"And sometimes he's so nameless"

Living with the ‘Enemy’ – the Epistemological Acid Test

I don’t mean Lisa, I mean my internet activities. :)

I just saw a friend has joined a Liberal Christian forum on Facebook, and it has brought to mind a few thoughts on what many people think is a rather perverse feature of my personality; given that I am a religious and ‘paranormal’ believer, with fairly strong beliefs that I express freely, why do I spend most of my on-line existence in atheist and sceptic sites?

Well firstly, as I have pointed out for many years now, I don’t see there being a dichotomy between ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’. The opposite of belief is disbelief: often a leap of faith in itself, and an opinion. Yet the notion of ‘belief’ and ‘disbelief’ is pretty meaningless unless we understand the context in which it is being employed. I know hard atheists who believe in life after death, hard Christians who have no belief at all in angels, and hard-core mediums who think psychic powers are bunk. If you are confused by any of those statements, just ask for clarification, but I think we can all accept that a believer in werewolves may or may not believe in ghosts, and a believer in a God may or may not believe in fairies.

Some atheist friends often remind me of all the gods I purportedly do not believe in (and then I like to argue henotheism awhile for fun!);  yet often they seem to fail to apply the opposite notion — a disbeliever in deities (god/dess/es) may or may not disbelieve in all kinds of other things.  There are plenty of virulent atheist spiritualists out there; and mediums seem pretty equally split on whether they do or don’t believe in reincarnation. Some of us may still believe in the Tooth Fairy; some may believe in Santa Claus, and some may believe Ipswich Town FC are a first-rate club. There is no necessary relationship between those beliefs.

The terms disbelief and belief are opinions on a specific issue: context is all important.

I see Scepticism as something very different – a process of understanding, by which one questions assumptions and truth claims critically. The sceptic may or may not believe in deities, ghosts or the Easter Bunny – that is an outcome of their enquiry, not scepticism in itself. One is a method, one a conclusion – the two should never be confused. As such one can believe sceptics believing in almost any hypothesis, given a limited set of data from which to draw their conclusions.

So scepticism is never enough – with scepticism must go work, research, and an attempt to apply the methodology objectively to as much pertinent data as possible.  Any methodology applied to insufficient data will result in worthless results: sceptics must make an effort to make an informed and reasoned case, and that unfortunately is often a lot of hard work. Given the differing access to the evidence, it is unsurprising that sceptics often sharply disagree in their conclusions. Yet ultimately is hard for me to see any difference between a sceptical approach and a rationalist-empiricist synthesis scientific one.  It’s almost impossible to define the scientific method, as long-term readers will appreciate, but scepticism comes pretty close. One critically examines claims, by a variety of methodologies – much as in the humanities actually.

So I regard myself as a process sceptic. I like to examine beliefs, including (especially) my own, and try to see if they stand up:and the acid test for doing this is surely in dialogue with those who have very different readings of the evidence, and hold very different opinions? One of the beliefs I hold is that “linguistic communities” who hold similar beliefs build them in to a way of interpreting reality in line with their paradigm — magicians learn to talk magic, Wiccans wicca, Atheists atheism and Hindus Hinduism, and by adopting certain linguistic ways of rendering or negotiating their lived experience they create a feed back loop that sustains and strengthens their pre-existing beliefs.

I’ll give the example I always give. Many years ago the Christian Union had booked a coach for an outing. The coach broke down, and by midday it was clear we could not get a replacement bus. I thought the bus had broken down owing to a mechanical fault: but I saw two divergent opinions arise among the Christians sitting around waiting for news. Some saw this as an attack by the devil: little imps had engaged us in spiritual warfare, and we were facing the opposition of the Evil One. Others, mindful that the devil has no power over God’s children, saw it as a sign from God – we were meant to stay and witness on this glorious sunny day to the heathens at the university, rather than take a coach to the sea-side. My comment on the bus probably being badly maintained and this being the cause of us being stuck there was passed over without any comment: yes that was the cause, but not the meaning of the events.  Fair enough – what was fascinating to me was how this rather dismal outcome was negotiated in terms of existing theological and language structures to affirm Christian beliefs. It all felt a bit “heads I win, tails you lose to me” but of course if you believe that God is sovereign over all and intimately concerned with our lives that makes perfect sense: I accept the theology, but don’t process things that way, I have not spent enough time in Christian communities to interpret on those lines.

It’s easy to take cheap shots at Christians: I can imagine some of my dear atheist mates laughing heartily at this. Yet atheist communities, paranormalist communities, Lib Dem communities and for all I know Country Music fans do very similar things. They build consensus modes of interpretation, filters if you like, and they view the world through those lenses. Challenge the assumptions, and you may be ostracised, or ignored. In-group ways of seeing prevail:  it takes a lot to upset them, because they are learned short-cuts for dealing with reality. Some one who has been unemployed a very long time will view the world radically differently from a bank manager, or office worker – but the difference between a Wiccan, a Spiritualist and an Atheist may be even stronger, as they have learned to read reality from utterly different perspectives. To a materialist the notion of a meaning beyond the cause of the coach breakdown is just silly.  A spiritualist may find the idea of ESP bonkers: they knew stuff because a spirit told them, not because they psychically read Uncle Joes’ mind.

In fact we defend our communities beliefs passionately:  we are annoyed when people question the common sense right to love as you will, live as you will, work as you will, in line with our concepts of what is right and proper. We form communities with like-minded people, and we pat each other metaphorically on the back, and only fight to establish OUR version of the party line. A fight between Anglicans is likely to be more heated than a row between a Baptist and an Atheist – the closer the conceptual closeness, the more the heresy hurts.

So maybe that is why I hang out on atheist sites: I am too annoyed by my fellow Christians to want to spend much time discussing with them, as they say things that challenge my own reading of Christianity, and I am too cowardly to defend and fight for my interpretation. Or more positively, because I see the value in learning a completely disparate mode of interpretation, so I read every communities I cans stuff, and try to self identify with te concerns and ways -of-seeing of that group, and engage in playful guerilla ontology, forcing them to question assumptions by mere existence at the party.

I don’t know: maybe I am just perverse, after all. I do know though that as a self-proclaimed sceptic it never does any harm to open yourself to other perspectives, and to listen to others.

cj x

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