Worse Than Losing Your Faith?

The vigor with which some people defend their beliefs online – refusing to do basic research, offering completely unpersuasive off-the-cuff arguments, and denigrating their opponents – has long puzzled me.

Losing your faith (or, if you are an atheist, losing your lack of faith) can seem like a terrifying prospect, to be avoided at all costs.

But what most people are defending isn’t their “faith.” It is the details of their worldview, their belief system. And the fact that examining the details is considered tantamount to discarding the whole shows how closely people feel their beliefs are monitored by their community and inseparable one from another.

But if your faith as a Christian, or your identity as an atheist, means rigid adherence to a belief system, where any questioning must be avoided at all costs, then your “faith” and/or “skepticism” are really nothing of the sort. They are a culture to which you have a tribal loyalty.

And if you have substituted tribal identity for devotion, and/or a dogmatic system for genuine skepticism, then you have already fallen for a cheap imitation of something authentic and meaningful.

If so, then clinging to what you currently have is worse than the prospect of losing your faith – or if you are an atheist, of finding faith.

What you have is a “vaccination” that will keep you from ever “contracting” genuine faith, or “coming down with” genuine skepticism.

  • Cliff

    You’ve hit the head of the nail!

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Which atheist’s identity as an atheist is a “rigid adherence to a belief system, where any questioning must be avoided at all costs”?

    • Ian

      With very few exceptions, as far as I’ve experienced, everyone thinks they are the sane sensible ones with a reasonable and open view of the world, and believes the other guys are closed minded ideologues unable to entertain any view but their own.

      I have, however, seen skeptical and liberal Christians set upon in the comments of Pharygula and WEIT, for example, for questioning the idea that atheism is a necessary conclusion of science and skepticism.

      Prohibiting a behavior is not always achieved by being explicit about what should not be done. More often it is by making clear that such behavior will isolate you from a community you feel a part of. I’ve been called a Christian apologist, a wannabe believer, a fatheist, even a creationist. There are plenty of taboo areas in atheism. Though, as a generally cantakerous group, in my experience, there are plenty of atheists who are willing to say “screw it”.

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        I have, however, seen skeptical and liberal Christians set upon in the comments of Pharygula and WEIT, for example, for questioning the idea that atheism is a necessary conclusion of science and skepticism.

        -It is, as is aleprechaunism, abigfootism, and apsychicism.

        More often it is by making clear that such behavior will isolate you from a community you feel a part of. I’ve been called a Christian apologist, a wannabe believer, a fatheist, even a creationist.

        -Are any or all of these characterizations inaccurate?

        • Ian

          QED

          • plectrophenax

            Ipse dixit.

            • Ian

              Exactly.

              • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

                See my reply to plectrophenax. Also, you didn’t answer my question.

                • Ian

                  The fact that you stated your conclusion, rather than engaged with my comment was the point. I agree that atheism is a logical conclusion of skepticism and empiricism. But that was not the issue.

                  you didn’t answer my question.

                  Christian apologist, definitely not. Wannabe believer, definitely not. Fatheist – depends on the definition, tolerant of religion – yes, tolerant of supernatural claims- no, fifth columnist for religion – definitely not. Creationist – definitely not.

                  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

                    I thank you for your answers, though I wonder how you can be “tolerant of religion” but not “tolerant of supernatural claims”. Does not all religion involve supernatural claims? Also, what was “the issue” I (according to you) did not address?

                    • plectrophenax

                      Surely there are plenty of religious people who do not believe in the supernatural, or in theism? Some Buddhists, some Hindus, atheist Christians, atheist Jews, etc.

                    • Ian

                      I edited ‘tolerant of religion’, to ‘tolerant of religious impulse’ for that reason, I wasn’t clear, and I think I’ve not made it any clearer!

                      Does not all religion involve supernatural claims?

                      All that I know. But not all religious folks believe those claims. I know plenty of Christians who deny any supernatural existence. I find it somewhat hard to figure out why you’d be a Christian in that case, but telling people they aren’t a ‘real’ anything isn’t helpful, so I’m happy to tolerate their religious impulse. I know buddhists who similarly distance themselves from the superstition, and find in it some ability to access states of mind they enjoy. Again, I’m happy to tolerate that.

                      And even in religious circles that do have supernatural baggage, I support their communities, care for the disadvantaged, and so on. Though, again, I would strongly prefer it if we could do more of that without believing in the supernatural.

                      Also, what was “the issue” I (according to you) did not address?

                      Anything I raised. Whether the perception of one’s own side as being reasonable and open-minded tells you anything about whether it really is. Whether there are questions that can’t be asked in some atheist communities without being outsided. Anything that didn’t involve the restating of dogma, really.

            • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

              My “it is” was a conclusion, not an argument.

              • plectrophenax

                More of an assertion, isn’t it? Dogmatic assertions are often tagged, ‘ipse dixit’, as they are without argument.

    • arcseconds

      Beyond what Ian has suggested, I’ve encountered resistance (sometimes quite strong resistance) to the following notions:

      *) dualism
      *) idealism
      *) ethical realism
      *) freedom of the will
      *) teleology
      *) there’s no such thing as The Scientific Method
      *) non-determinism (!)

      Plenty of atheists believe these things!

      And it’s not just that people argue strongly against these, which isn’t problematic, it’s that by giving an argument for them your motives start to be questioned, and you may end up finding yourself being accused of Christianity.

      Sometimes you don’t even need to argue for these things, you just have to be insufficiently enthusiastic in your denouncement of them

      If that’s not rigid dogmatism, I don’t know what is.

      • plectrophenax

        Your point about dogmatism has struck me forcibly in discussions about Jesus mythicism, and historical Jesus. Atheists who support HJ, on the basis of historical method, have to be careful, as they might be accused of being a ‘believer’ or a secret apologist! Quite staggering really, that there could be such a confusion – you study Jesus, therefore you’re a believer! I can forgive stupid, but not such displacement.

        • arcseconds

          the thing is, it really is dogma. People who behave like this are doing exactly the same thing as religious dogmatists, and for much the same reasons.

          it’s just as anti-enquiry, just as presumptuous, and just as infuriating.

        • Ian

          I agree, its the easiest way I’ve found to be outsided in some atheist forums: to argue that there might have been a historical Jesus figure, and that mythicist scholarship is generally weak. There’s a definite sense that you’re attacking the tribe, and therefore must be an enemy.

          But, to be fair, our host does enjoy comparing mythicists to creationists. A comparison that sometimes feels fitting, but is nontheless problematic.

        • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

          Atheists who support HJ, on the basis of historical method, have to be careful, as they might be accused of being a ‘believer’ or a secret apologist!

          -If that atheist does not make his/her atheism plain, this is an easy mistake to make; most Jesus historicists are Christians. Also, though I have heard accusations of apologetics regarding atheists on Vridar, I have never seen an accusation of “secret apologetics” regarding atheists merely for supporting an HJ anywhere.

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        And it’s not just that people argue strongly against these, which isn’t problematic, it’s that by giving an argument for them your motives start to be questioned, and you may end up finding yourself being accused of Christianity.

        -Because most people who advocate for these positions in the U.S. are Christians. How is resistance to silly-sounding notions “dogmatism” and “groupthink”?

        • Ian

          So two things:

          1. If our enemies hold a position, then we are against it.

          2. If it sounds silly, then it is.

          Both are indicative of the problem, I think. The fear of sounding a bit like the enemy particularly is a great mark of a dogmatic community. The idea that certain ideas are obviously wrong without applying any thought or detailed consideration is likewise antithetical to questioning.

          • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

            1. No. I’m not against compassion or capitalism.
            2. Yes, until shown otherwise. How is this “indicative of the problem”?

            The fear of sounding a bit like the enemy particularly is a great mark of a dogmatic community.

            -I don’t know anyone in the atheist community who is afraid of sounding like a Christian.

            The idea that certain ideas are obviously wrong without applying any thought or detailed consideration is likewise antithetical to questioning.

            -How?

            • Ian

              1.

              I was paraphrasing your “Because most people who advocate for these positions in the U.S. are Christians” My generalization was too broad, that’s true. Personally I’m not sure the pattern of what topics are taboo is particularly predictable. It has more to do with what pushes people’s buttons.

              2.

              The problem is the unwillingness to entertain any otherwise long enough to show it or refute it. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re not willing to entertain idealism, say, but instead just immediately react with “that’s silly, go away”, how can you step through it in enough detail to change your mind.

              It is important to spend more time reading and understanding stuff you disagree with, than sitting in an echo chamber where everybody thinks the same way, and any other voices are rapidly shown the door. The latter, as far as I can see, is the very definition of a dogmatic community, regardless of whether they are correct or not.

              How?

              I’m afraid you’re just too closed minded to understand.

              [jk]

              Erm. I’m a bit stuck how to answer, because it seems tautologically true to me. That assuming an answer without thought or detailed consideration is the opposite of questioning it. Perhaps we’re using terms very differently.

              • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

                It is important to spend more time reading and understanding stuff you disagree with, than sitting in an echo chamber where everybody thinks the same way, and any other voices are rapidly shown the door.

                -If this is an accusation,
                [Ahem].
                http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/hilarities/
                http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/review-of-a-biblical-history-of-israel-chapter-3/
                -Besides, Jerry Coyne reads the views of his intellectual opponents and publicly comments on them all the time. If the sentence blockquoted above is not an accusation, I agree with it.
                Perhaps we were using terms differently. I was interpreting your sentence as something like “The idea that certain ideas are obviously wrong without applying any thought or detailed consideration held at present time is likewise antithetical to questioning in the future“.

                • Ian

                  It was an accusation, though not a personal one (I don’t know much about you, obviously) but given that I spend most of my commenting time on blogs that promote viewpoints I agree, it wasn’t a self-righteous one.

                  Re: WEIT, yes, but if you join the comments and try to take the discussion further, or counter some of his conclusions, you get shot down and insulted pretty quickly, in my experience. But I don’t want to make this about anti-WEIT, since it isn’t a general feature of the blog, nor is it limited to that blog. It is an experience I have had raising question about certain views that are very popular among internet atheists, that the reaction has been to quickly call into question my motivations and allegiances, along with a tone of derision and superficiality. All tactics that seek to shut down, rather than engage conversation.

                  To that extent, I don’t think the atheistic online community is a paragon of free thought and questioning at all. It is more or less as tribal as other groups. Certainly no worse, and better than many I’ve frequented, but not exemplary.

                  Fair enough on the rewrite at the end. I didn’t mean that, and I don’t have a problem with that. So just talking at cross-purposes.

                  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

                    Re: WEIT, yes, but if you join the comments and try to take the discussion further, or counter some of his conclusions, you get shot down and insulted pretty quickly, in my experience.

                    -That’s a natural product of critical thinking. The commentariat at WEIT requires extraordinary evidence to back up extraordinary claims. The best thing one can do while disagreeing with J. Coyne is to provide sources, use sound and thorough logic, and clearly expose flaws in commentators’ reasoning.

                    To that extent, I don’t think the atheistic online community is a paragon of free thought and questioning at all.

                    -What community would be such a paragon?

                    • Ian

                      I’m not talking about extraordinary claims, just things that aren’t part of the dogma. They only become ‘extraordinary claims’ because the community decides they are. And quoting sources etc don’t help much, because of the derision. Maybe you’ve not experienced this. Fair enough. You’re probably thoroughly orthodox!

                      I’m not talking about God claims, or supernatural claims, btw, more of the kinds of stuff Arc mentioned, plus topics like historical criticism, theology (I’ve had it when pointing out not all Christians are fundies, for example) and unacceptable politics.

                      I don’t know of a paragon community. I suspect its probably a fundamental part of communal identity forming. Though some places have it better and worse. For example, I find Friendly Atheist and Bad Scientist less dogmatic than WEIT, and WEIT less dogmatic than Pharygula. But YMMV.

        • arcseconds

          Ah, Enopoletus, you must be the only person who would think of defending atheism from the charge of dogmatism by demonstrating that atheists can be quite dogmatic!

          What would you say if I said ‘gee those Christian blogs are pretty dogmatic and groupthinky! all you have to do is even mention the possibility of:

          - universal salvation
          - Buddhist ideas of non-attachment
          - secular moral theories

          They start to ask when you started following Satan or gave up your faith in Jesus! But plenty of Christians believe those things…’

          is this one of those irregular verbs?

          *) We counteract silly and dangerous nonsense by asking searching questions about the speaker’s motivations
          *) You promote ideological unity by discouraging substantial dissent
          *) They enforce their rigid groupthink by bullishly denouncing anyone who dares deviate from their precious dogma

          • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

            Ah, Enopoletus, you must be the only person who would think of defending atheism from the charge of dogmatism by demonstrating that atheists can be quite dogmatic!

            -Where do I do that?

            They start to ask when you started following Satan or gave up your faith in Jesus!

            is clearly irrational when a person mentions the possibility of “universal salvation”, but is quite rational when a person types of “Buddhist ideas of non-attachment” and “secular moral theories”.

            You promote ideological unity by discouraging substantial dissent

            -No, I don’t. I am most tempted to comment when I disagree with a comment or a post. Besides, denouncement of the opposition are characteristic of both exponents of dogma and exponents of critical thinking.

            • arcseconds

              That is clearly irrational when a person mentions the possibility of
              “universal salvation”, but is quite rational when a person types of
              “Buddhist ideas of non-attachment” and “secular moral theories”.

              It’s quite rational to ask someone when they started following Satan if they mention Buddhist ideas of non-attachment and secular moral theories?

              • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

                For the former, yes, for the latter, no.

            • arcseconds

              Ah, Enopoletus, you must be the only person who would think
              of defending atheism from the charge of dogmatism by demonstrating that
              atheists can be quite dogmatic!

              -Where do I do that?

              Enopeletus, let’s just think about this rationally for a moment.

              You asked for examples of atheists being dogmatic. We gave some examples. You said “these are fine ways to behave!”

              You didn’t give us any compelling argument to think they weren’t dogmatic (or, you know, any kind of reasons at all), so we still think they’re dogmatic ways of behaving.

              (I mean, just because you happen to think something’s fine isn’t in itself a reason for us to change our minds about it, right?)

              And you endorse these ways of behaving.

              You’ve endorsed dogmatic ways of behaving, ergo you are dogmatic.

              quod erat demonstrandum :)

              • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

                What is your definition of “dogmatic”?

  • Jason Garrison

    If you pursue an orthodoxy, you’ll always be afraid of being “wrong.” If you pursue truth, being wrong is just part of the journey. I think most of us are pursuing orthodoxy.

  • plectrophenax

    I find that both theists and atheists exist on a spectrum, from flexibility and openness at one end, and a kind of closed-minded tunnel vision at the other. But conformism seems to operate quite commonly in both areas. I agree that the solution is skepticism towards one’s own ideas, and the ideas of one’s ‘community’. As I get older, I realize that what I believe is probably wrong! But this is psychologically difficult, as one can then feel an outsider in all camps.

  • plectrophenax

    Is it me, or is this software really bizarre? Anyway, I think debates online are often about winning, rather than a genuine open discussion. In the old days, (old man here), one would take one’s opponent’s best points, and even improve on them, in order to have a decent discussion. But online it often seems rather different, more like seizing them in a headlock, as soon as they show signs of weakness. O tempora, o mores.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X