Friday, March 14, 2014

Truth and Snobbery

Normally, I dislike quoting at length, but here I have to make an exception to that.

And this is where the intellectual snobbery comes in: Watson assumes that because a group of smart, respected, insightful people thought and felt their way out of believing in God, everyone else should, too. Because intellectual history trends toward non-belief, human history must, too.

This is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, it suggests that believers are inherently less thoughtful than non-believers. Watson tells stories of famous thinkers and artists who have struggled to reconcile themselves to a godless world. And these are helpful, in that they offer insight into how dynamic, creative people have tried to live. But that doesn't mean the average believer's search for meaning and understanding is any less rigorous or valuable—it just ends with a different conclusion: that God exists. Watson implies that full engagement with the project of being human in the modern world leads to atheism, and that's just not true.

We know it's not true because the vast majority of the world believes in God or some sort higher power.
This argument for "The Intellectual Snobbery of Conspicuous Atheism" is really an argument for the intellectual snobbery of ANY conspicuous Truth-seeking. Atheists, loud or otherwise, have no monopoly on the idea that being fully engaged with one's humanity will lead to a particular, specific set of beliefs any more than Moslems have a monopoly on the idea that being fully engaged with one's humanity will lead on to Islam and Sharia.

With a few well-paced edits to prevent nonsensicality, you could easily re-word the quoted excerpt above to refer to any belief system you care to name. Every single belief system's search for meaning and understanding ends with a different conclusion than every other. And to the outsider, neither is any less rigorous or valuable.

Truth, especially Truth that cannot be objectively demonstrated on command, is not particularly relevant. What is relevant is what we chose to do with that Truth, if we've actually convinced ourselves that we've found it. And it's worth keeping in mind that one can opt out of the search. When a pair of Mormon missionaries came to my door, I told them that I did not believe in deities. And when they asked me why so many other people did, my reply was simple: "Because it works for them." I believe as I do, not because I'm convinced that it's True, but because it fits in with my broader understanding of the world around me. And as my understanding of the world changes, my beliefs flow with it.

Conspicuous atheists are often (overly) fond of the understanding that belief in a higher power will hold back human progress and enlightenment. Conspicuous Christians, for their part, tend (often stridently) towards the understanding that lack of belief in God must inevitably end in a combination of wanton decadence and unchecked criminality. Even a casual attempt to falsify either of these positions ends in a rousing success, and both sides tend to fall back on an increasingly disingenuous Cataloging of Sins as a means of maintaining a tenuous high ground.

The snobbery in not understanding how fragile our absolutes can be comes from the fact that the snob must often dictate to other people what their subjective experience of the world must be, in order to justify seeing their own as an objective reality. To the strident insider, any conclusion to the search for meaning and understanding is (sometimes infinitely) less rigorous and valuable than the one that they themselves have reached. To the snob, the searcher themselves is also less rigorous and less valuable, and so must be conspicuously corrected or openly devalued.

And down that road has lain much worse than simple snobbery.

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