Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Embracing myth as a political tactic

[Fifth in a series]


I do not deny that there is a connection between religion and extremism. It is certainly true that once you start to accept things on faith, that opens up a crack in your thought processes through which all manner of things might slip. The whole premise of this discussion is that this phenomenon is real, it's dangerous, and something has to be done about it. The question is: what?

Your answer is to simply stand up for Truth, Justice and the Rational Way. It's a noble sentiment. I sympathize. I really do. But there's a problem: it doesn't seem to be working, at least not here in the United States, and certainly not in the Middle East. And even in the places where it does seem to be working, like Sweden and Japan, it's not because of the efforts of the CSI. I don't know why Sweden and Japan are so good at resisting irrationality, but do observe in those cultures a certain civility and decorum that seems to be absent in the writings of Harris and Hitchens.

Looking at the situation as well from the point of view of tactics and politics I further observe that the world has far fewer qualms about being politically incorrect towards atheists than any other group defined by a set of belief. (I was about to add, "with the possible exception of pedophiles," until it occurred to me that even pedophiles have managed to deflect an awful lot of political and legal arrows by donning the mantle of faith.) Empirically, if-you-can't-beat-em-join-em seems to be an effective strategy with respect to certain quality metrics.

You are of course correct to warn about the slippery slope and the danger of -- if you'll forgive the metaphor -- selling your soul to the devil by embracing myth as a political tactic. And here we get to one of the really crucial issues: to what extent are people capable of compartmentalizing their beliefs? I think humans have a great capacity for this, and I think you actually recognize this too, except you call it "hypocrisy." I call it suspending disbelief, and it can be a useful skill. It takes an exceptionally strong person to face the cold hard truth about the world and not sink into despair, because the truth is that for many people in many ways, life sucks.

What I propose is to design a sort of mythological methadone to get people off the religious heroin they are currently consuming. The challenge is to come up with a myth that serves the purposes of mythology without being quite so addictive and debilitating as what is currently in circulation.

Actually, there already is an atheist myth making the rounds: the flying spaghetti monster. The problem with the FSM is that it was specifically designed so to make it clear that no one actually believes in it, and so as a myth it is self-undermining. It does not serve the purposes of myth. Its only purpose is to ridicule the very concept of myth, and so it actually makes the situation worse. In the religion-as-drug metaphor, the FSM is like a candy cigarette, and about as effective.

And yes, I do have a concrete proposal. I'll post it later today. (No, it is not the Great Conspiracy.)

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