Monday, February 11, 2013

Facebook and Twitter theology and atheology, two stupid peas in the same social media pod

There shouldn't actually be such a thing as twitter theology ... or for that matter twitter atheology.  Of course both exists, and that's too bad, but there's a distinction to be made between saying something shouldn't exist as a preference and saying something shouldn't exist as some kind of categorical mandate.  I hope it's clear that I'm articulating the former regarding the categorical punkishness of the latter as manifest in social media.  Yes, I get why atheists get tired of the idea that without theism there is no steady foundation for any ethics.  But the sort of social media atheology that claims that empathy and not religion is the foundation for morals is dangerously flawed and, precisely because atheists and humanists would claim to know better, it's just as stupid as some megachurch pastor tweeting some weird statement about this or that public figure. 

The proposal that what makes for morals is empathy and not religion is no better than the proposal of merely asserting that without a deity there is no basis for ethics.  It is, in fact, more dangerous because it's easier to disprove on the basis of work done by social scientists.  Longtime readers of Wenatchee The Hatchet will not be surprised by what comes next. 

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has written that what most people call empathy is not a useful clinical definition for the term.  Most people conflate empathy and sympathy.  Empathy is, clinically speaking, the ability to understand how another mind may think or feel.  It is sympathy that indicates you actually care what others think.  Serial killers are generally not devoid of empathy since serial killers do not attempt to kill in the presence of uniformed police officers.  They also tend to select victims who will not be noticed when they go missing until a significant interval of time has elapsed.  Baumeister put it simply, that empathy without any corresponding sympathy is actually a powerful tool for someone who wants to inflict suffering on someone else.

Empathy is not nearly enough as a foundation for morality, it can actually be the foundation of torture.  Most of the time, in fact, it arguably is the foundation of domestic torture. If empathy is the capacity to understand how another mind things then from an adaptive strategy perspective it does not actually matter whether or not that mind truly exists.  After all, atheists read classic literature and those people in those stories didn't exist.  The theist and atheist differ on the extent to which particular iamgined minds can be considered as a basis for activity but it's not as though reading Shakespear or Hemmingway for a narrative contemplation of the human condition is necessarily a different process than reading Maccabes or Daniel even if one were to suppose that no deities exist.  As imagining the thoughts of someone extrapolated from words Betrand Russell and Batman are not necessarily any more real to you or I now that one man is dead and the other never existed. 

If theory of mind accounts for how our social and ethical selves may develop, the distinction between the historicity or ahistoricity of the mind we consider may not necessarily be as great in applied ethics as either theists or atheists will often insist.  Christians and atheists alike will pull the no true Scotsman defense, after all.  Of course some people can propose that if atheism is a religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby.  In life nobody stops at what they're against or what they don't believe.  Everyone goes on to affirm something. 

As Parker and Stone crudely observed in a couple of South Park episodes, it's impossible that a world without religion would be a world without war.  We'd merely have people finding different excuses to kill each other in the fight for limited resources with multiple claimants.  No matter what you think you're not-for what you're for will at some point be oppressive to someone.  That's just how humanity works.  Our capacity to crush and destroy in the name of our own prosperity and comfort transcends any need for religious categories of thought.  If you convince yourself otherwise you're in danger of embracing an idea even more dangerous than the sum of all religions.  If you convince yourself otherwise and happen to be religious the same goes for you, too.  Plenty of lives were ruined by religious people who claimed they weren't about religion.  Well if that's true then if only they'd admitted it was about valuable real estate or clean water or eligible spouses to begin with. 

The thing Wenatchee The Hatchet will venture to proclaim is that no theist or atheist whose ideas can actually be summed up in a tweet or Facebook is worth listening to.  The ones worth listening to will realize there are ideas too important to be dashed off in 140 characters.  If you think you can tweet the great observation or solution to a problem then you're still part of that problem and I don't care who you are or who you think you are. 


Paul Hardy said...

Another excellent post but I quibble with one thing:
"Of course some people can propose that if atheism is a religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby. In life nobody stops at what they're against or what they don't believe. Everyone goes on to affirm something. "
I have always understood this to be a rebuttal of the (occasional) claim that atheism is a religion, rather than an affirmation. The atheist argues if you claim my atheism is my religion this only makes sense if not collecting stamps is a hobby, or baldness is a hairstyle.
Otherwise strongly agree with your premise

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

What happens when you come up against someone whose mind is limited to a 140-character Twitter Tweet? Or a lot of someones?

They don't call them "Twits" for nothing...

(This is similar to the Creation-vs-Evolution fight. A lot of the evidence for biological evolution is pretty involved to explain, in contrast to a full-auto barrage of Bible Bullets from the YEC Uber Alles types.)