Saturday, September 22, 2012

Oh Yeah? Well... So Are You!

ir·ra·tio·nal - adjective \i-ˈra-sh(ə-)nəl, ˌi(r)-\

: not rational: as
a: believing in something that (1): I do not, (2): is scary and/or (3): represents a threat to my own belief system.

b: refusing to accept the objective intellectual superiority of my point of view.

c (1): grounded in emotions other than the ones that my own beliefs are grounded in (2): incompatible with the beliefs that I've come to base my life on, and therefore raising the specter that I'm Doing It Wrong.

d: having been tricked into wrongthink by some enemy of truth.

e (1): not accepting on faith the proofs that I present that my worldview is the only possible correct choice (2): refusing to believe that I'm objectively and provably correct, even though I'm basically taking someone else's word for it and can barely understand, let alone articulate, the arguments that I presume to present.

f (1): wrong, and therefore, likely born of gullibility or stupidity (2): bad, and therefore, likely born of wickedness or hatred.

ir·ra·tio·nal - noun \(ˈ)ir-ˈ(r)ash-nəl, -ən-əl\

a (1): a belief system that is mutually exclusive with my own, and thus must be incorrect if I am to see myself as intelligent, knowledgeable, thoughtful, enlightened, ethical, moral and/or worthy of salvation (2): and therefore open to criticism, derision and mockery, since it is not worthy of respect or the legitimacy that honest engagement would grant it.

b (1): anyone who holds such a belief despite the fact that they are clearly wrong, (2): and therefore open to criticism, derision and mockery, since reasoned discourse is lost on them.
Hmm. No wonder we don't get along.

Although I've never really gone along with the idea that a lack of belief in something should be seen as just as much a religious faith as a belief in something else, the idea of orthodoxy pervades a lot of spheres of life, and therefore the belief systems that many people subscribe to start to share common traits - not the least of which is the idea that to believe anything other than what they do is somehow irrational.

Broadly speaking, the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bahá'í (there are others), see themselves as exclusive holders of the Truth. That is to say, if you don't believe as they do, you are understood, on some level to be wrong about some objective fact, whether it be the divinity of Jesus, who was, and who was not, a prophet or even the idea that the Abrahamic god created the universe and is the sole authority on matters of morality. Again, broadly speaking, the Abrahamic religions tend to have a Manichaean strain in them - which commonly expresses itself in the idea that the primary reason why there are other belief systems is the presence of Evil in the world. Christian missionaries were (in)famous for this historical records and practices of cultures they encountered, that are now considered priceless, were marked for destruction as being artifacts of the Devil, specifically created for no other purpose than to lead people astray. In case, I haven't been clear enough that I'm generalizing, let me remind you again that I'm about to speak broadly; the Abrahamic religions also have another characteristic that has come permeate the world around them, and that is an unwillingness to rely on faith. (Now, I'm using the word "faith" here in the way that it was taught to me, growing up Roman Catholic: "Faith is the belief in things unseen," which is boiled down a bit from the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 11 verse 1: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." To me, this always meant, quite simply, that you couldn't objectively prove a lot of things about religion.) For instance, I read an essay on whether or not the fabled 10 plagues recounted in the Book of Exodus are historical fact that put quite a bit of effort into making the case that they should be regarded as actual historical events, in some cases because of (rather than in spite of) the lack of historical records of their occurrence. And H2 (once History International) can be counted on several times a year to present shows in which people attempt to find explanations for the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the burning bush and other stories that comport with our modern understanding of science.

Technically speaking, it's possible to have a valid belief system, that has none of these elements. Technically, the Abrahamic religions don't have the third characteristic I noted, and from what I understand of the Eastern belief systems of Buddhism and Shinto, they have none of them.

Given this, you would think that atheism, or the lack of any religious or spiritual beliefs, would have none of them either. But, as it tends to be practiced in the Western world, especially, it seems, in the Anglophone world, it commonly has all three. Of course, it sounds somewhat odd to speak of Atheists as having faith. But, to be sure, a lot of otherwise mundane things are really articles of faith for most of us, because we'll never really have verifiable experience with them. The contents of most photographs are a primary example. The Web is stuffed to the gills of pictures, purporting to be of particular events and illustrating particular places and people. When a viewer understands that to be true, that understanding is built upon a fairly substantial pile of assumptions, which can collectively be understood a a certain level of faith. Accordingly, a number of things that science tells us are built on faith, like the idea that the galaxies in the Universe are slowly (or quite rapidly, depending on how you look at it) moving away from one another, or even that the Moon is receding. Sure, all of things have been measured and whatnot, but I can't do those measurements myself, and I couldn't even verify that the devices doing the measuring get it right. So, to the degree that I understand these things to be true, I'm taking it on faith. But it's common to present these things as commonly known, rather than simply believed.

Anyway, this "seepage," I guess you could call it, of ideas from difference spheres leads to a constant low-level battle over the idea of what it means to be irrational, hence the rather long definition that leads off this post. While many religious people (given that I'm writing this from the United States, those are mostly Christians of various denominations) chafe at the constant labeling of themselves and their faith as irrational, they're not above slinging the term themselves when it suits them to do so. From as far back as the Book of Psalms, where Chapter 14 (and just to make sure one gets the point, Chapter 53 as well) opens with: "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'," to today, where the question “How does a ridiculous 'theory' like evolution become accepted by the mainstream culture as the explanation for man’s existence?” is posed, religion is willing to label others as irrational.

Part of this is due to a fourth characteristic, that while neither necessary nor sufficient for a belief system, is commonly a part of them - a broader investment. Many people tie their ethics, self-image and values to whatever belief system they follow, to the degree that a defense of one is effectively a defense of all of them. In other words, if my saying, for example, that I find the common Biblical creation account to be lacking as a history lesson, to someone who feels that the validity of "Thou shall not kill," is based primarily on the literal truth of the Bible, their concern about the degree to which others share my skepticism is not simply based on a desire for an accurate understanding of world pre-history.

Large-scale change in this area is unlikely to happen soon. Small-scale changes, however, are something that we can drive - both within ourselves and in the society around us. And it's important that we do so, because not only does being quick to label others irrational as a means of protecting or promoting ourselves erode reasoned public discourse, the intertwining of beliefs, values, culture and self-image leads to conflicts and allows people to manipulate us by playing up the imaginary threats posed, not by the things that others believe, but by the simple fact that they don't believe as we do. And in an increasingly connected world, that's a recipe for trouble.

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