Sunday, February 10, 2013

Right but Foolish, Wrong but Wise?

Or why I stopped thinking of shared beliefs as the most important thing.

I started being involved with secular culture about 6 years ago after reading Dan Dennett & Sam Harris. It had never occurred to me that there was a cohesive worldview that was separate from religion. I was raised an atheist and figured that "we" just didn't have a place to go on holidays; that we just got the day off from school or work and spent time with our friends and families. But I found the idea of secular community very exciting.

While I was meeting and learning about other nontheists I was also listening avidly to On Being (which at the time was called Speaking of Faith). On Being is a fantastically generous and thoughtful interview program about "the big questions at the center of human life." Krista Tippet interviews pretty much anyone with something to say on the subject of big questions. Anyone from Bishops, to Mathematicians, Buddhist Monks to science fiction authors.

And so I was going out for drinks with a collection of self-avowed atheists on Saturdays and listening to engaging interviews with theists on Sundays. And I found things I wasn't expecting.¹

What I found so surprising was that there were atheists, people with whom I agreed on almost all metaphysical claims, who's judgement was all-but completely untrustworthy. And there were people who had life long careers working for Team Zombie Jesus who were profoundly wise people.

I was not expecting to meet people I agreed with about the nature of the universe who I wouldn't let walk my dog; while listening to interviews of people who's beliefs I find literally laughable who I might let raise my children.

That isn't to say that there are not atheists who are great people (I agree with Dan Dennett about basically everything I've ever heard him talk about) or that there aren't theists and theologies that I find downright malignant (the Catholic Church for example). But it is Possible that you could agree with me and be daft, or disagree with me and be wise; even by my own standards.

And this led to some soul searching for me. I realized that if I can disagree on the conclusions but agree on methodology then something very strange is going on. Part of the conclusion is the title of this blog, in order to capture the qualities I find important about other people, I must talk about meta-beliefs.

How do people use their beliefs, how do they come to conclusions? These are more interesting questions to me than what do you believe about the afterlife or what do you think started the universe. If someone believes in the resurrection of Christ but uses that belief to serve their own capacity for human kindness, then that person is kind first and a Christian second. If someone uses some iron age law book as an excuse to attack innocent people on the street, then that person is a violent felon first and a Fundamentalist Christian second. And if a person uses their education in formal logic to call other people stupid then he is a Jerk first and Correct second.

We have been exhorted to look at the content of peoples character before more superficial qualities. And while I think the original exhortation was more straightforwardly the right thing, I do think that it is in our interest to pay attention to how good we are as people and not how skilled we are as Metaphysicians.

¹Let me take a moment here to contextualize what I am about to say. I am about to describe some people based on their labels, I am going to talk about atheists and theists and their qualities. I will be talking about individuals and not whole groups. The point of what I am about to write is to point out that what I observed is possible not that it is universal, or even probable.

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