Friday, October 23, 2009

In General: The Dangerous Problem with ‘Everyone All the Time’ Thinking (Part Two)

A week ago, a story broke about parents in Nigeria — encouraged by their church pastors — accusing their children of witchcraft and torturing them. Some of the tortured victims have died of their injuries. Forum comments, of course, immediately painted "Christianity" as the source of this evil, and "Christians" as the evil people driving it. Even when Nigerians themselves pointed out that the "pastors" behind the witch-hysteria were just demented privateers using the job title as a way to collect exorcism fees from deluded parents, and that Nigerian culture itself has been dangerously superstitious for decades, and that poverty, not religion, was the driving factor in these atrocities against children, the "Christianity did it" generalizing continued. What should have been a protect the children outpouring became an attack the Christians movement instead — leaving the children twice as damaged, twice as neglected. First by the torture itself, and then by the misplaced attention in response to it.

Thus the subtitle of this post: the dangerous problem with generalized thinking.

The famed linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf made popular the concept of language shaping thought, and so shaping reality. “The dog is by the back door,” for example, is neutral; we might find that statement written on a friendly family note asking us to feed the household pets. In contrast, “the huge, dangerous dog is lurking by the back door” brings a whole new world of reality along with it. And so does “the dead dog is lying by the back door.”

Pretty obvious, right? Now consider these statements, which move from a generalized everyone all the time thought pattern to some very precise and specific revisions of that original thought. Keep track of the italics:

1. Christians are judgmental hypocrites with ridiculous beliefs.

2. Christians tend to be judgmental hypocrites with fundamentalist beliefs.

3. Some Christians are judgmental and hypocritical, and certain denominations within Christianity are more fundamentalist than others, but not all Christians have fundamental beliefs in the Bible as a literal collection of God’s words..

4. Some demented individuals calling themselves "Christians" carry hateful signs at military funerals, and some homicidal Nigerians calling themselves "pastors" advocate the torture of children for a fee. All of these lunatics should be dropped into the middle of a desert to cannibalize each other.*

*(This one doesn't really fit the thought-progression pattern, but we just had to put it out there.)

5. Some Christians, unfortunately, are judgmental and hypocritical fundamentalists—but others fit none of those definitions and instead strive to be like Jesus: tolerant, forgiving, helpful, and hopeful.

6. "Red letter" Christians follow the teachings (highlighted in red text in many Bibles) of Jesus, just as a Buddhist follows the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama. And they ignore all of the other stuff, because Jesus didn't say it.

7. Christians, like atheists, can be both judgmental and hypocritical, and atheists can be just as vocal about their belief system.

What? Atheists? In a discussion of Christianity?

Well, sure — who do you think it is that gets the most value out of calling Christian belief “ridiculous”? We mentioned Sam Harris earlier. Let's add the names Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher, too. Harris authored The End of Faith, Dawkins wrote The God Delusion, and Maher, thinking for a moment that his name was Moore (as in Michael), made a "documentary" called Religulous. Harris, in person, seems a nice enough guy, and Dawkins is charming. Maher, on the other hand, presents himself as a happy funster in his film, but comes across as a condescending, officious, egomaniacal schmuck on his HBO show, Real Time.

All three men should be smart enough to avoid generalized thinking. But all three slip into it in their arguments, bigtime. Harris, in his zeal to slam Islam and Muslims (all of them), makes sure to slam Christianity and Christians, too (all of them). Dawkins pits Christianity — all of it — as the foil of science (and all scientists), and Maher, whom we've written about before here at WB, is just an asshole whose zealotry is the opposite of Harris's. Out to roast Christianity, Maher throws Islam into the "ridiculous" mix out of fairness.

And it's not just men. Hanna Rosin, on Slate, writes about "evangelicals" and "Christians," too — all of them. And the one time she's careful to qualify, it's in the phrase "most non-Christians."

South Park, probably the most brilliant cultural critic the world will ever see, has done several takes on the Christians (all of them) vs. Atheists (all of them) wars. In one episode, Mickey Mouse derides Christians (all of them) for delusional thinking (all of it) — but does it over a PA system for everyone to hear:

Oops, end of the magical world of Disney — because some atheists (in this case, those in mouse ears) come across as haters.

In an earlier, two-part episode featuring Richard Dawkins, the boys' fundamentalist Christian teacher, Mrs. Garrison, slams evolution as a theory that makes modern humans "the retarded offspring of five monkeys having butt sex with a fish-squirrel." But Dawkins, the brilliant evolutionist, is too stupid to realize that the "Mrs." Garrison he falls in love with was once Mr. Garrison — pretty much looking the same as Mrs. but without the breasts. South Park skewers everyone equally, of course, but the skewering (and one of the boys' moral lectures at every episode's end) always points to the fact that there are exceptions to any "everyone all the time" rule.

But didn't the Christ himself speak in generalities? It depends on how you use the comma here:

GENERAL: Do not pray like the Pharisees, who pray loudly in the temples where everyone can see them.

SPECIFIC: Do not pray like the Pharisees who pray loudly in the temples where everyone can see them.

In the first version, "who" sets off a descriptive clause attached to its preceding noun — all Pharisees. In the second version, there are some Pharisees who do not pray that way, making them exempt from the example Jesus is giving. The syntax structure is the same as Don't hire painters who use red paint. The ones who use yellow or blue, on the other hand, are no problem.

Coincidentally, the example* continues with Jesus saying, essentially, to leave the "look at me" Pharisees alone, because they've got the reward they want: attention. They're not interested in an afterlife among the angels, so let them be. Elsewhere, of course, the same Jesus says that those who aren't "born again" (into faith) won't see heaven. But here, he acknowledges that quite a few folks simply won't care. And the way to deal with this is to love them and tolerate them and not emulate them — and to be at peace with it all.

*(Yes, the whole Pharisees passage is paraphrased; let's not get distracted by translation issues.)

The murderous, deluded Christians who led the Inquisition and the Crusades — atheists' favorite examples of faith gone wild — neglected to follow the directions spelled out by the Christ they allegedly served. The Crusades to control "holy land" were about territory, not faith, as foolish and misguided as Hamburger Hill was in Vietnam. And the Inquisitors followed Thomas Aquinas, a logician who served the Catholic Church, which was a world power. And how did world powers maintain their authority back in the day? (Hint: not with diplomacy or financial aid.)

A church is not a deity; it's a building. A collection of churches? Still not a deity. It's an organization. Inquisitors killing "in the name of God" found a handy slogan to justify their organizationally sanctioned, socially destructive actions toward preserving political power. (We see a similar dynamic today when Republicans vote against giving rape victims full legal rights, or against protecting gay citizens from violent hate crimes.)

To invoke John Lennon, imagine what life on earth could be like if fundamentalist Christians could stop condemning nonbelievers, evangelists could stop insisting on converting the unchurched, atheists could stop attacking Christians for their "superstitions" and illogic, and everyone could collaborate on getting important social-good work accomplished in this life, on this world.

Christians (all of them) could enjoy that as service to God, and atheists (all of them) could enjoy it as service to fellow people. Either way, it's a break from isolated, selfish, paranoid name-calling that gets nothing done.

Unfortunately, no one cares about any of this anymore. Everyone just keeps doing what they've been doing, and nothing will ever change.

But those last two sentences, of course, are generalized crap.

When language reflects tolerance through careful exception and clear understanding, social practice can follow. It all just takes a hell of a lot of work.

Let the retraining in re-thinking begin.

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