10.31.2008

Empathic Rationalism with Amysticism as a Personal Philosophy


I'm not really an atheist. That might or might not surprise some people. No I haven't gotten religion in any way shape or form, nor am I likely to any time soon. But to consider myself a skeptic I can't call myself a true atheist. I think of myself as an agmystic. Hopefully the meaning of that term will become clear shortly.

Being true to my personal ideal:

Truth be told, if fundamentalist religion had not become such a political force in this country I wouldn't give any of it a second thought. During my youth religion seemed to have become just another bit of background noise, an essentially harmless exercise which on occasion actually did some good in the world. It was a dinner topic to be politely avoided in the interest of harmony and open-mindedness. The Bible was at best allegorical and only the most ignorant uneducated and backward country people I encountered believed it literally. At worst it seemed no more than an occasional nuisance to people who weren't into it and not answering the door to well dressed intruders seemed an adequate defense from its siren's call. Ecumenical movements were in full swing and it looked as if the whole thing would slowly blow away on the winds of change. Those rural churches still railed against evolution, etc., but it seemed as if the battle was winding down. There were still devotees out doing great works helping people but I sensed that these people would have still been out doing their good works whether in God's name or merely for the sake of the work that needed doing. That turned out to be extremely naive. Obviously while many of us moved on, religion was fermenting below the surface and mutating back into a much more virulent and less tolerant strain that filled a void in the minds and hearts of many people. And not just mainstream Christianity. Off shoots such as Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses gained membership as well. Then the big box churches came along offering a perfect mixture of Sunday piety with never-having-to-say-you-are-sorry capitalism and carte blanc' to feel superior to the people you shunned. Things took off in a particularly nasty direction and this new faith movement appealed to a surprising number of the well educated. Insidious resistance to science education by the fundamentalists began to pay off and a huge percentage of Americans became scientifically illiterate as a result. Such apparently was the draw of religion that a 4th rate science fiction writer, who admitted that founding a religion would be more lucrative than writing pulp, can be blamed for one of the fastest growing new religions (more a repackaging since the whole thetan thing smacks of original sin, etc.). So we find ourselves having gone one step forward and 3 steps back and having to deal with the resurgence of theology more akin to its historical antecedents from the 13th century than the ideals of the 1960's. It is supremely ironic that many of the people who continue to rail against communism and liberal group think have no problem joining the collective on Sunday so that they can be told how to think and how to force the rest of us into line. The power of rationalization compels thee! The power of rationalization compels thee! It was this resurgence in the political influence of religion that required me (and others like me) to begin to consider religion once again and include any consideration of it in day to day activities. Prior to that, I felt no particular need to define beliefs with regards to gods.

Do I think deities exist? No. I find the evidence to either be unconvincing or nonexistent. The weight of evidence against seems overwhelming. But I hold out little hope that any believers will be swayed by these facts or any other logical arguments. To my mind, the essential problem with discussions about religion was summarized as well as it ever will be by Augustine centuries earlier: “Faith is to believe what we do not see; and the reward of this faith is to see what we believe." I'm not sure he meant it in the same way that I interpret it but no matter. You can't successfully argue with such perfect circular logic. It's like putting your intellectual wagons in a circle so that no new idea has a chance of penetrating the defenses. New facts can be ignored or molded to fit the preconception. The entire Intelligent Design movement (other than those who are just bald-faced liars) is a tribute to this approach. Since I don't approach the problems from that convenient vantage point, the evidence that has been put forth to support theology fails to be convincing. "How do I know, the Bible tells me so", was a line from a childhood song. Unfortunately it would seem that many adults essentially accept this as an explanation though often with more obscure phraseology. Absent some other reasonable support for a religious position I really can't get too excited about further arguments. For now I am perfectly content to ignore theology until such time as anything new or interesting comes down the pike - except when it leaves the pulpit and approaches the podium.

Why avoid the label of atheist if theology does not enter into my day to day thinking and I think that the existence of deities is extraordinarily unlikely? At one level it's really to keep myself honest, nothing more. Hard as I try I often have a hard time being rational in the ideal sense. Consistency is one of the ways I stay true to my belief in rational thought. The way that biologists refer to the theory of evolution, I think, is a perfect example of staying true to the facts and rationality. It is well documented that evolution happens. We have seen it and identified many of the mechanisms that drive it. What remains a theory is that evolution resulted in the tree of life on earth and that this accounts for the presence of modern humans, among others. That remains a theory (albeit one supported by every single shred of existing scientific evidence across numerous disciplines) because we weren't there to actually see it happen in that precise way. Yes, that is a pretty harsh standard of proof but a good one in science and critical analysis. Being tentative rather than absolute makes one better able to adapt to new knowledge. I believe the same goes for what we don't observe. We often get all over non-scientists with the old saw of 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'. The same can be said about deities. The claim theists make is true at some level – we can't prove they don't exist (deities not theists). Now admittedly I feel that the probability of deities is exceedingly small. So small that I operate in the universe ignoring the variable that gods of any kind might introduce into my calculations of daily living, but that is not the same as knowing that they do not exist period. For me as a skeptic then I feel that I have to refrain from the absolute when knowledge demands that I do. That's the most skeptical position I can take. I'm not trying to start any philosophical movements just trying use logic as best as I can according to my understanding. Bring me proof or compelling evidence and I will be happy to consider it and change my position as the facts demand.

I know that not 'admitting to atheism' is equated to intellectual cowardice by people such as Richard Dawkins, but I feel that it is the most honest position I can take based upon my world view. Others feel differently and if the label of atheist works for them that's great too. For me the tiny acknowledgment of possibility has often been enough to find common ground with people who feel very strongly about their religions. And as much as I admire experts and teachers such as Dawkins and Dennett I think that their zeal is off putting to more moderate people who might otherwise be reached by their eloquent discussions. But that is just my opinion.

Too Restrictive:

Atheism or agnosticism or any of the other of the 'theisms' is too restrictive of a term for what I am. It implies a much larger role for theism in my view of the world, a topic to which I will return later. Calling someone atheist or agnostic makes it seem as if this one category is what defines an entire being (a D'Souza favorite!). People are constantly trying to pigeon-hole us into some convenient category. They want to sell us something, dismiss us, convince us, disenfranchise us or rarely, understand us. As if this one feature is the most important aspect of this person or the only one worthy of note. It's similar to those whose antiabortion position takes such precedence over everything that they find themselves supporting people who, theoretically at least, would seem to stand for a whole host of other things they should or would normally oppose. Rejecting magical thinking is simply one aspect of who I am. As I said earlier, I could care less. I am a religious fundamentalist – I fundamentally do not care what you chose to believe about religion as long as you keep it out of government or the public arena. It's only power over my life is the constant insistence of one or the other of its adherents who think that they need to tell me how to live or think. Neither religion nor its absence creates a void in my life nor does it hold a favored position amongst a whole host of disciplines which require magical thinking. This later fact is why I prefer the term 'agmystic' (as opposed to agnostic) to describe my feelings on all of these matters.

Why Agmysticism?

I think of myself as an Agmystic rather than an agnostic for the simple reason that I also don't put any stock in ghosts, witches, gnomes, fairies, ESP, astrology, magic, taro cards, psychics, deities, spirits, wraiths, poltergeists, fortune tellers, telepathy, telekinesis, levitation, astral projection, palmists, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, etc. For many people their angst over their personal deity is paramount but for me it's just one subheading in a metaphysical waste basket file of equally unfounded beliefs in paranormal entities or processes. Or perhaps a more accurate description is that I don't think there is a single shred of empirical evidence that any of these things exist outside of human minds and literature. As a youth I had a pretty simple rule of thumb: if it requires magic it's fiction. That rule was enough to vanquish the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Catholicism and Reaganomics. As I got older I refined my criteria: if it violates the laws of physics it's fiction.

It isn't who I am

The absence of religion in my life is not the central pillar of my being; it is merely a byproduct of my approach to life. Pleasing (or worrying about displeasing) what I consider to be nonexistent deities is not part of my day. Nor is following a bunch of rules advocated by this or that group of middle eastern herders or merchants anywhere from 4ooo to 1400 years in the past. I've read the Torah, Bible and most of the Koran and that's still all it seems to me. They smack not of the divine but rather of the factual limitations of uneducated societies long since past. The parts that remain timely in these books have little to do with the rigid structures they advocate or the deity defined but mostly are good common-sensical approaches to human interaction. The practical advice is good but is obscured or even subverted by the canon. But there are kernels of truth in these texts which recur. The golden rule appeared well before the wrapper of the New Testament was written to try and co-opt it. Some of these pragmatic approaches provide a pretty good template for treading lightly amongst your fellow man. (Too bad all the secret handshakes have taken on so much importance at the expense of the messaging.) These texts served that function well but I don't feel any pull to go back and study them further each day seeking some factoid which would serve the same purpose to me as reading my horoscope. So what does form the basis of how I try (with varying degrees of success from day to day) to live my life? It's pretty simple - what I aim for is a balance of empathy and rationalism.

Historical digression

Part of my world view admittedly was ceded to me by my father though he retained his Catholicism where I did not. His way of looking at the world drove me crazy as a kid. It was only later that I realized that he and I viewed the world in similar fashion. Nature vs nurture? Who knows; probably a combination. (I was dreadfully anthropomorphic as a child so empathy found fertile ground.) He didn't make me a skeptic – my eyes, ears, memories and experiences did that. But he had an enormous impact on how I viewed and interacted with others. When I was griped in an emotional response to someone else's actions he had this maddening tendency to ask why I thought the other person was acting in such a way? Drove me crazy! Imagine being quietly asked to terminate a perfectly good rant and stop to consider someone else's point of view. And then to have to imagine how MY actions might have been construed. Gently guided by one of those greatest generation survivors of WWII. (He somehow attained the rank of Sargeant before his actual 18th birthday – I am sure the only lie the man ever told in over 80 years of living.) Not that he ever tried to make it seem if everything was my fault, but rather that my perspective was only one of many. It was positively un-American. The notion of it was long embedded into my thinking before I even knew what it was called – empathy. The exact opposite of teen narcissism. To imagine that the perspective of others should be at least a partial guide to your thinking was imprinted on during all those formative years. It persists to this day. I caught a little twinkle in my Dad's eye one time when he over heard me talking to my daughter about why one of her friends might be behaving a certain way. Another link in the chain... I was one of the very lucky ones. I had a father that I could look up to and whose stature has only grown through the knowing.

My mind always tended toward the rational and the skeptical. But the addition of the empathy made me the mutant I am today. Some situations require snap judgments and quick actions but most do not. Most situations lend themselves well to empathetic rationalism. Some might consider that an oxymoron but I beg to differ. Rationalism does not have to be counter to empathy but it does help to define reasonable limits. A common misconception is that empathy is the same as unconditional love. I don't think it is. It is very possible to empathetically put yourself into some one else's shoes and rationally determine that the best explanation for their behavior is that the person really is a scurrilous bastard! And be done with them. As the late great Bertrand Russell said; "You need to be open minded, but not so open that your brains fall out." Empathy does not require one to be a door mat. This approach has seemed to work pretty well for me. I learn a lot from others and about myself through their eyes. The rational part allows me to sort through their perceptions and either accept or reject their perspectives.

Do I think that there is any hope that this type of thinking may become more pervasive? Maybe through education and the exposure of children to fresh ideas and perspectives (one of the many reasons I oppose school vouchers). In time, the kids of today may slowly break away from the limitations of their parents thinking.
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(With apologies to Ste BG. I have been planning on this one for some time but hope the overlap is not problematic.)

11 comments:

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Brian, I feel that I should ask your permission on this matter. I would like to make a couple of old acquaintances who frequent your blog aware that I have this site. I won't ask them on your blog unless you clear it first, and if you'd rather I not that's great too.

GearHedEd said...

I treat my two teenagers as 'people', or 'young adults' rather than large babies. Perhaps this is why they respect me and do not behave as uncontrollable teens. Many of my 16-yr old daughter's friends (who visit regularly) complain that their parents are unenlightened in this regard. Maybe if all of us 'enlightened' types keep producing young adults instead of large babies, then maybe the species will evolve in a few tens of generations and the less adult types will become more anachronistic. One can hope...

pboyfloyd said...

Brian shamelessly plugs his blog on DD's old blog, why don't you?

Now, about your post!

Let me be the Devil's Advocate here.

If you don't believe in magic then you don't believe in the miracles of and the miracle that was Jesus!

Seems to me(as a Christian) that the only reason that you would turn away from GOD is that HE will not permit you to do heinous acts!

Therefore you must want to do heinous acts!

So, when did you first consider*, and this is the worst case scenario, when did you first consider that it might be fun to rape your younger brother?

This act would convict you of incest, homosexuality, pedophilia, rape(of course), torture and I don't know what else IF, and only if, you had considered the truth that is invested in the ghosts and ghouls that you so glibly dismiss!

You really ought to come to Jesus, meek and mild, as a child, given that your only other option as I see it is to be automatically found guilty of every single heinous crime that I (as a Christian) can name!

God made this universe for us to live in, therefore science is Satan's work!

See how simple that is? The beauty of that is that you can despise science, not for being 'hard' but for being evil and at the same time claim divine intelligence for yourself by memorizing one simple line. "The fool sayeth in his heart that there is no God!"

If you can see Godliness in everything you do, you can certainly see that God-hating atheists are evil, right?

Plus, you get to go to Heaven when you die!

Can't you see(pretty-please) that Christians are simply trying to allow you to save your everlasting soul by informing you how you can keep your lustful, sinful, heinous thoughts bottled up, like we do?

*I, in reality, am an atheist and DO NOT cast such aspersions!!!

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Damn pboy! - up til the last sentence you had me doubting myself ;)

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

As for plugging on DD's old blog ewwwww! I haven't gone there since they allegedly pulled the plug. It would probably just tic me off to see his mug.

Asylum Seeker said...

Funny. I pretty much hold the same exact positions as you on the subject of religion (doesn't matter as long as it is out of the political spotlight, Dawkins et. al. are a little heavy-handed, no belief in any supernatural phenomena but willingly to leave the remote possibility that they actually occur, etc.). I guess I am an agmystic agnostic atheist in all reality. I don't mind the atheist label, despite it not making up a large portion of my identity, because it serves as a relatively succinct label of what I am not (namely: I am not any brand of religious believer, not even an unchurched one). I think it does relatively well at distinguishing me that way, and most people who adopt the label similarly share my way of thinking enough for me to keep it.

Anyway: you're dad sounds awesome. Was he trained to parent by Buddhist monks, or something?

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Seeker:

Sometimes I think my father fell to earth because I really have never met anybody quite like him. Kind of a Buddist Catholic outdoorsman drill sargent with a heart of gold...

Asylum Seeker said...

"Kind of a Buddist Catholic outdoorsman drill sargent with a heart of gold..."

A combination that you don't come across all too often. Too bad too. We'd probably be better off with more people like him, from the sound of it.

Harvey said...

Pliny:
A detailed and cogent "apology", which staes with perfect clarity how you have arrived at your present stae of consciousness. Your post is a beautiful restatement of Brian's on essentially the same subject. I am certain he will find it so. Needless to say, I agree with virtually all of what you have said, even though I have arrived at the same conclusions from a very different take off point. I will presume that our general agreement on all imortant points bespeaks our mutual open-mindedness, inate intelligence, and willingness to not take anything we were told while growing up without several large grains of salt. (I dare to presume that you will find nothing in my last staement with which you disagree.)

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Thanks Harvey - I do agree with the last part ;) Good looking too

oneblood said...

Pliny,

Thanks for offering up your viewpoint. The empathy you try to have for individuals is an excellent ethic. It also allows you to be exploratory (you said as much) in what you believe and how you believe it.

Do you have any posts on philosophy? I'd be interested to see your thoughts on any particular topic.

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You know what's sad? Skeptics shouldn't have to be wayward. Every one should have a home. I think a foundational belief of mine is that different minds working compassionately and toward the betterment of humankind should be under the same roof. Feeding each other, debating, finding common ground and never giving up the idea of their inherent worth. The latter would support the former I guess.