The trick is to assume that people say and believe the things they do not simply out of error or ignorance, but because within the world in which they live these beliefs make sense and are actually helpful to them.
The subject is religious belief, and I absolutely agree with this approach. I'm not even certain how important the beliefs are--people tend to come to them either through the accident of birth, or from a conversion precipitated by a personal crisis or awakening. What's more important, I think, is the structure and rhythm that the institutions which vaguely have something to do with these beliefs give to believers. I have never been able to tell what pancake breakfasts or spaghetti dinners have to do with Christianity, but it seems that they do little harm to those who attend them.
From a scientific perspective, we can pretty much label the Book of Mormon a fiction--native Americans are not descendants of a lost tribe of Israel, they did not have horses or metal scimitars, and man did not make his first appearance in the New World. But none of this prevents the Church of Latter Day Saints from encouraging and supporting closely knit families who develop reasonably well-adjusted individuals who have a strong sense of self worth. It may not be your cup of tea (or mine), but it does serve an important function, one which nihilism or hedonism don't do nearly as well. (I am not suggesting the nihilism or hedonism are the only alternatives to a religious orientation, of course.)
A second thought occurs to me: Much of our language preserves " beliefs [that]make sense and are actually helpful" to us in terms of understanding the world, but are based on irrational ideas. The sun does not rise and set, after all...Posted by Ideofact at April 10, 2007 11:59 PM