Sunday, November 16, 2014

precious idioms

I've suggested that the search for meaning shouldn't end at a sprawling list of ill-defined unchecked conjectures. When an earnest searcher goes on to consider each proposal, they shouldn't be deterred from asking pertinent follow-up questions. They should be permitted—perhaps encouraged—to probe and clarify each proposal's descriptions, justifications, and implications. They can't be expected to commit to a belief before they've had the opportunity to investigate to their satisfaction that the belief is solid. (Momentary "acceptance" of a belief purely to trial it isn't the same—a commitment involves basing future thoughts and actions around it.) I named this sensible guideline "the demand for meaning". Openly or tacitly, widely or narrowly, sooner or later, faith-beliefs repudiate it to survive.

Regardless of its constant usefulness, this measure of meaningfulness is limited. It doesn't illuminate why many beliefs are also so precious and heartfelt. Plainly, some beliefs in practice are a lot like idioms: they have additional meanings beyond their testable definitions. To varying degrees, a belief's mere content might not communicate its weighty symbolic effects on followers. The clue is their quick-draw defensive reactions to perceived "affronts"...which could amount to polite counterarguments of enigmatic metaphysical topics.

This phenomenon can show up even in a bitter distinction between slightly divergent sets of followers, especially in a context of long history and proud honor. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. Within context, the largely peripheral distinction functions as a precious idiom whose meaning is exclusion and conflict. Whether it's simple in concept or not, its more prominent meaning becomes all the past friction that has surrounded it. In fact, it's a more suitable candidate for lasting discord if it can't have a definitive resolution. If it could be settled quickly and conclusively then both sides wouldn't be able to persist in thinking that they were right. In that sense it's like a box: when it's more empty of clear inherent meaning, the more room it has for external meanings to be placed into it.

On the other hand, precious idioms can be pleasant too. Faith-beliefs don't need to be accurate in order to represent a range of inspiring sentiments. Part of my reluctance to reexamine mine came from familiar comfortable associations like those. From inside that mindset, religious allegiance and participation signified dedication to numerous worthy ideals. It was essential to being upstanding (at first, thinking I was atheistic was akin to thinking I was a Cylon). To carefully follow beliefs such as "God exists as a Trinity" was one path to exemplify "goodness". These acted as one-dimensional idioms for loyalty to the basic notions of tradition, family, community, morality.

This tangled knot of unstated presumption explains why followers and dissenters may talk past each other. Appearances to the contrary, a faith-belief could be more than a shaky philosophical proposition to be dismantled. It could be an emblem of the follower's tangential concerns. For example, they hear dispassionate explanations of discoveries in cosmology, geology, and biology. But they think, "I'm being told that human lives are insignificant." They hear unassuming ethical arguments that don't depend on faith-beliefs. But they think, "I'm being told that my religion by itself doesn't make me an ethics expert."

Moreover, faith-beliefs of comparative unpopularity are more likely to not be precious idioms of most followers. Hell, i.e. perpetual fruitless punishment, is not an idiom for many follower's attitudes about proportionate justice. They don't wish to apply the same overall strategy to their own societies, by horribly torturing petty criminals for as long as possible. So, since Hell isn't a precious idiom to them, they're less willing to vigorously defend it. The evilness of divorce, except for infidelity, is a second case. It's certainly not an idiom for followers who feel that they have the irrevocable rights both to pursue happiness and to determine when a freely chosen relationship degrades into a barrier to happiness. In the "Bible-believing" churches I attended, divorce for miscellaneous reasons was more often treated as a tragedy than an evil act, despite the biblical quotes in which Christ flatly states that he thinks it is. Some faith-beliefs are idioms for ideological battle and essential self-concepts and wishes: official war banners for followers to rally around and preserve and, well, at least be very touchy about. Others are more like outlying pawns that are negotiable without surrendering the "core" stuff.

The point is that productive conversation about idioms requires tedious care. Like cutting off a device's electricity before in-depth maintenance, the idiom's links need to be weakened first. In effect the follower needs to recognize that their precious idioms are idioms. Although their faith-beliefs are their own idioms for valuable goals and motives, they need to see that credible critiques aren't necessarily intended as nefarious attacks on those very human strivings.

Diverse experience and attempts at empathy can spur this realization. Greater cultural knowledge contributes, and so does friendly contacts with followers of different beliefs. The more that they directly observe the unthreatening universality of human strivings, as well as the variety of idioms connected to them, the more they may be capable of listening seriously to the flaws of their particular idioms. A square hole could be filled with squares of any color. When they're reassured that their faith isn't an indispensable anchor of their humanity, then they're more ready to start heeding thoughtful questions about it. Lower stakes facilitate clearheadedness. Of course, depending on their situation, the potential consequences of questioning faith might still be high for any number of reasons. But they can quit worrying that doubts would make them subhuman or leave them totally aimless.

Yet this discovery of common ground isn't always nice. Sometimes, intentionally or not, multitudes of idioms point toward humanity's unethical inclinations. Needless to say, if a faith-belief is used as an idiom for unflinching brutality, then dissenters should be less concerned by the follower's anxiety of maybe not having a replacement idiom for it! Similar lack of hesitation applies to idioms of arrogance, greed, oppression, cruelty, inequality, suffering, self-degradation, despair, ignorance, destruction, hatred.

Fortunately, subgroups of followers frequently condemn such outcomes too—in complexly calibrated ways. With a measured mixture of queasiness and sympathy, they may say that their fellow followers have some of the Right Ideas, but they're messing up the Right strategy of extracting idiomatic meanings. "My beliefs only symbolize good things, because I say so. And I myself decide what those good things are." If they wrote a book, it might be like the odd Frank Schaeffer one that I responded to...

Sunday, November 02, 2014

the prejudice of 1-D vision

Mistrust of outsiders is normal...if often depressing and unfounded. Understanding outsiders is more difficult simply because of missing common points of reference. The greater level of uncertainty feeds anxiety and wariness. It presents an opportunity for contemptuous stereotypical assumptions, which has the more or less intentional side effect of boosting self-serving admiration among the insiders ("Unlike them, we break our hard-boiled eggs on the big end").

So it is in the case of mistrusting outsiders based on their religious beliefs. But I've sometimes noticed an intriguing quirk in it. Outsiders who publicly choose to not follow any religious beliefs receive greater mistrust than outsiders who follow differing, perhaps exotic, religious beliefs. According to the insiders, both types are incorrect. Why aren't both equally disturbing?

I wonder whether an important factor is an ingrained habit of measuring everyone's beliefs along exactly one dimension: the degree of conformity to the unique set of Right Ideas. This continuum underpins the continuum of mistrust. The earlier split between insiders and outsiders is a simplification of a gradual scale...or a pecking order. Everyone is sorted unambiguously into line, as if according to ticks on a ruler, or numbers marked on their foreheads, or temperature readings ranging from hot to lukewarm to cold.

The maximal insiders hold specialized authoritative religious ranks through some combination of choice, talent, ancestry, or popularity. In decreasing order, the next group is the zealots, who are fanatically faithful and eager to sacrifice almost anything. After them is the group of partisans, who are committed and dependable but not necessarily single-minded or enthusiastic. The trailing group is the nominal insiders, who are highly selective in what they believe and contribute, and who are neither dedicated nor interested to large segments of the Right Ideas.

Proceeding farther, the top group of outsiders is the dropouts, who are former insiders with faded half-hearted loyalty to the Right Ideas; they may eventually return to being insiders, although they may prefer to switch to a more fitting variant of their original beliefs. Behind them is the neutral group, who haven't ever heard the Right Ideas in an appealing form, but they're promising candidates who are receptive to discussion, guidance, and persuasion. At the minimum is the resistant group, who emphatically avoid and repel serious detailed conversations about the Right Ideas.

To be even less conformist than this, someone needs to criticize and dispute. For instance, they could definitely qualify by explicitly rejecting the essential philosophical foundations of the Right Ideas. Then they occupy an identifiable relative slot in this 1-D vision, despite their total opposition to the entire basis of it. Like the Off setting on a volume knob, nevertheless they're treated like they're actually the same as level 0. Rather than having deeply contemplated ideas of their own, they're pictured as just lacking everything that's valuable or meaningful.

Worse, regardless of their intent, their antithetical positions happen to suit the role of a villain in the insiders' vision. Merely expressing negative judgments about the Right Ideas can reduce them to targets of animosity. When worth or goodness is measured by degree of agreement with specific precepts, then someone with too little agreement—or outright disagreement—can end up "worthless" or "evil". To object too directly or forcefully is to invite unflattering associations with the other opponents that exist in their matter how nonsensical. ("I assume you spread subversive arguments on behalf of the infernal masters you adore?")  

In effect, the insiders are under the impression that 1-D vision can supposedly accommodate principled nonbelievers more easily than believers who follow a different conception of Right Ideas. These alternative believers can't be situated using the chosen singular dimension. They don't have any clear relationship whatsoever to the (only) Right Ideas; someone who repudiates the Right Ideas does. Therefore, assuming they know their place and accept it quietly, the alternative believers tend to be tolerated at a cautious metaphorical if not literal distance.

The remedy is obvious, but I'll mention it anyway. Instead of attempting to mistakenly cram nonbelievers into a 1-D vision of religious beliefs, insiders would gain greater understanding if they broadened their perspective and permitted subtler comparisons.