Babe: Learning About Humans from Watching a Pig

Babe: Learning About Humans from Watching a Pig October 28, 2015

Religion isn’t the only thing that divides people. It’s not the only thing that makes people exclude others, or judge them for being different, and it’s not the only thing that makes people jealously guard their own territory, possibly even harming others in the process. These things are basic to human nature, which means that the non-religious do it, too.

Does it make me a bad humanist to say that? Absolutely not. In case you weren’t aware, it is the apologists of religion who keep saying that humanists believe we are all basically good, not the humanists themselves. That is essentially a straw man which the opponents of humanism construct solely for the purpose of tearing it down again, pointing to the terrible events of history (or to the evening news) in order to invalidate that worldview.

What humanism actually represents is a philosophical and cultural commitment to seeking human solutions to the problems that ail us instead of looking beyond ourselves to magic, or superstition, or the paranormal, or to the supernatural (in fact an argument can be made that all four of those words are essentially synonymous). It does not require a belief that people are fundamentally good. On the contrary, it embraces the reality that we have great capacity both to help and to harm.

I point this out today because lately I’ve become increasingly aware of how tribalistic non-theists can be, especially when they “gather” online. As I’ve often said: Christians go to church; atheists go to the internet.

Incidentally I think that may soon change. For one thing, atheists are beginning to warm up to the idea that real-life gatherings are an extremely useful thing because we are social creatures and because not all of our needs can be met through Facebook (or reddit, mercy). But I’m also predicting that “church” in the future will look a lot more like what the atheists are doing now.

I predict that declining membership and the rising cost of overhead will force many faith communities to become more reliant on their virtual spaces for daily connection. I see denominational headquarters moving to the cloud, so to speak, and preachers reshaping their tithing sermons into appeals for supporters through Patreon or some corny religious imitation of the same (“Find us on Faitheon!”). It’s not entirely necessary for churches to meet every week in order to continue functioning as a church. But I digress. What I really wanted to talk about is tribalism within the Freethought community.

Atheists Can Be Religious, Too

Some amount of tribalism is unavoidable, and maybe even necessary, especially for a movement that is numerically disadvantaged. In the United States, the national percentage of atheists and agnostics is still in the single digits, contrary to the claim made by American Atheists president David Silverman that the real number is closer to thirty percent.

[Read my response to that claim, entitled “Thirty Percent of Americans Are Atheists? Says Who?”]

But a funny thing happens when you point that out to people. When I picked apart the sources of Silverman’s numbers in the article linked above (still no response from him, by the way), people began arguing that even if the sources of his data didn’t support what he was claiming, he was still right anyway. In other words, it mattered not that the facts didn’t line up, they still wanted to come to his defense. Tracey Moody over at The Friendly Atheist encountered similar resistance from the fans of Neil deGrasse Tyson when she pointed out that he “misremembered” a journalist’s representation of the nature of his religious upbringing. One is tempted to conclude that atheists are just as ready to canonize their own heroes as are the religious.

Which should help us all realize that the things we dislike about religions are also present within our own tribal identities, no matter what they are. Like I said, religion isn’t the only thing that divides people. Atheism can be just as divisive. Or rather, people are divisive, and territorial, and occasionally mean and cold and cruel, and no group is immune to those shortcomings. There is no ideology or worldview that negates those traits, including whatever yours happens to be.

Babe and the Universal Challenge of Tribalism

This is one of the reasons I love the movie Babe. If you’ve never seen it, you should check it out as soon as possible. It’s just a cute, funny movie, and in the end it has a great point. Ultimately Babe is about tribalism, and the damage that it does when you demonize those who aren’t like you.

It is a cold hard fact of life that we are all occupying the same space whether we like it or not, and if we really want to thrive as a species, we are going to have to learn to cooperate with people who are unlike ourselves. Michio Kaku made a very similar point in his talk below for Big Think:

The movie Babe is about a pig who comes to live on a farm but gets adopted by a family of sheep dogs. Babe soon distinguishes himself as a champion sheep herder but continually runs up against the uncooperativeness of each group of animals on the farm. Each species looks down on the other as “too stupid” to understand what the rest of them can see clearly, and that condescension ironically blinds them to their own interdependence on the others for their own safety and security.

Tensions between the animals mount until a key turning point in which Babe needs the dogs to communicate with the sheep (they talk in this movie, in case you haven’t figured that out) but neither group is willing because they hate the other. Their antipathy toward each other skews their perception of the other so badly that they cannot even see them as worthy of respectful communication.


Fly:  QUIET!

Narrator:  Fly decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold hard fact of nature that sheep were stupid, and no one would ever persuade her otherwise.

Fly: Please, Please!  Would you be…so kind…as to tell me…what happened? 

Narrator: The sheep spoke very slowly, for it was a cold hard fact of nature that [dogs] were ignorant, and nothing would convince them otherwise.

Does this not sound incredibly familiar? In fact it sounds like a description of virtually every discussion thread I enter in which the religious and the non-religious are trying to communicate with one another. Each group insists the other is “too dense” to get what they’re trying to say, and communication breaks down right then and there. Each group has something to defend, an identity to protect, and consequently they cannot cooperate at all.

In the end it took someone being willing to go between the two opposing groups, someone willing to look past these superficial labels and snap judgements, who was willing to facilitate communication between them just long enough to overcome the present crisis. It took someone looking past the two-dimensional caricatures to make any progress in the story, treating those who were different as if they were still equals, worthy of respect and honest, open dialogue. In short, someone must humanize the other, or nothing will ever change.

Does that sound like something humans can do with each other? Honestly I don’t know. Real life doesn’t often work out like it does in the movies, with the hero saving the day and the messes getting cleaned up and packaged with a nice pretty little bow. But it seems to me that a starting point would be to realize what we are doing and take ownership of our own innate tribalism.

And I’m not talking about those other people dropping their tribalism, I’m talking about us dropping our own, whoever “us” happens to be. We can only control what we ourselves do, not what someone else does. Or to put it differently, you can do whatever you want, but I’m going to do what I can to be different. And I mean really different, not just a different kind of same. You want to call yourself a “freethinker?” That’s fine. How about you start by daring to think outside of the hive mind of your own echo chamber? That to me signifies a person truly capable of thinking for himself or herself.

These labels we choose for ourselves (like humanist and freethinker) signify more of an aspiration than an achievement. They are a direction, a trajectory, a journey more than a destination. That’s why I always describe it as a striving toward something rather than a thing to which any group or individual has already arrived.

[Image Source: Screenweek]


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