Saturday, May 05, 2012

A Shift In My Perspective

My views on society evolve constantly. Sometimes, as they did recently, they evolve in some massive burst of punctuated equilibrium... or something. See, I use big words. I'm smart.

As a militant-atheist, I felt that the best way to expunge religion from society was to simply make fun of it. I now see that this gets us nowhere, fast. I'm still a quasi-militant-atheist, which I will discuss in a bit, but my world view has become so complex as to make a naively simplistic view untenable.

I think that militant atheism fails because most people are actually operating under the assumption that the atheists are correct. I see it everywhere; hear it from believers; read it in magazines. Defenders of religion ask atheists to stop rubbing it in their faces. Stop being so arrogant! Stop showing off! In all of this semi-defeated language is a tacit recognition. This language is especially apparent in the sort of theological fence-sitters who exist in such large numbers in media. They kinda' sorta' believe, but you rarely if ever catch them in church.

From those true believers who don't have a militant streak, or have never been exposed to well-formulated atheist thoughts, I hear lines such as "so this is what smart people do," or "you've thought about this a lot." They separate themselves from the atheist. They actively, and self-deprecatingly, place themselves on a lower intellectual level. The actual truth value of their belief structure is never analyzed.

And that's the thing. What these people want to believe can't possibly be true. Define truth. Define existance. Define God. There is no way that these concepts can be defined in such a way as to make sense. And that's expected!

Words do not mean anything transcendent. The belief that they do is essentially metaphysical and, thus, useless. Words mean how they are used. So how are we using religious terminology?

It's social, I argue. Religious terms can't mean anything, and believers don't really use them as such. It's why you can have believers of Islam who are totally normal humans who go the market twice a week for groceries, watch TV at night, and play video games, but when asked indicate that suicide bombing is a completely viable form of conflict resolution.

They don't actually mean that. If they witnessed a suicide bombing, they'd be scarred for life. The conflict comes from the fact that arguing with them reveals one to be of the out group, as opposed to the Muslim's in group. Religious terminology is used as an identifier. Everyone agrees on certain usages of terms as a form of social glue.

And that is why militant atheism doesn't work very well. It makes the grander point: religion is silly; but does little beyond that. It's because it opens the dialog with the declaration that the atheist is part of the out group. I suspect that is why atheists are among the least-trusted people in the country. It's not because the entire country has thought about moral maxims, subjective and objective morality, punishment, and natural law. It's because our primal, emotional drives ascribe negative characteristics to those who are in the out group.

As such, branches of atheism I think will do a better job if they leave behind a great deal of the militancy and instead focus on social concepts like equality, justice, and righteousness, which religion has never been very good with. These concepts will speak to those who not only have never thought about deeper philosophical concepts, but frame themselves in a way that makes thinking about these concepts antithetical. They assume that they aren't smart enough.

If we speak kindly to these people, we can convince them that, no, they are smart enough. Truth, real truth, is not for the elite. Making fun of them is not right way to achieve this acceptance.

That said, I am still a quasi-militant-atheist, as I mentioned above. I still understand the militant mindset because dogma is, literally, dangerous. It causes violence, breeds hatred, and encourages in and out groups. Just because forming social groups is natural doesn't mean that it's good. It defines us as "same" and "different," even when we are all pretty much the same. It breeds racism, ethnocentrism, and inter-group violence.

Dogma, in all forms, is bad.

As such, while I won't specifically attack it, I am not willing to accommodate religious belief. An example that sticks in my mind is a Jewish girl who graduated as her high school's valedictorian, but was unable to give her speech because microphones use electricity, and that is seen as "work" according to her weird interpretation of Judaism.

In the grand tradition of the religious getting around a rule by ignoring its spirit in favor of contract negotiation with God, she recorded her speech the day before, then stood on stage, smiling like an idiot, while it was played on speakers.

This may undermine my previously-stated goals of achieving dialog with believers, but it's on this point that I do not care. I would not have accommodated her. I would have simply given her speech to the salutatorian and then given the salutatorian's speech to the third in line. When abjectly silly religious belief gets in the way of other people doing things, that's it. Get out of the way and make room for others who won't let their dogma impinge upon the functioning of the world.

Chairman Mao is aware that
he needs a hair stylist.
As such, I think that there is always a place for aggressive atheism, or perhaps aggressive intellectualism is a better moniker. Because while religion is a major focus of the modern debate, dogma also brought us the Soviet Union, North Korea, the Nazis, the Cold War, Eugenics, and any number of other large-scale, baseless beliefs.

Dogma brings us gay bashing, the KKK, conspiracy theories, and survivalists. It damages people, families, and companies. It makes people act against their own self interest and against the interests of others. It poisons rational thought. Religion is only one example, and because of its positive framing of dogma with the word "faith," it becomes even more manipulative and dangerous than most other forms of dogma

Dogma is incredibly dangerous, and I think especially so in religious form, and having a group of vocal people who act like merciless, mocking & squawking crows on the sidelines, making sure to demolish anyone who gets out of line, is probably a good thing. It reminds everyone that they are actually being very silly, and to make sure to not let things get out of hand.

So in that sense, the fact that so many tacitly admit the accuracy of the militant atheists by telling them to stop showing off can be seen as a victory, and while it's not my modus operandi, I'm glad that it's there.

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