply begun to believe in other things? And what is it that we are doing, exactly, when we believe? Is belief a faulty, weaker form of knowledge? Or just some side-effect of brain wiring?  Is it to make a blind leap? Or must we first believe, as many Christians have argued, in order to understand?

For the famous journalist and author G.K. Chesterton, belief and fact were closely intertwined; indeed in the opening lines to his autobiography he points out (tongue in cheek) that it was only by “superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment,” that he could be “of the firm opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874 at Campden Hill, Kensington…”  For Chesterton, belief did not leave off where the facts took over—rather the fact of Chesterton’s birth occurred to him only within the field of knowledge belief made possible: belief goes all the way down, so to speak. 

This, in a nutshell, is also the general argument of Graham Ward’s latest book, Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don’t.  A more economical title may have been simply: Why We Believe, for on Ward’s take, much like Chesterton, there are in fact no unbelievers, merely competing sets of beliefs.  And belief itself, says Ward (which he initially defines quite broadly as the “disposition toward judgment”), is not something optional that we can outgrow through a healthy diet of fact.  Belief “ is prior to interpretation,” and “informs perception, interpretation, and action prior to rationalization.”  Belief, as such, stems from the deepest cores of what makes us human.  “Believing is an anthropological condition” (14); We are, so it appears, the animal that believes.

Ward means this designation “animal that believes” quite literally.  He copiously details the latest research in anthropology, psychology, and sociology, taking us in the first two chapters of the book on a journey that spans back to the first emergence of homo sapiens.  It seems we were believers from the word “go” (or at least from whatever first grunt that meant much the same): from cave paintings showing early understanding of how the conceptual can map and abstract the world, to ritual burial sites laced with flowers and gifts for the dead, it appears that even in our earliest days humans as a species “accommodated [ourselves] to the material in and through the immaterial [that is, beliefs, hopes, imagination, desire, loves, symbols, rituals etc. …]” (104).

But was this credulity merely the condition of our cave-spelunking ancestors?  Surely modern humanity, at least in its more enlightened forms, has bypassed childish belief for the maturity of hard fact?  This could not be further from the truth says Ward, plopping down a paragraph-sized litany of recent advertising slogans that all contain variations on the exhortation “believe” (16-17).  Nor are these examples meant to show that advertising firms are simply good at beguiling us to buy soda and sneakers by appealing to that coy Neanderthal still lurking in the deep edges of our consciousness (our “ancestor the Devil in the guise of Baboon,” as Darwin once put it).  Physiologically and philosophically speaking “all thought has its origins in emotion, even late cognitive reactions to emotion under way” (97). 

The very idea of our access to raw “fact” opposed to “mere” belief, is a dualistic myth, says Ward.  For “facts” are not “just there” but have to show up as meaningful, abstracted from the world at large.  It is human interests that always guide this selection.  “We need more complex theories of [the interaction] of matter and mind” (74) says Ward; “we live in a world that is both entirely physical and entirely virtual at the same time” (49) and indeed “we live life virtually … our [habits] shape the way we believe, think, and act, and they act in and through the symbolic realm” (181).  It can even be suggested through recent research that “the peculiar nature of our bodies shape the very possibly for conceptualization and categorization” (30).  Our cognitive developments, and particular forms of reasoning, were linked (perhaps surprisingly) to our emerging ability to walk on two feet, and the transformations associated with our ability to physically manipulate our environment and articulate gestures due to the increasing nimbleness and dexterity of our hands.  What this means, says Ward, is that all “our processes of knowing” are “emotional and relational before they are ‘rational’” (55). Just don’t let the fact that your secret handshake is a vital clue to the mysteries of human cognition go to your head.

This is not to deny, of course, that we make decisions based on rationality, on observations, on evidence.  Nor does this mean that there is no real world “out there” outside our perception of it.  Rather the end-game here for Christians is that we cannot conflate our rationality as humans with some vaunted and austere scientific rationalism (106).  Our concepts of what it means to come to know ourselves and the world always reflects upon what we think it means to be human.  When reductive forms of rationalism hold sway, the human itself with all our hopes, dreams, fears, loves, is trimmed down to a ghost; and this specter of pure-reason associated with the “left-hemisphere” of the brain begins to imbalance the more holistic, “big-picture” thinking of the right-hemisphere linked inextricably to “imagination, motivation, desire, intuition, and feeling” (77).  Indeed here Ward follows the work of several neurologists, including Ian McGillchrist, in arguing that this “left-hemisphere” dominance is in part why the West has “experienced a loss of meaning” and even suffers a “sort of schizophrenia” where our coming-to-know the truth of the human has excluded almost everything in the domain of human truth. 

As Christians, where does this leave us?  If God is no lover of boxes, and cannot be distilled into a beaker, can He yet be known by modern humanity?  Though Ward is a Christian theologian, he notes this book is not a work of theology (200), nor really one of apologetics (198) though there are bits of both.  What Ward has set out to do (and does quite well) is give the human activity of “belief” a newly won seat at the table of what counts as “rational.”  “Belief” no longer has to be seen as the obnoxious, awkward second-cousin to “fact”—the two are always of a closer relation than many of us have suspected. 

Of course, beliefs can easily lead astray (much as “facts” can), of this we must still remain vigilant.  Yet Ward’s work opens the way to a non-reductive anthropology that views the more poetic, creative, inexact, and intuitive modes of knowing as part and parcel of coming to know the world as humans.  There is more to us than dreamt of in our logic—though not less.  Toward the end of the book, the theologian in Ward cannot help but come out, and it is here he gestures how his work might be construed theologically as a justification to re-integrate the humanities and creative arts into theological expression, not just for aesthetic pleasure, but as a vehicle for the enterprise of coming to know the world theologically:

The soul is the source of intellection, but is profoundly related to a theological anthropology that focuses on human beings created in the image of God.  We are makers of images because we are in the image of.  And in being actively engaged in a world created by God, the imagination as that capacity for image making works analogically: ferreting out and fabricating relations between things—the mental patterns that ‘make’ sense of our experience of the world and respond to the Logos through whom all things were made, the Logos who in and as Christ ‘is a persuasion, a form’ (David Bentley Hart), theologically we might even say that the imagination is that receptive capacity of the soul that responds to a world so created and also to creation as a divine gift. … Certain forms of ‘seeing as’ can take on the quality and power of epiphanies (207-210).