26 March 2012

Thought for food

Two atheists talking about life and the world without god.

Some good points and bad

Good first.

1) I'm not sure that every church or mosque out there creates a diverse community of people from all walks of life put together under one roof, but I would agree that it is possible that a shared faith brings a lot of different people together in some functional way. It's not clear that religious organisations have harnessed this diversity in a meaningful way, much less in a helpful to humanity way, as one flaw. It could be argued that colleges and universities are intended to do this. But usually fail. It's still ultimately a good idea in practice to have some random encounters with people who have a different life built in as a framework to one's life. Among other reasons, to understand causes and conditions of suffering that are distinct from our own, or to understand why people might think in a distinct way on a variety of subjects from ourselves.

2) Getting across the sort of quasi-mystical experiences some people have with mathematics, science, exploration, or even art or literature, is something that our educational structure and associated cultural institutions have often failed to do. Wonder is powerful and where people do not wonder and have feelings of awe or inspiration, they're not likely to take much interest as a field or as a private pursuit. Forms of wisdom are also poorly received as a result; forcing people to read certain books or look at certain paintings does little to advance these traditions of expression in their own words and depictions. I would also agree that many liberal arts are poorly studied as a result. As examples, philosophy and literature at the highest levels of study are increasingly involved in these isolated arguments that few, if any, people care much about, rather than more grand aspects of the fields which most, if not all, people can find interesting to contemplate at times. Likewise, "history" is functionally a study of memorizing dates and names, and consequently risks itself readily to a revision of those dates and names that should be of importance, rather than being a study of different people at different circumstances and times and their similarity to ourselves were we to find ourselves in equally challenging times and places. I rather like the idea of changing these to be more applicable, or at least interesting and engaging, fields at this point.

3) The behavior of "new atheists" can be abrasive and annoying. I think we should accept that belittling some of the more ridiculous religious dogmas is useful. Sometimes even cathartic. I'm not sure we, in the form of atheists as a group (we're not much of a community, see #4), have much use in antagonizing people for developing a social custom and building sanctified institutions around it per se however. The useful social function of atheist skeptics like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et al, is to point out places where that institution (of religion) falls short, is misused currently and historically, or has difficulties in dealing with people in a society (or another society) who aren't a part of that institution. It is not to replace it with their own firebrand versions with dogmatic insistence on religion's practices as inherently judged to be false or flawed. Skepticism is the tool. And while it certainly leads to a great deal of well-founded incredulity as it can be applied to the language, interpretation, and practice of religious faith and dogma, it shouldn't be abandoned in the haste to obliterate these practices and the ideas behind them. However ridiculous they appear to be. At least not where those practices have few elements of moral repugnance associated with them. The strident focus on the most absurd versions of religion tends to move the muddier middle ground into a camp closer to the religious absurdists by insinuating their guilt by association. If they are, as we are ourselves often called, to be condemned already as morally improbable persons, why not double down on their belief? Or why not find rational sounding arguments (Pascal's wager, amorphous definitions of deity figures, the importance of a community, etc), to exclude one's self from personal revision on the assessment of likely existence for god(s) by removing the most insane and implausible motives to our character that are most easily associated with a more radical counterpart.

Generally speaking, Botton's point that religious organising serves some useful, even moral, purposes is likely essential to getting people to discard the necessity of deities in order to do it. Or the still common perception that the absence of deities means some horribly dystopian worldview must replace it. I still hear far too often the "argument" that the absence of belief in god or even the mere concept of an afterlife infers a meaninglessness to my existence. When I find that both of those conceptions functionally can diminish or even eliminate the importance and meaning of one's physical experiences in favor of an imagined and non-specific purpose of spiritual experience. I have no trouble finding and assigning meaning to things I do, see, and experience. Thanks for asking.

4) Atheists have no social means of core organising in the manner of religious institutions. I think this is both a strength and weakness. It allows atheists, relieved of the burden of church meetings and forms of pointless ritual, to focus their attention on more secular concerns like other people (family/friends), intellectual pursuits, political issues, or simply following sports teams. What it lacks is the sort of cultural awareness and unity available to religious communities. There's little feeling of commonality with one another. Sometimes that's useful. Still, one of the hallmarks of human beings is the ability to form broader, perhaps even inclusive communities. That religious groups have the distinct character of sometimes being exclusive (and sometimes intolerant) clubs means something in an institutional sense, and provides some organisation in an evolutionary way that is otherwise filled in. Potentially in a less useful or even more harmful way than that of religion (nationalism and xenophobia for instance, arbitrary hatred and exclusion of people who aren't of our tribe by place of birth?)

5) I suspect the insight that religions tend to exist to teach people how to live and how to organise their lives, and that this insight is perceived to be a character flaw in modern times, has some general applications. Generally speaking a lot of things in life are much harder than are expressed, or can be for various times and people. Finding and training for a suitable occupation, making a long and vibrant relationship work with a desirable companion, methods of raising children, are each the subject of numerous radio ads, talk shows, and whole sections of book stores or libraries. In many cases complete with numerous hucksters profiting by the misfortune of some among us. These are basic questions to the human condition. They're not very easily answered in a universal way (if at all). A flaw of religion is to presume sometimes that they can or should be. But it doesn't mean that they shouldn't be addressed, to be asked openly, and their answers to be sorted out in a meaningful and productive way where possible.

The bad.

1) I disagree with Botton's characterisation of libertarianism. I think it is important to avoid "compulsory" action in the form of legal requirements as opposed to moral, cultural, or social requirements. Certainly individuals can react with revulsion to pleas of advice and support for changes in their habits and sensibilities, and this can be frustrating and unpleasant. What makes less sense is the requirement that people offer these pleas and provide these supports to each other in a legally binding way. Libertarianism as "individualism" has this sort of trick to it where one must balance the acknowledgement of the influence and assistance of others to our potential for success against the achievement and duties of the individual within that society and whatever just rewards are to be meted out. I concede there are libertarians (Randians especially) who have failed to run that balance out in any meaningful way, both as individuals and in their philosophical structures. That doesn't amount to an answer to the libertarian critique of legal structure and compulsion. I don't think constructing legally required institutions is an appropriate answer to deconstructing socially or culturally mandated religious institutions that have significant problems with them. Jim Crow was a legally required institution, protected by powerful social forces of racism and intolerance no doubt, but foremost was a set of legal codes. There are significant flaws with the argument that legal compulsion is always an acceptable route, and these are pointed out, frequently and vigorously, by libertarians.

Moral and social compulsion, left relatively unfettered to markets (threats or uses of force to be averted where possible for instance), allows people to find institutions and communities more suitable to their lives and to experience meaning, wonder, wisdom, in a manner more of their own making while still providing some institutional frameworks. An alternative way to look at this, as Botton himself acknowledges in part, is the idea of requiring the tyrannical way that more religious societies are governed (namely by requiring people to be of a particular religious affiliation in order to participate in that society freely). This is not exactly an appealing sentiment. I am not always comfortable living in a society of mostly practicing Christians, but they're also not always forcing me to live like they do, have the same prejudices in my behavior as they do, eat, drink, or work on the schedules that they do, dress as they do, and so on. I complain vigorously when they do do these things, or when they intend this to be the case through legal actions. I don't view law to be used as a weapon, something for the punishment of the wicked and decadent (or at least those who are so viewed or interpreted as such). I view it as a shield, for the protection of the oppressed and innocent, however bizarre or even repugnant they may sometimes be to others. So legal compulsion is thus genuinely troubling where moral and social compulsion, or praise, or even impersonal market forces like price signals, are less clearly so. I'm told this is because I have a very strange brain. But I still have a hard time seeing where "libertarianism" was justifiably attacked there in the philosophical sense. Perhaps "individualism" was, but there's little in "libertarianism" that advances the notion that there will be no voluntary institutions possible in any society for the provision of time-tested means of transmitting wisdom or wonder to impressionable and eager new minds searching for meaningful experiences.

2) While certainly some religious rituals serve psychological benefits, it's unclear to me that we need to replace them in all ways. Marriage ceremonies for instance do not necessarily isolate communities into people who will have successful, lasting, and otherwise prosperous relationships from those who do not. Often times instead they isolate people into people who will have expensive ceremonies from those who do not. Whether or not there is a religious sentiment involved or not seems to make no difference to the social need to have a large and expressive gathering of people at great personal expense. Economists will say things like "incentives matter" and behavourial economists will look for hidden forms of signaling where the incentives don't seem to be adding up. I suspect, with the absence in modern life of a clear aristocracy by class, wasteful signaling of wealth and prosperity has simply taken on other forms (expensive cars and weddings for instance as opulence). Thus the question must be what actual purpose these rituals and ceremonies serve. Cleansing the body before or after prayer or confessions of "sins" are psychological tricks of the mind that serve a useful end purpose (as well as, in more primitive times, basic hygienic needs), by alleviating our burden of guilt through the washing process. Standing and reciting some sanctified words I imagine has somewhat less utility to the actual goal of a successful marriage. (That said, because religious institutions have formed interesting communities, there are useful ways of sussing out potentially useful information on whether or not a pairing might be successful that are less available in a more fully secular community. There's also more institutional support structures, like counseling and marriage courses of a sort). It's also not clear that this should be a requirement for a successful society (that people stay in monogamous long-lasting relationships because of private agreements made into law by custom and tradition). It might be possible to achieve that as a goal through other means, or to ask if it is, indeed, always an appropriate goal. The downside of embracing ritual like this is that one creates an attitude of "we do this because", with no necessity of "why", no necessity of purpose or function behind it that people can recognize and it risks the ritual becoming significant on its own rather than for an essential function it should represent (as I think marriage has done in the US over a period of several decades).

3) Life is hard. I don't think this requires that people be part of a community to recognize. It requires merely that people observe other human beings. In fact, it would almost be best to observe and interact with people who are not a part of one's own community for most of us to see it plainly and to observe its causes and conditions more acutely in order to best act upon them in a useful way. I also am not convinced that forming institutional communities is necessarily a means of alleviating or eliminating suffering as a part of the human condition. It is perhaps more efficient and effective. It's not the only way to show that people can care about each other. Helping people outside of those communities, cooperating in a less selfish way is sometimes a hallmark of religious duties. It's not clear that religious institutions have done so consistently, or that most humans will do so once formed into larger communal units. Getting them outside of the box seems like a more direct way to involve their ability and desire to help others.
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