Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Don't Feel Like Satan, But I am to Them

He has fled,
My only companion,
My splendid enemy,
My unknown,
My executioner-god!...
Come back!
With all your afflictions!
All my tears gush forth
To you they stream
And the last flames of my heart
Glow for you.
Oh, come back,
My unknown god! my pain!
My ultimate happiness!...

- Nietzsche

Wrath James Wright:

Perhaps everyone is fully capable, even after years of brainwashing and indoctrination, of living without religion. Perhaps it is the initial agony of accepting a world without an all-powerful father figure that I am trying to spare my loved ones out of some misguided sense of mercy. I certainly don't mean to suggest that there would be mass suicides or even homicides as some believers suggest (as if the only thing preventing them from raping and killing is their belief in god.) What I'm suggesting is that those other things that they are currently using religion to cope with i.e. stress, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, loneliness, hopelessness, poverty, etc, would become overwhelming without their beliefs. Surely, most would survive and learn other means of coping with life, but it would be naively optimistic to believe that everyone would. Thousands of people a year commit suicide after getting clean and sober and thousands more run right back to the drugs. There is no question that religion is just as powerful a drug as the pharmaceutical variety and can be just as hard to kick.

...I'm sure many of you have gone through a period of malaise and ennui after realizing at last that all this religion crap was a lie. Many of us struggled mightily on our own roads to intellectual freedom. I'm sure we know many others who abandoned the journey unable to handle the stress of a world without the dream of God and heaven. Tolstoy is probably the most famous example of this and nutcases like Kirk Cameron, the most recent. Should we have dragged Tolstoy screaming into the light when he admittedly found the conclusions reason brought him to "Too horrible to contemplate"? Should I drag my mother and grandmother screaming into the light no matter how painful they might find the experience? Or should I leave them in peace and concentrate on those who are perhaps not quite as brainwashed? Who have not been deluded for quite so long? Does suggesting that some people are unable to change make me an elitist?

What's so bad about being an elitist anyway? We don't have to get into that now; I just think it's a valid question.

But yeah, I agree. It's not really about whether or not people are capable of living without metaphysical fantasies; of course they are. The question is whether, given the context of any given individual life, it's realistic to expect them to. The "intelligent and better-educated" people Dawkins mentions are likely to have broader, more cosmopolitan, more cerebral self-images that aren't quite as bound up in the tight social confines of family, faith, and small communities. And a shattered self-image has more to do with why people find life no longer worth living than the objective material conditions of their lives:

Most people who kill themselves actually lived better-than-average lives. Suicide rates are higher in nations with higher standards of living than in less prosperous nations; higher in US states with a better quality of life; higher in societies that endorse individual freedoms; higher in areas with better weather; in areas with seasonal change, they are higher during the warmer seasons; and they’re higher among college students that have better grades and parents with higher expectations.

Baumeister argues that such idealistic conditions actually heighten suicide risk because they often create unreasonable standards for personal happiness, thereby rendering people more emotionally fragile in response to unexpected setbacks. So, when things get a bit messy, such people, many of whom appear to have led mostly privileged lives, have a harder time coping with failures. "A large body of evidence," writes the author, "is consistent with the view that suicide is preceded by events that fall short of high standards and expectations, whether produced by past achievements, chronically favorable circumstances, or external demands."

...To summarize this first step in the escape theory, Baumeister tells us that, "it is apparently the size of the discrepancy between standards and perceived reality that is crucial for initiating the suicidal process." It’s the proverbial law of social gravity: the higher your majesty is to start off with, the more painful it’s going to be when you happen to fall flat on your face.

For a lot of people, their faith isn't just a creed they consciously assent to. They couldn't conceive of changing it any more than they could think of changing their family members, or their relationship with the rest of their community. And most importantly, they wouldn't want to, regardless of how inescapably rational of a choice it was made to seem. Psychology will usually trump philosophy in these instances.

The line between "can't" and "won't" is exceedingly difficult to make out, but it really only matters for the purpose of assigning blame anyway. I wouldn't feel a need to blame people for failing to abandon all traces of metaphysical belief, as if they were obligated to me, to society, or to their own potential to do so. It's enough to live one's own life as a counterexample, there for anyone to take inspiration from if they want it.