I couldn’t be happier with the lively discussion occurring in my most recent posts. There’s a lot beings discussed there that I could write several more installments on, however, I’m forced to set it aside due to travel plans. I’ll be absent for the next week and a half, then continue with the next part of this series in early March; hopefully, no later than than the 7th. I’ll be discussing points of intersection and conflict between Christianity and Skepticism, and whether or not they pose any benefit to each other.
“For me, any catholic, no matter how ‘moderate their beliefs and actions, by donating to the church puts them in the toxic category, they are complicit in the worst of the Pope’s barbaric efforts.”
No disrespect to mechtheist, to whom I’m grateful for responding to my post, but this is precisely the mode of thinking about ideological groups I’m arguing against. I could explain the problem of equating a leader to their followers (politicians, voters, and the use of tax money, for example), but that’s secondary. Do people have an ethical obligation to criticize people or elements in their social groups that are morally unsound? Yes. Do they have an obligation to fight the abuse of power, or the abuse of others by those in power? Yes. I’d argue, more so than those outside the given group, since they are to a certain extent, complicit in the actions the group as a whole takes. But this complicity is partial, not complete, since individual actions are undertaken by individual people. It’s the person who acts who has the primary moral responsibility. Not speaking out against them may be equally heinous, but it is a separate moral failing.
Furthermore, there are other ways of showing dissent than leaving. Some would argue that they have a moral responsibility to stay in a problematic group, since they are partially complicit in the group’s actions, and thus have a responsibility to change the group itself. This is a course of action wide open to criticism, but it can come from a sense of moral obligation just as much as dissociating from the group in question. The point being, that spectrums and categories don’t work for evaluating people. Criticize their ideas if you find them unsound, hold them accountable for their actions, fight them with everything you’ve got if they try to harm others; But make sure its their actions and ideas you’re addressing. Don’t assume that the most important thing about them is one (vaguely) descriptive term.
It’s necessary to address environmental factors leading to social problems, just as it’s necessary to address bad ideas and moral failings within groups. However, simplifying a person’s moral failings as merely indicative of their group absolves them of their individual responsibilities to themselves and others. Claiming that simply belonging to a group is indicative of a moral failing ignores the individual circumstances of the person in question, as well as their potential to effect change.
I’m interested in the opinion of anyone reading this, so here’s an extra question for you, which I’ll work into my next post.
If a group to which you belong behaves in a morally objectionable way, is it ethically preferable to leave the group, or attempt to change it? Does your answer change if the misbehavior occurs strictly in leadership, or strictly in the majority of the group’s members?
Religion, and specifically Christianity, has been at the heart of numerous struggles over human rights in our history. In the present, it seems it’s almost impossible to discuss any social justice issue without some religious group taking an impassioned oppositional or supportive attitude towards it. It’s a situation that has made the fragmented nature of the Christian Church in this country painfully obvious. Additionally, it has contributed to a very destructive way of thinking about the Church, both from within and without. I’m speaking of the widespread tendency to look at Christianity as something that exists on a spectrum; The extremists on one end, and the liberal Christians on the other. There are several reasons this is an inaccurate assumption, but I’ve restricted the following discussion to the most important:
1: The sheer number of Sub-groups
“Christian” is a term with an interesting phenomenon attached to it. Almost everyone believes they know what it means when they hear it, but very few agree on this meaning. The sheer number of denominations, sects, and other sub-groups of Christianity is overwhelming, and that doesn’t even address the discrepancies you can find in an individual church over even the most basic definition of what Christianity is. This is a problem C. S. Lewis addressed in his book “Mere Christianity”. To paraphrase, he encouraged his readers not to think less of their fellow Christians who belonged to other sub-groups than their own. This shows that the debate, or to be less polite, in-fighting among Christians is nothing new, and shows little sign of ceasing.
2: The Ongoing Social & Theological Debates In All Groups
Going off the problem above, lets continue to use Lewis as an example. Many Christians see him as an excellent speaker for their beliefs; he’s considered essential reading by many theological communities, and definitely one of the better representatives* for what is now called conservative Christianity. However, Lewis was not the only theologian of his generation, and there were significant disparities even among Christian peers at Oxford. Compare his statement below to that of his colleague Dorothy L. Sayers.
Lewis: “I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen, …patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government.”(The Weight of Glory)
Sayers: “Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man…who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female.”(Are Women Human?)
It would be easy to look at these statements and label Lewis as a “conservative” Christian, and Sayers as a “liberal” one. This would be a glaring mistake, revealing an ignorance of both author’s body of work, and the way Christianity works in society. Lewis and Sayers, like all human beings, do not fit easily into categories. There were subjects both took conservative and liberal views on (by modern definitions), and many points on which they disagreed strongly. The reason they could disagree wasn’t that one was a “severe” christian and the other “mild”, but that they pursued differing philosophical traditions within the church. Far from existing on a spectrum, these two theologians illustrate the complexity and diversity of even relatively close theological traditions.
3: The Nature of Extremism
The most important reason that the “spectrum” definition doesn’t work, is the nature of extremism itself. Christian extremists don’t all belong to some secret club, they exist mostly in small, isolated, and exclusive social groups. Many of these small groups hold the rest of the entire world, including any other Christian group, as thoroughly evil. The fact that many of them profess similar beliefs, or least significant overlap, is partially responsible for people erroneously lumping them all into one category. These groups don’t exist on the end of a spectrum, they each are an example of what any group can become when they outlaw dissent; and while it is a problem commonly found in Christianity, it isn’t specific to it. Extremism is its own unique problem, and needs to be addressed as such, not solely as a product of the Christian Church**
Why it Happens:
I do believe that Christians themselves often contribute to “spectrum” thinking. We do this because humans have a tendency to use Heuristics, or short-cuts for complex problems. Often, this strategy is criticized for the way in which it can lead someone to form or justify erroneous definitions of other groups. But it’s not always examined how we can use Heuristics on ourselves and our own social groups. It’s just as easy to oversimplify the goals and intentions of your own group, thus avoiding exhaustive research on your own history or knowledge gaps.
Once again, we can use Sayers and Lewis as examples of this. Many different Christian groups, with wildly opposing beliefs, claim either as their champion. You can see this especially with Lewis, since he’s more well-known. Simply try a Google search and you’ll see how different groups simplify his life and work and pair it with their own goals. This gets further complicated by Evangelicalism. Since Evangelicals see it as their responsibility to persuade others of their point of view, many different sub-groups employ similar arguments and tactics. This creates a false sense, both for Evangelicals and their conversational partners, that they are all essentially the same, when in fact wide disparities exist that can’t be explained simply in terms of severity.
This is precisely why free-thought and open forums are necessary for social progress. Open discussion prevents not only those of a specific group from simplifying outsiders, it prevents them from simplifying themselves. Engaging people with different backgrounds or experiences, whether it’s through debates, discussion, or purely social interactions, heightens awareness of our own self-definition. It makes us aware of the things we take for granted; specifically,what it is that we think sets us apart from others, and what we believe connects us to them. It’s hardly ever what we think it is, but we can’t find that out by cloistering ourselves.
To the purpose of self-examination and critical inquiry, the question I’d like to leave you with is this:
What is the difference between using skepticism/skeptical inquiry, and being a Skeptic?
* In terms of how often he is used, not his actual beliefs.
** Although the Christian Church often contributes to this, and is often ineffectual in it’s response.
Beginning on the 16th, I’ll be starting a new series on a very common misconception about Christianity. Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve proselytization. What I’ll be looking at is the tendency, both in and outside of the Church, to assume Christianity exists on a spectrum of mild to severe, and the problems caused as a result. I’ll also be exploring points of compatibility and conflict between Christianity and Skepticism. The reason I’m making this announcement, instead of just writing the first installment, is that I plan to incorporate as much reader participation as possible. With each installment, I’ll end with a question, and use the responses as a spring-board for the next segment. Here is the initial question, which I’ll address on the 16th:
In terms of the Christian Church, what is the essential difference between an extremist and a non-extremist, if any?
#3: “You could kick it if you’d just realize it’s all in your head.”
This is one of the most common responses people with little understanding of mental illness utter, and one of the most destructive. There is a widespread misconception that mental illnesses are ‘abstract’ issues. That they are nebulous, poorly defined, unobservable things that people invent for themselves. Often, people with psychological disorders are blamed for being sick and dismissed as stupid or weak. This is a leading cause of people who need treatment deciding not to seek it out. The fact is that mental illnesses are not abstract. People who struggle with them are in real pain, and in need of real help.
I do believe that a contributing factor to this problem is a lack of understanding of medicine in general. A background assumption by people without medical knowledge is that a physical illness means something foreign invading the body, or a part of the body being visibly damaged. It isn’t commonly understood that thoughts and emotions do have observable causes. A deficiency or excess in a specific neurotransmitter can occur just as easily as an allergy. Only instead of hives, neurotransmitter imbalances can cause mood shifts and obsessive thoughts. There are people who fight this concept, since they misconstrue it as an attack on their freedom of choice. Even people who accept this often have difficulty realizing how specific and predictable the results can be.
I am guilty of this mistake myself. As a teenager, I believed that a depressive episode was always caused by something I did. I had begun to understand something wasn’t right, but I saw it as a failure on my part, instead of something that operated according to its own rules. It took me a long time to get the difference between a cause and an aggravation of a current condition.
As destructive as the above attitude is, it’s one of the easiest to understand. It comes from a confusion regarding the relationship between thought, emotion, and behavior; a confusion that usually takes diligent study to straighten out. So, similar to last week, the advice I would give healthy people is this: If you have doubts about the validity of someone’s condition, hold off on voicing them until you’ve researched the issue yourself, from reputable sources. Ask a medical professional for advice if you’re having trouble understanding. In the meantime, listen. Do what you can to help someone who’s reached out to you; let them know they aren’t alone. Also, it’s okay to admit you don’t have answers. A statement like: “I don’t understand this situation, but I love you and want to help.” Is a much better way of dealing with an uncomfortable topic than insisting it doesn’t exist.
As part of my series about mental illness, here is conversation-stopper # two:
2: But, you seem so normal!
Never, I repeat, never, say this to someone who has told you they have a mental disorder. Apart from being a terrible way of responding to just about anything, it’s offensive and harmful on several levels.
First: There are plenty of “normal” people who struggle with mental illness. This statement makes about as much sense as classifying someone with pneumonia as not normal. Furthermore, it tells the person you’re speaking to that you now see them as “other” because they have health problems; problems they never asked for in the first place. It’s isolating enough dealing with psychological disorders without being stigmatized for it, so don’t make it worse.
Second: It ignores the principal issue. If someone has revealed to you that they have a mental health problem, it’s very likely that they’re looking for help, or at least social support; especially if no one else knows about it. It can be very difficult to make that step, and it’s crucial that anyone struggling to deal with their psychological disorder gets treatment. Reacting this way can undermine the work they’ve done to come to terms with their issues, and prevent them from seeking needed treatment for fear of being viewed as a freak.
Third: The above sentence shows a complete lack of understanding about what mental illness actually is. It suggests that the speaker assumes it consists of erratic, irrational behavior; that you can look at someone and “just know”. Are their psychological conditions that cause (or contribute to) negative behaviors? Yes. Are their healthy people who behave erratically? Of course. There is a very wide range of mental illnesses, and each illness has its own spectrum of type and severity. There are many cases where symptoms are not obvious.
I can use myself as an example here. I have Major Depressive Disorder. However, unless I’m in an especially bad episode, you probably couldn’t tell unless you either lived with me or I told you. Often, my classmates, co-workers, and acquaintances describe me as “quiet” or “reserved”. It isn’t obvious to a casual observer that I have this internal battle with myself. There are plenty of others who face similar issues, and all to often, they face them alone because of the stigma about mental illness.
Not everyone can be an expert in psychology. Which means that most of us have erroneous ideas about general or specific mental illness, and what it looks like. So if someone confides in you about their struggles, and it takes you off-guard, here is a better way of expressing it than the above statement: “I had no idea you were dealing with that. I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?” I don’t recommend that you try to be someone’s therapist but at least listen. If this person is a family member, or other permanent feature in your life, then take the time to learn what you can about their disorder; not for the purpose of diagnosing them, but to prepare yourself for helping when it’s needed. It’s amazing what a little bit of knowledge and sympathy can do, but they aren’t always useful without each other.
With the current discussion about gun control laws, the subject of mental illness is also gaining a lot of attention. This is a good thing, on the whole. Mental illness is a subject that makes many people uncomfortable, and as a consequence, we tend to shy away from talking about it. This often leads to widespread misinformation about the mentally ill, and negative stereotypes about them. For those who don’t believe that this is an issue, I’d ask two questions: How many movie villains can you name who have a stated or implied mental disorder? How many heroes?
In both cases, it’s rare to see an accurate portrayal of mental illness*, but many people walk away from fictional portrayals believing they know something about abnormal psychology, which in turn leads to people living with disorders being discriminated against and stigmatized. It is necessary to combat this with better dissemination of information about mental illness, and more open societal conversation. However, it’s important to bear in mind that a good conversation actually goes somewhere. It consists of people listening as well as talking, and not simply re-stating their own views over and over again. To that end, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting a series of conversation-stoppers everyone should avoid, especially when talking one-on-one with someone struggling with a psychological disorder. Here is today’s:
1: You’re not really sick; you’re just unique and society doesn’t understand you.
This is insidious, mostly because the speaker believes that they’re being tolerant. Instead, what this tells someone with a mental illness is that their conversational partner dismisses their suffering. It also says that the speaker is defining them in terms of their pathology. I myself have been on the receiving end of this. I’ve struggled with depression from an unusually young age, and often encountered people who believed that my symptoms were merely personality quirks. In one particular conversation, after admitting some of my struggles to a classmate, they responded: “But who’s to say that means there’s something wrong with you? It’s okay if that’s who you are. I don’t think there’s such a thing as mental illness.” I never spoke to this classmate again, and it was years before I confided in anyone else. It strengthened the fear that my problems were the result of personal weakness, and that they were inseparable from my personality. It also made me feel that I needed permission to be sick.
Often, people need to discuss their problems in order to increase their own understanding of them, and they’re putting themselves in a vulnerable place to do so. If someone confides in you that they are mentally ill, you should take it as a sign of great trust. If they tell you about their struggles with their disorder, listen. Also, never argue with someone about whether or not they’re sick. Even if you believe they aren’t, get them to a doctor immediately, and let a professional make that assessment.
Mental Illness will exist whether we believe it’s there or not; it will affect people whether we give them permission to be sick or not. We as a society have the means of diminishing the problem, or exacerbating the suffering of millions. That makes it just as much an ethical issue as a medical and cultural one; it’s an issue that needs to be addressed, because it certainly isn’t going anywhere.
* the book “Movies and Mental Illness” is an excellent resource for this issue.
As promised, here is a brief discussion of the survey I posted last week. I’d like to be clear that this is not an academic study. It is at best, practice. The results should not be taken as accurate demographic information, or as an argument for or against the validity of any views described in the survey. The intention of the survey is to create a model for a future project. To that purpose, I’m examining it below as if it is a “real” study. When I created it, my intention was to examine the relationship between social support and personal beliefs. The idea was to compare responses to the question: “Do you hold the same Religious/Ideological/Ethical views you were raised with?” to responses about family and social life. I had several theories about what the trends would look like, depending on where the majority of responses fell in the first question. The options were:
1:Yes, I do
2: Mostly. I don’t agree totally with my parent’s/guardian’s views, but the general core is the same
3: Somewhat. I still hold some essential principals of my upbringing, but the details are very different.
4: No, I’ve discarded/never practiced my parent’s/guardian’s beliefs.
5: I wasn’t taught what to believe. My parents/guardians let me figure things out for myself
The majority of responders chose option 4. My theory for this option was that the majority responders would have been raised with moderate social support, but also to have experienced moderate pressure to conform to their family’s ideals. The assumption behind this was that social support fosters confidence, while pressure to conform leads to anxiety. I also assumed that only minimal or extreme anxiety in this area would lead to conformity, while moderate anxiety would prompt the person to seek out a more welcoming environment. I speculated that in order to leave behind the ideology of their upbringing, people would need to have enough confidence in themselves to explore, but also enough anxiety to make them feel uncomfortable in their current circle.
Since I have little experience in data analysis, I opted for a brief survey, 10 questions, and made each cover fairly broad generalizations. I tried to balance this out by providing “other” options on some of the more complex questions, and allow responders to provide additional information. I distributed it purely in social networking sites: facebook, Google plus, and reddit. For reddit, I scattered it over several sub-forums, but focused specifically on Atheism and Christian theism. My intention was to present the survey in an informal setting, partially because I don’t yet have all the resources for a full, academic study, and partially because I wanted this potentially sensitive issue packaged in a non-threatening way.
Out of 100 responses, 61% stated that they either never practiced, or had left the ideology of their childhood. 63% reported that they were at least affiliated with the ideological majority during childhood.
83% reported experiencing no discrimination at all during childhood, with 15% percent reporting any discrimination, and only 2% facing it on a daily basis. However, 36% reported facing occasional discrimination as an adult, with 5% reporting it as a constant issue. Only 23% percent reported never experiencing discrimination as an adult.
32% reported that personal beliefs were not a serious issue at home, with only 6% reporting that they could not even be discussed with civility. 41% reported speaking to their immediate family almost every day, with only 1% reporting not speaking to their family ever.
37% reported spending time with friends a couple of times a week, and 25% for almost every day. A significant minority, 12%, reported being “not very social”. 40% reported that they gravitate towards friends who share their views, but it wasn’t a requirement. 29% stated that they have a diverse group of friends, and 27% reported that it what their friends believe isn’t an issue. Only 2%, respectively, reported that they seek out friends with different views, or that shared views were essential for friendship.
Present Beliefs & daily Life:
In response to the question: “How interdependent are your religious/ethical and social views?” 31% reported that they didn’t equate religion and ethics, while 18% reported that they saw their religious and social views as logical extensions of each other. 50% reported that they feel the most relaxed at home by themselves. 21% reported being most relaxed with family, and 16% with their circle of friends. Only 1% reported as having a difficult time relaxing. A significant minority, 7%, selected “Other”, filling in their own responses.
The responses were not nearly as polarized as I expected. I assumed I would find higher reports of discrimination as a child, lower as an adult, and somewhat lower percentages of community acceptance of family views. I expected that the majority of responders would spend more time with friends than family, and that a strong majority would report having a diverse group of friends. Also, while certain responses possibly indicate a level of social anxiety, such as where they feel relaxed, I expected the disparity (9%) between a preference for being alone, and speaking to family every day, to be much greater.
Essentially, these results indicate that anxiety about personal beliefs are not as simple as I thought, and that anxiety does not always manifest in an expected form.
The two major problems with this survey are sample size, and distribution. 100 responses is not nearly enough to form a reliable interpretation of such a complicated issue; I also mainly distributed this Survey in places where religion is a hotly debated topic; this likely skewed the small amount of data I was able to gather. Additionally, the responses show several oversights in the questions. For example: while I asked about frequency of communication with family, and how sensitive the issue of beliefs were to them, I didn’t ask the obvious question of how well the individual got along with their family in general. I believe I made several mistakes of this type.
For the future, I think this Survey needs to be at least three times as long. I also think I need better resources for analyzing data, ideally a program like SPSS. I also would need to distribute it nationally, with set quotas for each region, and safeguards against interference. For a study on that scale, I would realistically need a team of colleagues to help with the design of the survey, data gathering, and analysis of the results. In the meantime, I welcome any other input about the survey, or the methods I used for it. My general goal, other than putting together a good study, is learning how to do reliable research for myself. I’d appreciate any feedback from my readers or fellow writers.
I’ve made a short survey in attempt to do research on a subject that has always fascinated me: The relationship between social support and individual beliefs. The survey itself is only 10 questions, not nearly as complete as I’d like it to be. This is a sort of practice run for a much bigger project I’d like to do on the subject. I’ll post the link below, and if I get at least one hundred responses, I’ll write a brief report on what I expected to find and what I actually did find. I know that’s not a good enough sample size for such a complex issue, but I’m hoping that I can work out some bugs in the model for the bigger project I’m planning, and get some practice in analyzing data.
For anyone that takes it, I’d love to hear your comments on the survey; what is and isn’t working, or things I’ve overlooked. I’d also appreciate any textbook or other resource material suggestions on surveys and statistic analysis.
The survey itself can be found here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/PRND9L3
The debate over the existence of God is one I’ve grown up around. My parents are evangelical ministers, and from an early age I was taught that God’s existence was an all-important issue. It’s one I took very seriously. I participated in a competitive bible study program for 15 years; I read everything C.S. Lewis wrote, (believing that’s where theology began and ended), and I watched theological debates with fascination. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I thought of myself as some sort of budding apologist; the next generation’s theologian.
Fast forward to the present, and my perspective has completely reversed. I not only haven’t won any formal theological debates, I refuse to participate in them. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in the issue, far from it. It’s not that I got my butt kicked in a debate, I haven’t. What’s changed is that while I’m happy to discus my religious views, I now believe it is ethically wrong for me to formally defend of them. There are three reasons for this, which I’ll describe as concisely as possible:
1: The older I’ve become, the more I’ve realized that I don’t especially like debating. It doesn’t feel quite right to me if I try to prove that I’m right and someone else is wrong. I’ve found that it’s much more productive, and easier to be respectful, with discussion and inquiry. I usually learn more this way, and make useful contacts, instead of burning bridges.
2: I don’t have the knowledge base or the skill required by an apologist. My degree is in Creative Writing. I work very hard at what I do, and I believe that it shows in my work. However, devoting my time to writing means that I haven’t devoted it to theology. I haven’t spent the time researching, practicing, and developing the skills needed for apologetics. I know that there are plenty of people out there who don’t let such minor concerns stop them, but I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I don’t like doing a sloppy job.
3: The previous two reasons are not exactly ethical problems, and far from insurmountable. I could get over my personal distaste for debates. I could work hard, and correct the gaps in my knowledge if I tried. However, what I can’t change is the history of the Christian church. There are many atrocities in our past, but very few we’ve properly taken responsibility for. Any debate, in order to be useful, must be an open and honest one. It will be impossible to have such a debate over the existence of the Christian God, or even just the moral validity of the church, until there is a much more formal and complete acknowledgment of our past. It must be admitted that religion doesn’t equate to morality. That belief in God doesn’t cure you of being human, or make you more human than anyone else. It must be admitted that intentions don’t justify actions, and that the countless incidents of torture, murder, and persecution sanctioned by the church were nothing other than torture, murder, and persecution. The church can’t defend itself until it stops defending itself.
Until this happens, I can’t enter into any debate on the subject without starting from a false position. That is why I consider it a matter of conscience to refrain from any formal defense of my beliefs. It’s why I won’t be debating anyone on this blog, publically or privately. However, I have no ethical impediments to open discussion; and as long as I’m spending as much time listening as speaking, I’ll be happy to participate.