Saturday, November 13, 2010

Not What But How You Think: What We Have in Common with Some Theists

Image from Craphound.

I think a lot of us heathens will find this Christmas shopping coupon very funny. A lot of Christians do too. This is encouraging. Talk to "questioning" theists of any stripe - not necessarily doubting, just trying to understand the world and their own perspective within it - and you will find (among many other things) you share with them a disdain for materialism, for this worldly need many humans have to convince others (and frankly themselves) of their own worth by signaling their wealth or station. Most active atheists, as well as questioning theists, share a sense that they as individuals have more to offer than just an accumulation of toys to impress their neighbors, and that the rules of right and wrong aren't involved with such gross vanity.

This may seem puzzling when we look at non/religiousness on the traditional spectrum. Atheists and theists are both likely to classify people on a spectrum of religious belief-intensity:

If we're honest with ourselves, many of us still think this way, subconsciously or otherwise. I would argue that this way of thinking is simplistic and misses what's really going on, and furthermore that it's largely a product of historical inertia. That is, atheists should find it odd that we're tempted to classify belief systems in terms of religion vs. not-religion, or (even more provincially) Christian vs. not-Christian. It's much like the knee-jerk many atheists still have against organizing and meetings (c'mon, pot lucks are fun!) or the sorts of mystical experiences and states that used to be exclusively the domain of religion (singing in large groups, losing yourself in the stars on a mountaintop). It's this same inertia that makes us incorrectly place the unevangelical, loose polytheistic oral animism of hunter-gatherers into the same category of social phenomena as Islam and Christianity. It's not just a difference of numbers, it's a difference in what these things are for, in how they've developed to fulfill the functions that they do. If there's any one term that describe both those things, it must be a pretty broad one; kind of like "organism" describes both E. coli and tigers. (You can situate the phyla of religion among other arguments from authority and bad thinking methods with a Venn diagram, like this one. What hunter-gatherers do has far less political component and is more like elaborated superstition.)

But the one-dimensional spectrum above describing the gap between the religious and non-religious can't be the whole story. Certainly not all atheists are atheists because we don't care how the universe works, or how to live a better life within it; quite the opposite! In fact these things are so important to us that we find it frustrating that so many people think about them so muddle-headedly - or not at all. They can't seem to be bothered to sift through the inconsistencies of their beliefs and ask themselves why they believe what they believe, if they ever ask such questions at all. If you look around you'll find in fact that atheists quite often can be described as truth-seekers. This constant search for principles that describe how the universe operates frequently leads people through several worldviews until finally they arrive at atheism. Michael Shermer is an excellent example (Christian to Objectivist to skeptic/atheist). I would also proudly put myself in that category. Just the other day I rattled off the Four Noble Truths on the spot during a class - I still remember them from my dalliance with Buddhism at age 19 (yes yes, quite a scandal.) A good litmus test: anyone who retains an ability to marvel at some abstract principle or fact of nature that doesn't immediately affect their lives is in this category. This includes many (but not all) atheists, and quite a few theists. Another test would be anyone who struggles consciously and intentionally with an apparent inconsistency in their own beliefs, moral or otherwise. This requires robust executive function; that is to say, a recognition that we are not our memes.

This principle-seeking capacity is the important distinction, and it produces lots of atheists, but it's usually submerged by the distracting dichotomy of religious vs. non-religious. Importantly, this capacity is not constant across humans, and it doesn't correlate exactly with religion. Some people are just innately curious, others not. Some people are interested in the unifying principles of life and truth; some people are a little bit too interested, that is, their processing is too top-down for their own good. In its extreme form this tendency is called schizophrenia, and it's been argued (here, by a neuroscientist at Stanford) that in fact the tendency to religiosity is one stop on a spectrum between healthy and overwhelming top-down thinking.

The beginnings of a more useful way to think about it might look like this:

Socialized religiouslySocialized secularly
Uninterested in principles of truth and livingMainstream religiousApatheists
Interested in principles of truth and livingQuestioning theistsatheists
Too interested in principles of truth and livingExtremistsThe Discovery Channel shooter
Full-blown schizophrenics

*If you want my full theory on the correlations between schizophrenia, religiosity and other neurological traits visit my cognitive science blog; I'll have a post there soon on this topic. Also, I'm trying to be balanced here by representing schizophrenics across the bottom row, but the schizophrenics/schizotypal people I have met so far in my medical career have always held some form of supernatural belief.


1) The religious leaders don't have their own cell in this table. I would place many religious leaders in the US (Christianist politicians, megachurch leaders, and regular old ministers and priests) in the "uninterested" row. Whether or not they each believe what they're saying is another question, although according to Dennett's experience an astonishing number don't. By this model, religious organizations are using people all over this spectrum: the more malleable and more numerous "uninterested in principles" people and catch a few "interested in principle" out of historical inertia. At the same time, they're using the works of people too interested in principle who lived many centuries ago. If someone in a mainstream church in the U.S. started talking like John of Patmos did in Revelations, they'd be given counseling.

2) For an ideological minority not only to hold their beliefs but to identify themselves as such means something about those individuals: they have to be confident and intelligent enough to openly reject orthodoxy. Lest you think I'm patting us atheists on the back, the same argument has been applied to Jews in Western countries and Stankov showed the same thing for Christians in Japan.

3) It might seem like I'm judging apatheists here. Far from it. Apatheists are almost certainly the majority of non-theists in the U.S., and in an ideal (non-religious) world, we wouldn't have to actively argue for non-theism - atheist activism is in this sense "a colossal waste of time", as Sam Harris once put it - any more than we argue for non-belief in Thor or leprechauns, or any more than you would have an anti-Superbowl party the first weekend of every February if you don't care about pro football.

However, imagine that ideal religion-free world in more detail: there would still be people who cared more about, and argued more about, how to live a better life. There would still be people more curious about understanding the amazing and bizarre universe we live in. That's probably you and I, who spend our free time doing things like reading and writing blogs because we get some positive buzz from understanding and discussing these kinds of things. On the other hand, there would still be people that just wanted to be left alone by all us weird big-picture truth-seekers. Back here in our world, some of these people are apatheists, but most of them people happen to belong to "mainstream" religions; if you don't lead an examined life, why rock the boat? From their perspective - they get no positive feedback out of contemplating morality or truth. So to them, if you play along, you're not offending anybody, maybe you get a date or a sale out of the deal now and then, and anyway it keeps grandpa happy. Consequently whether these people end up as apatheists or vanilla parishioners is a result of inertia - it's largely a function of whether they grew up in a religious tradition or not.

Some People Will Just Never Like Spicy Food

Even before personal genetics, it was clear that our taste in food can't be entirely the result of conditioning. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain (for example) a Mexican people who can't eat jalapenos because they're too spicy. It turns out that whether or not we find cilantro pleasant is genetic as well, in fact a plain old Mendelian monogenic trait, and the carriers of this gene are getting organized. There are certainly genes and variants which influence cognition, and whether or not there's a genetic component, the point is that people from different backgrounds seem to converge to similar cognitive styles, regardless of background. So in some ways, atheists have more in common with those truth-seeking, introspective theists who will find the avarice coupon funny than we do with apatheists. This is critical to recognize if we want to focus our efforts on people who will eventually "get it", because this category is after the same thing we are - they legitimately want to understand the world, and if their beliefs are false they want to know! But because we think in terms of religion vs. non-religion, the similarity in cognition is masked.

That is to say, when we think in terms of religion vs non-religion, what we tend to notice is this:
Mainstream religious, truth-seeking religious, extremistsApatheists, atheists, Discovery Channel shooter
Full-blown schizophrenics*

When in reality, when we focus not on what people think, but how they think, the important division emerges:

(Insert original social background here)
Non-Principle-SeekersApatheists + Mainstream Parishioners
Principle-SeekersAtheists + questioning/introspective theists
Data-handicappled principle-oversubscribersExtremists + Discovery Channel shooter
Data-blind principle-addictsSchizophrenics

Philosophically speaking, we all have to start somewhere with our a prioris, and we look for ways to move iteratively closer to the truth. Consequently, if you built a population dynamics of any one philosophical position, at any one time you would expect to see a chunk of people in "pre-migration" state, whose iterative method hadn't yet disabused them of a false belief. If you want to identify people who are actively, critically thinking about the world but are still pre-migration on many topics, you pick an easy one that they'll get early on. Consequently attitudes toward materialism (which are revealed in people's reaction to that silly idolatry coupon, but also in basic conversation) are one good shibboleth to distinguish truth-and-principle-seekers from non-seekers.

This post was inspired by several people: one, a close Christian friend who passed away a few years ago, who was more contemplative of the universe and introspective about how to live in it than many (most?) atheists I've known. I felt (and feel) much closer to her than to an agnostic who's just never felt the need to struggle with these kinds of questions, and I can positively say she made me a better atheist and (most importantly) a better person. A more recent influence was a Christian friend who observed, upon my telling him that on one side I am of Swiss-Mennonite extraction (thank you 23andMe), that the religious impulse in me is genetic. I disagree that it's useful to use "religion" to describe the individual drive to boil down the universe to principles, but I understood what he meant, and because he's in the same club, I took it as a compliment.

So why does this matter? If you get frustrated talking to theists, it's because you're talking to the wrong ones. Do you ever feel they're incapable of critically thinking about arguments, or offering their own? It's because (for most mainstream theists) their cognition on the matter, if you can call it that, is purely social: "I trust my pastor/imam even though I'm not sure what sect I'm in when you ask me, I'm in Social Group X and we all go to this church, and besides, what would my parents think." While all human beings are subject to herd mentality tribalism, it seems that most of us, at least at this point in history, are subject only to herd mentality, and actual arguments can't penetrate. Consequently debating with these people about the truth of their religion is like going onto a court with Kobe Bryant and trying to play Jeopardy. It won't happen.

On the other hand, you'll sometimes hear theists say things with phrases like, "I've been thinking about..." I've been wondering why..." "I don't really understand..." Yes, words like "Paul" and "sermon" and "sin" may follow. But focus on the operations, not the plugged-in variables. These are people who are actively curious about the world and who are thinking. These are people who it's worth spending time talking to. Conversations between these people and atheists are much more productive than you might expect from just their theist label, to them and to us.

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