Masonic Boom

"Crazy" "Oversensitive" "Feminazi" "Bitch" bloggin' bout pop music, linguistics and mental health issues

Saturday, July 03, 2010

False Dichotomies

The reason for this blog is that this is a subject which comes up often in conversation on the internet, and it's far too complex, involved and emotive a topic to resolve in the running battle of a flamewar or the brevity of a typical forum post. Nonetheless, it's something I find myself explaining too many times, in too great a detail, via private email conversations. I wanted to put it in writing somewhere I could simply point people at and say "this is my experience." This is not meant as an attempt to change anyone's mind as to what they believe - simply as an explanation, to demolish some straw men I have found myself accused of being.

It seems to me that Atheists (and by this, I mean the card carrying types that like to start public debates) have as many delusions and false ideas about "Religious People" as they believe "Religious People" to have about God. Then again, that may be down to the kind of "Religious Person" that chooses to get involved in these antagonistic "Science Vs. Religion" debates.

In my general experience, the greatest gulf is not between Atheists and... whatever the opposite of Atheist is - what an odd term for a movement, one that defines itself solely by what it is opposed to - but between people who say "well, this is what I believe, but I'm fine with whatever you choose, so long as you don't try to force it on me" and those who are convinced that their personal philosophy is the best, and in fact only method of viewing the world. The latter is what I call "Dogmatic" whether the text they are banging is Richard Dawkins or the Bhagavad Gita.

People are often surprised to find out that I am not an Atheist, given that I am interested in science and maths. They often like to put this down to my upbringing, but the truth is, I spent much of my life as a somewhat hostile agnostic - it was only in the post-Dawkins landscape of conflict that I started to give it serious thought, and realised that I was not, by any means, an atheist. Although I don't currently subscribe to any organised religion (though if I had the time and the inclination, I would be a Quaker) Spirituality is a part of my experiences and my personality that I can not deny or discount.

And this is something that many Dogmatic Atheists miss, for all their talk of "memeplexes" (whatever that meaninglessly reductive term signifies - a religion or a philosophy is no more a "memeplex" than a symphony is a "noteplex" or a Monet a "brushstrokeplex.")

Spirituality, for the religious person, is an experience, and generally an emotional experience. Have you ever tried to explain the experience of "being in love" to a person who has never loved? Have you ever tried to explain an acid trip to someone who has never taken drugs? Of course it sounds nonsensical.

For example, people who are in love behave in ways that are incomprehensible to those not involved. Best friends become murderous rivals, formerly single-minded careerists give up their ambitions to nurture another and formerly vibrant people can pine away when denied the object of their affections. Yes, these are extreme examples, but so are many of the behaviours that Atheists bring up when deriding the religious experience. From a purely Materialist point of view, Love does not exist. Humans are driven by chemical reactions in their brains, animals are compelled to reproduce by their DNA. A reductionist approach that gets rid of Spirituality because it is a purely emotional experience would also rid us of love, music, novel-writing, painting and many other non-rational activities that most humans derive enormous meaning - and pleasure - from.

Which brings us to the second point - a question of temperament or personality. Human beings come in different flavours - some are pedantic, some are easy-going, some love the company of others, some crave time alone. This is usually where I tell people to go and take a Meyers-Briggs test, and see where they fall. Unlike most "personality tests" (which split the world into two types of people - those who like dichotomies and those who hate them) - this measures personality along 4 axes of 8 qualities. It is also recognised that many of these indices are not strict binaries - for example many people may use a combination of Thinking and Feeling when making decisions, or show a strong preference for one in some situations (for instance, Thinking when deciding what job to accept) and a weaker preference for the other in a different kind of decision (for example, Feeling, when deciding what person to enter a marriage or civil partnership with.)

As you read through the personality types you will recognise friends, family, and maybe even yourself - these results can be confirmed by taking the test, and these results are replicable.

The preference to privilege "Logic" and "Rationality" over "Emotion" and "Instinct" is a cultural bias that has been written into Western society for hundreds, if not thousands of years. A recent conversation complained about how human qualities were divided in two, and the "rubbish" ones assigned to women - it could be just as valid to say that human personality types were divided up, and those traditionally associated with women were rubbished.

I reproduce here a page from a book by the Philosopher of Science, Mary Midgley. Section 1 shows meaningful dichotomies in which Science, indeed, is preferable. Section 2 starts to break it down into philosophical differences which are debatable. By Section 3, it has degenerated into the False Dichotomies and arbitrary cultural privileging with which not just Dogmatic Atheism but most of Western Culture is riddled with.

The point is, that certain personality types will find "Scientific" (logical, rational, reductive) ways of looking at the world helpful and descriptive, others will find "Spiritual" (metaphorical, symbolic, subjective) ways of looking at the world helpful and descriptive. The metaphor that Midgley uses to describe it is as if a botanist and a carpenter are looking at a tree. Both will use different language, to describe different aspects, for different purposes, but there is no doubt that they are both looking at the same tree. Science and Spirituality are no more in conflict than mathematics and sculpture; they have different functions.

Which brings us to the final catapult with which Atheists like to bombard their spiritual counterparts. The endless cry of "but it's not truuuuuuuuuue!" What does True mean? This is like the difference between accuracy and precision. It is a misunderstanding of terms, the conflation of a Myth with a lie. We use the term "myth" quite casually to mean a falsehood, but this isn't strictly accurate. A Myth, as opposed to a lie, is a story which, although factually false, may still reveal useful insights into the nature of (and assumptions about) humans and the world. The vast majority of religious people today who are not fundamentalist extremists understand their religious texts as guides, as metaphors, as poetry to be interpreted. Saying that a story is a myth may make it not true, but that does not make it not useful or meaningful.

And the next conflation is that of little-f faith and its dictionary definition with the idea of a capital-F Faith, often used as a synonym for Religion. Faith in this sense is much closer to the idea of a Philosophy, a framework of truths which are held to be self-evident in order to function within a culture. As Midgley points out in her book "The Myths We Live By" - even the great bastions of the Scientific Method - and more commonly, the kind of Scientism as espoused by Dogmatic Atheists - are not free from a philosophical framing device, and a set of cultural assumptions about the world.

My own personal experience of religion and religious people is that their big-F Faith could not be further than the kind of blind little-f faith that Atheists believe it to be. It is something which is experienced, challenged, examined and reaffirmed in a myriad of ways, which may not be Scientific, but are still useful and meaningful, both to the individual, and the formation of community.

I am not pretending that all of humankind's Religions are as liberal and positive as the tradition from which I come. Religion can be as "self-serving and evil" as the humans that comprise it. So can governments, political parties, academic institutions, corporations, sporting teams and in fact, any formal association of a group of human beings. Should they, too, be disbanded on account of the diversity of human nature? Especially when many religions have, at their core, an attempt to address and make sense of the changeability and "evil" aspects of human nature.

Religion is an expression of human culture, good and bad, not the cause of it. To quote Midgley again, "The evils which have infested religion are not confined to it, but are ones that can accompany any successful human institution. Nor is it even clear that religion itself is something that the human race either can or should be cured of."

The myriad interpretations and expressions of the Spiritual experience within humanity is not proof of Spirituality's falsehood, but of human ingenuity. If anything, it seems to me small-minded, to fail to see the staggering cultural richness which can produce systems as diverse as Animism and Monotheism, and traditions as mind-bogglingly different as Mahayana Buddhism and Roman Catholicism - let alone bundle up this glorious diversity and casually dispose of it within the same wrapper.