This is the second part of a discussion about the rhetoric I use on this blog and the dangers of linking identity to ideology.
As I head out to the Reason Rally this morning, I wanted to address the second part of Brian Green’s comment:
I suppose my real concern is a theory-practice one again, as usual. As you gain practical commitment to atheist causes, the bond strengthens. Theory follows practice. Habit deepens. When you become president of the American Atheists, your freedom of thought will become highly constricted just due to practical concerns, even if on an unconscious level. The stronger your overt physical commitment, the more tightly are you mentally chained to that commitment.
Edward Feser has some similar critiques of the entire idea of the Reason Rally, since he thought a whip-’em-up convention couldn’t promote serious thinking and would only reinforce bad habits. Both Feser and Green are worried that thinking of one ideology as an essential part of your identity is going to put you at high risk of slipping into an affective death spiral, where it becomes harder and harder to reevaluate that belief fairly.
I think Feser, Green, and Yudkowsky all are worried about a real danger, but precautions can be taken too far. One of my hobbyhorses is the problem of jobs that need to be done, but require an enormous moral sacrifice to perform (cf drone pilots). I really don’t think that heads of activist organizations or rally attendees endanger their reasoning for the sake of reform to the point where they qualify as sin-eaters.
But if I’m willing to accept some risk of irrational thought patterns, the real question is: what good am I trying to secure that is worth the trade-off? In the last post, I explained that my aggressive tone is very much informed by my college experiences debating philosophy, and perhaps a story from that time might be useful.
One perennial source of conflict was whether people should be expected to dress up for debates. I was on the suit side, because costuming matters, on or off stage. Most of us are slightly uncomfortable in formal attire, so we hold ourselves differently. We’re less slouchy and there’s a bit of a feedback loop that tells us this must be important, or I wouldn’t have dressed up. It’d be nice if we could summon up that alertness and excitement reliably and automatically, but, once we’ve decided that’s the appropriate response, I have no objection to using clothes to keep our brains on track.
Now when it comes to the trade-offs of the Reason Rally, I think the essential point is that an atheism rally can be a symposium of ideas, but it’s also a gathering of people groping toward shared tradition. What we’re doing, at events like the Reason Rally or in running gags like Hemant Mehta’s joke about atheists eating babies, is building up a reserve of shared experiences and references.
In the long run, it could make it easier to have some of the sorely needed constructive philosophy conversations, because we’ll be more fluent in each other’s ideas. The affinity engendered by these rallies and the personal ties formed at these get-togethers can build up trust, making it easier for us to criticize each other, so the movement can be more self-correcting. To return in a very literal way to the title of the post, it’s good for us to have a way to bounce ideas off each other, so that the contradictory ideas can annihilate each other by destructive interference.
The big open question is whether we’re building that community on a dicey foundation. If too many of our shared references and experiences are rooted in just mocking religious people, it will be harder to use them to open a conversation about what we do believe.
But for an answer to that, you’ll have to wait til tomorrow, since writing this post is making me late to the rally I’m analyzing.