Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Snippity" = "sniping" + "uppity"

I thought I'd disabused everyone on that theology blog of the idea that I was male, but the blog owner didn't get the message. I finally had to post point-blank to a post directed toward me in the masculine as such: "I am female."

I think it got through.

I was ignored for some time, apparently because I called this theologian a "dumbass" on another blog. Well, hey if the shoe fits...

Then I got a mention, and one of my posts was referred to as "snippity," whatever that means. It can't be nice, and I admit I'm not always nice but the brevity of my posts leaves the reader to fill in my intent much of the time. It's a variant of Poe's law: "it is hard to tell parodies of fundamentalism (or, more generally, any crackpot theory) from the real thing."

This Poe's corollary would go something like this: Christianity has so little basis in reality that when you repeat back to a Christian what they have said, or summarize it briefly, or even question it at all, you are presumed to be sniping. When they hear their own words or rationalizations they put up whatever defense is closest at hand.

Or.... is it a variant on the principle that women are bitchy whenever they're not bending over backward to be nice (heh, pardon the visual imagery - most men would probably prefer us to bend over frontward anyway).

Online posting being what it is, we can all be taken to be male or female, nice or "snippity" depending on the preconceived notions of the reader. You have to spell out your intentions if you don't want them to be misconstrued.

I like posting anonymously because of the expectation that women must always be polite, deferential, and never take the offense in an argument. I don't really want to be "feminine" when debating about religion. I want the same freedom as a man to say that the Bible is nonsense, that believers believe because they want to, etc. In the online environment, I can join in the fray without worrying that I'll be labeled a "bitch" or "uppity" by some man... until they discover I'm female.

Perhaps this is why the female voice has been all but silent in real life debates. We are either obeying our sociological command to be "nice" and conciliatory, or we have been silenced by accusations that have misogynistic undertones.

You can call Dawkins a lot of things, but would he be called "snippity?" Would you call Hitchens "shrill?"

I keep my posts short & to the point (usually) because I want to get to the heart of things. It's too easy for a believer to sidetrack into non-issues and ad hominems. They don't do it intentionally. They have to, because they would risk losing their identity as Christians if they really faced the ridiculousness of their claims head-on. The directness of my questions has evolved over a few months of pointless debate, and it is very much not a feminine style of communication. I'll reserve that for my face-to-face interactions with believers. They already know I'm female.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy Father's Day!

My dad was a deadbeat dad. My mother, brothers and I moved in with mom's mom, my rather religious grandmother. The five of us subsisted on my grandmother's widow's benefits from granddad's retirement, supplemented by the annual Thanksgiving & Christmas groceries from the church. With few exceptions, that's the only help we received.

Every week I was forced by my mother & grandmother to go to church, where I had to recite "Our Father..." Thankfully, we didn't have to recite it at home, so I only endured cognitive dissonance once a week. "Give us this day our daily bread..." just as our natural father would? Or as my female role models did?

Today it seems the metaphor comes at me more & more. My church never used the phrase "Your heavenly father will never let you down," but it seems popular with others. So let's see what the heavenly father does.

  • Gives Adam & Eve a great place to live then kicks them out when they eat an apple he himself gave them.
  • Razes two towns because he doesn't like the behavior of some of the men. Presumably women & girls are merely acceptable collateral damage. Lot, the good father, after offering his daughters to a marauding horde, has sex with them and impregnates them after taking them to a remote area where they have no hope of meeting an acceptable husband.
  • Drowns the whole world because his kids were bad. Bad kids, bad. He gives one father a heads-up and tells him to take his kids & some animals and put them into a boat.
  • Allows his one good kid to be killed in place of his bad kids. Bad kids, bad. Then he changes his mind & lets the one good kid wake up and walk around for awhile.
  • Even though the "sacrifice" of the one good kid is supposed to give the bad kids a free pass, he figures out a way to punish them. Unfortunately it's not clear why some kids will be sent to hell & other sent to heaven. We have to rely on the priest, or "father," to help us avoid this fate.
The Bible was written in a patriarchal society, and it promotes a continuation of that. There's nothing in the book that commands fathers to be good to their daughters. In most cases, if children are mentioned at all the boys will be mentioned. The exceptions are usually in cases where marriage or child-bearing features in a story.

So... we're supposed to trust our heavenly father, because we trust our earthly fathers, but our earthly fathers aren't instructed how to be trustworthy. YAY! Happy Father's Day! Let's all tell our dads how great they are, even if they aren't.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Christian Delusion, a book (chapter) review

I picked up this book a couple of weeks ago and I've been slow to get into it, partly because I don't need to be told that Christianity is silly. I just need to get older for religion to get sillier, it seems. I buy atheist books as a kind of vote for the cause. When arguing ad populum, some Christians will have to concede that atheism is indeed becoming more popular, based on book sales. After all, what other tool do we have to express our numbers? We have only a few organizations, and few of us bother to join them. A Christian parent might remind a grown child that membership in the church offers protection from Hell, but American Atheists offers a magazine and maybe a conference worth attending once in awhile. Atheists, on the other hand, don't need to argue ad populum. We have much better ammunition.

Unfortunately, women are still in the minority when lobbing the grenades. There are nine contributors to this book, and only one woman. She is Valerie Tarico, PhD, whose chapter is titled "Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science." My first thought was "Oh great, the only woman is a psychologist, not a heavy hitting physicist or philosopher" but as I thought more about it, the woman's point of view does tend to be psychological. And my personal take on atheism is informed by that female experience. We have been brought up to be nurturing, understanding, considerate, and emotive. The "male" perspective from the hard sciences doesn't seem to be winning many converts. They are collectively called the "New Atheists" in derisive tones. Perhaps Dr. Tarico's voice is just what we need. Her PhD is in counseling psychology. What better perspective for examining a "delusion?"

Her lens is a bit broader than just a narrow view through the psyche, though. She considers evolutionary psychology (without calling it that) and recent advances in the neurobiology of religious experience. But the main focus is the psychology of belief, the reason being that Christians place a greater emphasis on believing the right things than do pantheistic or Eastern religions.

After a brief history of Belief with a capital B in Christianity, she reduces the human habit of self-serving bias to a wonderful metaphor: "each of us is the protagonist in a custom-made Hollywood movie with the best possible camera angles." (p. 51) The goal is to get to a "coherent plot line." (p. 52) The human mind as storyteller is a great analogy. We like stories with plots, art that "looks like something" and songs that have a beginning, middle and end. Having studied anthropology and the arts, I learned through other means that there are very few universals in human culture, but there are universal patterns amongst human beings. Blind spots and irrationality in thinking are part of the package.

She brilliantly summarizes the biggest problem for Christianity thusly: "Arriving at a belief in an infallible God by way of an inerrant Bible requires an unwarranted belief in yourself."

Sometimes things go wrong in the brain and people "know" things that just aren't true. I've seen this in my family and in other people I've known. She offers some examples and stories for those who haven't been fortunate enough to see schizophrenia in action, then cites research on how people achieve "certainty," including brain-washing techniques. The Christian "just knows" they're right, while the scientist learns to have a "healthy mistrust for our sense of knowing." (p. 55)

Next she discusses what I have tried to argue with theists: that humans' evolutionary success has come from having a "mental architecture" that makes us what she calls "social information specialists," and that our greatest threats have been from other people.

The same facial recognition skill that makes it possible for babies to recognize their caretakers gets transferred to inanimate objects and creates gods, demons ghosts... (she doesn't mention Jesus on Toast or Mary on an Office Building but I wish she had!)

"Theory of mind" makes it possible for us to put a mind behind the faces we see and even into stuffed animals or disembodied spirits. We can then recognize and attempt to anticipate patterns. Usually this is a helpful skill, thereby surviving long enough to reproduce (she doesn't say this but it follows). Credit and blame can be falsely attributed thanks to hyperactive agency detection. We want things to make sense! Naturally, our gods tend to think and behave as we do. Otherwise we wouldn't recognize them, I guess.

The rest of the chapter explores "The Born-Again Experience." She's too polite to call this a mind-fuck, but that's my opinion of it. Perhaps you have to know people with psychiatric disorders to know when someone is describing a neurological phenomenon.

Anywho... I love to see my opinions validated by an expert: "Conversion is a process that begins with social influence." (p. 60) Yep. I've never seen anyone have a conversion to a religion that nobody else in the room practices. Clinicians call the emotional-mystical experience "transcendence hallucination.|" I would call it the orgasmic part of the mind-fuck. She points out that seizures, migraines, drugs, and strokes can trigger this experience. 1,000 years ago the victims of these experiences were either mystics or witches depending on whether they agreed with the group. Hildegard of Bingen's drawings indicate that the headaches accompanying her spiritual experiences were migraines. But these symptoms can also be brought on by drumming, sensory deprivation, fasting, and crowd dynamics. (61)

So... add our pattern-making, meaning-making minds to our socially-driven unusual mental experiences and the result is a spiritual experience. She adds another factor almost as a side matter, but I think it's important: the authority figure. Their beliefs gain credibility after such an experience. "The authorities who triggered the otherworldly experience are trusted implicitly." Charitably, she doesn't attribute sinister motives to the ministers who induce these experiences, since the ministers themselves have likely had them and may not even be aware of the neurological processes.

Her conclusion very specifically claims that cognitive research offers a "sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of belief." (I would have pluralized it to phenomena, because she lists several!)

The killer conclusion is one of my pet ideas. I feel so validated! It's that Occam's Razor applies here. "In fields of human knowledge other than theology, if we can find a sufficient explanation within nature's matrix, we don't look outside. We no longer, for example, posit that demons are involved in seizures or bubonic plague."

Exactly. Human psychology, neurobiology, sociology and anthropology have revealed enough to make possible a naturalistic explanation of religious experience without at all resorting to to fields of philosophy and 'hard' sciences at all. (well, neurobiology yes...)

These fields developed long after philosophy and physics had laid claim to the "Truth," or the ability to discern truth. Even today, these "old" fields are dominated by men, who tend to be (if I may overgeneralize) less interested in the social and psychological aspects of "reality."

The "famous" atheists today are still coming from physics and biology. Their arguments fall on deaf ears precisely because they appeal to "objective" reality and not the subjective realities of society, culture, and personality. Tarico points out that when backed into a corner the Christian often concedes by saying "I just know." That's an indication of the neurobiological "knowing." I've gotten a few into the corner using logic, & they said "It's a matter of faith."

This to me is proof that it's a matter of wanting to be part of a culture that says it "knows."