The Problem is not the problem

This is going to be a post about atheism so, you know, Shields Up and all that.

…actually, come to think of it, this whole post is going to be about how that previous sentence is a disastrous thing. So fuck it, shields down, divert all power to your higher reasoning nodes.

The post's title is a Pirates of the Caribbean reference. I'm allowed to do that because I worked at Disney when those movies were made. In fact, I once met Johnny Depp in full on Captain Jack Sparrow regalia at the Disney lot. The full quotation is:

The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem
— Captain Jack Sparrow

There is no doubt that a great debate exists today between the religious and non-religious about the future direction of civilization. There is also no doubt that both sides (here I am conveniently lumping all religions into the same side, which is actually inaccurate) think they are correct and acting for the good of humanity. This is a problem. But the real problem is how each side is approaching the conflict. I think that Religion is far more culpable here, but not entirely alone.

All of our progress in the past two millennia has come via the applied acquisition of knowledge about how things really are in this universe. Standing at the center of this is empiricism - coming to understanding through direct experience and reason. Empiricism stands at the heart of the Scientific Method and the proof of that method's validity is in the pudding. Or the steam engine. Or the electric light. Or general relativity. Or the vaccine. Antibiotics. The computer. The Apollo landing. The Internet. The countless other elements that have elevated and ennobled our species. The heart of empiricism is evidence - knowledge acquired through observation and experimentation. Evidence has power to reveal truths about the world - the forward progress of the Enlightenment has been a direct result of evidence - its acquisition, debate over what it means, experimentation with it, and ultimately the formulation of theories that bring light to a previously dark corner of the Universe. Technology, culture, economics, jurisprudence… they all have been made possible by the consideration of evidence. Debate and discourse, discussions about what evidence means, are crucial to the synthesis of knowledge.

There is a central tenant of Religion that is perhaps best summarized by Rick Warren in his book The Purpose Driven Life:

Don’t ever try to argue with the Devil. He’s better at arguing than you are having had thousands of years to practice.
— Rick Warren

This is a catastrophe. For those who buy into it (and many I've met do) there is absolutely no argument against nor criticism of religion that will even be considered, because they automatically think it to be the word of the devil. There is no room for conversation. The Bible commands its followers to "take the helmet of salvation" (Ephesians 6:17) against the polemic tricks of the devil - an analogy that calls to mind tin foil hats - and simply repeat bits and pieces of scripture to drown out the offending words. Consider for a moment the converse of this belief: If someone presents a better argument than you do, then he is the devil. How is progress possible here? How can there be any doubt that this is a terrible perspective to bring to the world?

How can one have a reasonable debate when one's opponent essentially sticks his fingers in his ears and refuses to converse? What convincing evidence can one present to someone who doesn't value evidence?

Even if one manages to avoid being called the devil - or told that one has the devil inside him… which has happened to me on a few occasions… one must still negotiate the second big problem of the problem: the Taking of Offense. It is currently not culturally acceptable to question the validity of one's religious beliefs. On some levels I understand this. Faith runs as deep as something can run in people and as Daniel Dennett puts it there really is no polite way of saying to a person of faith, "Excuse me, have you ever considered that your deepest held belief is a delusion?"

Most good people try to not offend others, but we also don't shy away from it when we need to make a point. In every other context this is seen as a normal part of debate. A liberal might take offense at a conservative's assertion that people "just need to work harder" and the conservative might take offense at the liberal's accusation of the inherent closeted racism of that belief. Neither owes the other an apology and each is responsible for dealing with his own offense. But when it comes to religious beliefs, we are expected to politely tolerate them without any questioning, even as they try to shoulder their way into influence over our lives via education policy, foreign policy, environmental policy, social policy, etc.

To speak plainly, this is bullshit. All matters of religion and faith should be on the table as appropriate topics for debate, just like any other subject. It should hold no special status. I think this is highly appropriate and necessary. It is, shall we say, a matter of some importance whether an elected official deeply believes that the world is soon to come to an end. I feel like that might affect his or her policy decisions. And here I need to call out my liberal friends - this state of affairs is largely our fault. In our desire to be tolerant and openminded we have taken to tiptoeing around every single issue in slippers when we at times need to strap on some boots, step forward confidently, and speak up.

It must be said that there is a big difference between legitimate criticism of religion, e.g. "I question the validity of your underlying claims and I think they are counterproductive for the following reasons," v.s. condescending put-downs, e.g. "You believe what?? You must be a moron. Let me tell you all the ways you're stupid." This is where I think some of my fellow atheists run afoul. Most of our current criticism is leveled at the more dangerous and damaging fundamentalist beliefs and we tear into those rather viscously. I worry that in our, um, thoroughness we may completely alienate the vastly more numerous population of religious moderates. Nobody likes being made a fool. Mocking entire swaths of culture for following the practices of an illiterate, barbarous, iron age tribe of desert nomads who listened to curiously combustable shrubbery is not the best way to make friends and influence people.

There are a lot of intelligent, thoughtful religious people. I know many. I may question how they manage to compartmentalize their minds to engage in doublethink, but I cannot deny the evidence that faith and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I'll say that for most of the people I know their faith is a positive force in their lives - it pushes them to improve themselves, to help other people, and try to be good citizens of the world. These people have, consciously or unconsciously, selectively edited their holy books to exclude the awful parts and keep the beautiful parts. I have absolutely no problem with these people or their faith and all I expect from them (and usually, but not always receive) is the same courtesy in return. When we approach the great debate of what role religion should play in our future, we must engage these people differently. If we are too callous we will drive them away and then we're both stuck back in our echo chambers and no progress has been made.

One of my favorite series of books when I was a kid was the Ender quartet. In the second book, Speaker for the Dead, a concept is introduced called the Hierarchy of Foreigness. It categorizes all sentient beings into 4 groups, Utlannings, or strangers in the same species and culture, Framlings, or strangers of the same species but a different culture, Ramen, or aliens of a different species with whom communication is possible, and finally Varelse, or aliens of a different species with whom no communication is possible. To put the theory very briefly, if we encounter a true Varelse then conflict is inevitable.

The context there is Science Fiction, but I think about that hierarchy sometimes when I step back and look at the debate between the secular world and the religious world. Unless we find a way to actually communicate meaningfully with each other then a nasty conflict is unavoidable. This is important. We need to figure this out.

I crave your thoughts - sound off below.