Monday, February 25, 2013

Life in the Open

In church for Christmas. Nice decor, but
it could maybe use a few more trees.
It's been a little over a year since I came out to my family as an atheist, and surprisingly little has changed. Certainly, they were upset at first. My mom asked me tearfully over lunch why I hadn't told them sooner. A little while later she asked me, not threateningly but solemnly, if I realized what happens if I'm wrong about Christianity. And my dad and I had a few brief, cordial lunchtime debates on religious topics.

Sometimes my parents asked me if I wanted to go with them to church, which I politely turned down except for a few times when it seemed especially important to them—Christmas and Easter, for instance. And a couple of weeks before Christmas they got me a book of arguments for God, which I may work through here if it turns out to be worthwhile. (If so, I'm also thinking about formulating a version of my 30 questions for them to read in return.)

But what I listed above is basically the full extent of their reaction over the past fourteen months. Given that I spend time with them virtually every day, it's surprisingly subdued. For the most part, the topic of my atheism was barely touched after just a couple of weeks.

I have mixed feelings about my family's relative lack of interest in my unbelief. On the one hand, it's great. It's wonderful to be able to talk and have fun with them without feeling distant or uncomfortable. And to be clear, I certainly wouldn't trade this outcome for one where I'm constantly arguing. Still, part of me can't help but be amazed at what a small impact my coming out has had. Having grown up as a Christian, it's all too easy for me to think about my situation from the believer's perspective. If I were an ardent Christian and my sister told me she was an atheist, what would I do? Hmm...
My reaction is confusion, then horror. One of the people I love most in the entire world will be spending eternity weeping and gnashing her teeth in outer darkness! I have to do something, anything to convince her that she's strayed from the straight and narrow! I try to tread carefully around this sensitive topic, but I'm far too curious not to ask what changed her mind. Based on her response, I spend hours researching, steeped in books and articles from renowned apologists, training myself to make the perfect case for the Christian faith. Then, when the timing is right, I broach the subject as tactfully as I can and present my talking points.
Given the seriousness of eternal punishment, the only response that makes sense to me is to expend every available resource in pursuit of saving the lives of my loved ones. Granted, it's important not to come on too strong and drive them further away, but neither will it work to skirt the issue almost entirely.
...So why is avoidance the response I'm seeing here?

It's certainly not that my family is too selfish and unmotivated to come to my aid. They've demonstrated their affection in so many other ways that this holds no water at all. And it isn't that they don't believe what they claim to, just because their behavior doesn't perfectly match their beliefs. I hate it when people draw this conclusion about religious people. It could be that they're nervous about driving me away, just as I would be, but that's probably not the whole story.

I think the best explanation is that humans don't always think through the full consequences of their beliefs. Religious or not, we rarely make optimal decisions given the information available to us. In a way it's not strange to believe in a world of epic spiritual warfare, yet still fret more about what we're having for lunch tomorrow than about saving people from horrific eternal fates. After all, how much time and effort do we devote to worrying about trivial problems like morning rush hour, compared to serious ones like the millions of people suffering from starvation and disease? It's the same basic principle, minus the eschatology.

This may be the most important set of insights that leaving Christianity has taught me—is still teaching me.

Humans are irrational. We make bad, short-sighted decisions. And if we want to bring about as much good as we can, it's imperative that we improve our decision-making, both for our own sake and for others.

So I'm glad that I can live a life in the open, where I'm free to believe what I like without looking over my shoulder. But the next step is much more difficult. Can I live a life where I'm open with myself? Where I constantly challenge the mental weaknesses that keep me from achieving what really matters?

Can you?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Bias Profile: The Just-World Fallacy

Do you believe in karma?

That what goes around comes around? That you reap what you sow?

If you believe any of these holds true as a rule, you may be a victim of the just-world fallacy (sometimes referred to more charitably as a "hypothesis").

Even other species of primates hold a sense of fairness as part of their core identity. In a 2010 study, chimpanzees were trained to exchange tokens for a food reward—either a piece of carrot (low reward) or a grape (high reward). When one chimp was given a grape and the other a carrot, the latter was more likely than in the "fair" control group to refuse the reward after seeing what the other received. Interesting, but maybe not too surprising. But here's what's really fascinating: In this highly competitive species, even the chimp that received the grape was significantly more likely to refuse their reward.

If such a powerful sense of justice exists in chimps, it's no wonder that this concept is integral to human society. The problem comes in when our sense of justice collides with our tendency to ascribe agency where it doesn't belong. What happens when tragedy strikes but there's no one to blame? Or when the bad guy gets away, figuratively or literally, with murder? That's when the just-world fallacy kicks in.

If a natural disaster strikes a major city, fundamentalists are prone to interpreting it as divine punishment after the fact. Hurricane Katrina is a prime example. No less than five different motivations were offered for God's wrath: sexual immorality, abortion, racism, failure to support Israel, and (from al-Qaeda) America's attacks on al-Qaeda.

When human justice fails to punish evil deeds, religion offers a comfortable alternative: divine retribution in this life or the next. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism each have their own concept of karma and reincarnation, which, while not always directly caused by God, generally involve the accumulation of positive or negative consequences depending on one's actions. And contrary to what some Christians believe, the Bible repeatedly states that believers will be judged according to their works.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the just-world fallacy can cause people to blame the victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator, believing that they must have deserved it in some way since no visible justice was served. If a woman is raped, maybe she was "asking for it" by her choice of dress. In cases of spousal abuse, maybe she had done something wrong to warrant that treatment. It's a terrifying rationale, and one that we should be doing our best to eradicate.

Religion is far from the sole factor here, but it certainly plays a role. When one believes that a god or other mystical force maintains perfect moral order in the universe, one has to explain injustices somehow. But by rationalizing horrible crimes and misfortunes, just-worlders throw a wrench into the already chaotic workings of human justice. Only when we realize that humanity alone is burdened with the task of punishing criminals and aiding victims can we hope to achieve a truly fair and equitable society.