Striving for In-Betweens

by Editors


Striving for In-Betweens:
Rationality versus Intuition in our Post-Secular World

By Kristine Williams

In many contemporary academic conversations, the topic of religion is avoided. Ever since Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God, such conversations have emphasized science and rational thought. This has left little room for perspectives traditionally associated with religion.

Recently, however, this has started to change. There has been a new interest in individual intuition and spirituality. Many people are moving away from the almost fundamentalist version of rationalism that was an initial response to the scientific age. More than a simple resurgence of old ways of thinking, however, a new perspective called post-secularism is emerging that has elements of both religious and scientific thought.

The term post-secularism has been coined within the past decade. It refers to this renewed openness to spirituality. It is a way of thinking that moves away from both strict secularism and from rigid adherence to rationalist-logical systems.

The power of the post-secularist perspective is that makes it possible to understand many beliefs. By stepping away from strict religious and scientific dogmatism, it becomes easier to connect and communicate with others. The post-secular perspective allows us, at least temporarily, to break free from our own boundaries. In some ways, it brings us back to our original state of “unknowing,” raising questions about our understanding and our comfort with the unknown.

This post-secularist perspective has developed as science evolves faster and faster, throwing out its own past certainties. Interestingly, a perspective that is more open to spirituality is also emerging in within science. Running parallel to post-secularism, it opens the possibility for new spirituality, one which breaks free from the limiting historical connotations of that term.

An episode of the WNYC radio show Radiolab, for example, raised similar ideas. (WNYC, “Choice” Radiolab, November 14, 2008. ) The story reported about a study in which choices were categorized as either emotional or analytic. In the test, a psychologist gave one subject a long number to memorize, and the other just two digits. They were both told to walk down the hall to recite the number in another room. Before reaching the destination though, they were met by a woman holding a platter of chocolate cake and another of fruit. In almost every case, the person with the shorter number took the fruit while the one holding onto the long number chose the cake. The outcome demontstrated that those using their pre-frontal cortex more actively (subjects with longer number), were unable to hold any more rational thoughts, and chose the cake through intuition. The person remembering only two digits was able to think clearly and make the “smarter” choice of choosing the healthy option. The people who had only intuition left to draw upon chose the cake, as that was what they truly craved.

Later in the episode, the speakers told of a man who lost his ability to make emotional, or intuitive, choices. After having a brain tumor removed, the man began to seem devoid of expression. One day at work he sat at his desk trying to decide whether to use black or blue ink to sign a document. He thought about which pen was lower on ink, the color of the type, whether the blue pen would stand out more, and so forth. This took him half an hour. As he became increasingly analytical, he became incapable of making choices or expressing his
feelings. Neurologists later realized that an area of the brain that allows for intuitive decision-making was disrupted.

The story of the inexpressive man seems to show that intellect alone is not enough for survival. Our minds carry information from past circumstances in our subconscious that later help us make intuitive choices. The Radiolab story concluded that intuition is an over-looked tool in the decision-making process and that it is of equal value to rationality. The human compulsion to make meaning out of experience is innate, and intuition helps us to project meaning onto the world around us.

People usually don’t like to admit they “do not know”. We often feel that we have to have a clear answer for every question that arises. However, in a world where religion is called into question and science is unable to provide the answers to our ontological questions, we can find ourselves back at a “primordial unknowing face to face with the universe”. (Gottlieb, Annie, OUTSIDE: Spiritual Nomads and the Way Beyond Religion. Open Source Spirituality: The Democratization of Revelation, ) We are forced to admit that we don’t understand the transcendent and perhaps never will.

Looked at rationally, post-secularism is a highly idealist concept. Those who adhere to rigid religious and scientific perspectives are unlikely to be satisfied with what it has to offer. But by searching for a balance between intuition and rationality — between faith and reason — we can gain the strength to strive beyond the limits of what seems rationally possible. However quixotic it may seem, it inspires us.


Kristine Williams, contributing writer, is a student at Montserrat College of Art and is interested in making and writing about art, among other things.

NEW VOICES is a Bread and Circus Magazine feature in which emerging writers share their views on aspects of contemporary culture.