Print Story "Leaving the fold" on Overcoming Bias
Religion & Philosophy
By Alan Crowe (Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 09:38:08 AM EST) (all tags)
Overcoming Bias, the rationalist weblog, has an advice thread responding to Jo who faces a crisis as she loses her Christian faith.

The main post asks: Is there anyone who's been in this position - really, really invested in a faith and then walked away? I've refrained from posting in the thread because I've not had that experience, but I cannot avoid having opinions.

The words "God", "faith", "believe" act as linguistic choke points. People have a wide variety of experiences which they convey with a limited vocabulary of religious terms, which have various personal meanings. This is only workable so long as people can nod through a superficial agreement.

Consider one person for whom our ignorance of what happens after death is such a fundamental fact that it acts as a pre-linguist axiom, shaping our understanding of the nature of language and the way we interpret it. The words "When we die, we go to Heaven." are a way of consoling grief and ignorance by reciting words that claim that something good will happen. The words "Death is the end." are quite similar. We like to say them because they imply that nothing bad is going to happen.

Some-one else may lack the resources of symbolism or cynicism to go beyond the simple analogy of the graveyard as airport and coffin as aeroplane. You die. You go somewhere. Nobody returns. Planes need a longer runway for take-off than for landing. Clearly the destination has a runway of intermediate length, long enough to land, too short to take off. The absence of returnees does not cast doubt on the literal and concrete nature of the destination.

People have a considerable aversion to digging beneath the surface and trying to figure out what they actually believe. I foresee Jo encountering two problems. First comes the obvious disagreement. "I don't believe in God". "Oh no! You'll burn in Hell." Second comes the attempt to have a conversation while adhering to the social convention that forbids tough questioning to find out what reality the words used are intended to point to.

In ordinary life we are happy with the distinction between the map and the territory. In religion is the Bible map or territory? If it is the territory does this make religion a word game? If some-one says "Religion is not a word game." is that a denial of a factual proposition or a move in the game? Does the speaker know? Does the speaker distinguish? How do you respond when you are not allowed to ask?

I've become intrigued by category theory. A category, A, has objects, X,Y,Z,... and morphisms f:X->Y, g:Y->Z. The theory ignores the possibility of having a function mapping the objects of one category to the objects of another. The theory concentrates instead on the concept of a functor which maps both the objects and the morphisms. The key idea is that the mapping must respect the composition of morphisms. The functor F takes f to Ff and g to Fg. What happens to the composition of f and g? If we use o for composition of morphisms in one category and * for composition of morphisms in the other, f o g : X->Z, and we must have F(f o g)= Ff * Fg.

Abandoning mathematical rigour, I like to see Meaning as a Functor from Language to Reality. Nouns refer to things. Verbs refer to actions. When we draw up a plan, writing words on paper, our notion of meaning must respect the morphisms. The composition of planed actions as we write them one below another on our sheet of paper must be faithful to the composition of actions as we carry them out, one after another.

What though is a crisis of faith? There seem to be to kinds, one superficial, one deep. The superficial kind of crisis ends up in a change of religion as when a Christian lapse for a while before becoming a Muslim. Jo's crisis seems to be of the deeper kind. Having lost faith in the words in one holy book she seems unlikely to pick up another and find that they are more convincing. She is losing faith in the functoriality of the meaning of language. She is losing faith in the idea that people can say things and are necessarily talking about things.

She is going to find that the functorial subset of language has shrunk. Words and phrases that "meant" a lot to her in the past will elicit a shrug of indifference. Can I offer her any advice in her coming difficulties with family and friends. Probably not, I've not been there myself. Nevertheless I would counsel against putting energy into "the talk" or "the big row". Religion is a word game. It is not "believe" or "disbelieve", it is "play" or "don't play". People who are still in the game will want to continue playing, but Jo needs to forget about finding a winning move, leave the game, and find something else to do with her life.

< This is beginning to hurt. | train voyage part four >
"Leaving the fold" on Overcoming Bias | 14 comments (14 topical, 0 hidden)
I can't really parse your post by sasquatchan (4.00 / 1) #1 Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 09:54:32 AM EST
per-se.. (Nor have time to skim comments from the link).

I'd defer to lm's ability as a seminarian to point out my errors, but there's a few things that come to mind about Jo.

  1. Parable of the seeds. Was her faith shallow roots ?
  2. Contrasting, Christ says plainly that many will say "Lord, Lord, we did many things in your name" and Christ will say "Away from me, you evil doers". So just saying you are a Christian and "have faith" doesn't mean you do, nor that salvation is yours.
  3. She talks about "having faith", "walking a christian walk", "invested in a faith". But all those sound like words that miss the point of Christian faith. I'll punt on a specific answer of the point, and answer with a modified CS Lewis: "Who is Jesus to you ?"

"invested in a faith" by Alan Crowe (4.00 / 0) #3 Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 10:37:58 AM EST
I had to check back to see if those were Jo's words. Yes. Jesus says sell you possessions and give the money to the poor. Using a financial metaphor is eye-catching and odd.

On the other hand British English has the phrase "making an emotional investment" and I think it is used in a heart felt and emotional way. There is no ironic detachment; the phrase does not indicate that the speaker is thinking like a venture capitalist and expecting 9 out of 10 investments to fail.

This is where things get odd. Imagine that Jo says "I've lost my faith" and her mother says: you cannot give it up, you have so much invested in it. That will be the way that her faith community talk. At that point she can say "Religion is not and never was an investment." but that will lead to an angry discussion at cross purposes. Different faith communities have different ways of talking about faith. Pulling apart that language, asking whether the investment metaphor is appropriate, asking whether use of the investment metaphor shows that one is missing the point, well, that is not the kind of thing that goes on in families.

[ Parent ]
I pointed that language out by sasquatchan (4.00 / 1) #5 Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 10:47:52 AM EST
because I never saw where she said "I used to believe X, but now I don't." She was "raised to believe" things, which (as boz sorta points out) is quite different from owning them as your own belief. So a response might be the Truth was never in her. What's the joke ? Sitting in a pew every Sunday doesn't make you a christian any more than sitting in a car lot makes you a car..

She followed christian principles, had lots of christian family that "invested" in her and sounds a whole lot like she just went along because it's what everyone else was doing. In some sense (relationally, since she's slagging husband/kids) she was the phony one.

[ Parent ]
How does that pan out? by Alan Crowe (2.00 / 0) #7 Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 10:57:53 AM EST
If she says: "I was brought up one way. Now I'm an adult I have to know for myself, and the Truth is not in me." will family and friend be OK with that?

Is this why some Christians insist on adult baptisms?

[ Parent ]
I'll wade only so deep.. Treacherous waters here. by sasquatchan (2.00 / 0) #9 Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 11:11:19 AM EST
I'm pretty sure the idea of being raised in a tradition has no correlation with ones actual faith.  I think there are many that fall into that bucket. (One example being those raised Catholic that self-identify as Catholic, but have no relationship w/ God/Christ, or American's who say "hey are "Christian" but have no relationship with God/Christ, etc)

As for baptizing, that's fractured enough churches as it is. (Sacrament/ordinance, infant/adult, sprinkle/dunk, etc). If you push, yes all believers must be baptized. Does it have to involve water ? No (Thief on cross, Christ's "baptism" of crucifixion). Does that mean it should be a personal statement of faith (as opposed to going with the flow/doing what family says to do) ? Yes, I believe so.

[ Parent ]
invested by gzt (2.00 / 0) #8 Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 11:11:06 AM EST
Where your treasure is...

But you're right, it does sound a little off. To be fair, though, it's somebody writing for a specific audience who is probably used to discussing such things with a very different audience. These things get a little awkward.

And lm isn't a seminarian, he's a philosophy grad student.

[ Parent ]
I did exactly what you're asking by theboz (2.00 / 0) #2 Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 10:23:45 AM EST
However, you can look at it by imagining a more simple example.  When you were a kid, odds are you believed Santa Klaus was real.  You were told he was real by adults who you trusted, the media told you he was real, your peers told you he was real, and those that didn't were derided by everyone for being a spoilsport.  You saw photos of Santa, you saw videos about him, read books about him, etc.  You probably even sat on the lap of Santa at a mall.

Despite all of this, there was a time when you stopped believing in Santa.  Why?  Well, the idea was bullshit, and you eventually realized it, most likely having that thought triggered by something else.  Either your parents finally told you the truth, your friends told you it was a lie and you investigated further, or you simply used your mind and came up with thoughts that prove Santa isn't real.  With religion, it works differently, in that you basically have to do it completely on your own.  If you are already somewhat sympathetic towards the thought that religion is fake, then you can get a headstart from others.

- - - - -
That's what I always say about you, boz, you have a good memory for random facts about pussy. -- joh3n
If you've had the experience by Alan Crowe (2.00 / 0) #4 Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 10:41:22 AM EST
you are eligible to pop over to Overcoming Bias and tell Jo and every-one how it worked out for you.

[ Parent ]
That's a loaded question by theboz (2.00 / 0) #13 Wed Nov 12, 2008 at 04:30:59 AM EST
How will I ever know if it truly works out or not?  Things are fine so far, but still it's a highly subjective thing.  I may check it out though.

- - - - -
That's what I always say about you, boz, you have a good memory for random facts about pussy. -- joh3n
[ Parent ]
You are as qualified as any-one by Alan Crowe (2.00 / 0) #15 Wed Nov 12, 2008 at 07:46:15 AM EST
I do not think that Jo is expecting any-one to report that they have died and found that there is no afterlife. An interim report of things so far is all that is expected.

[ Parent ]
Trackback? by Alan Crowe (2.00 / 0) #6 Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 10:48:07 AM EST
I think I did the link wrong and should have used the track back URL

Nope by hulver (4.00 / 1) #14 Wed Nov 12, 2008 at 05:43:26 AM EST
You did it right. Trackback doesn't work instantly, and sometimes doesn't work at all. The destination site you're linking to might have controls in place to moderate trackbacks first. Trackback spam is rampent. I've turned trackbacks off on HuSi, because of the amount of spam they took in.

The trackback is there now.
Cheese is not a hat. - clock
[ Parent ]
Slightly off-topic by Herring (4.00 / 3) #11 Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 12:51:33 PM EST
There's comment in there that caught my eye:
A few years ago I decided that I no longer believed in divine spirits. I to was raised a Christian. My wife and daughter know this and doesn't really don't like it. However, while I've rejected religion I haven't rejected Christian values (which boils down to love everyone).

Speaking as an atheist - by which I mean that I don't believe in God, Odin, Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy or Trickle-Down Economics - I can sympathise with this. I think that the values in a lot of religions are inate, that they are part of evolutionary heritage. The group of primates that works together is more successful than those that try to go it alone. To be honest, that's where I think religions came from - the encoding of advantageous behaviour into a belief structure.

It annoys me greatly that there are people who, because I don't believe in God, would say that I believe that thou shalt kill*, thou shalt bear false witness etc. There is stuff that is "wrong" without the bible telling us, it's wrong because it's socially disruptive and humans are social animals. Even programmers go to the pub together sometimes.

I think I did have a point somewhere ...

*Yay - Scroobius

You can't inspire people with facts
- Small Gods

Holy shit. by ammoniacal (1.00 / 1) #12 Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 08:33:34 PM EST
Today appears to be +1FP Day on Hulver's Site.

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

"Leaving the fold" on Overcoming Bias | 14 comments (14 topical, 0 hidden)