Friday, December 05, 2014

the chimera of dupe and swindler

I've noticed that especially blunt criticisms of faith-beliefs frequently feature two separate kinds of figures: dupes and swindlers. The dupes are the unsuspecting victims of deception and manipulation, who may have many excellent qualities. The swindlers are the knowledgeable charlatans, who purposely employ persuasive trickery to primarily obtain selfish goals.

In relatively straightforward faith-beliefs, such as medicinal scams, this is adequate. But in breathtakingly elaborate sets of subtle faith-beliefs, such as the set included in a long-lived popular religion, an intriguing third kind appears: a chimera of dupe and swindler. They've witnessed the murky tangle of undisclosed complexities and flaws beneath the simplified well-polished public surface of their faith-beliefs. Nevertheless, they still work tirelessly to promote and protect their ideas. Their own persistent devotion is equal to their audience's...or greater.

Their nimble mixture of dupe and swindler characteristics echoes concepts from the book Nineteen Eighty-Four. I ought to let its timeless prose speak for itself.
Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical [...], and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. But stupidity is not enough. On the contrary, orthodoxy in the full sense demands a control over one’s own mental processes as complete as that of a contortionist over his body. 
[...] no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness.
Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.
It need hardly be said that the subtlest practitioners of doublethink are those who invented doublethink and know that it is a vast system of mental cheating. In our society, those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as it is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion: the more intelligent, the less sane.
The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. [...] Alone—free—the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in [...], then he is all-powerful and immortal.
The usual caveat for comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four applies. The book contains an exaggerated self-aware, villainous, insatiable tyranny. I don't suggest that the typical actual religious community is driven solely by an identical craving for exclusive domination—that's more apropos to the "cult" category. The ones in my personal history certainly didn't fit that narrow mold.

No, the discomforting similarity lies in their usage of baffling crimestop/doublethink to reconcile contrary information to unshakable ideas. It's the busy mechanism uniting the chimera. Their dupe side has as much dedication as if the ideas were genuinely sturdy and unquestionable. But their swindler side acts on the principle that whenever they're handling their ideas, they must exert constant care and finesse to ensure credibility and attractiveness. Inside everyone's thoughts, including their own, the swindler side exists to outwit, charm, and isolate the dupe side.

While the pure dupe answers a sensible question about accuracy with a mistaken "yes" and the pure swindler with an informed "no", the chimera fits neither category because they leave the question unanswered. They evade it by attacking its validity. Or they minimize it by attacking its significance. Or, strangest of all, they swallow it by just deciding to disregard its airtight logical consequences.

They wouldn't think of themselves in these terms, of course. A benefit of the balance between their two sides is that it maintains their positive self-concept. In addition to the swindler side's work to preserve the dupe side, the dupe side legitimizes the swindler side. Since their dupe side earnestly believes in the worth of the ideas they're trying to spread, they can feel unashamed about their swindler side using a range of shrewd tactics on newcomers. Like enthusiastic fishermen, they're open to baiting their hook with virtually anything, provided the fish is caught. "I'm intimately acquainted with the downsides of the ideas I'm offering, but it's more important to start by provoking interest however I can."

Furthermore, at least some of them can feel less concerned about the initial stage of bedazzlement—the come-to-Jesus moment—because it doesn't represent their endgame anyway. From their perspective, their sincere final goal isn't the same as a swindler's. Their measure of success isn't converting targets into ignorant needy exploitable dupes. It's converting them into "sophisticated" chimeras like themselves. They want to raise determined followers who willingly and skillfully squelch their own doubts. The hope is that the novice chimera will develop their two sides simultaneously. Their dupe side will grow as they pursue gratifying transcendental/emotional/social stimulation. Their swindler side will necessarily grow as they steadily encounter the common deficiencies of their ideas and learn the common rationalizations for each.

Later, after a chimera becomes advanced and stable, they may settle on a form of belief that's almost depressingly lackluster. The gap between idea and practice might be wide indeed. They'll trust adored holy texts...but only via an intricate strategy of extensive interpretation and refinement. They'll seek a miraculous level of moral resolve...but only via a gradual process of sustained self-discipline and total fixation. They'll praise the otherworldly camaraderie of a faith community...but only as an ideal which every earthly community is far from achieving. They'll petition one or more supernatural forces for help...but only with extremely low expectations. They'll preach that these one or more supernatural forces wish to improve human existence...but only a little at a time via followers' clumsy actions. They'll declare the wonderful blissful rewards of being a correct follower...but only arriving after death. They'll describe the present joy and contentment that comes from their ideas...but only via the escapism of consciousness-altering rituals and inspired imaginative visions of intangibles. They'll vigorously defend the specific doctrinal stances of their specific tradition...but only along with the uneasy awareness that their tradition is itself the highly debated creation of limited biased human predecessors. They'll report the guidance they receive regularly from the supernatural realm...but only via cryptic faint "signs" or sudden inscrutable mental impulses. They'll relentlessly press onward on a mission assigned to them by a god...but only with the unforeseeable risks that they somehow misheard the mission assignment, or that the incomprehensible god may have purposefully assigned them to a mission which was doomed to failure.

For most of the religious leaders I've met, this admittedly confusing mentality is a closer approximation than the notion of sinister puppeteers cynically pulling the strings of the gullible. Sometimes I've read the suggestion that such experienced followers "really know that they're asserting nonsense to the uninitiated". But I don't necessarily find that suggestion to be any more convincing than the frequent inaccurate suggestion that dissenters like me "really know that supernatural item ______ exists". When I can observe the strenuous psychological exertions they perform to keep their faith from dying altogether, I don't conclude that they're faking. Besides, the more honest among them confess that they too have moments of doubt (time periods when their intellectual arguments are more than smokescreens). To the extent that they muddy the thoughts of their audience, they're repeating what's already been done to them...often by themselves.

Regardless, I'd prefer that they were neither dupe, nor swindler, nor any chimera of the two. The better outcome would be nobody accepting unsound ideas for unsound reasons.

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