When Even Experience Is Not a Sufficient Teacher

When Even Experience Is Not a Sufficient Teacher February 1, 2016

Perception is colored by our view of the world, not just the other way around.

Sometimes, when I think about how bridges can be built between the religious and the secular, I can’t help but feel like I’m in a good place to help facilitate that. That might sound a bit arrogant, but what I really mean is that my experiences allow me some insight into both what it is like to be religious and to be secular. I spent the vast majority of my life as a believer, but several transitional years and the time since my deconversion four years ago have also helped me to understand more about what it is like to be a nonbeliever, especially in a culture that privileges religion and faith.

And then I remember that my experiences aren’t necessarily that uncommon, certainly among deconverts, and I wonder to myself why dialogue isn’t more common and where the obstacle lies.

In truth, I don’t think it’s a single obstacle, and I don’t by any means think that the burden for failures to understand each other falls more prominently on the nonbeliever or deconvert (we have enough of a burden already). But I think that one major issue is in how we expect experience to inform our view of the world.

When I was in my undergraduate education program studying educational philosophy, I latched onto the constructivist theory of knowledge propounded by Jean Piaget and others. Piaget’s theory, which I think still has some merit, is (in part) that knowledge is something that we internalize, either by assimilating new data into our existing conceptual frameworks or by shifting our perspective based on the inability of those frameworks to make sense of that new data, which Piaget called “accommodation.”

If this view were to hold perfectly, then our perspective would increasingly improve because we would continue to accumulate more data with which to make mental assessments of the world. But it doesn’t because our brains don’t always work that way.

In its quest to function as efficiently and effectively as possible, our brains (if they are indeed functioning well) have to be good stewards of the available resources. Unfortunately, the ways in which our brains deal with those limited resources are not always the most reliable, and we end up suffering from any one of a multitude of cognitive biases, which may be very useful heuristics in some contexts but wildly misleading in others.

One way in which this very commonly manifests itself is how we tend to view the young the older we get. It’s practically a cliché that young people will see how older generations view them — as a degeneration, as not being as motivated or aspiring or attentive or polite or any of a number of virtues, and so on — and swear not to turn into that, only for it to become true for them as they age. Why?

The simple answer, I think, is that we forget. The more complicated answer is that we often find ways to compartmentalize that experience.

In a post about empathy where I drew this same comparison, I once made this admonition to my fellow deconverts:

So your mission is to do the only thing you can do: Remember. Think back to those religious experiences and what held you there. Maybe it was the comfort of community. The ecstasy of religious fervor. The beauty of art or music or the spoken word. Remember what place religion had in your life.

But as I have suggested, memory may not be the problem. It may be that we have altered our perspective to accommodate the new data we encountered — and then reconstructed our old memories to better fit that new model.

When we remember, in some ways we are remembering a self that we can often distance ourselves from. An older person can remember their youth as the silliness of someone who didn’t have enough life experience to know anything at all, and thus their concerns are frivolous or ill-conceived, their behavior evidence of a lack of mental clarity and wisdom. (I have known enough young people to know that there is plenty of wisdom to be found there, and they often have quite valid concerns about the world they’re inheriting, which ought not to be so easily dismissed.) A deconvert can remember their formerly religious self and conclude that they were deluded, foolish, ignorant, brainwashed — and of course, they’re perfectly free of that now, so there’s no personal danger in condemning someone who essentially isn’t them at all.

Experience does not always breed empathy.

How then do we try to stem the tide of this mental reconstruction? I don’t have a solid answer to that question — it is one far above my pay grade — but one suggestion I have is openness. If our changing identities prevent us from being able to relate to experiences we once had under the banner of another label, then we ought to hold our labels more tentatively. If we will be inclined to alter our memories, we should be open to seeking out people who still experience those things so we have a firmer reference point for orienting our memories and our general assessments. We should be more open to blurrier lines and fewer firm demarcations.

It also means that we should be more willing to listen rather than relying solely on our intuitions, which may be skewed by our own cognitive inclination to make all the data comport with our current prejudices.

And finally, it means that we must find others of different perspectives to remain in dialogue with — not because we can expect to find consensus but because it will help us keep our own perceptions accountable for the nuances which we may intuitively miss.

Not an easy prescription by any means, but perhaps experience can at least teach us something in that regard.

Image via Pixabay

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