Sunday, 2 May 2010

Listening and That Kind of Atheist

Sorry. This is a long one.

Jon and I were sitting down in the Lazy Scholar. This was on my most recent--and final--trip to Ontario. We were talking about one hundred and one related things, and Jon brought up a girl I will call Sally Drew. (This protects her privacy a little bit, but Jon and Cait will recognize immediately who I'm talking about.) I've never to my knowledge met this Sally Drew. Jon implied that she is my intellectual match, and the thing about Jon is that he often and vocally overestimates how intelligent I am. It seemed as though he was suggesting that she is in a way my antithesis (or I suppose that we are antitheses of one another), in that she is a vociferous and evangelical atheist, frequently waxing upon the irrationality of religion. This is a girl who has committed a lot of her not insignificant mental resources to supporting atheism. She has the arguements all worked out, and she's honed them well (or as well as you can if you're under twenty-five). Jon in effect said that Sally Drew is certain of her atheism and tries to convince others to follow suit.

I said, "That makes me so sad."

Jon said, "That's what she says about you."

I was shocked by two things: the first was that Sally Drew knows of my existence and is judging me somewhere; the second was that I was judging her in exactly the same way that I did not want to be judged. To say we were antitheses was perhaps truer then than at any other point; we were mirror images, judging each other through Jon.

What does really make me sad, and I said this to Jon, is that while I am more than willing to try to see things from an atheist perspective, to understand why other people think what they do and to participate in our common humanity, I do not see atheists attempting the same. I quite literally cannot think of a single atheist who has done this. This is what makes me sad. I am sure that there are atheists who do. There must be. But those I have met do not, or at the very least I cannot tell that they do.

And I do try to understand things from an atheist perspective, in the same way that when I look at situations I sometimes think, "What would a Buddhist think of this?," or "Now, a Taoist would say such-and-such in this situation." I follow an atheist blog, I have read atheist books, and I do a smattering of research on-line. I try to listen when non-Christians talk about spiritual things (truth, meaning in death, morality, and so forth), and not just so I can make an articulate response. Trying on different perspectives--within an epistemological quarantine,* of course--is something I have trained myself to do. It's a very postmodern ability, of course, but it is an important one even to an absolutist like me.

(Of course I fail to practice it all the time. Such are we dusty creatures.)

It is perhaps this ability's postmodernism that makes it so unattractive to rational materialists. After all, most of these vocal atheists I encounter are not just atheists, but a specific kind of atheist. That is, they believe not just that there is no God (an atheist existentialist, a Buddhist, and a nihilist would all agree with that), but also that the world we experience is rationally understandable and can be understood strictly in material (ie. physical, scientific, empirical) terms. No existentialist, Buddhist, or nihilist would agree with rational materialism, however atheist they were. Rational materialism has little time for postmodernism because rational materialism requires reason and experience to be universal. Different perspectives do not matter because what is true is true for everyone. Maybe perspectives matter for social issues, politics, culture, and so on, but when it comes to what the universe looks like, there's no point wondering how other people see it. All that matters is logic and science.

(I find trying rational materialism on comparatively easy because I used to be a rational materialist. I was amateur status, and I tried to reconcile it with Christianity, but it's still a mindset that I'm familiar with.)

Whatever the cause, I have not found a vocal atheist willing to try on my perspective to the same degree that I am willing to try on theirs. This is clearly true of my antithesis, Sally Drew; this is clearly true of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the rest of the New Atheists; this is true of the atheists I encounter at Perhaps it is untrue of those atheists who are quiet, whose atheism I do not encounter. The trouble is, I wouldn't know.

This is what makes me sad. If, of course, "sad" is defined as "scared, angry, and despairing." It's also true that I'm sad about her being an atheist, but that's not something you go around saying out loud. That sort of thing makes you sound arrogant and condescending, which are things Christians need to steer away from.** Also, how I feel about her being an atheist is beside the point; what is the point, at least to the conversation I was having with Jon and to this article, is that it upsets me when people like Sally Drew refuse to see things from another point of view.

Sally Drew likely has not met a Christian willing to see things from her point of view. Or, if she has, that Christian has not made it clear that he is trying to do so. I suspect that there are many atheists who do honestly try to understand how Christians and other non-atheists see the world. But, as I've said ad nauseaum, I have not recognized this in them. Which makes me wonder whether it is visible that I attempt to otherstand things from other people's points of view. Do people know that I try to do this? I have reason to suspect that they do not, and this is what really scares me.

I wondered for a while why religious-themed conversations I had with a certain agnostic former housemate tended to go sour. Each one seemed to end worse than the last, until some unkind words were spoken and we never had those conversations again. It wasn't until after that last conversation that I realized what was happening: he understood my justifications of my beliefs to by assaults on his beliefs. This was mainly my fault. I did not bother to explain that I see no reason for my experiences and philosophizing to make a difference to someone else's belief system. This is why I believe; it does not mean that I think you have to. But I never told him that, and so I think he felt threatened. In response he tried to "disprove" my justifications and beliefs, and then I felt defensive, and it turned into an argument. Somehow I never noticed it happening as it happened. It was only in retrospect that I could ever see what went wrong.

The thing about rational materialism, though, is that any justification must hold universally true. If I give reasons for believing, they must by necessity apply to whoever I'm speaking to (according to rational materialism). So giving an account of my belief is an attack on theirs, from their point of view. I wish I was better at communicating that that's not how I see it.

How is this important? Good question. It seems to me that we as a world need to get along a little better. One of the ways we might go about doing this is listening to each other. And I mean really listening, not getting down enough of the points to make a decent rebuttal. I am trying to get better at doing this. I want to hear your journey, and I will try not to take your experiences as a direct assault on the validity of my own. But I want the same from you. I want the same from everyone. (That I will not get this is likely one of the crosses I must bear.)

We cannot attempt peace without listening. We cannot love without listening. We cannot listen if we are unwilling to understand. From what I have seen, very few people of any worldview are willing.***

* "Epistemological quarantine" refers to quarantining beliefs so that they don't interfere with the rest of your belief system; I try these ideas on without allowing them any sticking power. I do not really believe these things. I just pretend that I do so I can get a better idea of seeing what it's like.
** Not to throw stones or anything, but I'd like to tell atheists that arrogance and condescension look just as bad on you as they do on us.
*** Let me be clear that in order to listen we must be willing to understand. Successfully understanding is unnecessary. It must be so, for I doubt that full understanding is possible.


Jon Wong said...

Sally Drew is not your intellectual match. Or at least, I hope I didn't imply that I believe this to be true (which is not to say that she isn't, just that I don't think so). I draw the line at saying that she's probably MY intellectual match.

Christian H said...

Oh. Well. This is a case of my over-thinking things. I thought you were tactfully not making comparisons.

Though it's also worth noting how horrified I am at the prospect of having an intellectual match--hence immediately thinking in terms of antitheses. Which doesn't say much for my humility, does it? No, not much at all.

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