Friday, July 02, 2010

Fundies and Atheists

Eric over at Classical Values ran a post which linked to earlier posts of his, demonstrating his history of having been on a certain side of an issue for years, not coming to it lately just because Obama is president. That issue is irrelevant here, but one of his 2003 links discussed a similarity of certainty shown by both fundamentalists and atheists. He wondered if there were an insecurity of belief that provoked more extreme views, and a greater likelihood of categorical, even insulting, statements about those who disagree. I don’t know about the insecurity part. It is a cultural assumption that hard-edged opinions are in fact brittle, but I don’t know that there’s actual evidence for it.

Yet this observation does seem related to my recent post, however, which closed with the idea that the more biased one is, the less able one is to perceive it. As only a great saint can sense the full depth of his sin and make adequate confession, so also can only a very objective person face the full truth of his biases.

But there was another cultural assumption in Eric’s post I thought worth mentioning. Not because the point has not been refuted by others many times (far better than I will do here), but because it persists despite all refutation, and can’t be challenged often enough. In the context of calling the fundamentalist – atheist overstatements basically a wash logically, he did give credit to atheists for being braver, for facing death without support.

Once one has that theory in place, it is certainly easy to find confirming evidence for it. That’s true of even half-baked theories, of course, and only mild evidence for truth or usefulness. But Christians do indeed talk about comfort and support from God in the face of death, or indeed any difficulty. At first glance, and given the cultural background of the early Freudians assuring us that they had read deeply into the hearts of mankind and found this to be true, it’s a belief unlikely to be challenged, once held.

Yet the theory is wrong nonetheless, and may on balance even be backward. It overlooks a great deal of available information, data that hides right in the open. As Yogi Berra said “you can see a lot just by looking.” One is in the nature of fundamentalists, the other in the nature of atheists. Both are attitudes found in a significant minority of each group. At minimum. My opinion is that these attitudes prevail in a majority of each, but I can claim certainty only about those whose words and actions betray their thought rather obviously.

Many fundamentalists are haunted people. When you hear the agonies that people go through, wondering if they are indeed saved, you would never conclude that they have embraced their faith for comfort. They may be embracing it in the hope of comfort, and you may blame the faith for providing the opportunity for torment if you like. But that is a subtle change of subject, for we were talking about the weakness of some people relying on belief in God in order to face death. In their case, their faith accuses them rather than comforts, promising them judgment and a possibility of hell. Many atheists at this point are quite dismissive – well, you brought it on yourself, then. If you’d just drop the idea you’d be free of it, wouldn’t you? As I said. This freedom you’re advocating doesn’t sound like some burden you bear with great strength and nobility of spirit, it sounds like an easier ride. Your words, not mine.

The haunting is not restricted to fundamentalists, or even to Christians. Perhaps it is inherited, not acquired, in which case it would behoove us all not to quickly criticise whatever steps people take to ameliorate it. But whether fundamentalists create it or attract it, we must treat it as a fact when discussing comfort. If one does not feel that pressure, then self-congratulation is hardly in order.

There is not much escape in considering only those Christians less emotionally intense than fundamentalists either. Much of the comfort offered is delivered as an IOU, to be granted after death, when all will be well. The comfort here is rather a down payment, a foretaste of the feast to come, as we say. Hope is indeed powerful, and a great comfort at times. But it is qualitatively different from “comfort” or “support” of our everyday speech. It’s not nothing, and is certainly one of the perks of being a Christian in the face of death. However, the description of what it is by nonbelievers seems to widely miss the mark.

Next is the psychological benefit atheists get from their belief. It is quite delicious to see oneself as self-sufficient, strong, bloodied but unbowed by life’s vicissitudes. I know it’s delicious because I have tasted it many times. If I, who see it as a flaw and try to kill it can attest to its pleasure, how much more is it sustenance to those who drink it as part of their daily diet, like water. Pride is indeed an enormous comfort and can sustain us through much. The Christian believes it is ultimately hollow. Perhaps the unbeliever finds it so at the end as well, and does truly face death bereft of comfort. But frankly, I have only heard in stories (Kenneth Tynan was one) of that realisation coming to nonbelievers facing death. I haven’t detected the self-congratulation ebbing.

I am speaking only of the obvious self-congratulation of the atheist, whose pleasure in having contempt for others is barely disguised. The others I can only guess at. But I suspect there are a great many who are less flamboyant, and certainly less insulting, who quietly congratulate themselves on their fearless intellect and emotional self-sufficiency nonetheless. The may drink with modest mien, pouring only from the top shelf and never causing a row in the pub, but they get just as drunk. They are likely in even more danger because their good manners disguise their similarity to the roaring drunkard. I suspect it not because I think atheists of necessity a condescending and self-congratulating people, but because I find such feelings in myself. All the time. The illusion of knowing how the world really is, of enduring blows with equanimity and staunchly holding one’s face to the storm has been the subject of poets and authors for so long that it may be a cultural universal.

And following my reasoning from paragraph two, if you are quite certain this does not apply to you in the slightest, you might be in greater danger.


Kurt said...

Your point in the last paragraph reminds me of the study by some psychologists sometime in the past five years or so about the fact that incompetent people don't recognize they are incompetent. Although you're talking about a different realm of knowledge and belief, it does seem that the same principle applies. And of course, it also goes to the issue of political faux pas you were reflecting on last month.

With regard to your point about fundamentalists not having much comfort in their beliefs, I'd add that it appears to be a feature and not a bug with many particularly intense religious communities. For instance, that was certainly the case in the days of the puritans. One of the most memorable anecdotes I remember learning about the anxiety of the puritans concerned a woman who was so uncertain about whether or not she was one of the elect that she threw her baby down a well to prove that she couldn't be one of them.

Kurt said...

How quickly the years have flown by. It appears that the first significant publications about the Dunning-Kruger effect appeared in 1999. With that fact in mind, I seem to remember reading about it in the New York Times--probably sometime in 2000 or maybe 2001. That was back when I read the NYT regularly. One reason was that I was living in New York then, but the other was that my level of disgust with the paper's bias had not reached the point that it would a few years later.