Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Militant atheism - obvious and trivial?

Another day, another desperate attempt to discredit "ignorant" atheists for allegedly mowing down straw men without understanding the depth and subtlety of Actually Existing Beliefs. I guess this stuff might be convincing to the subset of believers who are ignorant of - or in denial about - the history and evolution of their own belief systems, but to call this sort of lazy ad hominem an "argument" is an insult to brawling drunks everywhere.

Really, apologists, is this the best you've got? Even I can do better than that. A better argument against "militant" atheism might start with the observation that most of the bees in secular bonnets are either obvious or trivial.

Criticising the minority of religious bigots and fanatics who do or say deplorable things in the name of religion falls into the "obvious" category. Religiously-inspired misogyny and homophobia, fragging innocents in "martyrdom operations," female genital mutilation, know-nothing Young Earth Creationism, killing apostates and infidels are all either cruel, or stupid, or both. O rly? Let me run that past you one more time. Things that are obviously dumb or bad are ... dumb or bad. No shit, Sherlock.

As for questioning the supernatural beliefs of the benign or harmless religious majority, isn't that a trivial pursuit? So what if people hold supernatural beliefs that seem unconvincing, confused, evidence-lite, or self-contradictory, so long as they behave like good, reasonable citizens? Does anybody give a hoot if I think they're objective deists, rather than consistent adherents of whatever belief system they claim to follow?

After all, none of us are completely rational beings, free from cognitive bias, so maybe secularists ought to turn their urge to question everything towards testing their own beliefs, rather than lecturing believers about the stupidity of their God delusion.

I don't entirely buy this argument, but it's way more convincing than simply accusing non-believers of "ignorance," when there's reason to believe that, on average, atheists and agnostics who have consciously rejected religion tend to know more about the subject than most believers.

Sure, it's better to be right than wrong, but in a utilitarian sense you can have irrational, poorly-thought through notions on abstruse subjects like theology or cosmology, but still be great at your day job, be a friend in need and generally be a high-functioning, useful member of society. Is a non-believer with a well-thought-out critique of religion like a train-spotter who can identify every piece of rolling stock on the rail network - unnecessarily well-informed about obscure things that most people can function perfectly well without knowing?

The reason I don't entirely buy this argument is precisely because we aren't completely rational beings and are vulnerable to bad arguments driving out good ones. And a lot of religious-style thinking appears to rest on bad arguments - never mind plausibility or evidence, if you believe something deeply enough, and can get enough people to repeat it often enough, your message will become the de facto truth.

Take the Nicene Creed. Is it plausible or reasonable to assent to the claim that that this guy, Jesus Christ, was born from the mystical union of a virgin* and a supernatural being, rose from the dead and was the son of the supernatural being who created the entire universe? Not particularly, and these "facts" shouldn't seem any more objectively likely no matter how many times they are repeated. And yet, if an assertion is repeated loudly and often enough...
... when a particular narrative is repeated often enough, two things happen. First, it becomes dominant, and alternative versions of the truth are suppressed. We have actually seen this very clearly with opposition to the cuts. Once it became clear that the bulk of the media had tuned into the idea that cuts to public services were necessary ..., dissenting voices became paranoid that they may be perceived as shrill or irrational, and so adopted this narrative of necessity and moved on to the next battle ....
Second, and possibly more important, the teller of the tale begins to believe it as the only and definitive version of the truth. It evolves into unshakeable dogma.
Alex Andreou in The Graun

My beef with religion isn't over the abstruse question of whether or not some supernatural being or realm might possibly exist, but the basis on which I'm expected to believe in facts. So far as I can see, religion propagates its version of the truth by the same repetitive, untrustworthy methods as political propaganda, public relations and advertising:
REPETITION, REPETITION, REPETITION.... [insert name of political party] leaders, taking their cues from a pollster's strategy memo, began trying to characterize the [insert measure] as a [insert disparaging description]. It's obvious the argument was a lie. It was equally obvious the [insert name of political party] didn't care... ...
...Which, in a nutshell, is why our political discourse can be so mind-numbing -- [insert name of political party] believe they have an incentive to lie with impunity.
In their most twisted form, these arguments become sub-rational and seek to directly appeal to irrational or unconscious perceptions and attitudes. This is called "priming". Using carefully crafted language, political actors are able to present their irrational claims as if they are actually rational. This type of argument seeks to break old associations and create new ones; attacks weakened or twisted versions of the opposing side's argument; or even simply makes up "facts" and establishes them in the discourse. This last effect is magnified by the way the mass media tends to echo itself: what one columnist paraphrases on Monday is reported by others as fact on Tuesday and quotation on Wednesday. In this way, "facts" can arise out of nothing more than repetition.
Repetition is an important part of advertising. Repetition is an important part of advertising. Why? Because, it is through repetition that you establish your credibility, establish brand familiarity, become the first thought when a need for your type of product or service arises, etc.
It probably doesn't matter whether such techniques affect your metaphysics - God will happily carry on not existing / existing no matter what you happen to think, or how you come to your conclusions, but when this style of believing reaches out to affect our decision-making in what we can all pretty much agree is the real world, it's clear how it can obscure the truth and leave us vulnerable to manipulation. Given that we are prone to irrationality and cognitive biases, we need all the help we can get to know what's really going on and become less blinkered. Substituting the propagation of faith (AKA Propaganda) for evidence-based argument doesn't exactly count as helping.

*Interestingly, the reference to Jesus coming 'down from heaven' and being 'incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary' was absent from the original creed adopted at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but was added at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. Make of that what you will.