Monday, 13 February 2012

Religion And "Credibility Maps"

I'll be honest, I'm not a completely open-minded person. 

Certain things have come to strike me as automatically suspect of silliness. That is, there are some views that I consider to be "on the table" for serious, intelligent thinkers, and some that, frankly, aren't. These other views are the ones I'd think of as kooky, fringe, nutty, downright absurd or laughable. Some positions are genuine "live options" for me, examples being other forms of theism, say, or naturalism (the view that the natural world is all there is). These position are the ones I take serious thought over - the ones that I assess against my own in assessing whether I'm still doing okay rationally. "Where does this new argument X place naturalism against theism?" I might think. But the views that sound off my nonsense alarm never make it that far, at least not any more. I haven't just rejected them, they're not even on the cards for me.

To be more concrete, I'm pretty certain that if a person approached me and said, "hey mate, look you aren't gonna believe this, but every member of parliament is actually an alien; I've laid out my case, bit by bit in my new book - give it a read", I'd probably be more than sceptical. Downright dismissive even. No doubt, there are objections I'd want to raise; why, if his case is so good, is this not a matter of serious discussion amongst scholars? But the fellow, with added sincerity, anticipates my objection; "I know it's initially weird that nobody is talking about this stuff, but I explain all that in my book. It's really too complicated to tell you now; you need to sit down with the book and give it a proper read." What do I do then? Do I carve out several hours of my time to give the guy a shot, if only out of pity? Probably not. There's plenty on my reading list already and I have a prior confidence that it's all stuff that will be far more profitable to read than this loon's book. Looks like my nonsense alarm has well and truly been blaring; I'm just not prepared to give this idea considered reflection any more.

I think we've all developed nonsense alarms toward certain things. They're not necessarily bad. There are genuinely ridiculous viewpoints out there, and if our "alarms" have developed properly, following serious thought at some prior stage, they'll prevent us from wasting valuable mental energy on nonsense. What's interesting about them, however, is that they are self-perpetuating. If a position drops so far off my "credibility map" that it starts to ring the alarm bells, then I'm not going to invest any more serious thought in considering that view. And of course, because I'm not seriously open toward thinking about the view (at least any more), the probability of me changing my mind about its implausibility status is low. After all you're hardly likely to change your mind about the merits of a position if you aren't concerned about engaging with its supporters and seriously wrestling with their arguments. All good and well if your sense of nonsense is on track. But what if it's been wrongly attuned? What if you made mistakes when setting it up? What if it starts going off at the wrong things? What if it prevents you from properly thinking about view-points that actually are worth your time?

Obviously, I'm a religious person. There are some religious positions which strike me as a little wacky, but not all of them. Religion just as such doesn't trigger off my alarm. Some forms of it, I think, are worth serious thought both because of their importance for understanding human nature, and because their central claims aren't obviously false. I don't think you have to be religious yourself to have this understanding either. You could be an atheist who thinks all religions have got it wrong. But you can do so while thinking that it's not just apparent to anyone with half a brain cell that this is the case. You can see why intelligent people don't have to undergo some mental dysfunction to believe it. If you are such a person, or religious like myself, then you think nonsense alarms that fire off toward any religion haven't developed properly. That is, they've become sensitive to the wrong thing. They're drowning out the sound of something that really is valuable and serious.

I think it's indisputable that for a good chunk of people, religion, in any form, is way off the credibility map. For these people, religion is just obviously false. For some people this takes on the form of shear disinterest. They're not hostile, they're just not bothered. It lacks credibility to them so they just get along with their lives. For others, it takes a more virulent form.

Occasionally on my facebook feed, I see quotes or images from some of the pop-atheist communities that have grouped there. The contempt for religion and the religious the members of these groups have is staggering. Here's some quotes I pulled from a single thread...

People throw the term 'religion' around so loosely now, it's not really surprising. Especially when you're dealing with people that suffer from the mental deficit, known as 'faith'. They'll 'believe' the most ridiculous things. I have come to the conclusion that their 'minds' (for lack of a better word) work in terms of 'believe or disbelieve' There is no alternative like 'fact' or 'conclusion from data expression'
It's like trying to explain, to a dog, how to meow...

Trainer: So you see, it has to be.. "me-ow"
Dog: "oh.. so what you're saying is "bark" so therefore...Wuff..!"”

"Atheism is simply celebration of reason and refraining from mental masturbation. The arguments for cosmic tooth fairy which dwells outside space and time can be destroyed by five years old kids."

"You're brainwashed into religion. Atheism is clarity of the mind." 

For these folks it's pretty clear: religion is obviously, transparently false such that to buy into it just means that you are hopelessly ignorant or mired in delusion. Now as I've already explained, I think they're mistaken, but I shan't argue for that conclusion here. If you are one such "angry atheist" I don't expect anything I say here to change your mind. I'm certainly not going to sit here screaming at you that you're "blinded". Rather I want to flag it up as a real issue for those of us who don't see things that way. How exactly can people who have this particular sort of atheism be reached?

Some religious folk have overly restricted credibility maps too obviously. But we're probably not so used to thinking of this as a possibility for atheism, which is after all a much more recent cultural force, and there is a certain popular image of atheists which portrays them as coolly reasoned figures.

Still, rather than ridicule, a pressing question ought to grab us. What social movements push certain views out of widely shared credibility maps? And, more pressing, how do we pull folks out of these self-perpetuating traps? Direct reasoning is obviously not very effective, for the very nature of the thing prevents reason from being listened to. So what do we do? Well, I truly welcome your suggestions. My inklings are that it takes love and open friendships. I think there might be a special place for literature and art here too. But clearly, a good argument, set out premise by premise, isn't going to do the trick. For any apologists out there, that may mean thinking about more creative ways to make your case.


Martin said...

Post updated from its slightly more strongly worded version. I didn't feel comfortable with it and it struck as a bit too sensational. Colour me sensitive.

Garren said...

I recommend the study of chain emails. They have an amazing ability to 100% convict [certain family members] of new ideas from a cold start.

Sometimes I think we're doing it all wrong by giving a reasonable, conservative defense of what we think is true.