Against Private Dissent

In the comments thread that spun off of the discussion of whether an atheist could serve as godparent to a Catholic child, plenty of people correctly pointed out that, regardless of Church teaching, plenty of nominally Catholic parents select technically unsuitable godparents.  Whether they disobey out of ignorance or intentionally, these actions introduce a certain level of ambiguity about what Catholic traditions look like.  Patrick summed up the situation in a comment I’ve excerpted below:

Norms arise from how people behave, as well as how they claim to behave. Often there is a publicly acknowledged rule that has significant silently acknowledged exceptions. This creates problems when someone wants to use the publicly stated rule as a bludgeon against people who are following the silently acknowledged rule, but it is how norms of human behavior function- not as stated laws, but as practiced behaviors…

Well, one of the big places where people do this is with public acts of semi-optional piety. You learn from a young age that these aren’t REAL statements of belief or piety. When you say the Pledge of Allegiance, every child knows that you don’t actually have to believe it. The adults didn’t ask you if you believed it, and they didn’t tell you to say it only if you do. They told you to stand up and recite after them, and you did. The reason is a mixture of everyone hoping that saying it will make you believe it eventually, and everyone believing that collective, concerted statements of belief ave valuable even if the people involved don’t believe…

It is simply part of the normal, every day practice of religion.

Now that does mean that these people are going against the stated norms of their religious communities. But they’re in accord with the unstated norms. They’re in a vulnerable state, because people can get inquisitorial and castigate them for violating the stated norms… and the general rule is that unstated norms only apply as long as no one mentions the fact that stated norms are being violated.

But that’s also a good argument for leaving well enough alone.

I’m in complete agreement up until he gets to his conclusion. I think this kind of empty piety is counterproductive for people on either side of the atheist/Catholic divide.  Either side is hurt by widespread comfort with this kind of contradiction.  For Catholics or any type of Christian, a community norm of private dissent removes the impetus to question heretical beliefs and, after investigation, return to the fullness of the faith.  Atheists like me also chafe at the decreased drive to sort out contradictory beliefs since we believe that, upon examination, it’s the other side’s arguments that will crumble.

Countenancing institutional hypocrisy, especially the kinds of public declarations of faith involved in the godparents’ part of the baptism, saps the idea that we prefer people to believe true things and there are serious consequences when they go wrong.  No religion wants to present itself primarily as a useful noble lie, but this is the result when the creeds are routinely mouthed without faith in an attempt at communal experience.

Atheists have another reason to push back against quiet hypocrisy or any call for everyone to just follow their own preferences for the faith, especially when they crop up in a mainstream religion like Catholicism. There can be a tendency among atheists to count unbelieving Christians as a win, since they may actually share all of our doubts about their faith, but I think this attitude is misguided.  Silent dissenters bolster the numbers of our opponents and boost the political clout of their leaders.

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  • Patrick

    I completely agree with you that it would be good if the world were not this way… but it is, and I don't think its reasonable to put resolving this on one person acting in isolation. Particularly an individual who is technically an outsider, and therefore unlikely to have a significant effect on the norms of the group. It may be bad for the atheist side of the religious divide, but that's not the only interest a person has in interpersonal relationships within his own family.As for whether its bad for the religious side of the divide, well, I think its actually good for them. These sorts of gaps between stated beliefs and practiced beliefs are often used to paper over all the problems with inheriting a moral system from the ancient past.

  • Iota

    Frankly, I find arguments about ethics supported by appeals to “everyone does” or “who hasn’t” (see March Hare's comment, a few posts back) or any other variant of that kind, rather funny in a sad way.First, because I see it as a rhetorical device used to present your opinions and ethics as “facts of life”. I’ve heard people justifying all kinds of behaviours using variants of “everyone”. Whether they really are “facts of life” or just your misconceptions, limited perception or justifications for behaviour is another issue. It can't be true that whenever whoever invokes "everyone" the statement is true, because that would give very contradictory results. For example, I’m not American but so far as I know, there are people who refuse, for various reasons, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance – does that make a difference, or does – as I expect – "everyone" mean "everyone except them"?. If it means the latter, why?In fact, because of widespread and divergent use, I tend to think invoking “everyone” rather discredits an argument, even if it were correct. Second, because even if you could prove that an overwhelming majority of people do something, you’d still have to separately consider whether what they are doing is right. When is that kind of dissent a “silently acknowledged rule” and when is it just plain old breaking rules?

  • Patrick

    Iota- Its not about whether "everyone does it," its about real world questions like the harm a behavior causes, or the expectations people have for the behavior of themselves and others, etc, etc. For example, suppose we wanted to decide whether an advertiser was acting unethically by calling their product "the best." Knowing that many advertisers call their product "the best" or the equivalent, knowing that consumers are aware of this, and knowing that consumer expectations about the value of statements from advertisers are premised on an understanding that this behavior is common, allows us to answer important questions like whether or not the advertiser is deceiving people.That's relevant information, at least if you think consequences are important ethical considerations.

  • dbp

    I wasn't involved in the previous discussion much, so I won't try to address that. But a few selected notes:"Atheists like me also chafe at the decreased drive to sort out contradictory beliefs since we believe that, upon examination, it's the other side's arguments that will crumble."I guess you could say that's a well-founded belief, but only because atheists tend (though ever-less so) to have been required to make a conscious act or change of thinking to arrive at their positions; also, being in the minority position, they are more often confronted about their opinions. Naturally, as a Catholic, I would expect that if anyone's arguments were to crumble, it'd be the atheistic side; but to be quite honest, I doubt either will. When fully-developed worldviews collide, one doesn't sink; people just jump from one ship to another.Otherwise, I have no special objection with anything but this, I think:"Silent dissenters bolster the numbers of our opponents and boost the political clout of their leaders."You seem to forget that "our leaders" are much more concerned with fighting each other than you. 😉 It's not universally the case, but on just about every issue, the ranks of Christians on either side just about cancel each other out. Alas for us!"These sorts of gaps between stated beliefs and practiced beliefs are often used to paper over all the problems with inheriting a moral system from the ancient past."Patrick: I suspect people vastly overestimate the degree to which this is a handicap. Otherwise, I think the first part of your comment is very good– as a matter of principle, playing along may seem unjustifiable, but the human dimension (as you point out) is something people of any persuasion shouldn't dismiss too lightly.Last note: while, as a (non-dissenting) Catholic, I don't approve of "silent dissent" at all, but I will make this proviso: individual participation is only half the equation, because we do believe in the objective reality of the Faith, and especially of the Sacraments. I would rather have people, for their own sake, vaguely ignorant and still in communion than up and leave just because they realize they can't articulate or grasp the truths of the faith enough for real assent. (Note that when such dissent is active and informed enough to reach the level of mortal sin or other severance of communion, all this changes.)However, more by far than THAT, I would rather have them informed and assenting. What that means is that, much as we can rail at the rank-and-file cafeteria Catholics, it's also indicative of a failure on the part of community of the Church to properly educate. So I blame us (myself included) almost as much.

  • Ferny

    So, for once, I have a chance to approach this from the angle of RLST! :)Part of the variable strength of large-scale religious communities is their ability to be contextual, where the demands of faith are borne through the community and defined as such, even if there are is a core that remains relatively untouched regardless of context. For an atheist that is trying to build a coherent case over why people shouldn't be Catholic, this is sort of annoying, mostly because the ambiguity makes it harder to create reasoned and consistent arguments against.I largely think the idea that anything other than a very small number of people are persuadable on this issue is a silly one. Religious belief is rarely reasoned and largely experiential. There isn't a manifest way to argue against people's own perceived realities, by and large. You can tackle certain people's, where you can a make a case to sense delusion, but as a whole, it really falls apart.I should send you my badly written senior thesis, where I argue through large parts, that certain kinds of religious beliefs in Mexican immigrants are means of defining communal values and socio-economic networks, rather than having large import in regards to faith communities. I sort of used to get annoyed that people claimed they were one religious category when they clearly weren't, and I still sort of do when they violate a core tenant of a prescribed belief (COUGH PAG), but generally, I would never describe having godparents as a strong central tenant of Catholicism so it seems like something that is of communal import, not religious.

  • Iota

    For example, suppose we wanted to decide whether an advertiser was acting unethically by calling their product "the best."I assume we’d arrive at two different answers. From my POV even if “the best” is commonly decoded as “just another, possibly good, product”, that kind of phrasing still hurts language, communication and our expectations. It is, in other words, sill unethical, even if it usually gets decoded right. Because there are other consequences (such as "language inflation").