Thursday, December 16, 2010

The infantalism of religion

Eden Ellis's recent post really disturbed me, and it's taken a couple of days to really nail down in my mind exactly what about it was so objectionable. Ms. Ellis said, "Rejoicing over the nothingness and uselessness of life seems profoundly unreasonable to me."

Comfort is one thing, but comforting yourself by wishing reality were some definite way is the essence of "wishing makes it so" infantilism. The most important lesson we must learn as we mature and become adults is that reality just is what it is; our preferences, hopes, fears, dreams, and wishes have no effect on reality except through our actions. There's nothing wrong with hope per se, but as adults we have to direct our hope towards changing the future in ways that are physically possible. And to change the world, we have to understand the world as it is, and how it actually works. Resisting this mature viewpoint is objectionable in several ways.

It's one thing for a three-year-old to play make-believe, but taking make-believe seriously is just pitiable in an adult. It's not just the religious who do so — check out P. Z. Myers latest post on Star Trek and Star Wars — but the religious have been taking make-believe the most seriously and for the longest time. I'm not talking about the "deeper" or "universal" truths we can find in fiction, I'm talking about believing there really is a magical "Harry Potter" world hidden (perhaps imperfectly) from us prosaic muggles. Seriously: Grow up. You're not ten years old.

The specifically religious type of make-believe has an especially disturbing characteristic: Meaning and purpose come from without. Ms. Ellis cannot understand the most basic and fundamental principle of atheism, saying that atheism entails that "my value as a human being is determined by whatever merit others happen to ascribe to me at any given time." No! Only you yourself determine your value as a human being. Others' opinions matter only to the extent that you choose to value their opinions about yourself.

Of course, the religious believer is creating her own value; choosing to believe that God values you is in a sense the same as simply choosing value yourself. But there's a subtle and important difference: By artificially externalizing the value, value takes on an inherently submissive and dependent character — an infantile character — rather than the adult character of independence and self-sufficiency. God doesn't actually talk to people; once you childishly externalize your value to God, it's just a small step to externalize it to those who speak for God (the church) or those whose authority has been established by God (the state). It is not the inner-directed atheist who bases his value on the opinions of others, but the theist. To a (skeptical) atheist, value, meaning, and purpose come from within; Ms. Ellis just projects her outer-directedness onto atheists.

Most importantly, it requires tremendous discipline to understand the world as it is. It is not just that our subconscious minds occasionally give us bad information; our subconscious minds routinely and predictably give us bad information. Outside the narrow band of the pre-civilization and pre-scientific environment our brains evolved under (and even within that environment) our subconscious minds are loaded with cognitive biases. It requires the determined and constant activity of our conscious minds to understand our modern, civilized, technological world. Again, it is one small step from believing it's really so that there's an invisible sky daddy who "gives you value", to believing that the world is 6,000 years old, and then to believing that God hates all the people who disgust you. It's hard enough for skeptics and atheists to keep a clear eye on the real world — no less a mind than Feynman struggled with his cognitive biases — it must be a thousand times more difficult when you have intentionally torn a hole in your rational mind to let a God in. We know what slips in behind a seemingly benign or even "meaningless" God: misogyny, homophobia, colonialism, religious wars, and social and economic stagnation.

It would be nice to just be pluralistic, to say that well, we're still going to need people to clean our toilets, and those who cannot consistently understand reality in a rational, adult manner will always be at a substantial disadvantage. The problem is that skeptics make lousy slave-owners. We can do it, but the reality has to be so far removed from our consciousness that we can override our innate discipline and rationality; bring the reality too close to our consciousness and we very naturally start thinking of the slaves as fellow human beings. No, the religious end up as slaves to those who can think just skeptically enough to cynically manipulate the inherently outer-directed nature of religious belief. But you can't compartmentalize skepticism: Such people are not nearly skeptical or rational enough to actually manage a complex, technological society of six billion connected human beings. They have a tendency — as we've seen time and again in the Republican party — to start to believe their own bullshit.

Fundamentally, skeptical atheists are intolerant of religion not because religious belief per se offends our sensibilities. (I mean, it does offend our sensibilities, but that's not why we're intolerant.) We're intolerant because we don't want to get ground up between the slave masters and the slaves, because we don't want to discard our complex, technological civilization — a civilization that demands adult rationality and adult responsibility to operate, a civilization that's taken a hundred generations of abject suffering to develop.

4 comments:

  1. Ms. Ellis’ article demonstrates significant lack of knowledge. Whether willful or not, I cannot tell. One point you did not touch upon was the blasé attitude toward non-believers being forced to worship. Her statement, “how in vogue atheism and agnosticism are in this country [United States]” is particularly naïve. I suggest she start introducing herself as an atheist to complete strangers and brace herself for the response. It certainly is not “How in vogue!”

    It is…in fact…quite typically her response—“You find life meaningless and useless. Shut up.” How ironic.

    Further, there is tacit coercion she completely ignores. (Again, either through ignorance or intent I cannot tell.) Non-believers who attend church to please their spouses. Or families. Or because it is their only social network.

    People who would lose their jobs, their clients and their livelihood if they said “I am an atheist.” One cannot be elected to dog catcher if one dares to proclaim their atheism prior to being elected.

    In addition to her misunderstanding regarding “value” and “meaning” I would add her incomprehension regarding the realities of minority theistic belief in our current culture.

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  2. There are a lot of things about the post that are objectionable; sadly, I have only so much time and energy. ;)

    I especially share your irritation at the mention that atheism is somehow "in vogue" as a put-down... especially when theists so often mention the argument from popularity for theism out of the other side of their mouths.

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  3. So bottom line is, its about truth? And we find truth through reason? But finding truth is hard, as you point out, because everyone has biases and baggage.

    This series of postings taken together, both Larry's and Eden's, is really dripping with irony. There is too much here to spell it all out, but let me make a couple of points.

    First, that the responses/opinions on both sides of the atheism/religion debate are really the same. In particular, while Larry may be describing some Christians (it is a caricature, and where do caricatures come from? Sometimes they are true.), I see him engaging in the very behavior to which he objects. I can say this because I have been on opposite sides myself at different times of my life: been there, done that.

    Second, back to the billboard that started this thread: the two implications are 1) atheism uses science to justify itself and science is based on reason, therefore atheism is also based on reason, and 2) Christianity, being based on faith, is unreasonable. The irony is that while the billboard promotes reason as the antithesis of faith, the fact is that science is based not just on reason but also faith. We call them assumptions and “standing on the shoulders of giants” (a phrase coined by Sir Isaac Newton, who by the way wrote more in support of Christianity than of physics during his life). You can object to this statement by observing that this type of faith is verifiable (it is). However, the Christian faith is also verifiable (being also based on fact), both historically (as much as any other historical facts are verifiable) and experientially,.

    The real irony is that when I was an atheist it was reason that lead me to Christ, just as atheists like Civil War general Lew Wallace and, more recently, journalist Lee Strobel, who both tried to once-and-for-all prove that Christianity was a myth or a fraud, were led to the same unexpected conclusion. I don't know what finally convinced them, but being a physicist I applied Occam's Razor: start with the simplest and most reasonable of assumptions. Starting with the assumption that the writers of the Bible were sincere (not even necessarily right), and they must have been sincere to have been willing to die for what they believed, and combining this with verifiable historical facts, reason points to the truth of Christianity.

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  4. Starting with the assumption that the writers of the Bible were sincere (not even necessarily right), and they must have been sincere to have been willing to die for what they believed, and combining this with verifiable historical facts, reason points to the truth of Christianity.

    DagoodS, a brilliant amateur historian, has written extensively on this subject. The evidence is not so clear-cut as you seem to think; indeed the evidence for this particular point is almost completely absent.

    I don't like debating in comments. If you have your own blog, I would like to read it. If not, I would definitely publish a guest post from you, subject to ordinary editorial constraints (grammar, spelling, punctuation, and accuracy of verifiable fact) arguing your position. (On anything but "died for what they believed;" you would need to take that up elsewhere, preferably with Dagood.)

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