Tuesday, April 29, 2014

One Quorum. Two Quora?

Not much going on at Ye Olde Journal lately. I feel more and more that I repeat myself in my posts. Some of that is inevitable, I know, as we all have our pet topics and passions and inclinations. But often as I type now I have the nagging feeling that I’ve covered the subject at hand before in a similar fashion. Apart from the occasional movie review, there’s little new going on in life that needs sorting out. (Even with movies I’m on a bit of a slowdown. I’ve seen a few things over the last couple months—well, a couple things—but nothing seems to warrant hashing over. Well, I’d make an exception to that rule for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel—which I’ve seen twice; so chalk that one up to laziness.)


A friend of mine recently introduced me to the online discussion site Quora. Another vocal atheist and liberal in a world where religion and conservatism seem to hold sway, he recommended the site to me as a place to discuss issues and concepts in a more in-depth and civilized manner than sharing posts on FaceBook. I spent a couple days poking around and then joined. The site consists of questions, aligned by topic, submitted by members and answered by others. Anyone can answer any posed question, and comments are allowed and encouraged, including comments on the comments—a discussion. The discussions there cover a huge range of topics, but I have mostly limited my input to topics related to atheism (with a couple posts on political and flying-related questions).

I have been a convicted atheist for my whole adult life. I had nagging questions about religion even as a child, though we went to church regularly until I was about 7 (I don’t doubt that my fetish for organ music comes from this early exposure). But my father died and my mother remarried and we moved from our small Iowa community to a little town in Minnesota and our churchgoing slowed and stopped. As soon as I did not have hoary mythology rammed into my head every Sunday I began to have doubts, and having begun to look at the subject critically I found it crumbled to dust entirely. As soon as I allowed myself to think in these terms, it was obvious that none of it was true: there was no overseer; no one was listening to or answering prayers; there was no cosmic accounting of wrongs; death was obviously death and people who died were gone and would stay that way. The more I learned about scientific explanations of natural phenomena, the more clear it became that a god would have nothing to do--nature was quite explicable without this injection of magic. Though I did not take any comparative religion classes in high school or college, the growing awareness that billions of the world’s citizens—a majority of them—believed something different and incompatible with the convictions of my own community was kind of the final nail in the coffin. Most of us were wrong in our convictions; this was a simple, undeniable fact. Yet knowing that we were probably wrong—and that most people certainly WERE wrong—didn't appear to stop anyone from believing fervently in whatever cultural hooey into which they were born. 

Having seen the folly of all this, I have had not an instant of pause in this conviction for the ensuing 35 years. On the contrary, the obviousness of this conclusion is daily confirmed.

So Quora. As I am long settled in my convictions (which is not to say that I’m unwilling to accept evidence that would change those convictions), I have become more and more puzzled at how organized religion keeps its hold on people in this age of unlimited information. Quora provides an opportunity for people to explain their convictions, and to perhaps persuade me what I’m missing in my own. The internet, especially places like Facebook and major news and opinion sites, has a high percentage of semi-literate people and troublemakers. Trolls make civilized conversation difficult, as they quickly degenerate discussions into brawls. Quora has its trolls, but there are also moderators and rules both for posting questions and for contributing to existing conversations. There are also, I was delighted to see, a large community of highly literate and outspoken atheists.

Well, one person’s troll is another’s hero, and I admit to having had a couple of my own answers “downvoted” by readers and one “collapsed” by moderators, especially at the beginning. Some of this is inevitable if you speak your mind (atheist comments on Atheism topic questions are expected, but atheist responses to Christianity topic questions are often unwelcome) and some of it is a frank reflection of my cantankerousness (I slapped someone for asking the question “Do we get to keep our names when we go to heaven?” as a laughable bit of categorically-unknowable folly). But overall it’s been a good place for airing and discussing real ideas.

I suppose it’s inevitable that discussions between atheists and believers eventually boil down to faith. But we usually have to work through a bevy of points of logic and pseudo-philosophy before we get down to the bedrock of “I just believe this is true” vs “I just don’t.” Lately I’ve been involved in a couple discussions that are gradually working their way thru this process. No matter where we start, we end up talking about the foundation beneath our convictions, and that leads inexorably to the faith-based convictions of the believer and my own rejection of that as a basis of knowledge. After a few times around this wheel, I begin to wonder if this isn't a colossal waste of time.

Maybe a smarter person than I would have recognized the dead-end 30 years ago and have moved onto more utile things. But with the rise of the unholy alliance of white male dominionist Christian fundamentalism in politics and corporate control of our supposedly-democratic government, I feel as though the goal of exposing the folly of Christianity (to say nothing of confronting the constant misery of Islamist terrorism throughout the world) is a necessary goal, even a vital one.

So I soldier on. Current discussions explore whether a lack of belief in gods is in fact a “belief,” and whether the world would be a better place without religion. The latter question especially, though necessarily speculative, is a worthwhile thing to chew on. But there's lots there to keep someone entertained.


CyberKitten said...

I posted something very similar to this on Saturday over @ my place.

William Stachour said...

Just read. Funny how we're on the same wavelength at just this moment!

It MUST be the goddess Oogla guiding us! ;-)

Vancouver Voyeur said...

I was just going to say CK just posted something about this. So glad you posted again, been missing your posts, not that I've really had time to read or write lately.

I would so love to have reasonable discussions where one could dissect a topic, fully understand it and other people's views on it, without it turning into an assault.

People tend to get so touchy when you challenge their belief systems. I think shaking the bedrock every so often is a good thing, even if it's uncomfortable. I'll probably go check out the site once the semester is over, but I'm glad you've found a spot for most civil discourse.

CyberKitten said...

WS said: Funny how we're on the same wavelength at just this moment! It MUST be the goddess Oogla guiding us! ;-)

Or just an example of the Theory of Large Numbers which many people consider Coincidence [grin]

V V said: So glad you posted again, been missing your posts...


V V said: People tend to get so touchy when you challenge their belief systems.

Most definitely. When you touch truly core beliefs people tend to take things *very* personally!

V V said: I'm glad you've found a spot for most civil discourse.

They do seem to be rather rare beasts on the Web these days. I'll be checking it out too!

William Stachour said...

I'm grateful anyone stops by anymore! It's funny to look back on the history of this blog and see how my internet usage has changed. I went through a period of writing and reading a select number of blogs, the actual list of which kind of morphed over the years. Then with the rise of Facebook, and a different community on that site, I found I wrote less and less and spent more time over there.

Not to any real positive effect, methinks. But the rise of that platform kind of coincided with my having largely spoken my mind on these pages.

But it's all good. I write when the spirit moves me, and I suspect things will ebb and flow. Which is fine.

I hope you both are well! I'll try to check in more frequently. :-)

dbackdad said...

Oh, jesus. I'm by far the worst about posting or reading posts lately.

I had seen your Quora status updates on FB and had been meaning to wander over there. It'd be nice to get in those discussions again without the annoying internet troll, discussion board losers you see in a lot of places. That's what I always liked about our family of blogs when we were all active.

CK, as always, has stayed active through thick and thin. Keep it up buddy. Fight the power. :-)

Paul said...

I have often puzzled over the polemics of politics and religion in which both extremes are so convinced they are right. How do we explain this? Jonathan Haidt's book "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion" http://www.amazon.com/The-Righteous-Mind-Politics-Religion/dp/0307455777 is probably the best explanation I've encountered to date. He studies the psychology of morality. One salient point he makes in his book is that religion has a tendency to "bind and blind", or in other words, once a religion declares something sacred, it becomes blind to any rational criticism of it. Worth a read if you get a chance.

William Stachour said...

I'll look it up.

I think whatever mechanisms are involved, they MUST affect both sides. I want to think that my processes are different, that I'm reaching conclusions by a different, and more legitimate and functional, path; but I'm skeptical that this is entirely the case.

I've been reading Clan of the Cave Bear (and sequels) for the last several weeks, and we're reminded that first on the agenda is reproduction. All the rest of this, stuff in which I invest a lot of thought and energy and some angst, is mostly chaff until it hampers reproduction. (And studies seem to show that the religionists have the edge there; they make more babies!).


Paul said...

Take heart in that "none of the above" is the fastest growing segment of the population. Also religion has historically relied on a closed network where the flow of information travels only through approved ecclesiastical channels. The internet completely circumvents this, and doubters are free to explore their doubts anonymously without fear of negative repercussions. I think it's going to be much rougher going for religion in the immediate future. I think some reinvention is in order for them to survive long term. Who knows exactly what that might look like.

I think people mostly hang on to religion because it scratches some emotional itch. That's something I don't claim to be completely free of myself. One could say my religious skepticism also scratches an emotional itch. I know it's a happier place for me. I had built up considerable cognitive dissonance from my years of indoctrination.

William Stachour said...

In my most cynical moments I think the "emotional itch" is the whole point of the exercise. It's why the institutions take such interest in children ("Give me the child and I'll show you the man," or whatever St. Paul or whomever said). The emotional hooks set much more deeply in childhood. I always imagine religion being first introduced to people at, say, age 18; you can bet your fortune that the ranks of believers would be substantially smaller in that case. And the Powers That Be know this.

I think we all build up some cognitive dissonance because it's in our nature (a survival mechanism?) to kind of "gestalt" our observations into a coherent whole, even though our perceptions are probably not actually coherent. We just happen to live in a time when, as you say, the vast amount of information available makes hanging onto this kind of mythology especially untenable.