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Food for Idol Minds

One thing that tended to bug me, when I was more active in the relevant secular movements, is the tendency of some people to make themselves filtered sketchboards for religious culture that they had barely stepped beyond. In particular, the tendency to step so gently outside of christian, judaist, or muslim culture that they're apologetically standing at the window peering in. Perhaps it helps maintain social ties (halp halp mai family iz still haes teh chrixxor!) to phrase one's conclusions as "I'm sorry, but I can't manage to believe in that" - perhaps it even might make sense to use it situationally in a debate with some kinds of people, but to actually believe it is pretty odd - one of the things one should do when one makes a change to the foundations of one's Weltanshauung is, once it has settled down with the new values or truth-conclusions, revalue and rework things built on top of it. It's fine to still be guided by values and traditions one developed as a religious person (or by actual religious ancestors or friends), but there's a refactoring that has to take place, and it should happen not on the credentials of "how can I keep the most friends?" (antithetical to philosophical reasoning).

Particularly odd is when people retain idols who would abhor them. Holding idols in the strong sense is pretty unhealthy (at least, in the tradition of strong, independent thinkers that I hold philosophers should try to be, and note that I do hold that bringing as many people to this level as possible is a good we should strive for); keeping them when there's no longer much in common is a very shallow thing to do. Instead, our relationship or attitude towards them changes towards a very nuanced judge-them-as-they-act-based-on-our-values-and-worldview.

  • Billy Graham? Occasionally charitable bloke, disturbing anti-semite, working to inject religion into politics as much as he can, intent on being a celebrity. Not someone we should like (and we should be unhappy that Obama has made visiting him a PR move)
  • Popes? Often charitable on the individual level, but tied with support for government policies and culture (in whatever nations they have influence) that hurts society. Possibly useful as heads of an organisation that has middle-of-the-road scientific acceptance as a counterpart to fundamentalists. Our impressions and handling should be very nuanced.
  • Mother Theresa? Like Popes with a slightly different mix of charity and harmful perspectives.
  • Yeshua ben Yosef (aka Isa aka Jesus) - Dangerous early philosopher, political dissident, heretical form of myths we don't believe in. No, we do not need to respect him any more than ...
  • Mohammad - Also similar to Yeshua

Moreso, we don't need to respect the Christian narrative of Yeshua - there is in fact no reason we should privilege it over the Muslim narrative for him. If we're arguing with Christians who say "Jesus did X" or "Jesus said X", it's perfectly reasonable to say "we don't know that he did", or "according to the Quran, Isa said Y". If people try that "Jesus was either a liar, insane, or the son of God", we can offer other alternatives.

People who often find themselves in this situation should learn enough about who these people really are that they can break from idolising (see note 1) them and start seeing them in a more nuanced way. Too often conversational trickery amounts to someone learning just enough about lots of topics that they can't be gainsaid without an expert, so they'll unload a dizzifying number of bad arguments hoping that some of them stick. Did that stupid argument about thermodynamics not convince you because you know your science? Well here comes some philosophy, then some botany, and enough other topics that you have to be a polymath to say they're wrong.. and guess what, polymaths are a lot more rare than the schmucks who spout shallow bad arguments (and those schmucks are organised into street ministries funded by megachurches and business leaders), so who dominates public discourse?(see note 2)

It's sad how many seculars end up not questioning the framing on these issues - it's rare that they actually are pulled back into the event horizon of whatever belief system they left, but they often fail to leave orbit.

  • Note 1: We should try not to idolise in our own movements either. It's both inappropriate for those who would attempt to move everyone towards philosophical virtues, and mistakes the causes for those struggling for them (which makes coalitions confusing and failings of persons into failings of causes)
  • Note 2: I once was on the mailing list for one of these groups, and they're quite well-organised - seminars on how to argue, body language materials, voice coaching, regional plans for different parts of the country, etc

We should not be lazy or ashamed on these matters - appreciation of nuance, willingness to not respect other people's idols, a commitment to broad and deep education, reasonable skepticism and self-doubt, and being willing to tread the waters of other faiths and philosophies will lead us to the worldviews that have the most merit (see note 3). If we become afraid to learn deeply about others and to consider (reject, adapt, or incorporate) their claims, beliefs, practices, and respects to people living or dead as things for us, then our versions of these things are deficient. When we hear "X is/was a great person!", we should carefully investigate them, what they did, believed, spread, and then judge that person.

  • Note 3: (this is partly a definitional statement)

Hmm. Another post where I'm not sure if I've actually said much worthwhile. Oh well. Off it goes 「to the press」.


Why do you say "Judaist", but use "Christian" and "Muslim"?

I assume you say "Yeshua ben Yosef" (although "bar" would probably be more historically accurate) as a way of distancing yourself from any sort of claims a given religion makes about him?

Is there some sort of semantic distinction you make between the different types of quotation marks? I've never been able to figure that out.

I'm glad to hear your position on the Catholic Church. I find that many modern secular Americans tend to conflate the social and political opinions of the Catholic Church and more extreme (here using "extreme" to avoid the semantic minefield of "fundamentalist" and "evangelical") versions of American Protestantism. As both an exCatholic and an ex-extreme Protestant, I find this not so much offensive as ludicrously improbable and uninformed.
I like to separate Judaism (the faith) from Yiddishkeit (culture) and Hebraeity (ethnicity) to make it easier to talk about them. Too often, Judaists rely on the confusion to establish/assume that Judaism is a privileged faith for Hebrews, and use that language to "tilt the board" to make it seem that secular Jews are not "really Jewish". I want to unravel that.

I use it to imply that he was likely the son of Yosef as well as because I have a liking for original names (occasionally you might see a Yerushalaim slip into an entry).

On quotes, there is a general tendency for when I use "" versus 「」 but I'm not sure I'm being consistent - generally I use "" for dialogue and 「」 for titles or to thingify something. As for «» I was just playing around with the compose key - I don't use those for anything.

I've had good conversations over the years with Jesuits - of the prolonged conversations I've had with any Christians, the Jesuits have generally been among the most informed and well-educated people I've had the pleasure to argue with - no personal insults, knowledge of philosophy (Aquinas, often Locke, and sometimes even Maimonides), knowledge of the sciences, it's hard not to appreciate an institution that produces such people. Also, the Vatican has taken steps to make it possible for Roman Catholics (and others under its communion) to appreciate the sciences. Their church is one of the long-term creditable competitive worldviews from the Christian sphere - as real conservatives, they're averse to change, but they'll make it when reality forces them to. Fundamentalist forms of Protestantism (Ken Ham is a decent token example) take a firm stance against science, and in the long run they'll lose. The Roman Catholic Church cares about surviving.

Also, there really is a lot of important good stuff that happens in the Catholic Church (and most forms of Christianity - "prosperity gospel"-types aside) - charity/social services, virtue, and societal cohesion. We (seculars) would be foolish and unfair to criticise the church too broadly when we're still working on replicating those important things ourselves.

So nuance, as always, is the order of the day.

Edited at 2010-04-27 12:18 am (UTC)