Sunday, October 4, 2009

Faith needs protection. No joke.

Kid gloves: off. Rant: on.

So there's a bunch on the 'tubes about atheist advertisements being complained into censorship, about atheists being vilified for trouncing others' beliefs, about the insensitivity of all us modern folk for criticizing each others' faiths, about the problem of everyone rubbing elbows while we disagree so vehemently on matters metaphysical, and a bunch of other nonsense that amounts to children whining that they don't want to hear this or that. "Boo-hoo, I don't wanna hear that stuff, wahh-wahh, why can't you just be quiet back-stage while I'm loud and in the spotlight?"

Let's get this straight, right off the bat: if you complain that something offends you, then you are whining. Offense is not harm. If you complain that something harms you, then your complaint is legitimate. And if something offends you and is harmful to you, then confine your complaint to the actual harm (as opposed to the pretend harm) or you will be seen as a whiner and the legitimate component of your complaint will probably be drowned out.

As Thomas "I owned slaves but still had relatively progressive values for my time" Jefferson said, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Tru Fax, right there - the very truest. There is a piece of the puzzle that is missing from the public discourse, one that makes sense of the whole debacle, and that piece is simply this: only stupid ideas need protection.

That sounds flippant, but I'm being perfectly serious here. And also flippant. Good ideas are backed by evidence and/or argumentation, and they get a foothold in the meme pool based on those merits. While they may not be as infectious, prolific, or enduring as others of their kin, these merits are all that good ideas need. Furthermore, it is these merits which cannot be taken from good ideas and cannot be conferred upon stupid ideas, and this is why faith needs protection. Faith does not have redeeming qualities as a rational idea or as an empirically supported idea, it only has the memetic merits of being infectious and communicable. These flaws make faith vulnerable to rational and empirically supported ideas, and acknowledging these facts in public discourse is anathema to the maintenance of faith in practice because cognitive dissonance is a bitch.

"Faith" is a great many things to a great many people. Let's take a quick tour along the continuum: faith is the hope of things unseen; faith is believing what you know ain't so (thank you, Samuel Clemens); faith is believing without or despite reason and/or evidence; faith is trust; faith is patience; faith is kindness. Atheists, skeptics, and humanists may all "argue in good faith," and this is not a problem for us faithless heathens, for "to argue in good faith" is to trust in one's argumentative partner. Same letters, different idea. I, as a humanist, place faith in the goodness of humanity, insofar as I expect us to do all the good that it is in us to do (though we often fall far short, I still have that faith as an expected standard - this is called "optimism" by some). I have faith in my brother, insofar as I believe that he will find happiness in his life; though I also recognize that he may in fact fall short of this. Faith, like all words, has multiple meanings.

I'm talking about one kind of faith here: belief without or despite reason and/or evidence. "Faith" is shorter, but you can replace every use of "faith" with "belief without or despite reason and/or evidence" if you ever find yourself confused as to what exactly I'm yelling about here (except, of course, for the last paragraph). That's the kind of faith that is stupid, and that's the kind of faith that needs protection. Faith is frail and weak; evidence and reason are enduring and powerful. Faith must be shielded from evidence and reason, for those things erode faith. Believers are humans, though, and humans have psychological needs, some of which include:
  • To maintain an image of oneself as consistent.
  • To maintain an image of oneself as rational.
  • To maintain an image of oneself as intelligent.
These are all directly opposed to faith - it is not consistent, it is not rational, and it is not intelligent to believe something without reason or evidence. We require reason and evidence in all other areas of our lives: whether we're poking around on Snopes or looking up the latest health scare, we typically follow evidence and reason to form our beliefs. Nobody drives by faith, writes a grocery list by faith, balances their checkbook by faith, or does bids on e-bay by faith. In all of those activities, the overwhelming majority of people behave in a mostly-rational fashion for the overwhelming majority of the time (at least as far as the whole "forming beliefs about the way things are" activity is concerned). So faith is not consistent with our day-to-day lives.

Neither is faith rational, as a matter of definition. While I am defining my way to victory on this point (and deliberately confining my tirade to faith that does in fact lack or defy evidence and/or reason), I am not merely defining my way to victory here. This is a pertinent point for the simple reason that many people do in fact believe things without or despite reason and/or evidence, yet most people do have a psychological need to consider themselves as rational beings. We're complicated, you see. This kind of faith - which many people actually have - is directly opposed to this deep-seated bit of human nature. This matters, in other words, and no amount of cultural apologetics can fix it. Y'know, just in case there's anyone out there who cares to point out that there's no rule saying we have to be rational, or that humans aren't rational all the time; sure, the former point is true and the latter point is true, but faith is still a problem for this reason.

Last, faith is not intelligent. It's just not smart to believe something with all your heart but without or despite reason and/or evidence, The End. There are many different forms of intelligence, and trying to come up with a universally acceptable one is a fool's errand. Just the same, I challenge anyone to propose a workable definition of "intelligent" that allows for the behavior of "adopting a belief without reason or evidence and deliberately ignoring obvious questions that would undermine said belief." Pro Tip: This can't be done without special pleading or begging the question (or flat-out arbitration, I suppose). Conversely, I'll bet we could all come up with three definitions each of "stupid" that would cover such a behavior. Here's one: "failing, deliberately or otherwise, to adhere to rationality and general thoughtfulness; absent-minded or flighty in one's conscious thought processes." We're all guilty of stupidity from time to time (especially under this definition), and I'll be the first to admit that I have some pretty epic bouts of The Stupid. Here, watch: "I'm the first to admit having an epic bout of The Stupid! Neener-neener!" But that's part and parcel of the homo sapiens gig: we all make mistakes, and we don't stop until we die. Faith is still stupid, though.

And so we see that, because faith is a dumb idea, it needs protection from the good ideas that would otherwise supplant it. Faith needs tricks to keep itself in place. Faith can't survive on its own in a truly free marketplace of ideas. Faith is a crutch for when we lack explanation or authority but want it anyway, and when a real explanation or an actual authority is found, faith evaporates like dew in the morning sun. When the crutch is no longer needed, the patient needs to learn to walk unaided; for some, this will be a very painful and awkward process; for others, it can be easy. But there are those who wish to walk around with their crutch as a permanent fixture, they get so attached to the crutch that it seems an essential part of their sense of self, and they'll fight anyone who tries to take the crutch away or even say that they don't need it. To take the metaphor to its appropriately awkward conclusion, some of these folks even get upset at the very idea that some people live entirely crutch-less lives, it's so ingrained into their way of life.

So how does faith get the protection it so desperately needs? It's called "social proof," and it's one of the bigger foibles of this whole brain-having business. I would argue that it's the main reason that most faithful aren't formally diagnosed with a delusional disorder: it's just not practical to classify most of a population as "delusional," even if one person alone would be so-classified, and so religion gets a special exemption. You see, when we come under the impression that a lot of other people think something, we tend to see that something as "correct," or at least "legitimate." It's that same old line, "Ten million screaming Elvis fans can't be wrong," but wearing a psychologist's hat and nodding sagely from a leather armchair while you talk about your childhood. It's also one of the reasons that Kitty Genovese died - contrary to popular belief, it is not urban depersonalization that made it possible for her assailant to repeatedly attack her in view of an entire apartment complex. Nor did all those onlookers simply assume that "someone else" would take care of things1. The truth is more subtle and less satisfying.

Kitty Genovese died also because a large number of individuals saw a group doing nothing, and therefore assumed that "nothing" was the right thing to do2. Absent a telepathic time machine, that's the best reconstruction we can get of the situation. This has been tested over and over, and it's why advertisers continuously show people using the advertised product: they're trying to hack your decision-making process by showing you, true or not, that other people do the thing that they want you to do.

Social proof is one of the biggest protections that faith has had in place for the last several thousand years running. The publicly acknowledged existence of happy, moral atheists is a direct and imminent threat to that. This is why the faithful can't stand to see a bus sign that even acknowledges that there are those who don't believe in God. This is why the faithful go into conniptions when they see atheistic displays during the holidays. This is why the faithful tell atheists to sit down, shut up, and keep their unbelief to themselves: our existence is a threat to their way of life, insofar as their way of life includes building up that wall of social proof around the useless bauble of faith. And soon, we shall see this power harnessed for good or for awesome as it gives Bill Donohue a pants-shitting heart attack, hopefully on live television.

This is also why the faithful oppose stem cell research, or evolution, or reproductive rights, or gay marriage, or anything that threatens their worldview: scientific and cultural progress of any kind erodes the protections they've built for their faith, because results are undeniable (and cognitive dissonance is a bitch). This is also why the faithful tend to accept the comforts of civilization they grew up with (thanks, science!), while decrying the imaginary iniquities of further-civilizing efforts: change for the better implies that there was a "worse" to come from, and that undermines faith. But the advances they grew up with are familiar, so those are seen as non-threatening. Did you catch that? Even though the "new and threatening" innovations are a natural outgrowth of the same principles that fueled the development of the "old and safe" innovations, they don't see scientific progress that way because they don't think about it enough (usually). It only goes as far as "new and threatening" versus "old and safe" for quite a lot of them. But public misunderstanding of science is another topic for another day.

In closing: Faith (as a belief held without or despite reason and/or evidence) really needs protection, not as a deontological maxim, but because it can't stand on its own. Social proof has historically been brought to bear in service to this task, but social justice and free speech and generally being civilized persons gets directly in the way of the social proof which the faithful so desperately crave. And so of course we shall be met with shrieking opposition every step of the way, because the better the situation gets for us, the worse it gets for the faithful, as their social proof collapses and exposes their frail faith to the better ideas that undermine it. They see this as "bad." It would be better termed as "growth." And, barring another Dark Age, it is inevitable.

Fuckin' hooray!

1. This phenomenon has been identified and has nothing to do with urban environments (as opposed to rural environments), but rather large groups (as opposed to small groups), and it's called "diffusion of responsibility." From the Wikipedia article: "Diffusion of responsibility is a social phenomenon which tends to occur in groups of people above a certain critical size when responsibility is not explicitly assigned. This phenomenon rarely ever occurs in small groups. In tests, groups of three or fewer, everyone in the group took action as opposed to groups of over ten where in almost every test, no one took action." And for clarity, though the Wikipedia article states that diffusion of responsibility can manifest in a bystander effect, the bystander effect page lists diffusion of responsibility as just one of its multifarious causes. Hooray for overlap!
2. Yeah, OK, it's still more complicated than that. I know. But in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Cialdini argues pretty much this idea in chapter four ("Social Proof: Truths Are Us"). He goes on, he lays out a great case, but the point is that this bystander effect is huge and not a lot of people really understood it until the studies were done. It's not just diffusion of responsibility.

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