Tuesday, February 28, 2017

surveying the chasm

Identifying with a group doesn't stop me from critiquing the attitudes and customs of some who are in "my" group. This was also the case when I identified with the religious groups of my earlier years. I despised the rampant traits of ascribing the worst motives to anyone who doesn't believe in an identical god concept, reflexively distrusting anything unfamiliar, insisting on unwavering conformity to the smallest of doctrinal trivia, and so on...and so on...

The grievance I have with a few atheists online is their pattern of communicating as if an unbridgeable chasm separates them from everyone who disagrees with them. Rather than asserting that their spirits have become holier than thou, they implicitly assert that their elevated thinking processes have, without exception, become "sounder than thou". The poor wretches on the chasm's remote side aren't like the sharp-witted people in the group. Those oafs are more or less guaranteed to suffer from confusions of all shapes and sizes. Through oppressive "faith" they're apt to adopt awful ethical principles and/or absurd statements. They might be described as objects of pity who were entangled in psychological traps during the gullibility of childhood. They do ponder about things, but they're unable to really comprehend and revise their mistakes. They don't notice self-contradictions. All expectations for them are lowered. When a low expectation is publicly met—perhaps published via a sensational, eagerly exchanged internet article—the usual arch reaction is, "No bombshell here, eh, am I right?" Commentary might feature terms like superstition, fairy tale, tooth fairy, Santa, magic, irrational, tribal, sheep, regressive, and of course hypocrite.

I recognize upfront that the unattractive tendency I purposely exaggerated isn't present in everyone who follows, tightly or loosely, my philosophies. Actually it might be mostly confined to a disproportionately loud, attention-grabbing minority. Or maybe it's more widespread but in a more moderate and tacit form. I need to watch out for when I slip into it occasionally.

Obviously it leaves a deeper impression on me because I started on the opposite side of the alleged chasm. Plus, I regularly interact with people who are "there" now. I'm motivated to mark our differences using more levels of contrast. I and a lot of other apostates know that we ourselves once appeared to live for a prolonged period on the old side even as we concealed our shifting sympathies and embryonic doubts. If there were a chasm, then aspects of us were already halfway over it, which led to us feeling like we were the odd ones.

Admittedly, there are significant numbers who haven't ever had these internal struggles to a comparable degree. Their entire selves are casually intertwined with one side. No part of them is receptive to alternatives. Staying put is as involuntary and vital as breathing. They themselves may be openly unconcerned by the prospect of chasms between them and other subcultures—they may insist on it. ("We take for granted that we're on the right track if we think and act nothing like you.") I can see how being around them often enough would entrench a chasm mindset.

Then there are the somewhat innocuous believers whose supernatural perspectives are fluid/informal, or fragmentary/unassuming, or almost totally irrelevant to their lives, or constructed by them from out of the miscellaneous sparkly bits of more complete beliefs. Each of their concrete opinions and values, evaluated purely in isolation, might bear a closer resemblance to the people who are said to be across a chasm from them, than to the radical believers whom they are said to belong with. They're strong candidates for joining together in causes in common.

Broadly speaking, I don't find it sufficient to represent a wildly varied assortment of views and people with the repugnant examples alone. I'd prefer constant acknowledgment of the challenge of making summary judgments about all the diverse paths people take to deviate from materialistic naturalism. The majority of these paths are (or derive from) the abundant products of unrestricted group-facilitated creativity, socially reinforced and embellished for generation after generation. In fact, it's difficult to validly address a solitary subcategory, Abrahamic beliefs and believers, without first imposing narrower conditions on which segments are being addressed.

I should clarify that my wish for fewer prejudicial generalizations is more about style than content. I'm not reversing my position about the other side's inaccurate notions. An error or misdeed can be called what it is. And although I'm maintaining that not all of my dissimilarities from all of that side's occupants are wide as chasms...I'd say an important gap does set the sides apart. In my reckoning, two attributes pinpoint the definitive disparity between Us and Them.

The first attribute is wary but expansive curiosity. This species of curiosity reaches out to a sweeping extent of well-grounded information. It's the willingness and hunger to draw from any source that has clear-cut credence. It's not unfiltered absorption of baseless speculation or hearsay. It's considering unlikable information without immediately rejecting it and considering likable information without immediately pronouncing it legitimate.

The second attribute is conscientious introspective honesty. This species of honesty is shown by persistently weighing the worthiness of personal thoughts, especially when the thought is dearly held. Honesty, e.g. not looking away, is essential twice: honestly examining thoughts below the superficial layers, then honestly grappling with the authentic evaluation. Depending on the person and the circumstances, they may not heed this attribute's tough demands until they're presented with the chance multiple times.

The details make the difference. I'm not proposing that curiosity and honesty are foreign to Them, only these precise forms. Or, as it was with me in the past, these forms could be operating in deceptively restrained states. In Them, expansive curiosity is prevented from being too expansive. Honest introspection is conscientiously carried out but not too conscientiously. Boundaries surround the safe territory. Some commonplace questions have whole sets of rote replies. They serve as tolerable escape valves for the inner tensions caused by nagging doubts. But unanticipated questions that cut too deeply are taboo—and some radical replies to the permitted questions are taboo.

Labeling such people on the side of Them isn't a shocking consequence of a rule that strictly ties the gap-not-chasm to the two attributes. But I'm fully aware that it relabels another group entirely: people who may agree with a great deal. The gap that's more meaningful to me is how conclusions are obtained, not on the conclusions. Concurring with me on selected subjects isn't quite enough evidence that we think alike.

It can't be assumed that the two decisive attributes are appreciated by someone who by chance has never been steered toward supernatural stances, or was actively steered away by the pressure of their in-groups. Their distaste for particular ideas may be as externally guided ("cultural") as my bygone loyalties to the exact same ideas. Or maybe they were pleased to drop the ideas because their disposition is inclined to be contrarian, nontraditional, or rebellious. Or maybe they were driven out by uncaring treatment and senseless prohibitions. These reasons and personal journeys aren't automatic disqualifications; if they still have the attributes I'm looking for then they're fine in my outlook. If not...they probably have my support anyway, but my ability to relate to them will be reduced.

Additionally, whenever people have followed unsystematic routes to proper conclusions, the chances are higher that they'll follow those routes to improper conclusions regarding other topics. Experience shows people's surprising ingenuity at harmonizing a "right" answer with plenty of "wrong" answers: examples abound in political discussions. To be correct about ____ isn't to gain universal immunity from error. As I've read again and again, if every religion vanished then people would fill the vacuum with poorly grounded beliefs of other kinds such as conspiracy theories and pseudo-medicines. Every day, lots of nonreligious people unfortunately fulfill this trite rule of thumb. (It deserves reiterating that this predicament isn't an excuse to decrease skeptical criticism of many types of religion. The excellent reason why these targets have been more frequently hit is that these beliefs have been more methodically spread, embedded, handed excessive power, and involved in one way or another with awful dehumanizing ethics.)

Yet the potential shades of gray don't stop here either. Time can be a factor. Attributes aren't necessarily permanent but are demonstrated anew by the ongoing project of reapplying them. They could wax and wane. Or they could be impaired by individualized blind spots. Someone can unintentionally fail to engage their curiosity as much as they could have or honestly pay as close attention to the underpinnings of their thoughts as they could have. The lesson is that sometimes there barely is a gap at all between the quality of justifications employed by Us and Them...much less a chasm between people whose brain functions have and haven't "ascended" to a superior enlightened plane. We remain Homo sapiens aspiring to possess the most accurate ideas we can find.

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