Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tempest in Russell's Teapot

As detailed in Nothing Unreal Exists and Faith and Farce, I take my skepticism very seriously. So seriously that I cannot quite bring myself to subscribe to atheism, no matter how appealing I find it.

Nevertheless, most of my friends are atheists, agnostics, humanists, or freethinkers of some variety, and I like to consider myself an 'atheist ally'. Religion (or lack thereof) is a private matter, and I oppose its involvement in any public sphere, especially education.

Vitarka mudra - the gesture of discussion
However, I seem to have trouble talking to atheists (especially New Atheists) about atheism, even though I often get 'read' as an atheist myself. Maybe I am doing something wrong, but somehow those conversations have a way of ending with an atheist insisting that all religion is harmful to humanity and we must do away with them if we are to advance.

I practice Chan (Zen) and Discordianism, but see no reason those religions must contradict with science. I accept materialism as an ideal baseline for discussing consensus reality (although I suspect an information-based paradigm will supplant it within my lifetime). I do not proselytize or expect others to understand why I meditate and Partake of No Hotdog Buns. I do expect tolerance to be answered with tolerance.

I suggested this to an acquaintance, who replied that he saw no reason to tolerate a delusional worldview, and that religious people have already given up on logic by discarding reality for faith. Questions of civility aside, this stance is not particularly constructive. It shuts down discourse and alienates believing allies.

As I see it, discourse of any kind requires some degree of faith in a shared reality. We assume that our senses convey independently verifiable information (not always true). We assume that other people interpret our words the same way we do (often not true). We assume all manner of things that the nature of our very cognition render impossible to prove or disprove (for now).

There is nothing wrong with any of that, but I think it worthwhile to be aware of the assumptions we make. Where we draw the line between 'rational' and 'delusional' assumptions is culturally determined, and sometimes rather arbitrary. It serves no one to assume that someone who professes a different set of beliefs must be incapable of coming to an agreement on basic definitions for the sake of discourse.

To me, a person who believes that a teapot might orbit the Sun between the Earth and Mars, acknowledges the empirical shortcomings of this claim, and willingly entertains other points of view is far more rational than someone who will not stray from his own paradigm--whether spiritualistic, transcendental, materialistic, or informational.

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