April 13, 2012

The reason why "I'm Christian unless you're gay" sets a new standard.

Before I even start, I need to say this. I deliberately use trivial, black/white, crude groupings (religious people, atheists etc.) in this OP. I do it only because it is not the point of this piece to divide and define, it is to illuminate the difficulties and issues they pose to each of us and each other. I am fully aware of that these groups I am about to mention are far from homogenous, again, the point is to illuminate the difficulty in communication between individuals rather than anything else.

Needless to recount, atheists and religious people struggle to get along. The YouTube Chronicles (I made it up, don't search for it) of atheist/religious videos are always filled with comments from both sides arguing their basis of opinion. Atheist videos usually attract atheists and top comments are usually aimed at religious people and vice versa. So why care? Easy. It doesn't help. Why? Easy. We do not communicate with equal rhetoric. So? Complicated.. please read on.

I've come across thunderf00t (YouTube celeb advocating atheism) and his, to a large extent, opposite, Eric Hovind (YouTube celeb advocating Christianity). Recently, at the 2012 Reason Rally, they attempted to discuss what was what and immediately got stuck in rhetoric cobweb. From an outside perspective it was quite easy to see what was going on. Eric Hovind asked questions stemming from his world view (which, amongst other things, include the belief in a Christian God). The issue from thunderf00t's perspective was that, the questions posed included assumptions that did not exist in _his_ world view. Let me take you through a thought-experiment.

Forget for a moment everything you have ever heard or experienced. You are now a speck of dust floating around with no reflective-of-the-world thoughts, in fact you have no thoughts at all. About anything. In an instant, you turn into a human being. Now, as you begin to explore the world around you, you have to make assumptions. From one of my first philosophy courses, I remember my professor slowly moving one of his feet forward, tapping the ground in front of him -to make sure it would hold his weight. The point he was making was that, we make assumptions about the most minute things. We assume that the ground in front of us is stable and will carry us -and so we do not hesitate to walk with strong stride from point A to point B. Now, in thunderf00t's world view, he can concede to that 'The universe exists', because it is something we have to _assume_ and probably should because it helps us understand something about everything around us. The important point being, he cannot _know_ if the universe exists, and to a certain extent, it doesn't matter -it is an assumption we have to make regardless of if it is true or not. Let's make more assumptions, 'I exist', 'other people exist' and let me add another two assumptions; I feel and think, others feel and think. Personally, I stop adding assumptions when they have no utility; when an assumption would not gain me a wider perspective of how the world works around me. For example, it is useful to assume that I feel and think, as well as, others feel and think -because it makes social encounters just _that_ much easier. Now, another important thing with assumptions is this; I can make any assumption I like, but, it usually requires me to assume a bunch of other things. For example, the assumption "I think and feel" must be preceded by assumptions such as, physical materia exists, there exist an entity within my physical boundary that I use to be able to think and feel. Assumptions are only accepted if they can help us understand the world, for example, assuming that a spaghetti monster exists is redundant because it doesn't help me understand the world any better. Ok, enough introduction of assumptions I think, onwards to the mistake religious people make about atheists.

A religious person would say "God exists". For an atheist, the number of assumptions to be made about the world to accept this assumption are far too many. We must assume that not only does physical materia exist but also non-physical materia, we must not only assume there is an entity that can see/hear/feel etc. everything but also that this entity can decide what to and not to do with us humans -we then must assume creation, maintenance, changes etc.. These assumptions are far from all of the assumptions we have to make in order to accomodate "God exists" in our assumption-structure of the world. Add to this that, in our world view, we are already making a lot of assumptions on how to find things out about the world -assuming that mathematics can say something about the world, assume that physics can say something about the world and so on. The reason we would rather assume that Physics can tell us things about the world instead of a God, is at least binary. One, relying on Physics instead of God involves far fewer assumptions about the world, but more importantly, two; the reliance on Physics has utility in that we can test and see if an assumptions holds up or not. This is what "prediction" or "predictive power" is all about. Assuming that Physics can tell us something about the world, is strengthened by that we can use the tools taught by Physics to answer questions about the world. Why are we stuck on earth? Why does a rock fall down if I drop it instead of float or fall up? Physics teaches us the assumption that there exist something called gravity, a concept we assume to exist. Why would we rely on this information? Well, because it has predictive power; it tells us something about the world that we can use to our advantage. Assuming that gravity exists is something we do everyday -without even doing it! We don't open a window and walk straight out, because, we assume that gravity will pull us very quickly towards the ground and (depending on height) may kill us. Therefore, questions such as "do you exist?" cannot be answered; it is an assumption we make about the world that helps us live our lives, nothing more, nothing less. It is not true or false and it would not matter if it was true or false -because, _regardless_ if it is true or false, we _have to_ assume it because it is something that helps us live our lives -it has utility to assume it. However, assuming that "God exists", does not help us understand anything over and above the toolbox that the sciences provide for us. Morals exist without God, love exists without God also hate exists without God. Alright, enough about explaining what religious people often do not understand about atheists. Let me flip the table over.

Unfortunately, these mistakes in understanding people we have in front of us is far from unique to religious people. Atheists do it to a large extent as well, and, it does not help us to understand each other. An atheist usually holds the misconception that 'you' believe something that 'I' don't, and imaginary friend that will hold your hand through adulthood -and we say -prove it! Smiling smuggishly, sniggering to ourselves. Well, this is an error exactly mirroring the one religious people make about atheists. The error we make is to assume that the way in which we find out information about the world is the best way for _other world views_ to find out information _about their assumptions_. _This is not true_. We therefore make the same mistake by asking a question that cannot be answered from within a religious person's world view. I.e. in the same way that "is it true?" is an unanswerable question, so is "prove it". In conclusion, it is not fair to ask of another world view to do something that can only be done from one of those world views. It involves the assumption that one's world view is the only 'true' one, from which other's should be judged and hence make the mistake of mistaking assumptions for true or false. Bad atheist!

Apart from these philosophical-specific issues, the psychological and societal specific issues are that these types of discussions _only_ contribute to _one thing_, misunderstanding. Atheists scoffing at the ignorance of religious people and religion devaluing moral character of atheism. I have long tried to ameliorate the difficulties that arise between religious and scientific minded people (no, they are not mutually exclusive groupings). I have tried to explain the above numerous times to both camps without succeeding in building a bridge. Then I read this; I'm Christian unless you're gay. and realized something absolutely terrible (bar for a moment that that OP contains subject matter far outweighing what mine does).

When having read both that piece and the responses to it, it became abundantly clear that Dan Pearce had succeeded where so many fail. Where Richard Dawkins and other more aggressive atheists have failed. Dan Pearce succeeded in building a bridge between two vastly different world views. It is a feat in itself. Something I know from experience is such an extreme catalyst between religious and atheists, is the matter of homosexuality. I started in much more modest differences and failed miserably, why the #"¤! did Dan Pearce succeed? The reasons are many and he succeeded in combining them in such a way that fostered understanding for the two world-views, separately, but at the same time, with the same words. Dan used 'simple' rhetoric, natural, everyday language that everyone understands. He levels himself, first, lower than one thinks of oneself, secondly, he puts himself off of the continuum of where he first places Westboro Baptist Church and then Christians and atheists. He thus ingeniously pushes religious and atheists closer together on the continuum by using an extreme reference point. He abides to universal feelings like love and hate, exemplifies them both and levels you and I down to his level, the level in which we are all human. It is a lesson in humility and we are all in the same boat. We have all made ourselves feel better by beating down on others -regardless of what we have targeted with our hateful comments. He then pushes his point home with powerful conviction; everyone has a right and wrong, but really it doesn't matter because we cannot change others by hating them. He does not contend to change others by loving them, but changing ourselves by loving others. We don't have to resort to the trivial and detrimental comment-flinging, it doesn't help me, myself. Showing others love does not mean one condones a behaviour or disposition that we think is right or wrong. Showing love to someone does not promote or deny something someone is, rather, it promotes ourselves in who we are. Ultimately, he sums it up himself (please read his whole OP by the link provided above);

"Because what you’ll find, and I promise you this, is that the more you put your arm around those that you might naturally look down on, the more you will love yourself. And the more you love yourself, the less need you’ll ever have to find fault or be better than others. And the less we all find fault or have a need to be better than others, the quicker this world becomes a far better place to live."

Dan Pearce set a new standard in the rhetoric of fostering understanding for fellow human beings.

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