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Tribes and Worldviews: why I’m largely an outsider in today’s Progressive world September 11, 2018

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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Step right up! That’s right folks, step right up!

Have we got a deal for you! Today only, come get yourself some worldview! And if you get one today, we’ll throw in some values, causes, and issues free! No need to wonder why these free extras come along with your worldview today, just know that you aren’t being charged extra for them, and that if you don’t take them, the people around you will question whether you really are one of them!

OK…that’s a little too overt and heavy upon your head, I think. No subtlety or nuance here, so far. Let’s take a different approach….

 

Progressivism

I grew up in a progressive world, at least in terms of education. I went to, for 13 years, a Quaker school full of LGBT-friendly activists concerned with social justice and peace, where values such as compassion, tolerance, and diversity were held in great esteem. It was a good education, compared with many other schools, and it gave me values that are overall good, and I liked the Quakers. Mostly.

Part of my family is rather conservative, traditionalist, and even reactionary. My father would throw around the ‘N’ word as casually as I would throw around “fuck” or “the,” and I once made a joke at dinner (when I was an adult, mind you) that I couldn’t eat the ham because I had become a Muslim. My father’s reaction was quite serious and memorable; “No son of mine is becoming a Muzzie.”

This was a few years after 9/11 (fuck…that was 17 years ago, today), and he definitely identified with the pro-Bush (“Dubya”) camp, politically, and wanted to kill all of the Muslims and turn the deserts of the Middle East to glass, as I remember. At the time, all I could think was “Jesus, dad, you really don’t know me; I’m an atheist. I find Islam as silly as your Christianity, and would be very unlikely to become one”. In my world, being a Muslim wasn’t a bad, evil, scary thing, it was just another thing to be. For him, Islam was the enemy.

Neither my father nor I were going to become Muslims, but for quite different reasons; he was afraid of, and therefore hated, Muslims because they were a threat to his idea of a Christian America, and he saw this enmity as defending his traditional view of what that America was and is supposed to be. I, on the other hand, was a member of the early atheist community,* and my opposition to Islam was a mostly rational and educated opposition, rather than an emotional and jingoistic reaction to the presence of an alien religion attacking my tribe.

As the culture wars started to become further defined in the years that followed 9/11, how people saw Muslims became attached to a political identity. People on the political Right, the conservative and traditionalist people who are overwhelmingly Christian and often evangelical (think of the Battle Cry events, and similar proto-nationalist, Christian, and politically conservative events like it, that dominated the Bush years), started to oppose Islam, Mosques, and Muslims encroaching upon American culture and space. The rhetoric was of an invading culture, and the Right was opposed to it vehemently

On the other end of the spectrum, the Left started to take the opposite strategy, and started to defend Islam, and welcome the cultural change that involved more Muslims being welcomed into communities. The values here are the same as those I was raised with in my Quaker school upbringing; compassion, tolerance, and diversity. And, in at least one respect, these values are ones I share; I support the rights of Muslims to live in our culture just as much as I support Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or Pagans. That is, I recognize all of their rights to exist, legally, while I would very much prefer that they all become rationalists and atheists, because ultimately I think religion is not worth our time, as humans, and we should just leave all that behind as the toys of our species’ childhood.

Welcome

These signs are very common in progressive neighborhoods, in many parts of the United States

And this is where the problem begins, for me. The world I live within, specifically West Philadelphia, is one dominated by political Leftism, tolerance, compassion, and diversity. There is a strong sense of wanting to welcome people to their communities, whether they share their religious or ethnic backgrounds, where more conservative areas would be more likely to feel uncomfortable with people of color or minority religious traditions moving down the street.

This is just one of the many particular examples of how the differences in political worldview has real world consequences on how we feel about other people and their ideas, and usually you can tell someone’s political identity by how they would think about Muslims; either they are not comfortable or tolerant of them being neighbors, or they are welcoming. Because conclusions, opinions, and support for issues is largely an indicator of one’s identity or inclusion in a worldview, or the tribes which hold such worldviews.

But what happens when you disagree? What happens when you, for example, are uncomfortable with Muslims? Not because their religion is different from yours, but because they are part of a religion that has many problematic beliefs and traditions which are at odds with your values? What if you are uncomfortable with Muslims in the same way you are uncomfortable with people who still practice Catholicism, despite the fact that it has been shown, again and again, that the Catholic church is a criminal organization?

Well, that’s intolerance, right? It’s at odds with one of the fundamental progressive values, and it is too much like the intolerance, fear, and hate coming from the Right of the political spectrum. In other words, it doesn’t fit in with the worldview of most progressive people, so holding such opinions places you in a precarious position, politically and culturally.

Where does that leave you?

 

The Center

The problem with the tribalistic nature of worldviews and the cultures they create is that if you don’t belong in one place, you must belong somewhere else. For many skeptics, atheists, and other people who attempt to use rationality as the framework for making decisions, this leaves them in some middle ground, the political “center,” and you are stuck next to Sam Harris.

Now, don’t get me wrong; Sam Harris has some really interesting things to say about metaethics, and I am on board with how he talks about morality with his analogy of landscapes. When I first read The Moral Landscape, I found a strong argument that was very similar to how I viewed the problem of morality in a world arguing over whether morality was absolute, relative, or objective (no, objective and absolute are NOT the same thing, here). I recommend the book for anyone interested in the subject of ethics.

In fact, the distinctions between those who accept some authoritative moral framework (the Christian Right, for example), those who accept a relative framework wherein we need to tolerate different views are valid (the Progressive Left, for example) is a fair analogy for the Left/Right worldview split I was talking about above in some ways. And if one does not find either satisfactory or convincing, one is left with having to find an alternative. In the case of Sam Harris and myself, that takes the form of objective morality. In fact, watch Matt Dillahunty’s video (below) where he argues for the superiority of a secular (and in his case, objective) morality. Like Sam Harris, Matt and I are mostly eye-to-eye here, and it is a nuanced, middle, position between two views on morality I find equally problematic.

 

 

Just like how we view Muslims in America, how we view morality is largely attached to the political and cultural worldview we identify with. All too often I run into Leftists (which I largely am) who become infuriated or offended if I suggest that, for example, some cultures, religious views, or moral values are better than others. To ask a progressive-minded person if they thought that (for example) Islam might be a more problematic religious worldview than Buddhism, to answer yes would be tantamount to seem to agree with the “racist” and “intolerant” Right, and to be seen as having something in common with a political/cultural worldview they are opposed to. They might ultimately agree, but the suggestion is one met with resistance, in most cases.

This is why people like Sam Harris are seen as racist and conservative to people on the Left, and it is why Sam Harris will never think of himself as a Leftist, but rather a “classical liberal” (a term that means, for the Left, he’s actually just another racist and intolerant right winger). There is a disconnect on values, here, which makes Sam Harris not seem doctrinally pure enough to be part of the Leftist tribe, even where Sam Harris largely is a progressive (to be fair, he is resistant to what he calls “identity politics, which would place him more in the center, but he’s much closer to a progressive than a Republican and definitely not a Trump supporter). All it takes is to be critical in a way that alienates him from progressives for them to dismiss him as a racist and conservative, and thus ignored and ostracized by most people on the Left. Tribalism at work.

But these issues are not digital; One is not either completely accepting of Islam, Muslims, and all the cultural, historical, and ideological baggage that can be attached to those sets of worldviews or intolerant and hateful of them. There are nuances here, and in an age of Twitter, soundbites, and knee-jerk reactions to not being confused for the other side of whatever political spectrum you identify with, you are wise to be careful about expressing an opinion that doesn’t fit in with the worldview of those in your tribe. Better to stick to the party line, and keep up appearances.

It would not go over well, in a conversation in the back courtyard of Dahlak where everyone is an anarchist, progressive democrat, or radical waiting for the revolution to finally come, if you were to suggest that 9/11 happened (even if only in part) due to genuinely held religious beliefs consistent with a fair reading of the Koran and the Hadith. No, it was definitely American foreign policy, military action, and colonialism.  And this isn’t to say that people all over the world don’t have legitimate political grievances against the United States for decades of bad behavior which might cause people to want to retaliate militarily and with terrorism. But it is simultaneously true that Islam is a great ideological tool to implement such actions, and one could get from Koran to terrorism without any need for political grievances as an intermediary.

Yes, that last paragraph was inspired by a real conversation I had in exactly that space.  And yes, my interlocutor insisted that religion could have had nothing to do with 9/11, because Islam is a religion of peace, and it would be intolerant and racist to imply that Islam might be violent and dangerous as an ideology. He stuck to his guns, ran the party line, and maintained consistency with his worldview which values of compassion, tolerance, and diversity. Just not truth. It’s not like the guy ever read the Koran or studied the history of Islam, or anything, but he knew that conservative jingoists hate Islam and he’s not like them, so he has to accept Muslims as a non-problematic addition to the culture in which he lives, without sufficient criticism.

The Left is too afraid to be critical of religious and spiritual beliefs, where criticism is not only valid, but perhaps necessary.

 

Where do I belong?

My issue, here, is that I’m largely a progressive. If you sat me down with a bunch of Social Justice advocates who wanted a tolerant and diverse political and cultural society, I would get along with them and agree on many things, but I’d be at odds with them on some others. And I get myself in trouble when I disagree with some issue or position. Many rationalist and secular people find themselves in this position. I see people around me, politically, defending religious nonsense and even genuinely believing in paganism, tarot, or psychics. More and more, recently, I hear people talking about magic, reiki, and nature spirits in my progressive circles, and it’s becoming worrying to my skeptical heart and mind.

In some sense, I get it; it’s a reaction to the authoritarian and patriarchal religious identities of conservatives. Rather than a vengeful and authoritarian Jesus, we have the nature loving and progressive gods and goddesses of pagan lore (let’s ignore the fact that Islam’s Allah is a lot more like Yahweh/Jesus than those pagan artsy spirits). It fits with the political and cultural worldview better, but it does not fit my worldview at all. I’m left with the choice of a tribe who accepts that God is judging you or one that believes crystals or healing hands on your body might be able to heal cancer.

They are both laughably absurd, and I will not accept them as legitimate. I do recognize that they are equally protected under the law (at least in theory), so I definitely am closer to the Left than the Right here in terms of tolerating religious beliefs, where the right tends to defend the privileged status of Christianity, but it’s hardly an association I’m happy about.

Again, it all boils down to skepticism for me. We need to be able to not only challenge particular issues, beliefs, and people within our tribes and worldviews, but we need to be able to question the height of the pedestal we place our values upon. Values are good to have, but they are not absolute.

The Left has values, the right has values, everyone has values. And whether they are authority, purity, compassion, tolerance, diversity, etc, we all have these values to greater and lesser extents. In short, we value them to differing degrees. They are not worthy of worship or unquestionable, they are guidelines at best. Tolerance is a good value, but what are you tolerating, and why? How much do you know about the thing you are tolerating, and would there be a point where you would stop tolerating it?

Muslims are people. As such, they deserve legal protection, a willingness to hear their concerns and experiences, and the freedom to live their lives as they want to so long as they are not harming others. But we also need to be aware that there are many terrifying and dangerous ideas that are contained within the many ideologies called “Islam,” and insofar as people have those beliefs, their actions will be compelled accordingly. And similar to how many Christians oppose women’s right to choose how to live their lives and make decisions, gay rights, and many other progressive issues, Islam is no friend to many of those things in similar ways. We need to be as wary, as Progressives, of Islam as we are of Christianity.

The fact that Islam does not currently have political power here is a fair point, but if we actually seek to give Islam a seat at the cultural table, we need to be aware that if Muslims were to earn their legal right to that political power, the ideas they bring with them would be as problematic as those of Christianity or any other religion.

And if the Left, with it’s tolerance and practices of paganism, new age religion, Buddhism and all the other ideas that contain problematic views about reality, continues to not be skeptical about these things, then we will continue to live in a world where we’re forced to choose between anti-gay Jesus and vaccine-avoiding Progressive morons who will endanger us all by rejection of medicine, science, and reason.

I’ll end with an old favorite video, because it’s still relevant today.

 

More skeptical, rational, progressives please.

___

 

*this may have been before the various books were written and the community started to gain some traction, but my memory is not clear enough to remember precisely when this was. My guess is around 2005

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Polyamory, self-improvement, and mainstream conservatism (oh my!) January 26, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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I was pexting (poly texting.  Alternate ‘ptexting’.  All rights reserved.  That’s right folks, I share partners but not patented phrases) with Gina earlier and we started talking about how being in the relationships she is in is providing motivation to be a better person.

Specifically, she was talking about how awesome I am by saying…well, I will let her own words express it:

I know…becoming addicted to you has resulted in me becoming more responsible, more organized and more committed to a positive lifestyle.

And I was all like, that’s awesome.  I like being with people who are into self-improvement and all that stuff.  And I appreciate how being with her has a similar influence on me.  She and Ginny, together and individually, inspire me to persist in my own project to grow and mature further.

She capped it off by saying

My love for you makes me do dishes

Hot!

See, for those of you that don’t know me well, I’m a bit on the tidy side.  I’m not crazy about it, I just do dishes after cooking (the vast majority of the time), put away clothes rather than letting them stay on the floor etc, and do things like organize my various objects.  The other people in our little polycule (I can’t claim that term as my own invention), not so much. 

But that has improved, largely due to my influence as well as their genuine desire to make me a part of their lives.  You see, I clean because to be around significant clutter makes me viscerally uncomfortable and anxious, which they know about me.  And because they want me to be calm and relaxed in the space we share, they (often, but not always) make an effort to make themselves more organized.

As demonstrated by these positive attributes, there is a general sense of wanting to actually grow as people among the people in my life.  There is a desire to actually improve ourselves intellectually, emotionally, and sexually.  It is a result, I believe, of having the right attitudes towards relationships and the world.

These attitudes are not unique to polyamory, of course, nor are all polyamorous people actually good at such things.  But in my experience, having these complicated networks of relationships with people of various strengths, weaknesses, and different levels of experiences exponentially increases your own relationship experience and makes it more likly that we will mature faster.

Either that, or like natural selection it will eliminate those who are not capable of such lifestyles and those people will usually return to monogamy because it is easier and less emotionally challenging.

My experience with polyamory has opened me up to people of quality (and some not so quality who have returned to either normality or to unhealthy poly relationships), circumstances of personal challenge, and the freedom to truly be myself in ways that I don’t often see in mainstream culture because of the conservative and restrictive nature of hetero-normative monogamous culture. 

In many ways, self-improvement is a progressive trait, even if most ‘progressives’ are too conservative in other ways to see what I see as regressive sex and relationship norms.  it’s my belief that the progressives of today will largely be the conventional and mainstream social conservatives of the next few generations.  As the current conservatism dies out, it will be replaced with a less crazy mainstream conservatism.  As gay marriage becomes mainstream, polyamorous marriage will become radical and eventually progressive, for example.  Time will tell if I am right.

But back to today….

Having now surrounded myself with people whom I actually like, as well as a more recent attitude to only spend personal effort with people I think worth the time, means that I will likely find new challenges and see new possibilities for more substantial personal growth.

My polyamorous lifestyle creates motivation to make myself a better person.  It has contributed significantly to this effort that is, frankly, invisible to much of the world.  When you live in abnormal lifestyles and have abnormal opinions, the abnormality is most of what the world sees, even the friends you have had for years but whom you don’t see every day.

I wish more people could understand what both skepticism and polyamory have done to improve my life.  Sadly, most of the people I know and see only rarely have only a superficial understanding of it all, and usually avoid talking with me about much of it.

Its a consequence of being weird, I suppose.  So, thank you, weird people in my life, for getting it.  May we continue to be weird together.

Destruction of Traditional Values Should be Legal, Safe, and Rare April 27, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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It is my proposal for discussion that social progress must, necessarily, destroy some traditional values. It is my hope that this destruction will only take place where those traditional values are themselves causing destruction, hopefully unintentionally.

Is there anything wrong with being homosexual or bisexual? Is there anything wrong with being polyamorous? Is there anything wrong with being an atheist? Is there anything wrong with these things in themselves?

Is there anything wrong with a society that accepts homosexuals on equal terms? Is there anything wrong with a culture that accepts non-monogamy on equal terms with monogamy? Is there anything wrong with a world that does not care if a person does not believe in spurious metaphysical claims?

Society will change as the individuals that make it up change. And as we see the principles of moral behavior projected onto these new personal behaviors of people, we would be remiss…no, we would be hypocritical…not to apply the same values of fairness and justice upon the similar social structures.

Marriage, through most of history, has been defined as being between the opposing sexes. The reasons make sense, as in order to raise children it is the minimal requirement that one man and one woman get together and make babies. And as society began to complicate and settle, allowing people to explore more complicated relationships, it should be of no surprise that some would create situations, both unintended and eventually intended, that would forgo the status quo of what was done usually.

Question #1:

Is it the case that, purely on an interpersonal level, that relationships can be made to work between two people of the same sex, three people, and can people live fulfilling lives without religion or faith? More generally, can people live happy, productive, and moral lives not following the normal paths? Does eschewing traditional worldviews and values necessitate that life will become difficult, perverse, etc?

I think that the answer is quite clearly that casting off traditional values and lifestyles can often have its difficulties, but that it is very possible to live fulfilling lives. The success of the attempts will vary depending on other social considerations.

Question #2:

Is it reasonable to expect that individuals living their lives according to their values will not be noticed by, inspire, and inform other people of alternative possibilities of life? That is, even if these non-traditional people never write a blog, protest, try to pass legislation, run for office, etc in order to support their non-traditional lifestyle, will they simply go unnoticed?

I think the answer to this question is a mixed bag. I think that their are many things that people do that go unnoticed. The reasons are varied, but it is clear that there are many things that remain unseen, unspoken of at work or at parties (at least mixed parties), and so go largely unnoticed. I think that eventually the general awareness of such things happening is nearly impossible to contain, even if the specific people and places are not known.

Question#3:

When non-traditional ideas spread to so-called “mainstream” culture, what happens? That is, when the cat is out of the bag what do people say? Again mixed bag. Depending on how close to home, emotionally, religiously, and morally (yes, all of these things are related) these non-traditional ideas are. Thus things that challenge “normal” views which people have close emotional associations with such as religion, sexuality, family, etc, the more likely the challenge will be taken personally and thus cause a defensive reaction.

This means that the issue becomes of social consequence, but only because it is a strongly personal issue that challenge ideas of society.

Question#4

Does it make any sense to believe that changes at the personal level, things that individuals do, should not often change society eventually?

Any change that happens on the personal level has the potential to eventually transform social norms. Why? Personal transformations are the building blocks of social change. Thus as interpersonal relationships change in nature, it is only natural that those people will begin to redefine concepts which their relationships use. Concepts like ‘family,’ ‘marriage,’ and ‘even ‘love’ will take on different meanings in the context of their new experiences.

Atheists have been around for thousands of years. We didn’t always call ourselves that, but we were around. For most of human history, religion, politics, and economics were tied together in ways that they are not any longer in much of the world. One of the many factors of this change is the concept of separation of church and state, which was a radical change in the US Constitution but which was probably inevitable to happen. Thus, the personal changes of small numbers of people that didn’t believe in gods were able, eventually, to demand political representation that would have been nonsensical in prior eras.

Same sex marriage would have been a concept that made no sense hundreds of years ago. Even in times and places where gay sex was acceptable even if it was generally done behind closed doors, the concept of marriage had a meaning surrounded by family and property, and not so much with love, tax breaks, sharing of medical benefits, or simple interpersonal bonding as it does not for many people.

But as these concepts began to be associated with marriage, the institution itself began to change. This was not an intentional effort to change what marriage is, it is just part of the process of history and culture. Thus, when men who wanted to cohabit, adopt children, or just declare to the world their love for one another were able to say so in the open without excessive fear of social reprisal, of course they want to the same legal rights as straight people. It just followed by simply application of human rights to what the concept of marriage had become.

That is, it was not the homosexuals and lesbians that redefined marriage, it was the changing culture that had already done so through changes in women’s rights, economic shifts, and changes to sexual culture in general, and gays simply saw that it naturally applied to them because they were doing exactly what many straight couples were doing.

The fact that certain elements of society had not realized that this change had occurred, realized and disagreed with the changing tides of said change, or simply don’t want people not like them to have the same rights for simple bigotry is an unfortunate aspect of this slow social change.

There will inevitably be some people who are operating under a different set of assumptions, value different and sometimes older concepts, or for whom the older ideas are so important that to see them challenges is a personal, cultural, and possibly theological affront.

But the cultural change is not an attack against them. Rather, the reactionary elements of culture are an attack of a change already in process. And while the change that happens will actually destroy their values in many ways, it is not done in order to achieve this end.

It is somewhat like what happens when a man who has spent a lifetime collecting and adoring vinyl records finds that music is no longer produced in this form. It affects him personally and his offense is understood and we feel for his loss, but the world has moved on. He will still be able to find others who share this love, old stores that still have some left-over copies of a favorite album, but the time has passed. He can try to prevent it, but it is likely in vain.

And certainly there will be true losses, true beautiful tragedies in the loss of certain constraints, values, and of lost traditions, but this is part of the human condition. I lament these looses, but at the same time I celebrate the process of culture, as I hope it will lead to greater personal freedoms and move away from bigotry and fear that are often the result of clinging to traditions, even if said traditions contain their own beauty as well.

Within the lives of people who hold more traditional views are great points of beauty, love, and genuine humanity in its greatest forms. But sometimes to hold onto such ideas, despite their beauty, is to cause unseen and unintended harm that made necessary the change that threatens them.

Traditional concepts of marriage was not originally intended to discriminate against people, but it does. Traditional values of meaning, morality, and society was not, I don’t think, originally intended to create social and cultural difficulties for atheists, but they do. These institutions, with all of their beauty, were not intended to have the consequences they have, but they have those consequences.

By being socially conservative about many things, one is trying to hold onto to beautiful and meaningful things. These are things that define large segments of society in ways that may not be replaced easily, if at all. But as we pull back and look at the affects of traditional policies, definitions, and values, we find that they have consequences that many, and I would hope most, of social conservatives would not want to impose upon people if they understood the affects.

I will continue to hope that the intention behind people is to preserve what is important to them, and not to destroy what is important to others.

I say that because as a social liberal, I do not intend to destroy the values of conservatives, I must admit that this is an unintentional result of the struggle for fairness, liberty, and positive social change. We do not wish to destroy traditional values except where those values threaten greater liberty for all.

I do not challenge tradition blindly. I challenge it because tradition sometimes challenges my freedoms, as well as the freedoms of many others. I encourage people to keep all challenges in check, just in case we overstep our bounds. But I do believe that many traditions will have to be destroyed to make room for improved traditions that cannot live alongside the ones being protected by conservatives.