Bottom of the Firkin Barrel

What is it to be offended? Not a seemingly difficult question, but one for which the surrounding issues seem as well understood as a quantum mechanical unicorn. Theists in particular seem to be unreflectively convinced (gasp) that offence is something requiring immediate acknowledgement and redress, and that it overrules almost any other principle imaginable. A state of affairs which is instantly made worse by their somehow thinking their own beliefs and feelings have a kind of innate sanctity lacked by others.

Being offended is little more than the emotional correlate of disagreement. Disagreement with a statement, if it contravenes one’s sensibilities, or disagreement with a state of affairs, if it departs from one’s ideal. Little enough, but clearly sufficient to warrant an only weakly-challenged torrent of words and action against freedom of expression and action (to the extent that is free). As if harbouring a feeling of offence will cause the self or mind to unravel the way they presumably imagine society will if such transgressions are allowed to continue.

But the fact is nothing happens. It might be psychologically unhealthy to carry this permanent sense of furious indignation, but considering how unlikely it is the entire world will conform to one’s utopia I would think it more sensible to aim for a sense of perspective than burning cinemas or bowdlerising books.

Having mentioned perspective something else rarely injected into this debate is the side of the atheist, or relativist. As if not subscribing to an absolutist worldview renders one unable to recognise or decide that something causes offence. I, for example, am mortally offended by each and every single theistic concept, multiplied by the billions of instantiations they have by running as cretinous software in the brains of those so deluded. And yet I would disagree with a ban on religion (perhaps the idea offends me…) since I cannot bring myself to the cyclopean arrogance to assume that my personal sensibilities must dictate the world of others.

Further, a world without offence, without the possibility of offence, seems one anodyne and devoid of any intellectual challenge. A bland, cloying reality where boundaries aren’t even approached let alone crossed. Stultifying and stupefying. And depriving intelligent people of the chance to finding the right way of acting and the right things to say, in a world where anything can be said and done, and especially one in which there is no Right thing.

It is said that offence is taken, and not given. An idea which is very true, if not literally so. I have often tried desperately to give offence, and have little idea of my success rate. It would be pleasing to imagine this is because I live in an environment of balanced and reasonable people. But, being balanced and reasonable, I expect it’s simply because I don’t matter. Something the offended should perhaps try on.

Good News Everyone

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.

The Loss That Keeps Giving

I wrote some time ago of the statistically provable increase in happiness a sure and certain belief in a god and provident universe could confer, and how this was about as relevant to the truth of such beliefs as intellectual integrity is to… such beliefs. Still, not everyone values integrity over lackwit miserable ease, and so those beliefs are still touted with astonishing persistence at all of us when we are least able to filter out nonsense.

A personal idiosyncrasy is that I find the harm caused by the removal of something even ostensibly positive is harm of a particularly insidious kind. And it is something I had to go through at a fairly young age, once I’d realised the actual nature of the world. It is not a comfortable realisation when not even out of single figure age, having to consider if the adults were lying to you, or just stupid. And, since what atheist literature there is about this loss is sparse and generally intellectually difficult, it leaves a serious and despairing gap. A gap capacious in both darkness and duration.

I’m sure it would generate no dissent to say that religion persists in the more intellectually deficient in society. There are many routes to atheism, but a major highway is simply being unable to swallow the utterly inconsistent and irrelevant claims and commitments all religion requires, and this is the function of a functioning brain. And it is this thought which makes it surprising to me that even parents who are unconvinced by religion often still allow it to indoctrinate their children. Perhaps they hope that those children will find and retain the comfort of believing there is any point to anything. But in doing so they seem to be making a somewhat unfortunate bet: that their children will be too stupid to think their way out of delusion.

And, if those children turn out to be sufficiently intelligent to make this escape, they are automatically condemned to have a wrenching loss of worldview. Religion never stopped with wanting to explain the provenance of the universe, it had ambition and reached into everything.

It is almost as if there is no real upside to allowing the memetic corruption of minds.

Happiness, More or Less

There is an oft trotted out pseudo-statistic about how theists regularly score higher on reported levels of happiness than atheists. As usual, the surrounding tone and implication is that this somehow proves (let us not imagine anyone involved would use the more accurate term ‘confirms’) the veracity of religion. A cheap shot here would be to point out that there is no calculus of happiness, not just because there is no possible Standard Index unit of happiness (seeing someone slip and fall on ice does not raise us 15 milligiddies), but because even subjectively gauging one’s own happiness is a mostly blind and entirely inconsistent effort. A far better shot would be: And?

Does it come as any sort of surprise that a belief, especially a strong belief, in an ordered universe, a being or beings which in some fashion watch out for and care for us, that death is not an ending, that books and hierarchies that know Truth exist to guide us when we’re lost, would help to make such believers feel happier? Conversely, does it come as any surprise that the solitary, ultimately meaningless, unrewarding, often bitter taste of real atheism carries little of this (even if it does salve somewhat with the intensely smug satisfaction of being right and undeluded)?

Happiness is not proof or confirmation of anything, especially not truth (whatever that may be). It’s right up there with conviction as a complete irrelevance to the epistemology and ontology of the whole debate. One could slap electrodes in the brain to create a permanent sensation of bliss. Would that be more ‘true’ than… well, examples are always a struggle for me, especially when trying to find one of happiness. The question simply sounds strange, and not just because of the half-hearted bailing out.

As someone who has always had a lot of sympathy with the philosophical meme that happiness is the highest good, I have often had to wrestle with a nature that not only places truth above happiness, but in fact frequently beats it over its beatific, blithe face. The tentative resolution is that any happiness not based on truth is inherently fragile and subject to dismissal when truths are revealed. And that there is no virtue in holding onto delusions once they are revealed as such. Happiness without delusion may typically be less, in amount and degree, but it is intrinsically more valuable for that.

‘Better a man unsatisfied than a pig satisfied’, said Aristotle. Perspicacious as always, and evidently a man who knew that a satisfied pig makes a wonderful bacon butty. In the cold mornings after existential dark nights of the soul, that can often be good enough.