Tuesday, December 9, 2008

RtBotS, Part 9 of 9: What’s Your Question, Caller?


In the course of this essay I have strayed a few times from my stated goal. I started out criticizing the Four Horsemen for thinking that debating is the same as marketing, but I ended up making a number of points that would be much more at home in a debate than in a sales flyer. Indeed, there are a lot more points I’d love to make, but they are so explicitly debate-style that I can’t justify including them in this ostensibly market-focused essay. But my own struggle with trying to avoid debate points has actually helped me clarify my thinking about the core lessons that atheists need to learn to improve their marketing.

Although it seems strange to say, atheists can’t help but feel a certain intellectual kinship with the most extreme religious fundamentalists. This is because the one quality they both share is an inability to look at the world in more than one way. For religious fundamentalists, their holy book of choice is the only perspective from which they willingly view the world; all others are automatically suspect. For atheists, the Rationalist Credo is the only perspective from which they willingly view the world; all others are automatically suspect. Does this make atheists guilty of dogmatic thinking? Maybe, but only in a very technical, unuseful way: any dogma explicitly mandating unyielding skepticism of dogma is less harmful than a dogma that doesn’t.

This is the basic problem that atheists run up against when trying to convert religious moderates. Religious moderates do not suffer from the same cognitive disease that atheists and their fundamentalist “brethren” do – moderates are capable of effortlessly switching from one worldview to another, depending on which part of the world is being viewed at the time. Religious moderates are not only capable of thinking dualistically, but capable of doing so without effort or conscious awareness.

It seems to me that atheists spend so much time debating because, according to their world view, that’s how people arrive at the truth. I think a moment’s thought should vindicate the notion that if a fervent religious believer also accepted rational argument as the only way to arrive at truth, they would eventually arrive at atheism under their own power, without any help from us. Debates are only marginally successful at converting religious believers to atheism because only a marginal proportion of religious believers are predisposed to treat the debating process with the same respect that atheists do.

Part of the reason for this is that, for most people, their concept of debating and rational argument is anchored in their understanding of law and the justice system. In legal circles, two parties debate as a way of arriving at a winner and a loser. In intellectual circles, two parties debate as a way of arriving at the truth. It is a truism that the legal system is flawed – that guilty people with sufficiently skilled lawyers can go free, and innocent people saddled with incompetent public defenders can find themselves on death row. Our legal system’s reliance upon and publicizing of the debate format has drilled into most people’s heads the idea that debates are anything but a foolproof avenue to truth. A dualistic religious believer who is presented with many otherwise convincing atheist arguments in a debate could easily invoke this truism to justify their gut-level rejection of those arguments.

Another example of how dualistic thinking poses a hurdle for atheism is the word “science.” To most atheists, and all scientists, “science” is just a process – it’s a reliable process for how to find things out. (Just as free-market advocates define capitalism as simply the best way thus far discovered to efficiently distribute wealth, science is defined as simply the best way thus far discovered to convert unknown things into known things.) To the general public, though, “science” isn’t a process, it’s a subject they had to study in school. People with the proper understanding of science know that its methods can be applied to find out about many subjects – meteorology, anatomy, economics, history, grammar, business, even drama – but the popular impression is that science is somehow different from all those other subjects. When a person with such a dualistic understanding is told that the choice is between “God and science,” they cannot be blamed for thinking, “Oh really? Why not God versus geometry? Why not God versus criminal justice? Where do these scientists get off?” Conversely, when dualists say things like “God and science are not mutually exclusive,” the implicit assumption is that “science” will stay confined to the same buckets as they learned in school – cells and magnets and igneous rocks – and will leave alone their understanding of more immediate, practical matters like comparison shopping, automotive maintenance, politics, or romantic love.

Richard Dawkins has stated that his preferred approach to spread atheism is to convince people of the truth of evolution, which does not require God, and then use their acceptance of evolution as a stepping stone to dismissing God. The problem with this is that dualist religious moderates are perfectly capable of compartmentalizing their acceptance of evolution in the “science” category, without bothering to apply any of its insights to what they’ve compartmentalized in their “spirituality” category. Dualistic thinkers do indeed seek consistency and coherence in their beliefs, but only within the various mental buckets they’ve designated – they don’t seem to reliably take the next step and require consistency and coherence across all those buckets.

What this tells me is that the most effective approach to dealing with religious moderates must take dualism into account. It is not enough for atheists to structure their arguments to point out inconsistencies and incoherences across mental buckets, since dualists are essentially immune to such an attack. They must structure their arguments to find inconsistencies and incoherences within individual mental buckets, since those are the kinds of flaws that even dualists are capable of detecting. I’d like to think that the better parts of this essay are better because they adhere more closely to this principle.

The other central message I’d like atheists to extract from this piece is the importance of making a distinction between religious belief and the urge to worship. If the mindset we are up against can be defined entirely in epistemological terms, “faith,” “belief,” “knowledge,” “reason,” “rational,” “truth,” and so forth, then I think atheism has a fighting chance. But if the mindset we are up against is based on some kind of primal urge to worship, we’re in trouble. Don’t underestimate the power of such an urge; it’s the only thing that reconciles certain otherwise irreconcilable positions held by religious believers. (Which is a greater insult to the dignity of humanity: that our selves are nothing more than spiritless, worldly by-products of the large-scale computations performed by the hundreds of billions of neurons in our brains, or that we are intrinsically flawed spirits cursed at conception by an original sin we did not commit, doomed to seek redemption if we wish to achieve lasting happiness? I would say the latter is the greater insult, but since it is embedded in a belief system that offers religious believers someone to worship, they accept it without a problem.) I think more energy needs to be put into studying the relationship between worship and religion, and more time needs to be spent by atheists honing their approaches based on what that study yields.

If there is a God, isn’t His least appealing attribute His incessant hunger for worship? Isn’t that the one character flaw that essentially disqualifies Him from being worthy of worship? I would find an utterly indifferent God more compelling and awe-inspiring than one who cheerfully admits to being maniacally jealous on the first date. Jealousy makes His nature much closer to those of His intrinsically flawed, constantly sinning children than cosmic indifference would.


Joe Hafeman said...

I read through your Rationalist Credo. Very interesting read. I need to read it again, though, before I respond to anything in much detail.

In general, I don't think that you've proven that God does not exist. On the other hand, nobody has proven that God exists, either. The case of Jesus Christ is a weak argument, to be sure. How my immortal soul was saved by the gruesome torture and resurrection of a man seems totally illogical to me. In the traditional faiths, I know that, fundamentally, it is the resurrection that is the key point of salvation, that being that death is not the end.

I was raised Roman Catholic, but, I categorize myself as an agnostic. Personally, I think that this is a more logical categorization for you based on the Rationalist Credo. I simply believe that there is no evidence supporting the existence of God. God could exist or he could not exist. It does not matter as nothing on this earth provides any evidence of either case. As you probably know, agnostics are not atheists. Personally, I do believe that there are higher order beings that don't exist in the physical plane that I occupy. I just believe that he/she/they have no impact on worldly activities and that they don't even care about anything that occurs in my physical plane. Wikipedia describes this as an apathetic agnostic (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic#Types_of_agnosticism).

Perhaps it was a shortage of time and the fact that this is not a book, although, it comes out to 25 pages in MS-Word, I think that you focused too much on refuting Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic concepts. There are lots of other major religions that have radically different views. A complete argument would have to address those religions, too. In the end, it comes down to the same thing; nobody can prove his case and nobody can disprove anyone else's case.

I will be very interested to see what my wife's take will be on this. Over the years, she has done a lot of reading on religious history and theology studies. She understands some of the nuances much better than I do.

Owen T. Cunningham said...

The essay suffers from a confusion about who its target audience is. It is ostensibly aimed at people who are already atheists, and attempts to impart advice to them on how best to frame their discussions with religious believers. But it makes numerous digressions into arguments that seem to directly address religious believers. I probably should clean that up at some point.

I certainly agree that I haven't proven that God doesn't exist, but that is the fault of neither God nor me; it's just the fact that nonexistence of anything is inherently unprovable. The nature of proof, plus your comments about agnosticism, collectively steer us toward a large epistemological pothole that we should swerve to avoid.

In the essay I tried to avoid the words "know" and "knowledge" because, thanks to epistemology, it seems clear that there is no meaning of those words that is both rigorous and useful. The fact is that "belief" is a much more useful word because belief is what motivates behavior. (People say they "know" something as a verbal shorthand for saying they have "unchallenged belief" -- we "know" the sun rises every morning because thus far its behavior has yet to falsify our belief that it rises daily.) Beliefs are easier to talk about than knowledge because beliefs are formed based on evidence and probability, not necessarily proof (although proof can certainly be useful in the rare domains where it's possible).

So, while my goal is not to prove that God doesn't exist, it's to get people to believe that God doesn't exist -- in other words, to get them to stop behaving as if they think God exists. Don't let the popular connotations of "belief" fool you into thinking that this is somehow a weak or self-deceiving position. Belief governs our behavior in matters not just esoteric but also practical. (The fact that we have very good reasons for believing in gravity doesn't change the fact that we believe in it.)

I find agnosticism (apathetic or no) troubling, for the reason best exemplified by Bertrand Russell's example of the Celestial Teapot. He invites us to imagine him claiming that there is a teapot somewhere in orbit between Earth and Mars, but it is too small to be observed by any of our telescopes. Therefore it is impossible to prove or disprove its existence. Would you believe the teapot isn't there, or would you declare a stance of agnosticism with respect to the teapot? The same principle goes for gods that have been relegated to the scrap heap of history -- are you also agnostic with respect to Zeus or Thor?

Even if one were to honestly claim agnosticism with respect to these entities, I doubt there was ever much time spent lying awake at night pondering the question. This is because, in the formation of belief, evidence is augmented by probability. Just because a proposition is formally undecidable doesn't mean that we can't make judgments about which stance is more likely. What we've managed to learn about the universe, all the evidence we've managed to collect so far, while not completely ruling out God, does make His existence exceedingly less likely than His nonexistence.

Right or wrong, people are wired to include the beliefs of others in their own decisionmaking process about what beliefs to adopt. People tend to dismiss the Celestial Teapot more easily than God because, as Rick Warren loves to point out, 90+% of the American public believes in God, whereas nobody believes in the Celestial Teapot. A naive agnostic (not meant to imply that all agnostics are naive) can't help but initially treat that popularity as tilting the probability of God's existence back to the 50/50 range, even though it should have no bearing on the probability at all.

So yes, I am technically agnostic, but only in the narrow epistemological sense that pertains to all knowledge. I am effectively an atheist because my decisionmaking processes have gauged the evidence and probabilities in such a way that the likelihood of God's existence is on par with that of the Celestial Teapot, Zeus, or Thor.

As for an excessive focus on the Abrahamic faiths, you're right. There are three reasons for that. (1) I know more about the Abrahamic religions than its Eastern rivals, so there's less of a chance that I'll get things wrong. (2) Contextually, being an American ex-Christian, surrounded by American Christians and/or Jews, there is just a stronger sense of cultural urgency to deal with that God (let the Asians spread atheism amongst Hindus and Buddhists). (3) The Abrahamic religions have a significant component of worship to them that I find especially fascinating and objectionable. All religions invite us to believe stupid shit, but the Abrahamic ones seem especially intent on adding insult to injury through the pervasive demand for worship.