On Certainty of Others’ Folly

Yesterday morning, Margaret pointed me to the comments in David Weinberger’s post about Daniel Dennett. I had read the post and skipped the comments, because I heard David to be making a point to which I generally assented, with reference to a gesture — the “all religious people are deluded” gesture — about which I usually keep silent. When I turned to the comments and saw a vigorous back-and-forth involving Dave and Frank and Tripp, I was moved to speak up.

I usually keep silent for various reasons. Most important, I try not to enter discussions where one loud participant already knows, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot. I find that such discussions usually take up a great deal of time and care on my part, with no apparent benefit to either participant (except, perhaps, a mild inflation of my interlocutor’s estimate of their own intelligence — but that was already sufficiently high, in most cases). Plus, these conversations guarantee that one more person in the world thinks I’m an idiot, which outcome I prefer to avoid.

I also avoid these discussions because I have friends who tend to endorse the anti-religious side of them, and this topic brings their outlook into a less pleasant light. If people whom I otherwise like (and who seem to like me) want to persist in a way of thinking that categorizes me as a fool, an oppressor, a judgmental ideologue, a deceiver, I’d rather not take part in a discussion that triggers their inclination to dismiss me that way. (There might be some discursive value to challenging them to think of the guy they know and whom they profess to respect as the deluded ogre their rhetoric would imply, but for all I know they like deluded ogres, or they don’t mind the dissonance.) Someone who would write off all “religious” people as fools only reveals their own superficiality, and I would rather not put my friends in a position that invites them to affirm their enthusiastic triviality in this matter.

I venture to say that “someone who would write off all ‘religious’ people as fools only reveals their own superficiality” not because I believe that the soundness of religious belief is self-evident (far from it!), but because I observe that some extraordinarily intelligent people find it possible to manage their lives with no trace of religious faith, and other extraordinarily intelligent people profess (and exemplify) very deep faith. “Religiousness” has never shown itself a useful predictor of folly, so far as I’ve been able to tell (nor has irreligion proved a sign of intelligence).

Moreover, I don’t see useful distinctions between “spirituality” and “religion” or between “organized (or ‘institutional’) religion” and more fluid manifestations of faith, at least not as symptoms of more commendable intellectual standing. My ideological inclination probably colors my sense that Roman Catholics or highly-observant Jews are not stupider than more free-church-y, or “spiritual-not-religious” people, but though I be predisposed to favor such an assessment, I don’t think it’s groundless. I may be wrong — there may be a graduated scale of intelligence on which adherents of “organized” religions are lower, while adherents of religious practices with less explicit structure and dogma are higher. If that’s the case, I’m too low on the scale to be able to tell.

Within my limited capacities and experience, a theory of intellectual rigor proves its worth by how it deals with apparent contradictions. When someone’s theory of irreligion confronts someone who appears to be quite brilliant, but who goes to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, by saying that such a person must be foolish, I tend to doubt the theory (rather than dismiss the apparent wisdom of the subject). When an explicitly irreligious person shows painstaking attention to the nuances of theological affirmations, taking seriously the patterns of difference and convergence to which David Weinberger’s original post pointed, I regard that person’s observations quite highly; their religious skepticism doesn’t oblige me to disregard or deride them.

Put more simply, any troll can say that “everyone who doesn’t think my way is an idiot.” It provides a mild opiate to assuage the anxieties that sometimes follow from attention to complications. It takes someone with integrity and intellectual substance — someone like David, for instance — to say, “I don’t share this understanding of life, but I can’t gainsay the depth and rigor of the intelligence and wisdom that have articulated it.”

9 thoughts on “On Certainty of Others’ Folly

  1. I’m glad you wrote this and pointed to that comment thread. PZ Myers wrote something recently that disturbed me and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I have a better idea now, and will reference this post the David’s thread in the response.

  2. Uh, so are you “anonymous” over there?

    And, did you read the original Dennett interview?

    The problem I have with David’s characterization is that while Dennett is certainly generalizing, he does not call religious people simpletons or anything like that. He also hypothesizes a kind of (cultural) evolution that is manifest in the endurance of certain religions.

    Those are interesting notions to pick at, but you’ll miss it if you take David’s interpretation of the interview as what Dennett is saying.

    By the way, I know people who do not equate their spirituality with a belief in God. They may be misusing the term “spirituality,” concerning its original association with spirit or soul, but I don’t think they are making a metaphysical commitment in their being spiritual.

  3. What a great post, AKMA. A great piece of writing, exemplifying the virtues of good humor, good sense, and Christian charity it espouses. Best of all, you leave open a space for Reason’s Fool, to be touched by grace and to reform. A fool who knows he’s wise is a fool indeed. A wise man who knows he is fool is wise indeed.

  4. This is beautiful indeed, AKMA. And I remain more puzzled than Dennett regarding whether one can have faith in the scientific method while seeking the divine, yet disbelieving in god.

    The scientific method relies on observation and reason, and our understanding of the world has been improved (I think) and influenced by the great scientists.

    Is it possible to have a sense of “the divine” yet not “believe in God?” I’d like to assert that the answer is yes, but I learned — here:
    — earlier this month that such assertions are sophomoric at best, and that to supply the reasoning would make the assertions more, well, “reasonable.” Unfortunately, the reasoning here is elaborate… not the stuff of blog comment space, so I’ll remain simply assertive (and unreasoned) for now. Though in matters where a leap of faith is under discussion, we sometimes diagram this on the whiteboard as the place the miracle occurs.

    In defense of Dennett (as represented in Der Spiegel), I thought his irreligious insufferability was more an editorial product than a personal posture.

  5. Tutor,
    I’m a big fan of Dennett, and I can assure that tone is not just an editorial product.

    He’s far too well mannered to call anyone a simpleton, but he doesn’t mince his words against those who cling onto sky-hooks. He’s spent so much time in arguing in this space (like Dawkins) that more often than not, in his own words he is “peremtorially dismissive” of religious believers, because life is too short. (unlike Dwakins, who insists on constructing defensive arguments).

  6. hmmm… I greatly appreciate the tone of this, any my own life experience suggests it’s a no-brainer cinch that religious people come in all varieties from dumb to brilliant but

    I’m not sure that “everyone who doesn’t think my way is an idiot” is an /entirely/ fair characterization of the kicker comment to which AKMA is responding. While I wouldn’t be suprised if that comment came from somebody with an over-developed sense of their own righteousness and an underdeveloped understanding of their own position, that doesn’t mean their position actually doesn’t have some little intellectual meat. Belief in a god does *indeed* appear analagous to belief in fairy tale from some very real angles, and if you believe in the importance of those angles of viewing the world i.e. reliance on empirical evidence to inform an accurate understanding of the objective world, it’s hard to get away from the religious=fairy-tale-believing conclusion.

    which I recognize is beside the point which AKMA is making, which is that religious=dumb is dumb. that I agree with strongly. (AKMA’s case is compelling because he appeals to the empirical evidence: we’ve both met some deeply intelligent religious folk.) But you don’t have to be dumb to be unsettled by the compelling logical support for religious=not-taking-objective-reality-seriously. that thought is I think worth addressing, and it would be a shame indeed if thoughtful thinkers like AKMA were so turned off because of the jerkishness of those positing it that it was mistaken for purely “everyone who doesn’t think my way is an idiot”.

    (apologies if this is double-posted, I’ve having some trouble with the server)

  7. I have a whole pile of Dennett’s books, of which I have read not a single one. Nonetheless, I got the gist of his trip by reading the back covers, as is my wont and small-g god-given right, and from this I conclude that he is certainly not your ordinary idiot. No, he’s a *dangerous* idiot. I did hear him speak at the University of Colorado a couple years ago and, from that, my bias along these lines, already well established, was transformed into an article of faith. His philosophy (I’m so tempted to use quotes) seems primarily focused on “proving” (I can’t resist) that anything carbon can do, silicon can do better. If he weren’t such a fucking (if I may) cheerleader for AI, I doubt anyone outside his overspeciallized navel-gazing analytic field would have ever heard of him. Ad hominem? I hope so. I worked in AI for long enough to know that most of it is snake oil cooked up by used car salemen. However, even if silicon were able to replicate anything I or Thou could do, and the overhyped Singularity were about to explode upon the world next month, here’s the catch: such a development would entail the end of the sort of bipedal fauna of which I’ve become quite fond, and I’m not going to be complicit in my own — or your, whether you agree or not — extinction. Anyone who would help bring on such a nightmare, however endowed with IQ, is, in my not so humble view, the very worst sort of fool.

    stop SkyNet

    ? and the Mysterians

  8. Well, good post, professor.

    I often hesitate for the exact reasons you state here. But every now and again, I feel compelled to suggest that there be some generosity if nothing else on the part of the skeptical interlocutor. This may be foolish of me, but there you go. I am a fool.


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