Religion #4

City Life

Ramona’s child was born on Wednesday. It was a boy.

– But Ramona! Who is responsible? Charles? Jacques? Moonbelly? Vercingetorix?

– It was a virgin birth, unfortunately, Ramona said.

– But what does this imply about the child?

– Nothing, Ramona said. It was just an ordinary virgin birth. Don’t bother your pretty head about it, Elsa dear.

However much Ramona tried to soft-pedal the virgin birth, people persisted in getting excited about it. A few cardinals from the Sacred Rota dropped by.

– What is this you’re claiming here, foolish girl?

– I claim nothing, Your Eminence. I merely report.

– Give us the name of the man who has compromised you!

– It was a virgin birth, sir.

Cardinal Maranto frowned in several directions.

– There can’t be another Virgin Birth!

Ramona modestly lowered her eyes. The child, Sam, was wrapped in a blanket with his feet sticking out.

– Better cover those feet.

– Thank you, Cardinal. I will.

‘Parthenogenesis’ is when you get the children without having had any of the fun. It’s possible in reptiles, but not in mammals.

“Just an ordinary virgin birth.”

Taken unironically, this would suggest that Ramona thinks parthenogenesis is not just possible in humans, but is a fact of human life. This would make for an extraordinary claim, and the more a claim seems at odds with the laws of nature as we understand them, the more extraordinary evidence the claim requires to back it up.

If the laws of nature had been broken by a Virgin Birth, then this would not prove a supernatural creator of the universe. Ramona could be surprised by her pregnancy because she believed herself a virgin, and it could be true that she was a virgin, but this would say nothing as to whether a God exists; just because we have no good explanation, doesn’t mean we should settle for a bad one, (argument from ignorance). If, later, Ramona then found out that there was a perfectly natural explanation for her pregnancy, and yes she really had been a virgin, but that she couldn’t quite understand the explanation when explained to her, then it would also be improper for her to say that, until she fully understood it, therefore Virgin Birth = God, (personal incredulity fallacy).

Natural events can change the way we understand the laws of nature. When this occurs, the burden of proof lies with the person who thinks that the current laws as we understand them no longer serve, and that we need new laws of nature. It’s hard to imagine that Ramona isn’t being ironic in the Donald Bartheleme extract above, but D.B. does seem to like playing it dead-pan (he speaks of Ramona as having to “soft-pedal” the idea, playing it down) which causes us to wonder whether Ramona really does believe that her child was born of her and that she was a virgin at the time.

If someone like Ramona genuinely believed in a Virgin Birth, then until they found out a way to prove a claim through the hypothetico-deductive scientific method, one way to see how convinced they are of their own belief in the Virgin Birth idea is to see how much they would be willing to risk for it.

My belief about beliefs: you should only measure the rationality of a belief against the actions done because of that belief (you shouldn’t measure beliefs against other beliefs.)

When Cardinal Maranto frowned at Ramona’s statement that there had been another Virgin Birth, he could have said that her belief was unsubstantiated (even though this would have been hypocritical of him)¹, but he should not have said that her belief was irrational, because her ability to rationally believe something has nothing to do with the objective truth of that something, and has everything to do with her decisions.

“Better cover those feet,” says the Cardinal. “Thank you, Cardinal. I will,” responds Ramona. Ramona could have said: “No need, Cardinal. My son was born of me, a virgin, and therefore is the son of God, and the son of God doesn’t catch a chill.” If Ramona had said this, then irrespective of whether she was right we could start to test her belief against the actions she was taking (on the assumption that Ramona does care about her son’s health, because if she doesn’t, then her son’s toes could well fall off from frostbite and her actions as they align with her beliefs would still have been rational.)

Nassim Nicholas Taleb said in 2017, that “when you consider beliefs do not assess them in how they compete with other beliefs, but consider the survival of the populations that have them.”

Walter Garrison Runciman said in 1991, that “the sociologist’s ability to report any of the informants’ beliefs requires a substantial minimum of common agreement on the truth of other beliefs.”

Combine these two quotes and you get something like: it is because of someone’s associated belief/s that that someone can be right to believe something, and although they might be right to believe it, we can also be right to believe that they are wrong to believe it, according to how their belief informs their everyday-life decisions.

Elsa gives Ramona a series of options as to who the father might be. Charles. Jacques. Moonbelly. Vercingetorix. Ramona dismisses all of these. “It was a virgin birth, unfortunately,” she reports, without explaining why she believes this or how it would be possible.

Let’s imagine a scenario in which Ramona made a claim which explained why she believed that she had had a Virgin Birth. To make this claim she might produce some evidence… for example, she might say: “Look here, Elsa! All the men, (including the prodigal Moonbelly), have been out of town for the last nine months. And I’ve never left town in the last nine months either. So, it had to be a Virgin Birth.”

Ramona could be lying here. Perhaps she fabricates the evidence about her having stayed in town, or else she fabricates the evidence about her suitors being out of town… and maybe Elsa knows that Ramona isn’t being honest… and maybe Ramona knows that Elsa knows… etc… but whatever Ramona’s case, all of these possibilities are unproblematic.

Ramona uses whatever evidence Ramona uses: we still say that Ramona’s belief is rational. Whether Ramona’s evidence was collected on the basis of being habitually credulous, habitually cretinous, or born out of the practical necessity of having to hide an adulterous affair, the reasoning behind her claims are dependant on these priors. Ramona’s belief could be as rich or as poor as anything in terms of evidenced reasoning; she could even say something like – “Given none of us know everything and nothing is certain, miracles are possible even if they’re not probable” – and although we might say that her claim about the Virgin Birth is unlikely to be true, we cannot say that it is irrational.

Ramona could go further, and tell the Cardinal or Elsa that she reports on her Virgin Birth not because she believes in it, but because pretending to believe in it benefits her/her son. This, like Pascal’s Wager, seems slightly craven, but until it directly harms her/her son it cannot be irrational to believe in faking belief. (Pascal’s Wager, after all, relies entirely on the application of rationality, and even though an omnipotent God should know if you are merely pretending to hold a belief in order to get into heaven, and might punish you accordingly, this would only lower the odds of the gambit working, and doesn’t change whether or not it’s rational to engage in the gambit).

Ramona could go even further than this though, and say that she doesn’t have to rationalise her belief in her child’s Virgin Birth, and that she doesn’t know why she believes it, she just does. “I claim nothing, Your Eminence. I merely report.”  This distills perfectly the idea that beliefs when taken in the abstract are pretty much always rational, and that although the world probably exists independently whether or not a mind is there to perceive it, there are an infinite amount of objective facts to choose from, and it also matters the way we choose between them.

 

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¹ “There can’t be another Virgin Birth,” mutters the Cardinal, in a classically loaded statement.

In 1913, a sociologist called Bronislaw Malinowski took one look at the Tully River Blacks of Australia, and diagnosed them with what he termed ‘ignorance of physiological paternity’ (he thought that the aborigines thought that their women were impregnated when they sat over a fire, consorted with bullfrogs, or had magical dreams, which, to Malinowski, meant “they have ideas of the sexual act which are entirely foreign to us.”) In 1966, this theory was taken apart by one Edmund Leach, who pointed out that many Christian sociologists seemed “positively eager to believe that the aborigines were ignorant” and that they applied their theories only to primitive contexts even though they themselves believed in a Virgin Birth. The point, of course, is that neither were ignorant. Believing in the myth of the Virgin Birth does not imply ignorance of the facts of physiological paternity. Don’t compare beliefs with beliefs. To look at a group of people, or a person, and say that what they believe is irrational, should not come from a rigid objective standard of rationality, but from the far mushier place of entered-into subjectivity.

 

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