The Watcher

Between lens and soul
Behind the eyes
A space filled with doubt,
With our doubts,
And we never know
Who watches
Our fevered motions

The eyes widen in darkness

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In my capacity as a practising smartarse I often get drawn into debates with evangelical types. Which is, of course, pointless: arguments don’t sway faith, and evangelists have no arguments to sway infidels such as myself. Nevertheless, it can be useful to a) prove that a secular outlook means wildly different belief sets can co-exist and b) remind oneself that religiosity is certainly not the result of reasoning.

In a recent encounter I opened with a reliable shocker on the theme of not only do I not believe, but I would be horrified to find out there was a god. Atheists tend to be viewed as actually lacking something (‘atheist’, however, is just a word, and one that would have been unnecessary if god-concepts hadn’t been brought up in the first place) and I often find the assumption in theists that most of us would welcome a divine presence if only we could open up our minds (which is, I assume, to crack open our skulls and reap the rewards that lavishes on our intelligence levels).

There are many reasons to be horrified by god, but I went with the divine tyranny option. I value being able to choose (whatever that means) and create values. I value using my own brain and experience to make sense of the world and its inhabitants. If there is a divine provenance to the universe, it typically is characterised as a moral one as well as a physical creation one. Which means there is a correct answer. And judging by holy texts and the behaviour of adherents to them, the correct answer would not be mine. It is tempting to say therefore there is no god, to paraphrase someone I always paraphrase. But it is not so much the being rendered Wrong that I dislike so much, it is the very meanness of there being a single correct way. As with the dismal paucity of the answer ‘god did it’ when talking about the intricacies and wonders of the physical universe, this impoverishes the experience of being human.

It is also slavery and compulsion. And a bizarrely unfair halfway house: we are not free to choose what is right, but we are allowed to choose whether we do what is right. And if we do not, we are punished to an insane degree (eternity is a lot longer than most people seem to think). The response I received to that was that god is a benevolent guide, we are free to follow his guidance or not, and his Christian holy book does not threaten punishment. No argument needed there, it simply does so threaten. A lot. Also, god is evidently not much of a guide. If one went to a tourist information desk and their one pamphlet was a collection of millennia-old places and events, and the person on that desk said they were not actually the guide pamphlet source, nor had they ever met, seen or heard anything from that source, but nevertheless following the pamphlet to the letter was the only guaranteed way of navigating the city, one might think of at least raising an eyebrow.

Which is the point. Religiosity is not about reason. It can be about ignorance. But often it is about whether it satisfies a psychological or social need. But in either of those cases, to lower all standards of evidence and to blindly hold to what one wants to be the case are very poor endorsements of that mode of being. The evangelists at my door wanted a Father. I’d say he would be found wanting, for absenteeism at the very least.

Reflections on a Sixpence

Anyone who may have read any posts written by me might have detected a hint of… antipathy towards religion and theistic thought (for example, to me that is an oxymoron). This is for many reasons, many of which have been covered or at least broached. The one I am addressing here relates to standards of evidence, or more broadly the modes of rationality allowed or employed. Religion frustrates me because as a deeply rational empiricist the haphazard, tissue-thin, rarely even internally consistent modes of thought or standards of evidence employed in theistic traditions both galls and frightens me.

Partly this is because the standards of reasoning are typically so bad I cannot help but worry that it opens the door to all poor standards in all areas of thought. To subvert a famous sentiment: ‘with God, anything is permitted’. And I would maintain that there is some truth in this. Although many religious traditions officially reject what they think of as superstitions (you know, crazy ideas such as breaking mirrors being bad luck, not sensible ideas such as virgin birth) once you have lowered your standards of evidence and reasoning, especially for classic religion-centred reasons such as believing what you want to believe, deluding yourself into believing you matter more than you do etc., there will be some cognitive creep.

However, more broadly the utter deluge of cognitive crap actually does not occur to the degree that I sometimes fear it will. Otherwise, the general mass of theists would not actually manage to function at all. In the general run of life, even theists expect demonstrable evidence to accept things are the case. Hopefully, if I maintained that there was a lovely sandwich in the fridge, but it couldn’t be seen, felt or tasted, but would definitely nourish them if they had faith it was there, they would feel they were being treated like an idiot. The terrible standards of evidence and reasoning seem largely confined to matters pertaining to religion.

On the one hand this is a relief. The world would be even worse if people reasoned in the theistic mode in general (or perhaps, briefly, a lot funnier, before becoming far less densely populated, and then by only the rational). But for me this brings an additional frustration. Because it indicates that the people concerned are not incapable of being rational, and yet there is almost blanket refusal to apply a consistent level of intellectual integrity.

But, evidently, to theists they feel the same standards of reasoning and evidence are not to be used in such different magisteria as the phenomenal and the noumenal. My final thought, then, is to wonder why, in what is supposedly the realm of actual Truth and meaning, the ordinary hugely successful methods of science and general empiricism are anathema, and blind faith, refusal to acknowledge evidence and non-questioning of authority are so highly prized. I suppose we all worry the ropes we cling to will unravel. But empirical industry tends to provide gradually better ropes as the old ones fray.