"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The danger of simplistic labels

It seems that, in response to the atheist OUT campaign, a Christian version has been launched (though on a far smaller scale). Alonzo Fyfe (otherwise known as 'Atheist Ethicist') puts things much more eloquently than I could hope to manage, so I'll simply quote him:

So, now we have two sides, each wearing their own flags and wearing their own uniforms, each defining themselves by their opposition to the other.

If people are not careful - if they do not make a conscious effort to see how this develops, it is a type of situation that could get out of hand. Humans have a psychological disposition towards tribalism, with a tendency to be hostile towards opposing tribes. Saying that atheists are immune from this disposition is saying that atheists are not human.

This type of tribalism has come to be extremely destructive in different times in human history. It is something we need to be careful about.

I like to think that this blog is - or at least aims to be - the antithesis of such tribalist mentalities. While we each have our own beliefs and arguments, I hope that we manage to avoid cramming people into simplistic boxes.

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6 Comments:

Blogger DSK Samways said...

When atheists start rallying around symbols and drawing up manifestos, you know things are going to get ugly and weird.

"We, the New Atheists, hereby proclaim that the following elements of unbelief shall, from henceforth, be considered the unwavering standard for correct exhibition of unbelief. All those who fail to comply with the following tenets of unbelief - even under pain of torture by the Inquisition For Correct Exhibition of Unbelief (see Section II Article 1B) - shall not be considered True Atheists and be burned at the stake until dead."

12:02 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Way to start the year on a positive note!

My .02.

"Humans have a psychological disposition towards tribalism, with a tendency to be hostile towards opposing tribes."

Especially when world views are involved. When we are dealing with matters that have the potential to create the ultimate in cognitive dissonance (an antithetical world view) the quest for "truth" easily goes right out the window in favor of being "right". Now on one level this is a pride thing, but on perhaps a more basic level it has to do with avoiding pain. Having someone challenge your world view is a lot like having someone threaten to burn down the house you grew up in. You were comfortable there. You knew your way around. Sure it wasn't the Taj Mahal, but if served you well enough.

The natural response here is to go on the offense. More natural than that is to go on the offense against the person who's views threaten your own. Though 'natural', I'd argue it's wrong. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." Christianity consistently frames humanity as a people held captive. If this view is correct, how ought the Christian treat atheists, agnostics, muslims... each other... ourselves? Grace my friends. Grace.

Honestly, I get a lot of flack for the amount of time I spend with those who profess atheism. In fact, just this last weekend I had a three hour conversation with some friends of ours in an attempt to set their minds at ease over the types of reading I'm engaging in. (I'm reading Richard Carrier's Sense and Goodness Without God, A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism.) My question for the theist folk is this: Just what exactly are you so scared of? Truth with a capital T is one. If God is true, then a good honest look at reality using as many perspectives as possible is not going to dethrone him. Relax.

[insert segue here]

As I was washing some dishes the other day I got to thinking about something along the lines of tribalism. I was considering the very natural urge I experience when I read literature written which attacks Christianity. Be it Carrier's book, Harris, Hitchens, or whoever. I get this urge to want to just put it down and go read the theistic counterpoint then simply leave the issue as settled. I have to make a concerted decision not to behave in said manor. I get the feeling I'm not alone here. I'd wager that there is a very real part of all of us that would wish to maintain our cherished views regardless of how often we proudly proclaim "I just want the truth!" As I was considering this I started to wonder at the wisdom of a God who would create beings with this sort of fatal flaw in their world view creating faculties. (I think Tom was mentioning something in this vein in the previous thread)

Why would God create us in such a way as to allow for such a profound weakness? I then thought a little more about what this weakness really is. It's self-centeredness. It's the desire to maintain the comfort afforded by one's own perspective regardless of what actually may be the case — and we are all tempted by it. Suddenly the question is cast as a moral, rather than cognitive dilemma. And I think herein lies the answer to a question I've been asking myself a lot lately.

Why is it I often find myself more comfortable in the company of various atheists than the majority of the Christian population? Why is it I get the feeling that in spite of the piety witnessed my many of them, there's just something not right?

The answer is not that the Christians never use their heads and the atheist do. Nor is the answer that I think the atheists have the right answers to the foundational questions. It turns out that it was never the Christians vs. the atheists after all. It is, and has always been, those who are honestly grappling with the big questions, vs. those who are not.

When it comes to my brothers and sisters who chastise me for my reading and my associations, I always feel a small fire of anger light within me. On one level it's probably due to them insinuating they'd like to "burn my house down", but on another level I think it's justified. I think they are wrong to care so little about the world around them that they are satisfied sitting alone in their little clubs talking their own particular dialect that no one else can understand. This is self-centeredness and it's wrong.

The morally binding question we must all be willing to ask ourselves regularly is this: Are we in the business of maintaining our carefully constructed little stories, or are we in the business of truth? Are we willing to let truth humble us? Are we willing to serve truth? If the answer is yes what does that look like?

And so it goes...

alex will now < /ramble >.

2:16 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Way to start the year on a positive note!

Heh. Sorry about that.

I'm in complete agreement with what you've said. We all prefer the easy life to the hard - shying away from ideas that challenge us simply because change is always risky. I get the same thing when I read theistic critiques of naturalism - it takes a bit of effort to shift my brain out of the "of course that can't be true" mode of thinking and get it to actually deal with the arguments being made. The former is the easiest route because the latter risks exposing my mistakes or ignorance.

It's why I try to avoid atheist-dominated sites. Too many people who believe the same thing rapidly descend into that groupthink mentality where ideas and opinions are rejected not because they're flawed but just because they're too different.

(Of course, our agreement about what's desirable or not in discussions could itself be seen as a similar form of groupthink - but that way recursive occlusion lies.)

It is, and has always been, those who are honestly grappling with the big questions, vs. those who are not.

Amen to that.

2:48 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Alex,
Hear hear. Excellent comment.


"(Of course, our agreement about what's desirable or not in discussions could itself be seen as a similar form of groupthink - but that way recursive occlusion lies.) ."

It's funny you mention this, because somewhat predictably there are atheists coming together against the New Atheists (e.g. on the CiF), but in doing so are adopting the same fallacious and condescending rhetoric that they accuse the New Atheists of using against the Theists.

It's a bit of a dilemma; either don't organise, avoid flags and uniforms, but get little done, or get together under some pithy slogan and a badge, and invariably get sucked into the inevitable group think that lands you right back in the same hole as the opposition.

And round and round we go.



[BTW, sorry about the duel IDs; I keep forgetting to sign off on my pro blogs before commenting]

5:07 PM

 
Blogger Linda said...

Don't worry guys, I'm not staying long.

Just wanted to praise Matt for posting this and Alex for his wonderfully eloquent comment. I agree with you completely.

6:16 PM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

(Of course, our agreement about what's desirable or not in discussions could itself be seen as a similar form of groupthink - but that way recursive occlusion lies.)

Aha - the way to flush out TD in any discussion - reference Castrovalva. Nicely done, Matt. I've always believed we're caught in a space/time trap, anyway.

7:25 AM

 

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