Tuesday, February 5, 2013

If Only You Understood...

So often I hear the argument from people that I fail to understand their position.  How many times have you heard a theist counter an atheist by saying that don't understand their religion?  "If only you truly understood where I'm coming from..."

Embedded in this sort of sentiment is the fallacious assumption that anyone in the same circumstances would arrive at the same conclusion.  That anyone who agrees with you on one point will agree with you on everything that follows from there.  That anyone who empathizes with your position will honestly believe that everything you arrive at from that position is correct.

Let's get one thing absolutely straight here.  Whether we're talking about religion or anything else, when you're pining for me to "understand" your position, chances are very high that you are lying.  What you seek is not "understanding", but agreement.  You aren't looking for me to say "I get it"...  You're looking for me to say "you're right."

There is of course, a fundamental problem here.  For one, understanding It seems that everybody who talks about others understanding them has no interest in actually understanding the positions of others.  Look at any debate between a theist and an atheist on matters that at least pertain in some way to religion (whether it be about evolution of moral philosophy or whatever)...  you will never see one case where the theist does not straw-man the atheist position.  And yet, it's somehow the atheist who has the problem.  Hypocrisy much?

If you actually look at the general statistics, though, nonbelievers tend to rank higher in terms of their knowledge of religion than believers do.  Only Jews and Mormons on average come close (while slightly less, it's within statistical error).  And not just that of their own original upbringing (since most non-believers still have some religious heritage in their background), but of several religions around the world.  In short, it's not that nonbelievers fail to understand your position...  it's that they do understand it, and plenty more.  They understand it well enough that they see the flaws, and that is the difference.

When an atheist points out that the Bible supports slavery, the universal response by any and all Christians is that it's being taken out of context or that we don't understand the actual nature of slavery in the Bible.  A key aspect of this argument is that theists never actually venture to claim what the correct context is.  Sure, there will be those who point out the whole indentured servitude for 6 years thing, but that ignores the fact that the Bible only applies that rule to Jews owning fellow Jews.  That too, it leaves out the bit about the owner still keeping the wives and children of their "servants", and if said slaves don't want to abandon their families, they have to opt into lifelong servitude which would be denoted by drilling a hole through the person's ear...  yeah...  totally okay.  Not at all like slavery.  And here's the curious bit.  If you think nonbelievers don't know this crap, they do.  And every time Christians try to shift the argument over to indentured servitude between members of the "chosen" race, it only proves that they're the ones taking it out of context.

I do believe it's worth noting that atheists make their point a bit poorly in this sort of argument.  You can bring up all the evil things and contradictions all you want, but just point it out doesn't really drive home the point about how the believers address this by cherry-picking, altering meanings, committing to horribly loose interpretations, outright lying, denial of proven facts, and changing the subject.  If you don't point that out, it comes off as if you're being as literal about it as the YECs who deserve to be locked up in a loony bin for life.  There are two obvious points that can be raised here.  One is the obvious point that when they pick and choose and mess with the interpretation, they're using some separate standard by which to do so.  They have a preconceived notion that it necessarily MUST be "good" by definition, so they perform all sorts of mental gymnastics to make it seem so.  But do you notice that they have some definition of "good" that they try to match up to which isn't what's written on the very pages they revere?  The other obvious point is that these same people who do this are the ones who argue their religion is "true" and "correct" and that their holy books are sacred.  Surely, if there was such a profound truth to everything written in these texts, you would never have a need to dicker about with it and shift topic and lie about it.  The fact is, it is YOU who does not understand your own religion very well at all.

The long and short of it is that theists believe what they prefer to believe and follow the ideals they wish were correct, and religion is nothing more than a tool for them to add weight to their position.  If only it was possible for that religion to be true...  but it never is.

There's a bit of Dunning-Kruger going on here in that people believe that their own personal level of understanding of the topic will necessarily yield the correct interpretations.  But understanding something to the exact same level that you and putting it only into the same contexts that you do is not something that is inherent in the meaning "understanding."  The simple fact overlooked is that understanding does not imply agreement.  And the disagreement may or may not necessarily be a problem with the opponent.

Now, I know it's fair to point out that people who do understand science will repeatedly accuse creationists of failing to understand science.  This is because they do.  One key difference you can point out here is that on the middle-range to broader aspects of religion, two different people will likely give two very different descriptions.  With anything that is fact, no two people will ever give different descriptions, provided both are aware that said fact is indeed fact.  The details of scientific theories are not personally held beliefs or opinions.  Indeed, some guesswork goes into the scientific process when devising a hypothesis...  which is why hypotheses and a variety of conjectures which are on the fringes of study are not really taught as fact, but as ideas that people are considering.  The number of trained scientists who will tell you that a scientific theory follows that same definition is guaranteed to be zero.

It is one thing if creationists actually had a problem with things like synpatric and allopatric speciation...  those are actually real principles.  Instead, they argue against bizarre caricatures like "dogs giving birth to cats," when there has never been an isolated incidence of a biologist who actually claimed that at any point. Meanwhile, people who denounce religion will happily put forth actual stories and quotes from the narratives of the holy books.  The Gita, for instance, proclaims that one should not feel guilt over killing because you've only killed the body and not the soul...  this at least, is not a caricature, since that is in fact written in the Gita (in the second chapter, no less).  But if someone were to argue against Hinduism by proclaiming that it professes that people get reincarnated on alien planets with 4 arms and 10 heads, that would make for a ridiculous argument.  Nobody says that.  And a Hindu facing such an argument would have a valid point in at least asking specifically for understanding, and not blind agreement.

That said, Hinduism makes a poor example for this because all of its textual content is so vague to begin with.  It's a disorganized religion, in essence.  But chances are good that any atheist who grew up Hindu to begin with has a pretty thorough understanding of it.  Same can be said for former Christians or Muslims and so on.  The ridiculousness of the idea, the fallacies in the thinking, the flaws in the moralities...  all are understood.  It's the theist who fails to understand these things, and yet, it is always the theist who demands assent and understanding from others without daring to offer it themselves.  This isn't a one-way street.  Get on your side of the street and out of the way of us adults.