Mythology and the suspension of (dis)belief

I just recently saw the movie Inception, with Leonardo DiCaprio.  I thought it was good, overall.  There were a few times when I winced because the pseudo-scientific explanations for how the world of the movie operated hurt my brain.  But I put it aside; I allowed myself the suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the movie on its own merits.  I allowed myself to be absorbed by the mythology of the film, in order to enjoy the narrative, characters, resolutions, etc.  And then I enjoyed the movie.

Then I started thinking about mythology.  I started to think how that suspension of disbelief, that acceptance of the mythology of the world I was watching, felt familiar to me.  And then it struck me while I was in the shower (of course; why do such thoughts always seem to hit me in the shower?).

See, I’ve thought before that worldviews; the set of assumptions, beliefs, and (hopefully tentative) conclusions which underlie our navigation of the world, are made up of mythologies.  Each of us have lenses (metaphorically speaking) with which we see the world; we often see very different worlds than those with different lenses.  Stepping into someone else’s worldview will result in lack of understanding, feeling out-of-place, or possibly offended.

Then it occurred to me that in order to step into someone else’s world, one would need to suspend their disbelief.  Further, they would have to first suspend their own belief, for a little while.  They would have to try and take off their lenses and try on the lenses of another, in order to understand the world; to accept the slightly different world which is presented to them.

It is much like going to the movies.

I remember when I was first fascinated by religion, I would enter into situations such as church discussion groups, lectures, etc and I would try and lift my cultural assumptions in order to try and understand how they saw the same event.  See, I studied anthropology as an undergrad, where we learned how to be good ethnologists.  In order to understand cultures different than our own, we had to be able to become open, observant, and to, well, suspend our own worldviews as much as we could.

And the better we became at being aware of our own worldview, the better ethnologists we could become, right?  The better we know what our own lenses do with our perceptions (our biases), the better we can identify how another bias might skew the theoretical objective reality that we are supposed to be sharing.  (This makes me want to comment about the problems that this would bring up for an inter-subjective reality, which I prefer to the idea of an objective reality…but I shall resist the tangent).

So, back to the worldviews of others….

For a time, I was able to see the beauty, the inspiration, the enticement of the worlds I would visit.  I could understand the draw of the love of Christ, understand the greatness of Allah, see the wisdom of the Buddha.  I was able to comprehend, if only superficially and perhaps only as a simulacrum, why people had faith; why they maintained religiosity.  Yes, my dear reader, I was once a faitheist, an accommodationist even, even while I had always been an atheist.

But I never accepted the worldview.  I never became part of it.  I watched it, with interest (and the appropriate disinterest at times) that accompanied my genuine desire to understand, but never accepted it as true.  I couldn’t accept it as true, even when I saw it as beautiful, profound, or insightful.

I was able to enjoy the show.

This leads me to wonder; how often do theists do this?

How often do theists try to see the world through another religion’s eyes? How often do they really adopt skeptical glasses?  I know Lee Strobel claims to do this, but I’m skeptical of this claim, for many reasons.

The Outsider Test for Faith deals with a related point, and I suggest that all theists consider this test for themselves.

But something has changed for me over the last several years.  My genuine desire to understand has not changed, so what has? I no longer can comprehend how a person can continue to wear the glasses of the mythology of religion–I’m thinking specifically of Christianity but not exclusively–with the world as I see it around me.  I do not claim that the world I see it is the TRUTH or that my worldview is superior (although it may be), but I have learned enough, been exposed to enough skepticism, and have thought about it enough to dismiss faith out-of-hand.

I no longer can respect faith.  I can understand why people are stuck there, but not how they can remain to be stuck there with all that the world has to offer in terms of information, contrasting mythologies, etc.

This will remain a point of reflection for some time, and perhaps it is time for another episode of an atheist in the pews.  (See part 2, as well).  Perhaps I can regain some of the appreciation of religion.

Or maybe not.  Perhaps that was an idealist’s dream that died with the cynicism that often accompanies growing up.  Perhaps m more recent feeling, that the supposed beauty of religion is really hidden de-humanizing emotional traps, will prevail.

Time shall tell….

6 thoughts on “Mythology and the suspension of (dis)belief

  1. How sad is it then that Karl Popper wrote what you just wrote, far more intelligently, and far more genuinely 80 years ago. And he didn’t need a dumb idiotic movie like Inception to riff on.

    Shaun wrote: “This leads me to wonder; how often do theists do this?” without even considering, even for second: “How often atheists do this”

    You are both a group of idiots in need of epistemological help.

  2. Whoa, I just woke up and this is one of the windows open on my computer. I wish I could ban myself from facebook sometimes.

    I Can’t really disagree with what I wrote, although the grammatical crimes are embarrassing and Shaun is not an idiot. I do think most atheists are just as poor at trying on different worldviews as theists which makes me wonder why this topic even occurred to Shaun.Oh yea, the silly movie Inception.

    His comments from his time as a faitheist (how sad) essentially undermine his notion that atheists can try on different worldviews. I knew from a very young age Christianity was garbage, Buddhism is worse, and “New Atheism” might be the worst “religious” ideology we’ve seen yet. No need try on those respective glasses.

    You see what I do is even better. Rather than foolishly try to get in people’s heads (which is obviously impossible, and I am surprised Shaun doesn’t realize this) I observe the outcome of belief systems. I judge them based on how far they are from reality and they influence behavior. Whether they make people happy is irrelevant, there are lots of stupid and harmful things that make people happy e.g. sports.

    The New Atheism while ostensibly closer to reality with respect to cosmology and biology, is much from further from it with respect to economics, philosophy, and as we can see in Shaun’s blog psychology. It is also, like the primitive beliefs of the few remaining tribal peoples, retardative and silly, like Inception.

  3. Suspending my own worldview and adopting a different one just to see what it was like has always come pretty naturally to me, largely because as a writer and reader of fantasy I have been engaging in that kind of imaginative suspension all my life. I attribute many of my social skills (empathy, being a good listener) to that same ability. When I was a theist, I mostly did it with different political, cultural, philosophical positions… I “tried on” different religions a few times, but mostly ones that were closest to my own beliefs (Judaism and Islam.) And I exercised it liberally with regard to different sub-sects of Christianity. I never understood the sniping and hostility between Catholics, pentecostals, Biblical fundamentalists, and other groups, because I could see very easily where each of them came from.

    I didn’t “try on” atheism, largely because I didn’t want to become an atheist, and opening up your mind in this way, if you’re doing it right, means accepting some possibility that you may be “converted.” If you’re really letting go of your own worldview, entering the alternative worldview with as little residue from your own as possible, it exposes you to the danger of finding that the other worldview is actually more reasonable, and describes the world more accurately, than your own.

    The other reason was that I didn’t really know any atheists well enough to have conversations about belief with them. And if you’re going to do this, you really have to be talking to someone who’s inside that worldview. Once I became close friends with one, and started having those conversations… well, it was a quick slide to the inevitable result. I did start imagining an atheist worldview (because if I care about someone, I have to at least try to see the world they see it), and I did, indeed, find that that worldview was more reasonable, and described the world more accurately, than my own.

  4. In short Ginny, I don’t believe you and here’s why. I don’t believe you can really suspend your own worldview and adopt a different one. I’ve been in situations were strange noises have convinced others around me we were in the presence of ghosts. Now I can pretend to believe in ghosts but in those situations I was never afraid or in awe because I simply did not believe in ghosts.

    You wrote: “I never understood the sniping and hostility between Catholics, pentecostals, Biblical fundamentalists, and other groups, because I could see very easily where each of them came from.”

    This is a serious contradiction. If you REALLY COULD SEE where they were coming from you would understand the sniping. You had at best a superficial familiarity with a fraction of their worldview . Shaun claims he was able see through the glasses of believers and then somehow thought that video he posted recently would be either inspirational or cautionary to believers. Had he understood even minimally a Christian outlook he could not have thought that.

    Now that you are an atheist just look at how arrogant and obnoxious most of them are because they happen to have gotten a single aspect of their worldview more or less correct. Observe their monumental ignorance of history and politics. Watch out for the many distortions and lies they spread. Marvel at the incoherence of some their beliefs (Shaun believes that memes operate in an existential nowhere!). Most of all now that you are an atheist try not be one of those who is trying to redefine “atheism” to mean “hysterical christophobia.”

  5. “This is a serious contradiction. If you REALLY COULD SEE where they were coming from you would understand the sniping. You had at best a superficial familiarity with a fraction of their worldview . Shaun claims he was able see through the glasses of believers and then somehow thought that video he posted recently would be either inspirational or cautionary to believers. Had he understood even minimally a Christian outlook he could not have thought that.”

    Self-pwning at its best.

    How would you know? You must be able to understand how those Christians think. I guess you understand how we are able to do this adoption of worldviews things after all.

    As for the rest of your comments…you are an idiot.

  6. The Atlanta heat must be melting your brain Shaun.There are several ways we can know a little bit about other people’s worldviews without pretending we’ve adopted them.

    For one thing while I do not believe people can shift worldviews on command its possible for people’s worldviews to shift organically. For example I was a devout Catholic until I was about 10. You were apparently a faitheist at one time and now you are not. Your worldview has changed such that you are no longer willing to pretend you can adopt the worldview of others.

    Secondly we can also observe behavior or ask people what they think directly about certain things and we may be able extrapolate and predict some of their reactions. I don’t posses anything like a jihadi Muslim worldview but I think we can all predict how jihadis would react to a burning effigy of Muhammad on the Capitol steps.

    Conversely we can also rule certain things out as (most likely) not relevant to a certain point of view, and all of this is of course quite obvious. Making a few accurate predictions about the thoughts/feelings/behaviors of others does not at mean you have adopted their worldview.

    You should know this Shaun. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of a christian telling you something like “Well I don’t know how I’d get through life if I didn’t believe in God. I would be afraid of death, my life would be meaningless and depressing etc.” The christian is unable to understand what its really like to be an atheist, then again for all we know if that particular person were an atheist perhaps their life would be like that because it takes more than a few philosophical stances to make up a worldview.

    And that’s the whole point Shaun, not only is the whole “adopting the worldview of others” completely fraudulent (a point which I think is implicit in your post) but it is based on reductionism at its worst and the comparison to suspension of disbelief, while interesting, is absurd.

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