More on religion, politics and me, following this recent post and its rather robust comment thread, as well as part 1 of this post. This is where I want to discuss some of my own errors of thought, and try to establish how I want to redirect both my thinking and my rhetoric accordingly. Absolutely a work-in-progress, not a manifesto or a position statement, and as such subject to all the usual scrutiny, challenge and cross-questioning that goes on around here when I raise these subjects.
It’s been difficult for me to approach this, because in a very real sense, I have too much to say. Even trying to focus it down to a re-analysis of my views has been pretty challenging. I’ve had continued discussions online or in real life with some of the usual suspects, with and being especially wise and tolerant of me. and I have touched on this several times this week, with her Jewish perspective leaning in yet a different direction.
For reference, though I am a very strong atheist today, I was both heavily churched and Christian-educated (missionary schools in Asia and Africa) in my youth. My own church background is Disciples of Christ, with a strong leavening of Southern Baptist, and some small amount of later Episcopalianism sprinkled on for variety. This means my understanding of religion from the inside, such as it is, stems from a rather specific Evangelical Protestant perspective. Combine that with almost two decades of living in Texas as a nonreligious adult. The state is in some senses is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Southern Baptist Convention (at least so far as Blue Laws, alcoholic beverage rules, political expressions of faith and media coverage go). You can readily perceive my exposures, and my flinch points from that history.
Now, on to a rather lengthy exegesis of my reflections.
My first error of thought: Pink Unicornism, and arguing with the wrong people
, a much stauncher and more militant secularist than I’ll ever be on my toughest-minded day, pointed out I was overstretching the pink unicorn argument. She was observing this on ontological grounds, primarily, referring me to Russell’s teapot as a more general and sophisticated version of the argument.
In a related vein, suggested rather gently in conversation that simply by using the term “pink unicorn”, I was essentially and profoundly trivializing the faith of the people with whom I was trying to engage. I believe this same point was made by , and several other folks.
My initial response to her was that from an atheist point of view, pink unicorns are no more or less trivial than God, pretty much by definition. That is the whole point of the argument, after all. I asked her how she felt about Zeus as a deity. She responded that while Zeus might be logically equivalent to a pink unicorn, he was also part of an important culture that spanned millennia and spawned much of what has become our modern world.
In other words, no matter what I think of Zeus, either as an article of faith or a nominal entity in his own right, he is an important figure, if nothing else, for purely historical reasons. This cannot be said of pink unicorns.
I make this same error when I engage with , or , in talking about pink unicorns. It doesn’t matter whether I’m right, I’m trivializing their viewpoint before the discussion can begin. It’s the religious equivalent of an ad hominem attack, undermining the possibility of a useful dialog with a person of faith.
I’m picking a fight I don’t actually mean to pick. For this, I apologize.
I do not apologize for my opinions. I don’t even guarantee not to use the term “pink unicorn” in the future. But I do need to be much more careful and deliberate in how I employ it, because the term loads the conversational dice before they can even be cast. If I want to do that for rhetorical effect, that’s one thing. But it is not productive or kind of me to trivialize the faith of others as a foundational protocol of discussion.
This leads to arguing with the wrong people, which is to say, arguing with people of faith who are willing to engage with me, to illuminate my perspective, and allowing me to attempt to illuminate theirs. Again, for this I apologize. I will attempt to remap this rhetoric in a way which engages appropriately, rather than diverting by incidental pettiness.
My second error of thought: Stepping inside the black box
A term which has been tossed around in these threads, I think originating with either or . Within this context, “black box” is used at least in part as a substitution for “pink unicorn”. Referring, as I understand it, to the mental, emotional and spiritual processes of faith.
I have often been critical of specific aspects of faith. The internals, if you will, of the black box. While those arguments can certainly be conducted, and often are among persons of faith, as someone who stands outside the black box of faith, they’re not my arguments to make. Or if they are, they need to be within a specific context.
I make this confusion in part because the publicly-branded elements of Christianity as presented in the media and our political sphere actually do map pretty closely to my personal experiences of religion. The same politically conservative, Southern-inflected Evangelical Protestantism that haunted my childhood is what drives Brand Christian in our national discourse. So my responses to things occur both on the political level — where I explicitly mean to respond — and on the level of my own discarded black box of faith and personal experiences, where I don’t usually mean to respond.
Another reason I make this confusion is simply sloppy thinking on my own part. As I said a while back:
I stand outside the black box of religion by deliberate self selection. [Your faith] is a private matter that has no effect on me, and is of interest to me only insofar as we are friends. What happens behind the door of your home, church, synagogue, mosque, temple or forest grove is between you, your temporal lobes and your vision of your spirituality.
I meant that very sincerely. I don’t always live up to it, especially when I respond somewhat reflexively to what I read and hear in the media.
Once again, I do not apologize for my opinions. And certes, as soon as articles of faith or doctrine enter the public square, for example as rationalization for a political stance, they do become fair game for comment. But faith in its own right is a separate topic, and one that if I’m going to criticize from inside the black box I need to do so by following the appropriate rules.
My third error of thought: Confusing the unified Brand Christian as a political and social entity with the wide diversity of Christian thought, faith and action
Some of the usual suspects have made some very cogent remarks on this exact topic. Especially , who as a UMC pastor has perhaps the most direct and painful experience with this issue among the group of folks who’ve been willing to hang in here and spar with me a bit.
Again, this is sloppy thinking on my part, because I really do know the difference between Christianity as an American political and media institution, and Christianity the religion. Except for the limited basis as noted above, I won’t pretend to know Christianity from the inside, but I’m quite reasonably aware of Church history and the modern diversity of sects. I know what the Reformation was about, I know who John Calvin was, I know who John Wesley was, hell, I know who Menno Simons was. And that’s me being heavily Western-centric. There’s the whole constellation of Orthodox Christianity, not to mention the Irish Church, the Coptic Church, Maronites, and surely dozens of threads I’m unaware of. Christianity is about as monolithic as a box of random glass beads, and no less colorful and varied.
But the American political and media institution of Christianity, the public face of Brand Christian, is inextricable tied to that same politically conservative, Southern-inflected Evangelical Protestantism that in part birthed me. This is the Christianity of Billy Graham, the Moral Majority, Operation Rescue, Pat Robertson, televangelism, and the Republican Party. And because the people involved in this are smart operators, they always refer to themselves as Christians, and speak with the confidence that they represent the entire American community of faith. They’re treated as if they do in the news media, in politics, and most specifically within the Republican Party.
This is a huge branding problem for Christians who may be apolitical, socially moderate or liberal-progressive. It’s a branding problem that many of us outside the community of faith tend to reject. Why should we bother to make the distinction about a house you guys can’t keep in order in the first place, after all?
I make this mistake a lot. It’s unfair of me, assuming I want to engage people of faith. And given that I seek reasonable political solutions within a democratic framework, I have to be willing to engage people of faith. Otherwise I’m just another militant atheist shouting into the wind. Bluntly, my guys will never have the votes, so at a minimum, out of naked self-interest I must coalition with my moderate and progressive Christian friends.
In order to do that, I need to be able to make the distinction.
Per a comment by asking how that distinction might be effected, for now I am experimenting with using the adjective “Christianist” to refer to the political Brand Christian. Dipping into the black box a moment, I don’t see much of the Gospel, or agape, or Christian virtue, in many of the political questions that get hammered by the Christianists. I don’t want to give them the credibility of the Christian tradition when I refer to them. The term “Christianist” implies (at least to me) the trappings of piety without the substance, which is pretty much exactly what Brand Christian looks and smells like. So I’m shifting my vocabulary for now. We’ll see how it goes.
And in the mean time, maybe I’ll also succeed in being less confusing, and not condemning with blanket labels. I didn’t create this branding problem, but in my own small way, I might help solve it.
(Note: To be fair, I recognize that atheism suffers from a similar branding issue. One I am just as powerless to alter. A topic for another time, but a real factor in many discussions.)
My fourth error of thought: Not believing faith is real
This is one I am not proud of, but it’s significant. I’ll probably never shed it. That means I’ll need to work harder to compensate.
Basically, since I left my early churching, I’ve never really been able to believe, at a gut check level, that faith is real to anyone. I’m such a thoroughgoing secularist that the professions of faith seem too improbable to me to be taken seriously by any intelligent person. At the back of my mind, I default to an assumption that any person of faith is either credulous fool or in on the carnie scam. There’s not much about Christianism, especially televangelism, to dissuade me from this view, frankly, so it’s easy for me to reinforce this thinking in myself on a regular basis through confirmation bias.
The point is, per my comment about the black box above, I cannot know the sincerity of anyone’s faith. If I want to engage in dialog with persons of faith, if I want to effect political changes by negotiation with people who have a faith-based position, I simply cannot allow myself to think of them as fools, even in the sly spaces of my secret heart.
Let me be clear. I don’t hold faith. I truly, at a basic level, don’t understand how anyone else can hold faith. But if I believe what I said above, that your faith is your business, then this is not my judgment to make. And if I believe that I want and need to engage with persons of faith, then this is not a judgment I have any right to make. And if I believe in the value of logos and mythos harnessed together, as I explain below, then I’m simply wrong to make this judgment.
When I make this particular error of thought, I violate my own principles, and I commit the same sort of judgment that drives me so crazy when I see it emanating from Christianists.
And this one’s wired deep in me. It’s not a cherished conviction or a strong opinion, it’s a low-level gut check. I’m an adult, intelligent human being, I can choose not to listen to that gut check. But what I need to do is maintain more mindfulness to that tendency of mine, and eschew it consciously.
That’s as far as I’ve come on the errors of thought. Surely there’s more to say, but I’ve already burned far too much wordage on this.
I’d also like to spend a little time on (hopefully) positive statements about faith, religion and public life, stemming from these same recent assessments of my beliefs and writings.
My first assertion: That faith is real, valuable and important
Without stepping back inside the black box, I want to spell out that I think faith is real, valuable and important. That is to say, while remaining silent on the question of the existence of God, or the objective validity of any other faith, I recognize the power faith has in society and the individual, and the value it can bring to those who hold it.
We are not rational animals. People have to be taught very carefully to reason, and it took most of human history to invent the logic chain. We do not perceive the world through an inherently rational lens, and our own emotional and mental processes are not driven by rationality, again with the exception of careful training.
In that context, I don’t think it’s reasonable or prudent to expect people to view life on a purely rational basis. Speaking explicitly from outside the black box, to me the apparent value of faith is that it can give people a framework to process those perceptions, emotions and intuitions with which we are all flooded. When its working properly, with that framework of faith one usually acquires a moral code, some ethics, and a social framework — things generally viewed as good by society.
Even more to the point, as a writer, I would be the last to deny the power of the hidden truth, the altered perception, the secrets that the wind whispers to the night-bound trees. What for me are wellsprings of inspiration are just as likely the wellsprings of faith for another.
All of which is to say, I want to say that even though I don’t understand, and overdoubt its sincerity, I have to believe that faith is real, valuable and important. The alternative is conclude that the majority of my fellow citizens and the plurality of my friends and co-workers are to a woman and man of poor intellectual rigor who have been taken in by a giant series of carnie scams. And though I sometimes speak as if I think that, I’m not willing to sign up to the proposition.
My second assertion: The critical importance of balancing logos and mythos
Logos is the empirical world, the logical truths, that which can be measured, distilled, analyzed. Mythos is the dreamtime, the realm of the spirit and the subconscious, that which is alogical, even atemporal. One way to think about logos and mythos in in terms of the Apollonian-Dyonisian dialectic. Mr. Spock is the apotheosis of Apollonian culture in American popular media, and he is paired with the Dyonisian avatar that is James T. Kirk. (See here for a bit more. I don’t entirely agree with the analysis, but it covers the bases.) Modern, Western culture has emphasized mythos to the significant expense of logos in many of our core social, economic and political institutions; and to some degree for good reasons. Mythos can’t file a flight plan or develop new antibiotics, for example, nor can it solve for the value of pi. On the other hand, the human mind cannot live by logos alone.
As I’ve been thinking through this topic of late, I increasingly have come to conclude that this issue lies at the heart of the argument I’m actually trying to conduct in my public discourse. I myself have often lost track of it along the way, in the process of indulging in the various errors of thought outlined above.
In a nutshell, we have a problem in modern, colloquial English. The word “truth” is used indiscriminately to refer to demonstrable assertions and objective facts on the one hand, and articles of faith on the other hand. A critical distinction between empirical reality and the longings of the spirit, logos and mythos, has been swept away for many, especially Christianists among whom the search for moral certitude stereotypically trumps any tolerance for ambiguity.
This confusion is the root of my statement, “Just because you believe it, doesn’t mean it’s true.” Except my statement misleads, because I myself am collapsing logos and mythos when I do this.
The reality is that world is ambiguous. Not at a metrics layer, where an angstrom is an angstrom and a UTC second is a UTC second, but within the realm of human experience. Our minds are complex, requiring both logos and mythos to feed our inner lives. I am a raging atheist, but I find my mythos in writing and reading. (I once told that most of my fiction was an argument with the God I don’t believe in.) I suspect that even the strong atheists like Dawkins and Myers get their mythos fix somewhere.
We as a culture need to maintain the distinction, while also honoring a balance between these two forces. I as a person need to do this. A collective understanding of how matters of mythos inflect logos, and how matters of logos inflect mythos would render irrelevant much of what drives me to distraction about religion in politics. The entire societal argument about the teaching of evolution, for example, is nothing but a confusion of logos and mythos.
Fitting it all together
I can’t even begin to say how I’ll fit all this together going forward. I’m trying to adapt my thinking to my real goals — better decision making in the public square and the political sphere, and specifically decision making that’s rooted in rational analysis and policy discussion rather than Christianists myths and false certitude.
I continue see the world the way I do — via a profoundly empirical view — but I’m not out to deconvert anyone from their faith. I am out to urge people of all faiths and perspectives to see the world as it is, understand and acknowledge the consequences of their own beliefs, and work together to mutual improvement instead of the mutual detriment that Christianism (not to mention the worst excesses of other faiths) drives us toward like Garadene swine running screaming into the sea.
It’s not like I’ve got much else on my plate.