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Thinking about “the OTHER side” with friends July 16, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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OK, so I don’t know why I have not been reading Dan Fincke’s blog, Camels with Hammers, for longer than that last month or so.  I don’t always agree with him, but he and I share a number of things, including graduate degrees in philosophy, a love of Nietzsche, and being atheist bloggers.  It’s too bad he’s not poly or I might have to have a man-crush or something.

This is what Patrick Stewart does after reading the beginning of this post

OK, not that last part.  I’m totes hetero.  Except for Patrick Stewart during the days of Star Trek: TNG.

Anyway, I’m getting off-topic (already), so I’ll just leave my Kinsey rating to the side for a moment and get to what I want to talk about today.

I had a long conversation with some friends last week about atheism, polyamory, privilege, etc that was rather frustrating all-around.  In an email exchange, a friend wrote to me, and this was my response.

I think I address some issues which are interesting to readers here, so enjoy.

[I’ve changed names of people involved for the sake of anonymity or someshit]

I find it interesting that you read that post and got this from it:

I’m not sure which viewpoint you meant to espouse here – doesn’t this stand for the proposition that any prominent view can be blindingly pervasive?

I find it interesting because this may be a related tangent to the post, but it is not what Dan Fincke was talking about (as I understand it).  For me, the core of the post was this section (Quoted only to highlight it, not to have you read it again, necessarily):

And this is not because they are either brainwashed or intemperate, but rather because they know what you think already and are sick of it. They too were systematically enculturated to internalize the same values, beliefs, practices, and assumptions that you were. What you are about to say to them was drilled into their heads, quite often to their own detriment, with both words and consequences. And sometimes those words and consequences were extremely harsh in order that the point you want to make to them might sink deep into their little, obtuse heads. Whatever you are going to say, they have heard it already from their parents, their lovers, their religious leaders, their friends, their coaches, their colleagues, their teachers, and/or their employers. The assumptions you want to make explicitly clear to them, in order that they finally “get it”, have already determined the course of their lives in ways you can hardly imagine.

They have met you before. They have thought your way before, they have felt your way before, and they have valued things your way before. They have lived in your world their whole lives. They walk around with you already in their head.

They have struggled through hard experiences, wrestled with challenging educators, and engaged in a whole lot of personal reflection in order to learn  how to think differently, in order that they might successfully think and feel at cross-currents with not only explicit sociopolitical pressures but implicit ones embedded in language, social norms, religious practices, and, even, what are taken to be moral assumptions.

People who come from your own culture and yet think so wildly differently from what you think you know to be common sense do not just wind up that way because they are stupid or emotional or have mysteriously not been presented with basic information or arguments yet. They have, in all likelihood, had some bad experiences and been exposed to challenging ideas that you have not seriously had to contend with yet. They have, in all likelihood, thought through the issues at hand in intricately complex ways that you have not even begun to take seriously.

Of course this does not mean that they have necessarily come to correct conclusions in all, or even in most, matters. Their radical reeducation may be mistaken. They may have drawn the wrong conclusions from their experiences in any number of areas or in any number of ways. They may have something to learn from a dialogue or a debate with you.

But neither you nor they will learn anything if you just dismiss them as someone who needs you to explain to them the obvious that they might overcome their apparent obtuseness. Nothing is going to be learned if you condescend to them by telling them they haven’t heard out the “other side” and that they are just some sort of extremist who does not get basic facts about the world. Nothing is going to be learned if you strawman what is strange and unfamiliar in what they are saying so that you never give it the slightest chance to prove itself to you and to expand your horizons. You are not going to grow if you look for their most obvious mistakes, interpret their views to have the worst possible implications, or try to attack their personal failings as a convenient excuse to shut them down without listening to them.

This is not talking about how persuasive or prominent an idea is, at least not directly. As I understand it, Fincke is talking about how worldviews skew how we approach topics.  It’s talking about how a person can get at a problem from a view that others, who have not dove into the intricacies, simply don’t see.  The simplistic view that those people, who have not dove in, is often paired with an untested certainty about their view.

I say “untested” because they have not dealt with the subject deeply and seriously, so they are incapable of understanding it in the way that the expert (or even non-expert activist) does.  It does not mean they are lacking in intelligence or anything like that, just that they currently lack the relevant experience to comprehend the various subtleties of the problems.

As an example, let me address your question about self-doubting ideologies, where you said

So it would cut against any ideology which isn’t self-doubting, including atheism?

I’m curious why you see atheism as not being self-doubting.  Granted, there are atheists who may not doubt (as there are theists who do not doubt), but this is either a false claim to cover up insecurity or a semantic problem. Atheism per se is nothing more than the lack of belief in any “gods” (whatever those are supposed to be).  Atheism is a tentative conclusion based upon rational thinking, logic, and empiricism; in short, it’s due to skepticism; the lack of supporting evidence leads to the lack of belief in supernatural entities.

Any intelligent and mature thinker knows that their opinions, conclusions, etc are always tentative.  The strength of their certainty is dependent upon the strength of the evidence in support for a position, ideally.  My certainty that there are no theistic gods is very high (for deistic gods, not as high), and if I am given sufficient reason or evidence to doubt this certainty, that lack of belief is subject to change.  If there is good reason to think there are any gods, I want to know and am willing to change my mind.

But my experience with theology, science, philosophy, etc have led my certainty to grow quite strong, and the area for possible evidence for such beings is vanishingly small.  That is, the gaps for “the god of the gaps” grows smaller the more we learn about the universe.  But in the end I will always concede that I might be wrong, that there may be a god, gods, or something supernatural.  I simply see no reason to suspect that I am wrong, currently.

So in other words atheism is always tentative and thus, in a sense, self-doubting.  An atheist should always doubt (everyone should).  If I were to be precise, I would point out that because atheism proposes nothing about the world at all (it is a negative position; a- + theism=atheism), it is not even categorically meaningful for it to not be subject to doubt because it proposes nothing to doubt or not.  Theism is the position, the claim, and atheism is the rejection of the claim and logically implies nothing else, directly.  The only way to meaningfully doubt atheism is to be exposed to evidence or good reason to believe in a god.  And an atheist should be open to the possibility of such (And there are atheists, like PZ Myers, who [seem to] disagree with that statement…for reasons too complicated to get into here).

The point of the post, as I understand it, is to show that ideas, whether popular, mainstream, etc (or not) are subject to a kind of bias, often called privilege, which creates a problem in communication.  The Christian talking to me, for example, talks as if I have never heard the story of Christ.  Or at least that if I know the words, I have failed to comprehend the meaning and significance of the story.  But not only do I know the story, but I know the history, theology, etc better than they do (quite likely; studies have shown that atheists know more about religion than practitioners of those religions do, in most cases).

I know it more because I have spent years studying the subject.  I have superior experience, so when I talk with people with other specialties (say, the law or robot-building), I run into ideas about the subject which fail to demonstrate sufficient understanding, let alone expertise.  And the arguments that I hear are attempts to show a narrative which I not only understand (and better than the arguer), but which I have transcended, rejected, and have replaced with a superior narrative.

Like I said before; I would not try and argue a legal position with you (or anyone else who has studied such things) without understanding that my views on the subject are sophomoric (at best), and I would lend more weight on what you would say, even though I am aware that you may not actually be correct.  But I hear people add their views about religion, atheism, philosophy, etc frequently who have little idea about what they’re talking about, because they are intelligent people and these are mere matters of critical thinking (or whatever their justification may be).

There seems to be a view in our culture that subjects such as religion and the complex issues surrounding “new atheism” are accessible to any educated person (and, I suppose it is if they do the work), and so many people feel (whether atheist or theist) like they can just confidently explain to me the popular narrative and I’ll simply get that I’m making it more complicated, extreme, etc than it has to be.  When [name redacted] referred to me as “one-dimensional,” I wanted to say I saw him as sophomoric and simplistic, but I realized that wouldn’t help conversation.  When I hear that, I feel like I’m talking to the freshman in philosophy class who thinks he knows everything because he read ahead and knows what the next reading offers as an answer.  But that freshman doesn’t have a grasp on the problem at hand, and just looks stupid from the point of view of the expert.

There exists a (privileged) narrative about religion, faith, atheism, science etc in our culture which is largely nonsensical and flatly wrong.  It sounds sensible at first hearing (that is, it’s compelling and persuasive and thus hard to respond to easily without explaining the underlying narrative), but it’s dubious and has been shown to be so by people such as myself for years.  And yet this narrative drives the mainstream cultural opinion where the mass media, most of the middle class, and even educated people swim and pass around the memes which we, the experts in the field, know to be absurd.  And so we get frustrated, labeled as angry, irrational, and “one-dimensional.”

The reason we seem one-dimensional is that whenever we talk to people like [name redacted], in the role he played during that conversation, we are viscerally reminded of the narrative we find so ridiculous, and have to confront it again.  It seems like was are reactionary and combative, but we are defending ourselves against the dominant narrative.  We are combating a privilege you have, can’t see, and everyone walks away frustrated.  We have to explain the basics of the problem, for the thousandth time, to someone who thinks their opinion is intelligent when it isn’t.

So yes, we come across as angry, repetitive, and one dimensional.  We have the choice of that, or shutting up.

This image sums that up for me, perfectly:

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