Thursday, October 1, 2009

Theodicy and Team Loyalty

What a bad atheist I am. Blasphemy day comes and goes, and here I am not doing anything blasphemous! Well, the night before I went to the San Diego Atheist Coaltion meeting; is there a blasphemy carry-forward accounting principle? Wait - today I drew blood (my own) to look at hemoglobin variants that have evolved in response to millions of years of exposure to malaria parasites. Surely such application of reason and rejection of arguments from authority to improve human happiness and productivity must be threatening some religion somewhere (that's produced nothing but hot air). Perhaps most importantly, I always listen to Black Sabbath every first of October. (Cue War Pigs.) That has to count for something.

I think the recent open-air debates on the problem of theodicy (how can a good all-powerful God exist if suffering also does) between Andrew Sullivan, Jerry Coyne, and a truckload of their readers are probably more corrosive to religion's unquestionability than any shocking T-shirt we could have worn yesterday.

I like Andrew Sullivan a lot so my words are probably a lot less pointed than they might otherwise be. But what a lot of Sullivan's reasons for not losing religion come down to - and what a lot of otherwise reasonable religious people's reasons come down to - is that this is what they were raised to believe, therefore, it feels right and has meaning to them. All of which I have no reason to doubt; none of which has anything to do with whether it's true. This "position", in Sullivan's case, is especially apparent in his must-read exchange with Sam Harris. And it's especially illustrative that a complex, reflective, bright person like Sullivan issues this line of baloney. That is, if Sullivan is capable of this doublethink, so is anybody.

Do atheists have any doublethoughts like this? Sure - if you're a sports fan. You're probably emotionally connected to one team, likely since childhood. In my case it's Penn State football, and to be honest I don't even care about college football anymore - but the programming goes back to age 2, and despite my athletic apathy it's still damn hard for me to see Penn State lose a game. Or for that matter, to fairly judge whether a penalty was deserved (my most popular method: if it was the other team, it's deserved, and vice versa). Like me, you may even notice this incongruence in yourself but allow yourself the luxury of this non-objectivity as an amusement - but the fact is, the emotional programming is not under our conscious control. Hence Sullivan's digging in his heels and saying he just knows it's true, and that's that.

This is valuable, because it can provide a window for life-long atheists into what religious belief is like - at least the social aspect of it (not to mention an additional rhetorical vehicle for on the fence theists). If someone approached me and said "you have one month to erase your emotional attachment to Penn State football, and if you succeed, I'll give you a million dollars" - even if I could bring myself to say "the money is more important than this core part of my identity that my deceased father would have been ashamed of me for abandoning" - I would have no idea how to go about it. Perhaps some kind of Skinnerian conditioning with electric shocks; certainly no one could "argue" me out of my programming, because it's not a propositional mode of behavior in the first place. I submit that the experience of emotional commitment to a sports team is exactly the same as the experience of counting oneself part of a religion (a Giants game - the Hajj - spot the difference!); and I further think that eventually, we'll be able to directly point out the origin of this behavior in the brain.

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