Getting religionDecember 4, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
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?