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Sometimes, faking it is the only choice

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 3 September 2002

"Someone up there is looking after me," he says with a conspiratorial nod. I smile and censure my words but not my thoughts. There have been times when, feeling cheeky or rebellious, I have replied: "Oh, someone on the sixth floor?" But that leads to confusion and a hurried retreat in order to save a potential relationship. I also think: "If He is looking after you what are you doing here in the first place?"

God is an underachiever who saves the patient in the nick of time after letting things go on to a dangerous precipice. When the chaplain comes in the room it is time for religious notions to emerge from their hiding places. The people who profess faith when the chaplain turns up may not have been to church in their life but they still identify themselves as persons who believe.

The extreme of this phenomenon occurs when it seems that some kind of unexpected medical miracle has occurred that has puzzled the doctors. The event is understood as the almighty intervening in the creation to rescue someone who often dies months later. Then human hubris is at its most irksome. God has chosen my mother (saint that she is) to rescue from certain death. She was at death’s door and all of the machines had been turned off and we awaited the final breath. But then, her colour returned and she sat up and exclaimed; "what are you doing here?" The presumed intervention of God becomes a personal talisman confirming how precious the saved one and her loved ones are in the sight of God. And all this trotted out with the usual rejoinder that all of this has happened outside of the church and without the help of clergy.


On such occasions bile rises in my throat and I become very quiet, wait for them to have their say, and escape with the usual good wishes and "God bless". Our capacity for self justification and deception seems to be unlimited. Do they not wonder why their tired old body was saved while down the road at the children’s hospital the innocent die without aid? Do they not wonder what is so special about themselves that God has revoked the laws of nature to give them a few more years on this earth while millions die of starvation and war and hazard?

What masquerades as faith is superstition and over-vaulting ego and stupidity. In the face of this the chaplain can only fake it by pretending to agree with their conclusions. For what else can you do when hired by a secular organisation who expects you to comfort and pacify but never to confront? Just think of the havoc we would cause if we told the grieving that their loved ones were dead, bound only for the grave and never to be seen again! Or show our apparent lack of faith by telling them that their miraculous recovery was really down to medical science and not the intervention of God. Such is the misunderstanding about what the chaplain believes and what his role is that such things are unthinkable. So we fake it.

The church has been faking it for hundreds of years. It has pretended and often sincerely believed that it held the secret of the survival of death. It has allowed the misunderstanding to persist that the good news of the gospel is that we will see our loved ones again in face of evidence from the evangelists that the kingdom of heaven/God is an earthly reality to be enjoyed by the living. There is more to this than the church protecting its own life and power by playing on the fears of its congregations. That religion is understood to be about the nexus between morality, death and the supernatural has deeper roots than our fear of death. It lies in the way our minds are structured.

The unchurched patient who aligns himself with what he thinks the chaplain believes can do so easily because his mind is receptive to these ideas. There is increasing evidence that our minds contain unconscious mechanisms that deal with social exchange (morality), expect agency in an ambiguous environment (the acts of God) and are snagged by the idea of death. These mechanisms attract a kind of folk religion; many aspects of which are shared by religions the world over. As the mind is attuned to language it is also tuned to other social domains and it is these domains that are important in religious ideation. That is why these notions persist in the culture long after church attendance has fallen away and after religious instruction has disappeared. These ideas do not need an academic structure to maintain them, they maintain themselves.

The point to be made is that these ideas have little to do with the core ideas of Christian faith even though many of those ideas may be read in terms of automatic folk religion. Gospel passages that appear to confirm the ideas of folk religion have been given more authority than those that do not. How many remember the words of the Lord to Adam and Eve: "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Gen 3:19)

But many do remember the words of Jesus to the thief on the cross even though they appear only in Luke: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43)? The interpretation of this saying is complex when the Old Testament background and the central thrust of the gospel writers is taken seriously. But it is this verse that draws our attention. We may explain this, obviously, on the grounds that we all fear death and this verse seems to change death (for those who believe) into a transfer to a more beautiful room. Cynics have accepted this explanation and have indicated how transparently self interested it is. Is this a complete explanation or do we need to probe further?


The interchange between Jesus and the thief has been interpreted as a simple social exchange. If you pay the price then you get the reward. If you believe in Jesus (as personal saviour or as worker of miracles) then you will get the reward of paradise. The evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have shown that we are especially attuned to such an exchange. They hypothesise that these mechanisms are evolutionary adaptations that came about to produce the advantage of co-operation. These mechanisms are triggered when we find ourselves in any situation that entails social exchange. Politicians instinctively know this. All they have to do is to assert that those on welfare get the reward while not paying the price and they elicit a gut response of outrage in the electorate. This is the origin of moral intuition. Such responses may be countered by rational argument but our moral feelings of fairness are automatic.

The church has bought into religion as social exchange because it works so well. People do not have to be educated to be snagged by the proposition, indeed, it is better that they are not. All the church has to assert is that Jesus died for our sins and we find ourselves in the domain of social exchange: are we beholden to him? It is clear that religious ideas that persist in a population without the support of a community of faith or of religious education persist because our minds are receptive to them in the same way they are receptive to the learning of language or respond to snakes or spiders. It is the task of the teaching ministry of the church, supported by academic theology, to examine such notions in the light of critical theology so that religious ideas are not just automatic; produced by the mechanisms of mind that have been produced during human evolution.

Christian faith is revelation because it subverts intuitive folk religion. It is revelation because it is unnatural, counter intuitive and surprising. Grace subverts strict social exchange that would have had the prodigal son continue in exile in the far country, removed the tax collectors and sinners from the company of Jesus and extracted vengeance for his murder. The gospel does not save us for the afterlife but transforms life in lived time by opposing the automatic thinking generated by our evolved minds. Rather than affirm nature, the gospel actively opposes it when it suffocates love and dehumanises the neighbour.

This is yet another reason why natural theology must be opposed, because it asserts the order of loveless evolution, of the beast in us. To be created in the image of God is to be created as reflective, critical beings that are able to transcend their biological determinism by countering the impulses that arise in their minds. So when the politician of the right plays into our intuitions about social exchange or coalition formation by suggesting that we are being robbed or that other races or cultures are not of us, then we are free not to respond as programmed.

This is the freedom for which the gospel sets us free. Faking will not help. By faking popular belief we fail to bear witness to the freedom of the gospel and we support folk religion which is not freedom but bondage, bondage to nature.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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