Getting religion

Every now and then the atheist/skeptical community sees a flare-up in the debate over “framing.” On the one hand, people like PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens favor forthright, unapologetic denunciation of religious falsehoods. On the other, people like Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet protest that the “New Atheists” are being too aggressive, and are turning people off.

My comments in the past have been along the lines of “they’re both partly right and partly wrong,” but I’ve been frustrated by my inability to express something that felt deeper and more important than that. It took me a while to put it together, but now I think I’m ready to go into more detail, and spell it out.

The basic problem is that neither the New Atheists nor the “framers” really get religion. Yes, I’m being deliberately provocative in hopes of stirring discussion—religion is a subject both groups are intensely interested in and familiar with, so neither side is exactly ignorant about it. But there’s a very important aspect to religion that they still don’t “get,” and without this understanding, neither side will never have anything more than rare and coincidental successes, at least in the public arena.

Religion functions on two levels. On the personal level, religion functions as a mental framework (aka a “worldview”) within which believers organize their perceptions of life and the world around them. For many people, superstitious myths function remarkably well as an approximation of what’s going on in real life. “Discovering God’s will,” turns out to mean learning by experience what works and what doesn’t, and that’s a process that benefits the participant even when there is no God. What scientists do by study and analysis, believers do (on a much rougher scale) by superstition and social instinct. Science is more accurate, but for most people, religion is much, much easier, and therefore preferable.

That’s the personal level. The personal level plays a small role in helping to determine what religious beliefs will seem plausible to the individual believer, but in practice this actually has very little to do with what the believer will end up believing, or with how they will act on the basis of their belief. Of far greater importance is how religion functions on a social level. On a personal level, believers use religion to make sense of the world, but on a social level, believers use religion to establish a dominant community within society, and to secure a good place for themselves within that community.

It works like this: religion is a subjective truth. No real God or gods ever show up in real life, to validate or falsify anybody’s theology. Religious dominance is therefore solely a function of—and a measure of—social dominance. Anything that weakens a religion in society necessarily weakens the community that preaches it, and conversely the more any particular religion has influence over society, the more influence the religious community has over society. Hence the emphasis on “America is a Christian nation,” for example.

Notice (as an aside) that this is possible only because religion is a subjective truth. If two people disagree over, say, whether it’s safe to mix ammonia and chlorine bleach while cleaning, that’s a disagreement with objectively real consequences. If you mix chlorine bleach with ammonia, toxic gases will be released, and you could possibly die. The question is a question of objective truth. Likewise if two people disagree about whether pi is more or less than the square root of two, it’s a question of objective truth. Do the math and find out who is right. Peer pressure is irrelevant.

If two people disagree about the Trinity, by contrast, there is no corresponding objectively-real consequence. Neither trinitarian nor non-trinitarian deities show up in real life, and therefore the real-world consequences are the same no matter which side wins. Objective reality does not favor one position over the other, and therefore the debate is entirely a contest of social influence (i.e. peer pressure). It’s a popularity contest of ideologies: whichever side can win the most votes (converts) becomes the dominant (subjective) truth.

Believers understand this on at least an instinctual level. The mistake atheists tend to fall into is to approach religion as though it were a question of objective truth. It is not. It is a question of which subjective truth has the political and social dominance to assert itself as The Truth. People do not embrace or reject religious doctrines on the basis of whether they are objectively true, they decide almost exclusively on the basis of the social implications. People will embrace and promote the beliefs that enhance the social dominance of their religious community, and will reject arguments, factual or not, that diminish their community’s influence and/or that would threaten their own individual standing within the community.

That’s a crucial point. What confuses the issue is the fact that people try to make their religion more dominant by asserting their beliefs as objective truth. This is where the average atheist steps into a trap, because it would seem like the way to address such beliefs is by showing that they are not objectively true. Reasonable, logical, and maddeningly ineffective. The arguments just seem to bounce off, no matter how logical, or well-documented, or noble they might be. Subjective truths, even when asserted as objective fact, are immune to real-world falsification.

What we need to understand is that people aren’t looking for genuine objective truths. Genuine objective truths can be complicated and uncomfortable, but what’s worse, they confer no particular social advantage on people who are not in the top 10% of intelligent and logical thinkers. And that’s not what people want. What people want are subjective “truths” that they can use to build dominant communities, unfettered by the arbitrary requirements of factual accuracy. It’s not a question of right or wrong, it’s a question of who’s winning.

So to go back to the “framing” debate, we can see that both sides are right and both are wrong. The New Atheists are right about the value of speaking plainly and honestly, but the framers are right that the New Atheists are offending people without necessarily advancing the cause of atheism in society. Naturally so: atheism threatens to weaken the Christian community, and Christians don’t want to lose their social dominance. Yet the framers are also wrong: speaking respectfully of Christian beliefs only reinforces the social dominance of the Christian community, and might be making the cause of atheism even more hopeless.

And yet, they’ve also got a valid point: people tune you out if they think you’re just disparaging them. Atheists need to gain the attention and interest of the majority audience in order to establish a viable, if not dominant, community within society. But the New Atheists are correct as well: you don’t win a popularity contest by being mealy-mouthed and wishy-washy about what you stand for (ask John McCain, or Obama for that matter).

To advance the cause of atheism/skepticism/liberalism/etc, here’s what we need to understand. Most people are not swayed by the objective facts, especially in domains, like religion, that are all about subjective truths. What people are looking for are worthwhile communities that have at least a viable and respectable position in society. More importantly, people are looking for worthwhile communities in which they themselves can comfortably fit in and be respected participants.

And yes, I know, there are people who care more about factual truth than about peer pressure, and these people will listen if you offer them rational, fact-based arguments. But most of those people are skeptics already—it’s not that hard to discover the truth about God! The rest of the population won’t change religion because of evidence; they’ll change when and if they find a community they like better.

This leaves us with two missions: (a) to create communities where ordinary people, not necessarily science-minded, can feel comfortable, welcome, and important, and (b) to put social pressure on believers to give them enough of a nudge that they can overcome their existing social ties and uproot themselves and become members of the new, non-superstitious communities. The framers have an advantage when it comes to mission (a), because they’re naturally more social and community-oriented, but they won’t succeed unless the New Atheists are successful at mission (b), which is where their strength lies. We need to make people uncomfortable where they are (as the New Atheists do), but we also need to offer them an inviting alternative (which the framers ought to be good at).

I’m leaving tons unsaid (sigh). Such is the plight of the blogger. Comments are open though, so there’s hope.

So, who’s going to put the bell on the cat?

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Posted in Society. 16 Comments »

16 Responses to “Getting religion”

  1. mikespeir Says:

    I’ve never felt especially comfortable marching wholeheartedly into either camp and maybe this is why. It’s a good start on understanding the problem, at least; something to think about.

  2. JohnMWhite Says:

    I started reading this article ready to disagree, because I have largely been in the New Atheist camp since my de-conversion. I admit, part of it is bitter resentment and anger, but honestly I find the religious mindset so destructive that I feel drawn toward rallying against it with a mighty battle cry of “reason doesn’t get people killed!”. But the more I read, the more sense I saw. It’s a very thoughtful piece, and I think the core point is crucial: a lot of people are not interested in objective truth, and beating them over the head with it will achieve nothing.

    Some people will cling to their old notions no matter what because they make them feel, if not superior, at least more secure. I think we see this where previous privilege is challenged – conservative religious communities are resistant to conferring rights to people who traditionally did not have them because they were the ones who DID have them. Other races being given the chance to vote and marry whites, women being given control of their own bodies, homosexuals being allowed to live their lives without fear of prosecution and now we’re at the junction where they may be allowed to serve openly in the military. The gain of others feels like a loss to them, because as other communities catch up, their dominance wanes.

    I find it curious that of all my childhood friends, all but one are now atheist. All of my friends and I were social outcasts and misfits who were shunned by our community for various reasons (one was gay, one disabled, and none of us particularly socially adept)… save one. She was pretty normal, and had lots of friends and a capacity to socialise and so on, and was accepted and absorbed into the regular young community. And she’s the same one who has not entirely thrown off the mantle of theism and religion. This is of course entirely anecdotal, but I do think it is a good demonstration of the issue of social dominance and people seeking a community they feel secure in. We who were not welcome in the caring Christian community sought refuge elsewhere. The one among us who was accepted felt no need to leave.

    I really like this post and think it is a good starting point for discussion. I just have a horrible feeling that no matter how much we understand the religious worldview (and I used to have one), it won’t ever give us a way to penetrate their spiritual shell. I de-converted but a lot of damage was done internally by the community before any semblance of sense and reason got through my armour. Not everyone is already on the periphery – so how does one get through to a theist who is happy in their place?

  3. pboyfloyd Says:

    Post make an excellent point. Is it possible to break through? I don’t think so. I’ll never stop trying though.

    L laughed thinking about this, “ being mealy-mouthed and wishy-washy..”.

    Thinking about waking up tomorrow morning and deciding whether I ought to be mealy-mouthed or wishy-washy, today.

  4. Nemo Says:

    Great post.

    The idea that science is “harder” than religion is another of those things I’ve never really understood. Religion is nothing but a list of arbitrary claims, held together by a flimsy, self-contradictory framework. Science can provide you with even longer lists of things to memorize, sure — but you don’t have to learn any of them to apply the scientific method. It’s a much simpler way to look at the world.

    And valuing social standing over truth… ugh. I know that people do this, but I just can’t get my head around it.

  5. Ken Browning Says:

    The deep process of social change is something I wish I knew more about. How does one explain the questing, fractious nature of American civil rights in comparison to the secularization of northern Europe? Further, I suspect that the internet is a fundamental game changer.

    A few questions:

    In what situations is it possible for social power centers to give up their power without a clawing cat fight?

    What facts do we really know about how the human mind makes fundamental shifts and particularly about religious orientation?

    Are people aligned with religious power centers for the power or are the power centers aligned with more basic, intrinsic and personal coping mechanisms?

    Is it more important to strategically commit resources to personal, social or political change and what is the timing for such commitments?

  6. Arthur Says:

    Daniel Dennett has the last word on this, if you ask me.

    To watch, to have to participate in, the contraction or evaporation of beloved features of one’s heritage is a pain only our species can experience, and surely few pains could be more terrible. But we have no reasonable alternative, and those whose visions dictate that they cannot peacefully coexist with the rest of us we will have to quarantine as best we can, minimizing the pain and damage, trying always to leave open a path or two that may come to seem acceptable.

    Go, Dan!

  7. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    It is strange how certain groups seem to view rights as zero-sum. It makes a little bit of sense under that paradigm that they view gay marriage as an assault on an institution when it’s really a VICTORY for love. They want to feel special by having something other people don’t have, and when other people get it they feel like they’re losing something when they’re really not.

  8. Scotlyn Says:

    This post makes a lot of sense! I had a discussion on a different blog over the use of the word “destroy,” as in “destroy religion.” I’m not at all certain that it is possible to actually destroy religion without destroying essential aspects of human people – I base this on some actual examples of legislative attempts to outlaw religion in places as diverse as Ireland, Mexico, Poland and Russia. In every case, people chose to cleave to their faith even more strongly with underground resistance movements, etc.

    We are social creatures and are both shaped by and shapers of the contents of our shared “extelligence” (per Pratchett, Cohen and Stewart). I think the prospect of building new, strong communities that are significant enough (if not actually dominant) to hold their own and provide an alternative “home” for people, is an excellent way to combat religion’s dominance. They would be populated initially by natural “outsiders,” but perhaps more broadly later on as traditional centres of power and authority erode. Some features of religion, though, would be easily replicated by other forms of society – religion is a human phenomenon, after all. We need to reach deeper and define what it is we object to.

  9. Tony Hoffman Says:

    “What people want are subjective “truths” that they can use to build dominant communities, unfettered by the arbitrary requirements of factual accuracy.”

    I thought the use of arbitrary above was interesting — I think you should clarify how you are using that word in the context of that sentence. (Do you mean that the requirements are exercised in an arbitrary manner, or that the requirements themselves are arbitrary?)

    I wholeheartedly agree with the argument from social consequences; I think it’s the best explanation for resistance to deconversion.

    I think that the solution (the cat belling, as you have it) for increasing the rate of deconversion in the U.S. and other religious holdouts is the same as it has always been for all socio-religious movement: more hot girls. Whatever works for them will, I think, work for us all.

  10. Jim T. Says:

    I can agree with about everything you said. You are absolutely right about religion serving on both personal and social levels, and that the particular “truths” don’t really matter.

    One nitpick would be the emphasis on people wanting to be in the dominant group. While that might be the general preference, there are plenty of people quite happy to belong to smaller, niche, or oddball groups. Many people might find plenty enough comfort and social functions in a small religious group. Others will have a sense of superiority by belonging to a small group, as they perceive themselves as the spiritually elite. The important thing is that there are groups for all sorts of personality types.

    One issue that you did not discuss, but I’m sure you are well aware of, is the role of authority and leadership in a social group. To really thrive, a community needs leadership, organization, and guidelines of behavior. In general, leadership is much harder without a force that provides the leader with authority and power. This is true in many realms, including the military, business, government, politics, and religions.

    Obviously, religions excel in this category. By appealing to a intangible supernatural authority, any religious leader can easily bolster his authority over a religious group. Acceptable behavior can be defined by community norms, appeals to tradition, or scripture. The religious leader, whether conscious of it or not, has great tools in which to motivate, control, and organize his community. As noted in the blog post, his greatest and most immediate challenge is competition from others who do it better. Over the long term, there’s also the challenge of apathy from those that slowly notice that it’s all a bunch of superstitious baloney. But still, we are social creatures, and we need leadership and organization.

    I personally don’t see how any secular social group could ever hope to compete with that. Certainly not for the bulk of society. Even on the edges, it will take great leadership, organization, and patience.

  11. Scotlyn Says:

    At 50, I haven’t qualified as a “hot girl” for quite a while, but I think I may have a achieved a certain archetypal influence on my children as a mother. (“Mother”) In the event, both of them are atheists, and they happen to have gathered a sinificant circle of friends around them who are humanistic/atheistically inclined as well (and whose parents are largely mainstream Catholic).

    And, Jim T. – so, I agree with the sub-culture argument – people are often happy to pick a “different” sub-culture to the one they grew up in, so long as it has a meaningful group narrative which they feel fits their own lives. Whether or not we want religion in our lives, we want/need stories.

    I also agree with your point about leadership, Jim T. Religion makes this easy, but so do very large or complex “real world” enemies or looming catastrophes – eg evil counter revolutionaries or climate change. Some aspects of religion, like I said, are indistinguishable from some aspects of human nature, and will likely follow us wherever we go.

  12. Tony Hoffman Says:

    Scottlyn, yea, I think we agree; I must mean that money and power (usually held by men) follows wherever the hot girls are. You could make the same claim in reverse, but I’m a feminist so I’m going to stick with my original statement.

    One think I think is odd is that I believe that theists are demonstrably wrong regarding the various tenets of their religion (special creation and intelligent design, mind-body dualism, psychology, miracles, etc.), and this should prove to be a real disadvantage in day-to-day life. Clearly, atheists and naturalists have a better hold on reality. But this, it seems, is outweighed by the advantages that theists enjoy from the social cohesion found in their shared illusion. So, I’m a fan of pushing theists to any point where they most choose between reality and their illusion, the higher the stakes the greater the friction. This is the atheists greatest advantage, and we shouldn’t shy away from it.

    Also, interesting you should mention it; my dad was a believer (he’s since passed away), but my mom faked her belief in our childhood and now that we’re adults she is an open atheist. My 3 brothers and I were all born with her common sense, or were affected by her skepticism, or were just born in a later time where theism seems less tenable. Whichever, all props to you and your gender; I truly do mean it that I believe women’s minds today hold what the next generation will think.

  13. Yahzi Says:

    To advance the cause of atheism, what we need is more science. Like, for instance, this:

    Not that these results should surprise anyone with a lick of sense; but now we have data. And the data shows the confrontationists are right. You know what? You can’t have a social network when you are invisible. Being invisible has allowed religious social networks to dominate. Simply being visible will allow atheists to create social networks and join social networks and take away religion’s monopoly on social networks.

    Turns out speaking truth to power is always the right thing to do. Who knew? Oh, that’s right, we Gnu Atheists knew. We knew all along.

    Glad to have you aboard now, though.

  14. Welcome « Changing Religions Says:

    […] a very good reason for this, as I’ve discussed in my post on Getting Religion: people do not believe because of the apologetics, they use the apologetics because they believe.  […]

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  16. Susannah Says:

    Most posts trying to erase the gap between the accomodationists and the confrontationalists just leave me annoyed; they always seem to be saying, “Now, now, kids!” without proffering anything but a distaste for argument. This post finally made sense.

    That is partly because it tied into and illuminated my personal experience. After 5 decades in the church, in leadership for three of those decades, I was definitely part of the community. I was “different”, in that I studied, and kept on studying, trying to come to a more complete understanding of God, the Scriptures, and our doctrines, but that enhanced my standing in the church.

    I have always thought (and to a large part, correctly) that it was this study that led me out of Christianity; once I had seen the contradictions and the outright untruths in the Bible, the end was inevitable.

    But your post reminded me of something crucial: when I was 50, I had a severe heart attack, which kept me out of church for months on end, and when I returned, my participation was sporadic and uninvolved. I had no strength for anything more. And in that entire time, no-one (literally not one person) from the church visited or phoned. Once I was out of hospital, I basically didn’t exist.

    I have resisted the implication that I was angry at the church; I may have been, and not for the first time. But that would not have affected my beliefs. It never had, before.

    What threw me on my own resources was being out of the community. Then, without the constant input, and the need to “not rock the boat”, I was free to study and to really think about what I was learning.

    So in my case, and possibly in many others, as you say, community is crucial. And all our reasoning and persuasion and maybe even “friendship de-evangelism” may go to waste unless we take this into consideration.

    But is there an inviting alternative? Some of us have found it, once we left, in the science community; most do not fit there. Here in Canada, it is a bit easier than in the US. Communities form around different activities, business-related or social, and they are mostly secular, because most of our population is. But they I don’t see that they have the effect of replacing the church community, except over a fairly lengthy period of drifting.

    But how do we go about forming a community that can attract Christians still firmly entrenched in the church?