Oh Me of Little Faith

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I am a deeply unreligious person. I have a firm belief in just about nothing spiritual.

Which is not to say that I am in any way more rational than the next guy. Not at all. My lack of piety simply reflects my own particular (and somewhat random) cultural heritage.

Both of my parents, and three out of four of my grandparents were secular Jews. (The fourth was my German Catholic grandmother who converted to Judaism to marry my grandfather in Nazi Germany and then fled with him to Palestine where my mother was born. And she was the most unreligious of them all.)

So my skeptical agnosticism is in no way an original thought on my part, it’s just my cultural heritage. It’s how I was raised to see the world. Much as a born-again, or a Shiite, or a Mormon or a Hassid has inherited his own specific cultural perspective.

But one of my best friends in college and my roommate was the son of a Lutheran pastor who went on to become a pastor himself. And I found that there was very little difference in the way that he saw the world and the way that I saw the world. We had an almost indistinguishable sense of what was right and what was wrong, and what was decent and what was perverse. We simply used different metaphors to describe our perspectives.

So in my experience religion is neither good nor bad. It’s just a broad category of cultural frameworks that use extra-human authority as a metaphor. In this way my own secular agnosticism is almost another religion (minus the extra human authority.)

So religion’s no problem, per se.

It’s religiosity that can be counter-productive.

And what do I mean by religiosity?

Religiosity, as I am using the term, has nothing to do with religion or God.

It has to do with fundamentalism.

It has to do with dualistic “either/or” thinking.

But most of all it has to do with certainty.

To my way of seeing things the world is a mysterious and beautiful affair born of randomness and probability and chaos.

Although we humans constantly attempt to chip away at the fabric of our reality with scientific inquiry and abstract thought experiments, the fact remains that the universe is an inscrutable mystery with an ever unknowable future.

This is an unsettling state of affairs, even to secular types like me.

My usual approach to dealing with this great unknown is pretty standard. I simply pretend that it doesn’t exist.

I go about my life focussing on its reassuring and routine patterns and repetitions, and generally ignore the enormous precariousness of my own existence and future.

But there are areas of life where it is almost impossible to escape the discomfort of how little I know.

Mortality and finances come to mind.

When a friend or an acquaintance unexpectedly dies the take-home message is unavoidable and clear.

We are all headed for death, and none of us knows what happens after our last breath passes through our lips.

And that’s about as uncomfortable a message as I can imagine.

And this discomfort makes us do interesting things when we are confronted with death.

As an example when an unusual and life threatening illness befalls a young person unexpectedly in the hospital, I generally find myself trying to search for a reason for the bad outcome like “patient X was a smoker” (and I’m not.) or “patient Y did not have his medical needs attended to by society,” (whereas I have.)

In this way I pretend as if death were an avoidable consequence of a moral failing, or the unfortunate sequela of inadequate access to resources. (As opposed to say the final destination for all of us.)

Which is odd, no?

Similarly (though perhaps to a lesser extent) I am very concerned about the unknown when it comes to investing my hard earned money for the future.

It’s uncomfortable to remind myself that the Great Depression was merely our worst economic downturn to date, and certainly won’t be the worst in the future. Stockmarkets do go to zero (Just ask the Russians). And empires do eventually collapse, (Just ask the Greeks.)

The best that we can hope to do is to play the probabilities based on past history, and to take the best odds available to us. It all amounts to little more than an educated guess.

But what we all crave, of course, is a guarantee. A cause and effect world where if we do “A,” “B” must necessarily follow.

Which is where religiosity comes in.

My feeling is that fundamentalism is an overreaction to life’s uncertainties, and particularly the great unknown of our own mortality. Religiosity is the building of a rigid and unbending conceptual framework to buffer ourselves psychologically against all that we can’t know.

It is comforting to imagine a world of simple laws and a unified source of authority. But what is comforting is not necessarily true.

Furthermore religion is certainly not the sole domain of religiosity. Fundamentalism is everywhere that there are people believing in things.

There are fundamentalist Bogleheads, and fundamentalist mustachians, and fundamentalist trend followers, and fundamentalist value investors, and fundamentalist vegans, and fundamentalist tango dancers, and fundamentalist cross fitters etc. (you name it.)

These fundamentalists can be recognized a few key attributes.

  • An inflexibility of thought.
  • An extreme inability to process data that conflicts with their own assumptions. (we are all guilty of this one to some extent. It’s a matter of degree.)
  • An impulse to evangelize.

And as you may have gathered I’m very suspicious of fundamentalism of all sorts. This impulse to simplify the world around us with little more than pretty stories seems to me analogous to little kids who close their eyes and imagine that they can not be seen.

Why should reality conform to our own specific and ridiculously insignificant perspective?

But I do realize my potential for hypocrisy here. After all my complaints about fundamentalism could very well be a simple reflection of my own tribalism.

In other words, who’s to say that I am not simply a fundamentalist secular humanist?

Surely I should put some checks on my own inherited beliefs in order to avoid this hypocritical fate.

Here then are some rules of thumb that I Have cobbled together on the fly to try to follow in the future in order to mitigate my own subconscious need for certainty.

The 8 Commandments Of Un-Religiosity. (Irony Intended.)

  1. Be very suspicious of my own generalizations about other people’s beliefs.
  2. Remember, that at all times, I am probably making some very faulty assumptions.
  3. Strive for empathy. And remember that human disagreements are often about random differences of personal history.
  4. Give others the benefit of the doubt and assume that the people with whom I disagree are sincere, and every bit  as human as I believe myself to be.
  5. Be open to admitting that I am wrong, especially when I realize that I am.
  6. Resist trying to make other people more like me. (After all, I’m no great shakes.)
  7. If I am convinced that I’m right, then I should try harder to prove myself wrong. (Because I probably am.)
  8. Be very suspicious of data that confirms my own beliefs.

That’s it. Those are my first 8 commandments for avoiding false certainty.

They aren’t complete* and they certainly aren’t written in stone, (only in blog.)

And while I’m certainly going to try to adhere to them, it won’t be easy for me. After all they were only published by a random guy on the Internet…

* this is intended as an open source list. Feel free to add more Commandments in the comments section below. That way the comandments will be written by a collection of random people on the Internet. It may just lend legitimacy to the project!

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One Response to “Oh Me of Little Faith”

  1. Jamie May 21, 2015 at 8:04 am #

    I`ve been trying to convince people of this line of thinking for most of my adult life, especially regarding how its easier (easy way out) to believe in life after death. I`ve been unsuccessful. I think part of being a scientist is being willing to be uncomfortable with what we do not know, rather than trying to shield ourselves from it with our beliefs.

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