Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A myth for skeptics

[This is a followup to an earlier post]

So how do we design a better myth for Scientists/atheists/skeptics/whatever-you-want-to-call-them/us?

Like all good designs, it needs to start with a goal, a set of design criteria. You can't design something unless you know what it is you want to accomplish. The goal here is to design a constructive myth, one whose effect on people will be positive by some quality metric. Which metric? Ideally the myth should cause people to behave more rationally. (Is it possible for a myth to cause people to behave rationally? Yes, I believe it is. Keep reading.) Failing that, it should at least allow the community to deflect some of the criticism and discrimination that we presently endure.

It should be a moderate myth, implausible enough to make it unlikely to foster fanaticism, but serious-sounding enough to make it socially unacceptable to dismiss it as a simple parody. Ideally, it should be an old myth, because humans -- especially religious ones, whom we are trying to reach -- venerate history.

Happily, some of our ancestors were prescient, and there is an extant myth that fits the bill. (This is a good thing because inventing a good myth is not at all easy.) It is the myth of Loki or the Trickster, practical joker to the gods, or, if a different kind of gravitas is called for, evil super-villian to the geeks.

The beauty of tricks is that they foster skepticism. The beauty of Loki is that he can be used to defuse fanaticism. If someone says, "I know this because God told me," we can respond, "No, you only think it's God. It might be Loki playing a trick on you." Note that the goal here is not to persuade the fanatic (that is not possible), merely to humble him and defuse the argument. As long as we maintain some plausible deniability that we might really believe that Loki is out there playing tricks on us the rhetoric is unassailable because it has the exact same basis as the rhetoric of the fanatic. The fanatic can no longer resort to playing the godless card. We have a god. He is Loki. And he can work in your life the exact same way that other gods do. But unlike other gods who foster dependency and submission, Loki fosters skepticism and self-reliance, because Loki is not on your side. Loki is the enemy, forever trying to trick you, to lure you from the truth. But the good news is that you are more powerful than he is, and if you arm yourself with the right tools and training you can defeat him.

To believe in Loki is, in a wonderfully paradoxical way, to be a skeptic, to doubt. And doubt is the seed from which rationality grows. Doubt is the ultimate weapon -- indeed the only effective weapon -- against fanaticism and fundamentalism. Doubt is the salvation of the world.

I hope you will all help spread the Word.

[UPDATE] I see that this post got a "bogus" vote. If you think this is bogus I would really appreciate if you would leave a comment explaining why you think it's bogus.


Don Geddis said...

I, for one, welcome our new Trickster overlord.

JoeC said...

Loki sounds very similar (but not exactly) like the concept of Satan about the time the book of Job was written, when Satan was considered part of God's counsel and he worked for God by going out and testing humans' loyalty to God, then reporting back...he wasn't evil, just doing his Godly duty and literally playing devil's advocate to God's thoughts and actions. Of course centuries later when the New Testament was written, after being incluenced by occupying Persian religions, Satan had been transformed from part of God's council into an evil fallen angel. And, regarding the serpent of Genesis--nothing to do with Satan at all...if you read the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Babylonian creation stories that Genesis put a new twist on, the serpent was just a character thrown in, probably chosen to be a snake because snakes were symbolic of everlasting life (they didn't die but just shed their skins and became new again, also probably a phallic/life connection...) which fit in nicely in a story involving a "tree of life." Interesting...dollars to donuts it was Loki and not God talking to the neocons. ;-)

Ron said...

Loki/the Trickster is a pretty timeless archetype. But it's important not to draw too much attention to the fact that Satan arguably fits this archetype because of all the baggage that he's collected over the years. This is one of the reasons I chose Loki instead of, say, Coyote. Norse myths seem to have some gravitas in the Western psyche (probably thanks to Wagner's influence). Native American myths, but contrast, are considered kind of quaint and not really to be taken seriously. Satan is just too tainted to have any kind of positive influence.