Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Dynamics of Religious Discussions

Another question I responded to on a waitbutwhy discussion

So, there's a certain religion debate going around the Internet. Well, more of them, but I mean the "atheism vs. Christianity/religion as a whole" one. There's several questions I need to ask:
1) Why haven't humans settled this yet? It should be quite determinable whether God exists, right?
2) I'm on the atheist side, but really, the internet atheists are embarassing. You see a picture of a swastika and a cross, with the caption (roughly) "one of these symbols has inspired to cause mass murders of anybody who disagreed with them, and the other is a symbol of Nacism". Like, why did somebody take the time to make this? It's completely pointless!
3) Many Christians embarass themselves as well. Example: "Life without Jesus is like an unsharpened pencil. It has no point." This probably needs no comment.
4) Just how did it happenn that religion has inspired people to say such stupid things? This and politics has caused many pointless memes and stuff.
5) How is it with Bibles in schools? As a non-American, how normal is it?

My answer:

Speaking as someone who was heavily involved in the management and moderation of a religious discussion forum at one point a few years ago...
1) Lots of different reasons. For one, some religions have defense mechanisms. In some faiths, questioning certain things is taboo, and making certain statements or holding certain beliefs silently in one's mind (which, of course, God can read) is believed to lead to eternal torture. Also, religion isn't just a matter of "is proposition A true or not" where proposition A is "God exists", and everyone just goes out and checks the facts to see what the answer is. There's a whole social structure around people's religion - it can define their social group, their family history, and who they are as a person. I don't know what you think of as crucial to your identity, but I'm sure there are some things. For illustrative purposes, let's speculate about what it would be like if you were a runner. That's what you'd done your whole life, and you were good at it. You knew a lot about running, your friends and family are people you know through this activity, and being a runner is important, in your mind, as a part of who you are as a person. If you weren't a runner, you wouldn't be the same person, and you don't know quite who you would be instead. Now let's suppose you have an accident and you can no longer feel your legs. Your whole identity is screwed, and that would be very much harder for you to accept than it would be for me (I don't run much). But in the end, you could probably adjust. But... let's take it a step further. Let's suppose someone comes up to you and tells you your legs don't exist, and have never existed. That one of the central ideas around which you've built your whole life, simply isn't so. It would be hard for that person to get you to pay any attention to them at all, let alone take them seriously, and actually coming to understand and share their viewpoint is kind of inconceivable, from where you stand. Plus, unlike if you had an injury that removed your legs, you can still feel and see the things you interpret as being your legs. This person tells you that those aren't really your legs, actually you're living in a fantasy world where you're assigning meaning and significance to random stimuli, when the evidence provided by scientific studies shows your legs don't exist.
What kind of a conversation could you two have? You would think this person is lying, or insane, or very misguided, or maybe has an ulterior motive, and they would think the same of you. And in the frustration borne of an inability to communicate what seem very obvious truths to each other, you'd probably make disparaging remarks about the other person's point of view and possibly their character (if you came to believe they were saying what they were for nefarious or self-serving reasons). But let's suppose, after a lot of effort, you were able to let down the defense mechanisms you've got, speak civilly to each other, and really communicate. You may not agree that your legs don't exist, but you can see that the critiques of some of the actions taken by your community in the past have some value, and you can understand how this person believes your legs don't exist, you no longer think they're insane, just badly mistaken and missing out on the "having legs" part of life. And you can see how one might get to the belief that your legs don't exist, and you're starting to question. But the thing is, if you admit to yourself they may have a point about your legs not existing, then what has your whole life up to this point been about? It's much easier to go looking for things to shore up your current beliefs, than to undermine your entire identity and be left with nothing, and have to start from scratch. At least, that's the fear - if I had been brought up to believe that the central and most important fact of everyone's life is that God exists and has a plan for what we should do with our lives, and I believed myself to be following that plan, and that's why I did everything I did, and what gave my life its meaning, and then I don't have that any more, what's left? The truth is there are other systems of values and beliefs around which one can structure one's life, but people raised in one belief system their whole lives don't know this. And often their entire social and family group has been raised with these same ideas, and would struggle in the same way they would to believe something different - so when a deeply religiously indoctrinated person goes to the people around them with questions from outside of the common belief-set, they are met with the same resistance as the outsider who asked them those questions in the first place. And often disbelief will result in an end to important social and family relationships. So... religious discussions are about more than "is thing X true, or false?" At least, for the people who engage most vigorously in them.
2) Imagine for a moment you were strongly religious, and lost your faith, through the process described above. And then all the people around you rejected you, or tried to reconvert you (because they believed they would save you from an eternity of torture by doing so, say) or decided you were fundamentally evil or under the influence of evil forces, or at their kindest, that they simply couldn't associate with someone who believes as you do, for the safety of their eternal souls. So, because of the way the people around you have treated you based on their religious views, you have lost all connection with the people closest to you. Family, friends, everyone you care about, gone. You come to believe that the whole basis for your life was a lie and the people still living under that lie are being exploited for tithes and service to a church hierarchy that is often corrupt and unaccountable because their actions are sheltered by people's belief that they are acting in God's name and God wouldn't allow them to act very wrongly. How would you then feel about religion? I suspect you would be highly motivated to demonstrate to those who don't already know, what harm religion can do and has done. And you wouldn't be entirely rational about it, because to you, it's personal. You would _want_ to be rational, and rationality is the paradigm you would be most likely to use to explain your words to others, but "it is rational to be calm and kind if you want people to listen to you" is not a line of argumentation your mind would easily accept, until some of the traumatic impact of the losses you had suffered had healed.
3, 4) Rather than commenting directly, I would just like to say that it's a worthwhile experience to go from not understanding this behavior, to understanding it. Observe, and talk to the people who say what you view as stupid things, not to tell them that they're stupid, but to really understand why they said what they did. You will get a lot of negative responses anyway, but also a lot of insight into human nature. I can't give you a direct explanation of what a person was thinking when they said a "stupid" thing without seeing it in context and getting to know the person a bit - but usually there is an explanation that makes sense.
5) I dunno about bibles in schools, and I'm not American. But having spoken to many people of different faiths, and read the bible straight through (dear god that was a waste of time, but I did it because I thought it might not be) I think of the bible as being like a Rorschach test. It's incoherent, but there's enough stuff in there that you can make whatever meaning of it you want, because often it says one thing and then later says the opposite thing, and simple logic dictates that if the bible is the word of God you must have misunderstood one of the things, and you get to pick the one that makes the most sense to you and discard the other one. An idea that was present on the forums I was involved with was "self-projection as God". I, like many people, was brought up to believe that we have an innate sense of right and wrong. And if God gave us that, then what I think is right, must also be what God thinks is right. And anything that goes along with what I think is right, in the bible, must therefore be the correct interpretation of (objectively) a series of words that has no correct interpretation, in the same way that there is no correct thing to see in an inkblot test, although what you see may give others some insight into your thoughts and mental pre-conditioning. So... don't think that because people all read the bible and believe themselves to be following what it says, they all follow a common set of beliefs. In fact, most people in bible-based religions don't read it, they accept the interpretations of those around them. And those who do read it, interpret it in very widely varying ways. But many of them believe they have a lot in common, and "the bible is True" acts as a starting point for their discussions.

Additional information: 

The forum I spoke about being heavily involved with was  Discussions there have helped me clarify my understanding of and views about religion. If you want to watch the evolution of my thoughts on that topic, my handle there is JustMyron. Would have been "JustMe" (so the "Just" in "JustMyron" = "merely", rather than "I am very just in my dealings with others") except I wanted to leave that for someone else.