Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Are Atheists less biased than Christians?

"There is an asymmetry: atheists in general welcome the most intensive and objective examination of their views, practices and reasons. (In fact, their incessant demand for self-examination can become quite tedious.) The religious, in contrast, often bristle at the impertinence, the lack of respect, the sacrilege, implied by anyone who wants to investigate their views."  Daniel Dennett, Breaking The Spell

Many times I have been admonished by my family and friends about “Going down the wrong path” or "becoming an apostate". Often, the conversation begins in the form of a question, “Why do you reject Jesus?” and “Why are you choosing the path that is going to lead you to hell?” The tone of the questioning is typically condescending. It is coming from an individual who assumes they have most of the correct answers about reality, and that I, a fallen ingrate, needs their assistance in understanding things correctly. After all, they only want to eschew me out of my faulty thinking and my path towards everlasting torment.

I sometimes wish to say back, “It seems so easy for you to just assume that you are right about all this. Have you noticed how I refrain from employing this same tactic? I do not accept any assumption I make with pure ease. I hold assumptions loosely…tentatively, and I do not proceed to go further and create dogma out of them.  I patiently listen to all the Christian CD’s that you have made me. I read every Christian book that you get me for Christmas and I read your unending bible passage texts and the constant stream of email devotionals that you send me. Yet, you can barely tolerate 30 seconds of a debate between Dan Barker and Dinesh D'Souza. If this were a game of fair-mindedness with regards to the other person’s ideological position, there seems to be great deal of imbalance going on.”

Many Christians that I know are unwilling to expand their thinking to include thoughts that are secular in nature (i.e. thinking about events as if there was no god). So, while they want you to read through all of their homemade tracts and listen to their sermons, they will not bring their mind to your side of the fence. The reason, I suppose? They are afraid of doing so. Many Christians think that this act alone—this simple shift in perspective— is moving into satanic territory. This is one reason why Christian leaders often warn their devotees to abstain from reading books by atheists. They truly believe that demonic powers have invested such atheist minds so that they can beguile and corrupt other minds, ultimately bringing their readers to the lordship of Satan.

Unlike the Christian, the atheist/skeptic has no reason to refrain from considering the other person’s perspective (in this case, the Christian perspective). There is no atheist creed with warnings of “Loosing one’s beliefs may result in atheist hell” or “You can be blinded by Christians”. There are no pejorative labels equivalent to “backslider”, “apostate” or “infidel” to slap on former atheists who have changed their minds and have become religious.

While atheists might have logical problems with religious view-points, they won’t be tempted to disown their friends and family members simply for having a “change of mind” (To an atheist, a change of mind carries no spiritual/moral implications but it does for a Christian). To the atheist, actions carry far more weight in the grand scheme of things. For Christians though, a change of mind…a change of thinking or “heart”— is ultimately what determines your place in the afterlife.  This is why the traditional Christian view allows absurd things to happen…like Ted Bundy getting to go to heaven, and Einstein, to hell. (i.e. one of these people changed their mind about Jesus and made a decision to believe in him while they were alive.)

The skeptical position says, “Go ahead; check out all the other world-views! There is nothing inherently diabolical about doing this. In fact, doing so expands your mental horizon so that you can be better informed about different view-points and why certain groups hold them. Furthermore, learning about other views is a good way to avoid the temptation of misrepresenting them.”

My point is that the atheist view is less biased. That is, the atheist is on a less biased thinking platform. If you think I’m wrong, ask yourself, are atheists ever advised not to read Christian literature? Are atheists warned to NOT read the Bible, NOT learn about creationist ideas and to NOT read apologetic books written by Christians? It seems to me, that some of the most informed people about creationism are atheists. These individuals don’t shy away from their “opponent's” position, but instead, seek to learn all about it and then make an assessment about whether it is more or less reasonable than the current position they hold.

Unlike the religious view where the mind has a very deep emotional attachment to a predetermined set of infallible, immutable beliefs,  the skeptical view attempts to make commitments only to reason, reality, logic, truth and evidence. If a piece of evidence appears to disrupt a former idea, that idea can be changed. All ideas are subject to change based on new information.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Need for cognition?

“If you think humanity is high minded, just check out google’s zeitgeist archives for the top ten search terms. Movie and pop stars, bands, top athletes, and current political events are the perennials, with nary a scientist nor scientific discovery among them (and this is after the most popular search terms, those that relate to sex, have been screened out).  
                     Christof Koch, “Consciousness” (neuroscientist, Caltech)

Some people like to have involved conversations about religion, atheism, skepticism, philosophy and science. Many of these people have an easy time tolerating ambiguity, enjoying abstract thinking or entertaining themselves with controversial subject-matter. For such individuals, thinking itself is an artful endeavor that becomes its own reward. These are the kinds of people who relish being in the throes of a florid argument--provided no individual is being personally attacked. An intense need for cognition is a prevailing theme in these people's lives.

 I’ve noticed that people who engage in the above style of thinking, discussion and debate are often reprimanded with the following criticism:  “Stop wasting your time thinking or talking about this” or “Move on to something else” or “This isn’t changing anyone’s mind anyways” or “No one cares” or “You’re just a novice anyways, save the attempted thinking for the professors”.

 Clearly, there are many people who feel uncomfortable or apathetic about conversations that involve the philosophical realm or the pursuit of inquiry to gain knowledge. This type of person has a very low need for cognition. What would they prefer to talk about? Their dog? The reality television show they watched yesterday? The weather? That funny scene in a movie or television show that they just watched? These are fine things to talk about (and everyone already talks about them INCESSANTLY)—but what makes them appreciably more worthy of attention?  There is an endless deluge of concrete minutiae people talk about, but, for some reason, NONE of it receives the same kinds of rebuke and “You’re wasting your time!” that an attempted philosophical or intellectual discussion receives.  It’s as if having a philosophical discussion is the ultimate waste of time—but talking about your favorite celebrity or music artist is NEVER reproached—this is just expected.

Perhaps it is just “normal” to have water-cooler discussions about celebrities and their latest escapades; it is “abnormal” to initiate a Socratic dialogue with a stranger at a bakery (or anywhere else, I guess). If one of these scenarios above is considered “wasting your time” isn’t the other one too? How many times in life have we heard conversations about the first subject? How many times have you seen two people going-at-it in full-fledged Socratic dialogue?

I see it like this: a person is inevitably going to spend their time thinking or talking about certain things in this life. We choose the content that we discuss, that which arouses our sense of intrigue or passion, and this ultimately feeds and programs our brains. The time we spend having a discussion about that person we think is stupid or about our favorite celebrity—could also be time spent thinking about or discussing a scientific principle or philosophical idea.

If you are an individual with a high need for cognition, you get far less pleasure having discussions about events and other people. Instead, you thrive on ideas and how they have sex with—how they merge with other ideas forming new tiers of thought—novel possibilities to better understanding reality. Every invention or theory starts with a trail of thinking—and many times it requires abstract thinking generated from a philosophical or intellectual dialectic. Many people are perfectionists so they say “Why bother if I’m not very good at this kind of foreign thinking?” It doesn't matter if the initial thinking is rudimentary, naive or marked by flaws in reasoning. We all have to start somewhere, and sometimes we struggle in the same spot for  years—even the most brilliant people in the world were once three-year olds. At least here, we are at a place to learn and expand intellectually.

Chit-chat is a kind of rubbish talk; it really cannot advance the mind—or conversation— to new possibilities. While we all participate in this kind of daily drivel, it does take the place of excruciatingly fascinating conversations that we could be having.

We can only hope that more and more people apply their minds to new ideas and to innovative thinking.  With this method, more solutions and possibilities can be explored.