Monday, November 09, 2015

veer not

Last time, I asserted that the high values I placed on thinking didn't shift during my progression from religious to atheistic views. On either side of that boundary, I highly valued the serious pondering of beliefs and presuppositions before acting on them. I highly valued that convincingly separating reality from unreality requires more work than hazy intuitions and fleeting goosebumps. I highly valued that credible beliefs should be backed by coherent explanations whenever someone asks, though for religious statements the typical explanations were meticulously chosen excerpts of sacred texts.

Moreover, I highly valued my rejections of rival positions. I rejected that a statement and its logical opposite could be true at once—unless the statements have differing, limited scopes, which would also imply the two aren't in fact opposites. I rejected that everyone is equally qualified to offer opinions on all topics or that they may be in conflict yet all be "right". I rejected that (hypothetical) supernatural stuff, unlike everything else, could have a bizarre or fluctuating status between real and unreal, just because the corresponding statements were so vague and varied.

Most vitally, according to what I was taught, I continued valuing the worth of faith-beliefs in proportion to the amount of accuracy; our ideas mattered because our ideas were definitive. But with broader experience I've recognized the obvious point that not all those who identify with faith-beliefs necessarily "believe" in that sense. Their ancestral legends/traditions can have openly acknowledged inaccuracy and nevertheless supply substantial emotional/societal rewards. They may opt to fruitfully reinterpret the original symbolisms for their contemporary tastes and needs.

However, by asserting that I supposedly held all these values from the start, I'm inviting a frank retort: why weren't my views forced to change sooner? In general, how does someone with these values remain committed to faith-beliefs? One complex answer is sociological: the ability of a group to have a mutually-defining, mutually-strengthening relationship with a set of ideas. A second complex answer is psychological: the strategy of spliting the self into a smoothly organized team composed of the part that needs to sincerely believe and the part that continually contrives ways to satisfy and preserve that need. A third complex answer is philosophical: the doubt that undirected evolution would produce a trustworthy brain. And the answers go on and on from there. All this agrees with the common principle that greater intelligence is often used to invent dazzling ways of being comfortably wrong, i.e. denials and rationalizations.  

Complex answers are intriguing to catalog and analyze. Yet the whole collection is a distraction from the foremost factor that kept my views, and countless others', from shifting. It's less emphasized in debates because it's transparent, rudimentary, and indefensible: inertia. I don't refer to "inertia" as a metaphor for the absence of motion but for the unforced tendency or habit of never deviating from a predetermined path—nor contemplating the possibility of it. As I'm referring to it, inertia doesn't even represent the active effort to counteract disruptions. It's the momentum of not observing any disruptions in the first place. It's following a faith-belief today due to following it yesterday, not due to compelling reasons or superiority over fairly compared alternatives.

Inertia is an exceedingly gentle form of deprivation. It never indicates the restrictions that it's imposing by default. It doesn't hint at the noteworthy information that isn't being sought. It doesn't disturb long-term confidence and contentment. It doesn't force confrontations with any opponent or opposing viewpoint. It doesn't break expectations or promises. It doesn't ask challenging questions.

It may be indirectly encouraged in followers through more pleasing ideals: faithfulness, persistence, single-mindedness, devotion. It may be reinforced through the monotonous lifestyle connected to, and constructed around, the faith-beliefs. By comprehensively complying in every aspect of their behavior, the follower reduces if not eliminates the odds of colliding with surprise contradictions to their settled faith-beliefs. They talk to the same individuals, go to the same destinations, expend their leisure time with the same activities, consume the same categories of media...

...including reading the same internet sites and books. Thus the success or failure of atheistic sites/books to reach such followers is inseparable from inertia's level of influence. The followers who have enough interest to read these resources are the subset who aren't as bound by inertia. Opening the site/book is a sign that they're the sort with questing, lively styles of thought: they might not be persuaded, but mere inertia doesn't isolate them from unfamiliar standpoints. The flipside is that the tougher followers to reach are also the subset who didn't think of trying these resources, or feel any motivation to. It's akin to a visitor who chooses to attend a religious service: they might not be impressed to come back, but they're evidently willing to hear the service, unlike everyone who didn't visit.

The stubborn obstacle of inertia is one of many considerations in the perennial clashes over the "best" tone for these resources. Some endorse an antagonistic and accusatory tone toward all manifestations of faith-beliefs, while some endorse a conciliatory and sympathetic tone. Unfortunately, neither is a universal antidote to followers' inertia. The first has the advantage of achieving recognition through controversy, as well as provoking bewildered followers to wonder "What problems could they possibly see in my views that could cause that reaction?" In contrast, the second has the advantage of appearing less daunting, thereby attracting followers who wish to gingerly explore their doubts without the threat of feeling attacked. In other words, the first can potentially shake and penetrate inertia, and the second can potentially dodge and placate it. A range of strategies might succeed in getting past followers' indifference to mulling over the weaknesses of their views.

I've previously noted that the second was better suited to my ambivalent shift in views. My own inertia wasn't radically deflected at all. Like a long ship, I wouldn't see that my route veered. The curve out of the shadow was steady and slow. I didn't seek atheistic resources until after I had stumbled onto contradictions that were meaningful to me. I didn't feel an urge to painfully dissect my personal convictions. Without intending to undermine my faith-beliefs, I learned, thought, and lived. Then, I kept reevaluating which ideas still could fit, on account of my aforementioned intellectual values. The progression wasn't always calculated or methodical. It was prolonged and tentative. I didn't want to step off a ledge; I preferred to, uh, rappel if I could. If I'd applied my values into more vigorous research and more fearless self-interrogation, I would've dislodged my old views more quickly. Inertia didn't stop me from turning away from my faith-beliefs, but it propelled me into a longer arc.

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