28 October 2011

Out for blood?

The intersection of culture and philosophy is occasionally interesting.

Like when it points out some difficult social questions.

"I can't prove to you that God exists; but science can't prove that God doesn't exist either." - This argument is logically true. But this is true largely because the religious mindset has deliberately created and defended a metaphysical construct that exists outside of natural and logical examination. Thus the problem with the argument is that it demands that the atheist provide evidence to disprove the notion of a deity in order to satisfy the believer's demands that he or she believe in "something" rather than not. This is an impossibility, proving a negative tends to be that way. The same problem arises when authorities are convinced someone is guilty of a crime/is a terrorist and raises the methods of proving this assertion until the pain or deprivation is too extreme to bear and the truth of guilt or innocence becomes malleable even to the accused. They cannot prove to their interrogator that they didn't do anything, only prove that they did.

What would make more sense to the skeptical atheist is that the believer demonstrate that their non-natural worldview actually intersects somewhere in the natural world and thus provides evidence that can be tested or observed. Since they cannot (by definition), it makes no sense that they should demand the (skeptic) atheist share their worldview. But of course they do.

""You are a Catholic, right?"
"No, I'm not."
"Protestant?"
"Nope."
"Jewish?"
"No."
"Muslim, then?"
"Sorry, I don't believe in ... anything."
To the faithful, not believing simply doesn't make sense. They are much more forgiving of someone of a different faith than of someone with no faith at all. Atheists are at the bottom of the social chain."

Look. Even those (supposedly) pesky Muslims and Mormons are more popular than us. In America, open discrimination against atheists is among the last socially acceptable prejudices (it's the only one that a majority of people will admit to not supporting an atheist for President for instance). The one trick that an atheist has, unlike other more visible prejudices, is that, until someone asks, it's generally pretty hard to tell what makes us different from the rest. It's easy enough to go along with much "common sense" morality (don't murder the innocent, don't lie or steal unnecessarily, don't rape, don't form rampaging mobs to destroy property, etc). So that raises no questions. It's easy enough not to go to the same churches, synagogues, mosques, etc, as your neighbours in a country that broadly accepts religious freedom (and where there are thus plenty of religious options available). That doesn't raise any questions either. And we do have something of a conditional more that says "don't talk about religion", at least openly and proudly, with strangers. This too keeps down the heat. Naturally there are some who disobey this informal arrangement (usually the most eccentric atheists and the much larger body of evangelical Christians), so it comes up sooner or later. And that's where the confusion, and bile, comes out.

"you'd expect that in an age of science people would stop believing in the supernatural; but that's clearly not happening." - Science is too rarely explained and examined in a way that makes sense of what it can (and cannot) do. So we're left with lots of people who claim a belief in deities, and also in ghosts, angels, zombies, vampires, wizards, and so on. As a culture we consume these plots in a series of (mostly) horribly written movies and books every year. Peaking around this time of year in fact. Sadly it's actually very easy to scientifically explain why the human brain believes it saw a ghost, why it believes "mystical" experiences to be evidence of deities or angels/demons, why there are long-standing cultural histories that give us fear of the "undead", and why we would believe in "magic". There's all manner of dedicated research in evolutionary psychology, sociology, recorded human history, neurology, and so on to point to that thoroughly debunks this collective nonsense. The trouble is that most people are completely disinterested in hearing it. They are convinced by their experiences and observations, their senses and intuitions. Not by their reflections, their abstract and critical thoughts. They are the sort who takes every coincidence to be meaningful. Because to them it has to be something more than just random chance; the collision of otherwise meaningless events intersecting in their lives.

For the atheist, the difference is this. We know we are (all) making up meaning for the events of our days and lives, and we embrace this fantastic quest for meaning as an element of our humanity, while rejecting fantasy itself as something to embrace. At least as anything other than idle diversion. I certainly find Batman and LOTR enjoyable stories, for example. But I can put down the story when the movie is over or the book complete. The bulk of humanity is busy embracing this fantasy world in a rush to avoid the much more difficult question of finding meaning for themselves. So in Dexter, this year the killers are of a religious apocalyptic mindset. And this is a very, very typical delusion for people to engage in; that they live in special and meaningful times because the end of human history is upon us, or that it will be without some heroic interventions on their part.

I'd be upset too if the writers take that delusion and confuse it with Dexter's "code", his own delusion, in order to give him some "belief" that looks more tolerable to the average person. Religion and faith format. In my ideal world, I conceive of a place where such issues as what a person's faith is (or is not) matter very little, if at all. I see very little meaningful information to be conveyed by asking what religion someone practices, for a variety of reasons, so I don't see that this is a useful question to ask someone. In practice, we are not there yet. This partly because we don't ask very good questions about where the intersection already occurs between individual faith (or lack thereof) and the "outside" social worlds we live in and interact with, and also where and whether it should occur.

Maybe we can start. Seems like the writers of Dexter are.
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