Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Dimensions of Belief

There appear to be three dimensions of belief relevant in discussions of religion and dogma in general.

Natural vs. Supernatural: This, I think, is the one closest to our hearts, with us as Naturalists in opposition to all forms of magical thinking, from the cheap tricks of Uri Geller and Sylvia Browne to miraculous interventions claimed by most religious believers. In fact, this distinction runs through both atheist and theistic camps; the Nazis and the Stalinists were notorious dabblers in the occult. Supernaturalists in full advance make naturalistic claims; that the supernatural has real effects in the physical world, which of course puts it fully within the scope, and in conflict with, science. When challenged, they fall back to a position of pure spiritualism, in which the magical world has no measurable effect on the real world. Both claims are often made within the same speech or article, apparently with no awareness on the part of the claimant that they are contradicting themselves.

This maneuver, in fact, is so common that it may be more than a simple rhetorical ploy; it may represent a genuine state of confusion common to the minds of supernaturalists. The root cause appears to be a fond, even sentimental, attachment to the promise of magic as an escape from all strictures of necessity. At its core this is simply positive thinking with magical overtones, hope pure and simple but with no practical basis, no specified way to achieve that end. The utopian visions of the great totalitarian ideologies of the past century are examples of this; a great future awaits us, but it never arrives, nor even draws closer. Nevertheless, they claimed, we must press on. Hope itself is not nonsense, but here it is entirely devoid of the due diligence which would justify it. When disciplined by challenge supernaturalism retreats to this core position of optimism, but will, of its own accord, spill out into flights of pure fantasy which are nevertheless claimed to be real. The problem with supernaturalism is that its rationality is as porous as a sieve, symptomatic of mind so open as to have almost no walls. In practice, supernaturalists are like a car with a powerful engine but no steering or brakes; their optimism may allow them to go very far very fast, or hit a wall with equally impressive speed.

Practical\Empirical vs. Dogmatic: This is mistakenly regarded as the main rift in the atheist-believer divide. In fact, this is also a distinction between secular ideologues (Communists, for example) and secular realists, and between two forms of religion, one which relies on practice and primarily emotional experience, and the other which insists upon rote interpretations of sacred texts and authorities. The naturalistic or scientific world view, and the practical or mystical form of religion, both require more work and ability than dogmatism. In consideration of this someone like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris may have much more in common with a mystical practitioner than a run of the mill dogmatist. Dogmatism is a form of philosophical outsourcing, in which the believer delegates his or her thinking on at least some questions to authorities recognized as such within the believer's immediate peer group. The actual competence of these authorities is a question they do not consider, and having no competence in the area themselves, the followers of these authorities will be slow to entertain the idea that their shepherd is actually fleecing his flock. In some primarily practical religious traditions, dogma is recognized as an obstacle to enlightenment, an "idol of the mind" to be discarded.

It must be stressed, however, that religion is not the only source of dogma, and that forms of secular dogma just as dangerous are possible, which can share the religious element of the promised land or future paradise. Communism and National Socialism are two commonly cited examples. One of the more costly dogmas to emerge recently is related to Hegelianism. This is the dogma of inevitable progress, which holds that overturning corrupt regimes will necessarily result in the organic rise of justice and freedom, these being the product of the march of history. This is the guiding principle of many Marxists, including Che Guevera, and of the orginal neo-cons, who believed that all that needed to be done in Iraq was to topple Saddam Hussein and democracy would be the inevitable result. Still, secular dogmas are subject to rational scrutiny and refutation in a way that religious dogmas are not; the Communists and Nazis are discredited in a way to which even the most notorious religion seems immune. Secular dogmas promise results in this world, and as such are falsifiable. Religious dogmas ultimately promise results in an imaginary hidden world, of which nothing can ever be known.

Passionate\Engaged vs. Passive: Most believers--and most atheists--do not devote much time to the questions of what they believe or why. They simply don't care that much about it, so even the most outrageous dogmas are not likely to result in acts of violent fanaticism. They are too busy with other things. By contrast, fanatics, theologians, and any who consider the truth in these matters to be very important (pro or con) are passionate and engaged in the discussion, and are far more likely to act upon their beliefs. Again, the distinction exists within theistic and atheistic camps.

This raises several interesting points. First, when critics accuse the New Atheists of being as fundamentalist as the type of believer they attack, they are confusing passion with dogma. Second, it is worth noting that figures like Jesus, the Bhudda, and many of the Old Testament prophets were calling upon their fellow believers to engage passionately with their faith, usually at the expense of material concerns. Jesus' admonition to "take no thought for tomorrow", and Socrates claim that "the unexamined life is not worth living", are the words of men so fascinated with the questions of philosophy that mere personal material undertakings are of little interest or value--even concerns of survival. To the life of the mind, the rat race is no more than a distracting irritant. Their contempt is not for materialism in the scientific sense, but for economic materialism. Theirs is an ethic which is entirely lost in the decadent and denatured religion which is by far the most common form today, in which God favours the rich and wants you to aspire to be amongst them. The divine right of kings has been replaced with the divine right of wealth.

An interesting aside: there is a demographic that has the same disregard for economic materialism; the boffins, or the nerds. As one nerd friend put it, "I want to make enough money so that I never have to think about it again." Not, "enough so that I can have anything I want," because he didn't want that much. He just wanted the irritant of money to go away. There was a joke on Slashdot about how most nerds just make enough money so that their parents will stop bugging them about it. The Open Source movement is an expression of this revolt against materialism and towards the life of the mind. Jesus would be proud. But this attitude, and the drive and ability to make headway in the pursuit of truth, probably aren't things that can be taught.

Dogmas are heuristics, quick rules of thumb accepted by those without the time, ability, or inclination to do the research and work things out for themselves. No one, of course, can be an expert in everything. We specialize, and outsource expertise in most areas to other people, and most people outsource their spiritual concerns and even their moral judgement to those they consider specialists. Unfortunately the peer review process in religion is rather inadequate, because dogma exists in a bubble of human opinion, unsupported by evidence or reason. This allows the unscrupulous to exploit religion to build their own personal empire. Why is it that the likes of L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, and Peter Popoff are challenged only by people like of James Randi and investigative journalists, rather than their religious peers? It can only be that other religious authorities do not want a similar light to intrude upon their own activities. What I find outrageous is how many people with grand religious, economic, and political ambitions, those who have given in to the temptations laid out by Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, can persist in calling themselves Christians. Why bother with the pretense, but to limn raw greed with the gloss of sanctity?

Finally, the fact that many passive believers may hold, but not act upon, outrageously dogmatic beliefs, makes them non-symptomatic carriers of a potentially deadly condition. We are all familiar with stories of apparently normal, secular individuals who suddenly snap and become the most rigidly fetishistic believers imaginable (Stephen Baldwin comes to mind here.) What happens in these cases is that a common and usually benign disease suddenly manifests itself in its most malignant form. This is where Dawkins and Harris are right when they say that moderate believers provide support for fanatics. It is not necessarily that their beliefs are moderate, only the commitment, and therefore the effect, of those beliefs. Your happy-go-lucky church going neighbour may harbour beliefs which, if ignited with passion, would turn him into a frightening raving fanatic. And the spark for this passion may appear at any time, in a personal, economic, or political crisis. Passion is, after all, what the founders of all the religions intended amongst their followers, though they might often be disappointed with the expressions of that passion.

The Dali Lama said that the problem with most religious believers was that they didn't take their religion seriously enough, but taking dogma seriously can lead to disaster. What the Dalai Lama intends is that people take their religion seriously enough to grapple with it and move beyond dogma. Though taking it seriously might take care of inclination, it won't have much on an impact on ability, and the requirements of making a living may still impose serious limits on time. Neither of these were a problem for the Dalai Lama, of course, who was chosen as a monarch at a very early age and given nothing to do but study bhuddism. It may be of great benefit to us that most believers never take their religion very seriously, as the dogmatic form of religion may predominate anyway, and the calibre of religious leadership is generally abyssmal.

Dogmatism, however, is not what most of the religious founders intended--although I believe it is precisely what Mohammed had in mind; the very word Islam means Surrender, the unthinking acceptance of dogma. But you can still hear many of the others pulling their hair out in exasperation as their followers try to reduce a method down to a set of dogmatic propositions, rather than pursuing the method themselves. The ideal enlightened master doesn't tell you what to think at all, but he may tell you what not to think, because certain conclusions lead people to stop thinking altogether. The Bhudda (as an archetypal example) is trying to teach you how to think; once you can do that, you can reach your own conclusions. The parallel to the scientific method is direct and in no way accidental; in either case, the goal is truth, and I would argue that anyone who cannot understand science has no business expounding upon religion--no business at all. This same thread runs through the Judeo-Christian tradition, but finding it is not easy, because the scriptures are also littered with dogma. As a religious text, the Bible actually isn't very good.

I don't think they had much of a stake in supernaturalism either. These were simply the dominant explanations of their time, probably embroidered long after their deaths, and what kind of a hero would the messiah be if he couldn't perform miracles; even the ancient heroes could do that, according to legend. St. Augustine explicitly said that where scripture contradicted science, it was scripture that must give way. So, the position of the founders of most traditions (again, Islam is the notable exception) is Natural, Practical\Empirical, and Passionate\Engaged. Notice that this is also the position of the New Atheists. I have a variation on Clarke's Law which is apropos to this: "Any sufficiently advanced theology is indistinguishable from atheism."