May 27, 2011

Implicit Stance

Last month I sent in a short essay that basically introduced my idea of implicit stances to The Bible Geek. It was read on the April 18th podcast. (This wasn’t my first question/commentary sent in and responded to, though.) I plan to elaborate more on implicit stances in the future, as it is sort of one of my pet ideas I’ve been mulling over on the side for some time now.

What follows is my email to him copied mostly verbatim.

I have some ideas I've been mulling over for about a year or so that I'd like to share with you and the listeners. I apologize in advance since it is not specifically about the bible but it does overlap with the notion of religion in general. I don't think these ideas are particularly unique, but being much younger and much less read than you perhaps you could suggest some authors with similar ideas better expressed.

As humans we live for a finite amount of time. This gives us natural purpose, to make of what we will while we can; we are in control of our own meaning, as opposed to a higher being (whatever that may be). Our brains allow us to accumulate vast knowledge. With knowledge comes real power in the form of technology. We build upon this knowledge over time to greatly increase our effectiveness in almost all things. This is why knowledge preservation systems, such as writing or the internet, are so vital to our success and why we've had such a boom in recent history. Better communication and sharing of knowledge allows the compounding to happen exponentially faster.

But as individuals we are finite. We only get so much time, some less than others, and no single one of us gains more than a small fraction of our total sum of knowledge. Specialization is thus key to our continued success. There is simply not enough time to become masters of all, so we focus our attention in a narrow field — be that software development such as myself or New Testament literature [such as yourself].

With such a narrow focus, however, it doesn't take much straying before our understanding of topics quickly diminishes. Thus for the vast majority of topics we barely scratch the surface of having a clue about them. Yet this doesn't stop most people from having an opinion on most things. It is the rare person who will humbly admit ignorance and say "I don't know."

Politics is rife with this. Take the current debate over passing a budget. Much of the discussion (that is, real down-in-the-details discussion) requires an understanding of economics and statistics that only the nerdiest of wonks could appreciate or care to study. Yet everybody's got an opinion and thinks they've got the answer to solve the problem after having listened to a few sound-bites and rapid-fire talking-heads debates on the evening news or read a few blog entries. And many of them will argue fiercely if challenged, despite founded on what can only be described as fragments of understanding.

Religion is also prone to this behavior. I doubt very seriously that most people who identify themselves as religious or Christian specifically know much at all about other religions (again, we barely scratch the surface of understanding for most topics). Additionally, most probably don't have a very studied understanding of the bible itself or the history of the church, etc., as you do. How many times have I heard other questioners make some form of this statement: "It seems we atheists typically know more about the bible than most Christians do!"

In America, at least, being Christian is the assumed norm. We make broad assumptions about a lot of things as shortcuts, because for the most part they work. We assume people walk on two feet, speak our language, and can laugh and make eye contact, amongst many other things. Most often when people "creep us out" or otherwise make us uncomfortable it is because they are failing to meet one of our subconscious assumptions. Amputees and wheelchair-bound people unnerve us a little because they don't walk. Immigrants bother us because we can't understand them. Folks with autism and the like won't perform normal conversational non-verbal cues. And so on.

So when one considers (or finally decides) to not believe in a god, this is a non-standard weird thing. It is going against the normal assumptions and, knowing this subconsciously, we probably make a more concerted effort to be sure we're doing the right thing. My examples of people outside of our assumptions earlier dealt with those who cannot help it due to circumstance. But when we voluntarily decide to eschew the norm we usually become mini-mavens in our pursuit to be sure and to have ammunition ready to justify it as soon as everyone starts inevitably asking why. At some level we anticipate interrogation. Vegans will rifle off reasons why meat is unhealthy or unethical. Atheists will give ten reasons why the bible is bogus.

Thus atheists, going against the perceived norm and wanting to justify it to themselves and others, will often read and study a lot of religious material. It's no surprise then why so many feel they know more than a lot of Christians. For most Christians, being Christian took no effort at all. They were born, their parents took them to church, they continue to go into adulthood, it's all normal and taken for granted. The indoctrination required little up-front understanding and only acquiescence. Because it is the norm rejection behooves a firm decision, and firm decisions usually prompt self study.

As human beings we must do things. Actions require that we make a decision, even an implicit one. This is why I don't believe anyone can truly be a practicing agnostic. You can be agnostic about a god, whether agnostic on existence itself or capacity for us to know it at all, but you cannot live your life as one. You either live as a Christian agnostic (like one of our named questioners) or an atheist agnostic. You will either go to church or you won't. Pray or not. Hope for heaven and eternal salvation or not. Encourage others to love Jesus or not. Your belief in any of these is not required for you to do them. If you do none of these and your life lacks any actions of the spiritual nature, then I'm afraid you are living as an atheist even if deep down you are truly unsure and agnostic. You must and do live one or the other.

When our actions bely a decision that we have not formally made I call this an "implicit stance," for lack of a better or formal term.

We lack the time to study and decide with any confidence on most subjects, yet actions require us to have an implicit one, a temporary one if you will. Kids usually work off of this, emulating others until they decide later in life. We often speak of the teen identity crisis. This is their subconscious search for an answer, a formal decision. Thus far they've been running on a temporary one. They've been going to church with mom and dad and it's normal, but they've not really studied yet what Christianity really means, its history, or what other religions exist out there. (I know this was the case for me.) Unfortunately, since time is finite and we do not study most topics, it's very likely they never will explore religion in greater detail, just as they may never get beyond algebra to learn calculus, or beyond "gas pedal makes it go" to learn how an internal combustion engine works. Sometimes that's okay. I don't need to have a detailed understanding of cars to drive them successfully. It might help, especially when things break, but it's not required. So it's easy not to ever learn. Likewise, it is easy to simply keep going to church with all the people you know. Why rock that boat? Why risk losing it all?

Religion is a bit special, though, because it deals with things like your soul and the afterlife, and for the most part they all kind of have to be mutually exclusive of each other. This makes it all the more important, in theory, to study them all, to ensure you pick the right one. It's not like buying a car or TV where you might study a few and pick one and probably be satisfied with it. We use cars to go places, and most cars do this well, and the real hard part is just deciding on incidental stuff like creature comforts, color and aesthetics, price, etc., most of which have little impact on its ability to get you places which is the main reason you need to decide on one. But with religion the stakes are a bit higher. Only one can, in theory, truly get you to heaven or whatever higher state of being after death. And some claim risks should you fail: hellfire and damnation. With such high stakes, why don't more people take it seriously and study all religions to ensure they're worshiping the right god and performing the right actions to their god's liking? Maybe this is proof that people, on the whole, don't take religion seriously.

Some will try to use the excuse of "many paths to god" and other nonsense, but that seems to me to be just a cop-out and a cheat to justify their lack of study in the matter. Let's just be honest: it's a social thing. You like the people, the camaraderie, the in-group feeling, and the routine. It is familiar and reassuring. But it is not truly about your eternal soul. Otherwise most people wouldn't just be the same religion as their parents (or very close; changing to Methodist when your parents were Baptists is an apple not falling far from the tree).

There's much more I could say and I've already written far too much, so I'll wrap it up here, but this is my rough theory of implicit stances as I call them. I haven't formally studied philosophy, psychology, or belief systems beyond curiosity, so I'm sure it's nothing revolutionary and much more formal definitions exist out there.

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