Jan 212015
 

fishing from moonI recently came across this post of 10 WOMEN CHRISTIAN MEN SHOULD NOT MARRY. It is, of course, hilarious.

I have a love/hate relationship with fundamentalists, because both atheists and fundamentalists do something that no one else seems to do – they take their religion seriously. Phil Goetz already covered this in his “Reason as memetic immune disorder” but for decades I was never able to figure this out. How is it that nearly everyone that’s religious doesn’t take the most important thing EVER seriously? And why was it that, when confronted by two groups that DO take the beliefs seriously, they defend/side with the group that is morally abhorrent to them but spouts the same buzzwords (fundamentalists), while rejecting the group whose values line up 95%+ with theirs but who say things that are both obvious and blasphemous (atheists)?

A digression that will become relevant.

Up until a few years ago, I knew exactly what I was doing at my job. I had certain numbers that came from location X, and other numbers that came from location Y. I combined these numbers, ran the right algorithms and analyses, and produces new numbers. The whole process was understandable.

Over the last few years my job has expanded to where now I’m confronted with mystery numbers and I have to figure out where the heck they came from, and why they are what they are, and what the heck does this mean for the company? I never have a fucking clue about how to do this – every month is a new damn struggle where I start from scratch trying to make sense of things. And I never get a full understanding of what exactly I’m doing – in the end shit often just works out and I heave a sigh of relief and go on to the next mystery numbers. Maybe people higher up in our company see more parts, and this makes sense to them. But to me, I am working with black boxes.

I’m of the opinion that this is the difference between engineering/science and “normal” people. A typical child, when given a lighter, will treat it very much like a black box. Figure out the wheel and the button, and after that explore the many ways having a fire-creation box can impact life. An engineering-minded kid, OTOH, will take that fucker apart. S/he’ll want to know how every piece interacts, why it acts the way it does, and what makes it go. S/he’ll discover the valves and the butane and probably break it, but s/he won’t feel at ease until it makes sense. I have transitioned from knowing all the guts of my work, to trying to optimize a black box from the outside. It’s stressful as hell.

But there is one thing that makes it better… no one else around me really knows what the hell is going on either. We’re all flying by the seat of our pants, getting through this as best we can, and relieved to see everything’s still working at the end of each quarter. There’s a solidarity to that. We can wink and nudge each other, and we cut each other a lot of slack. Ain’t nobody got a clue as to what’s happening in this shitstorm, so it’s ok that we’re fumbling forward together.

It occurred to me that this is how the vast majority of humanity lives. With no deeper understanding of how everything clicks into place and functions, simply as black boxes within black boxes, interacting with other black boxes. Nothing is deterministic in any comprehensible way. A few years ago I couldn’t imagine life like that. How does one live in a fundamentally chaotic world?? Now I know.

Then here comes the atheist with his fancy methods of “determining true things about reality” and “empirical testing,” upsetting the whole arrangement. Look asshole, no one actually believed that stuff about talking snakes and a world-wide flood and souls. That’s all just poetic shorthand for “Nothing makes sense. Let’s take comfort in being together.”

This is also my current model for post-modernism.

The two mindsets – one of taking propositions seriously and attempting to make sense of the universe, the other of accepting that we are adrift in chaos and all we can do is survive it – are so antithetical to each other that I don’t think they can ever be reconciled. Now that I’ve been exposed to both I can, with effort, shift from one to the other. But I’ve never been able to hold both in my mind at the same time. I had to write the middle part of this post a different day than I’ve written the top and bottom parts of it. And I gotta say – the stable, lawful view of reality feels so immeasurably better that it’s hard to describe the relief of slipping back into it. (I only stay in my existentially-horrifying job because I don’t think I can get anything that pays nearly this well elsewhere)

I used to think it was possible to spread atheism simply by pointing out the truth of it. Later I figured that I could do so by spreading to people love for truth so deep that they would naturally find it on their own. Now I think that I’m just really damn lucky, one might even say privileged, to have lived most of my life in circumstances that make fucking sense. Or perhaps that I have the right combination of advantages and blindnesses that only expose me to the parts that make sense, and keep the chaotic churn hidden from me. Ignorance is bliss?

Anyway, this is my current pet theory that tries to make sense of non-fundamentalist religious people. And it serves as a counter-point to Phil’s post: maybe reason isn’t a memetic immune disorder, maybe the analytical mindframe simply can’t coexist with the wishy-washy chaos-universe mysticism that most liberal religions consist of, and thus has to snap into either atheism or fundamentalism. (And the direction of the snap is strongly influenced by social pressures).

  6 Responses to “Sympathy for the Devil”

  1. This is an interesting post which makes me think, and I don’t want to give another impression, but at the moment I have a comment only about a very minor aspect of it. I don’t want to at all give the impression that it’s the only piece I care about or anything, but it’s the piece which is driving me mad.

    Where does the image of somebody fishing off the moon come from? Something somebody said made me think of that image, but unless it’s Dreamworks (and I think this is a different image?), I can’t place where it came from originally.

    • This particular image is a cropped version of one of the earlier hits from a Google Image search for “Fishing From Moon.” It comes from http://jjdaza7.deviantart.com/art/Man-on-the-Moon-299405653 originally

      If you’re asking for the concept… I’m not sure. It’s been around for a long time I think, probably pre-20th century. It’s one of the things that first comes to my mind when I think of a universe with no consistent physical laws, just chaos and magic, because it’s so impossible while looking kinda magically plausible.

  2. I grew up in a religious family, and I remember thinking that I would become either a missionary or an atheist, and being very confused that everyone else around me did not feel the same way. That’s what happens when you obey religious tracts the way a chief obeys the cookbook.

  3. >And why was it that, when confronted by two groups that DO take the beliefs seriously, they defend/side with the group that is morally abhorrent to them but spouts the same buzzwords (fundamentalists), while rejecting the group whose values line up 95%+ with theirs but who say things that are both obvious and blasphemous (atheists)?

    I think this depends rather heavily on whether you’re arguing about religion or politics. They only side with fundamentalists against atheists when atheists are attacking them both indiscriminately; which is much more common in an argument over Whether Religion Is Bad than, say, gay marriage.

    >Then here comes the atheist with his fancy methods of “determining true things about reality” and “empirical testing,” upsetting the whole arrangement. Look asshole, no one actually believed that stuff about talking snakes and a world-wide flood and souls. That’s all just poetic shorthand for “Nothing makes sense. Let’s take comfort in being together.”

    … huh, this fits surprisingly well.

    Although … there are religious people who are into science, you know. And there are creationists who insist their crazy claims are scientifically testable and the Establishment is just turning a blind eye (confirmation bias.)

    The religious scientists do seem to fit the “everything is crazy thing” – I see a lot of emphasis on how the universe is big and strange and beautiful. But the creationists … I don’t know, I think they have more in common with hardcore skeptics, you know the type. Not sure where that fits in your schema.

  4. Do not forget that in the old days, from Plato to Berkeley, theism was compatible with the pursuit of deep understanding of reality. It’s only since Darwin that the paradigm started shifting to fully bottom-up, reductionist explanations. There is a lot of momentum in the intellectual culture, enabling scientifically-minded people enough leeway theologically. Plato was a rationalist and Berkeley an empiricist! (The paradigm shift relocated the meanings of these terms though.)

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