Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Theories of error

This is inspired by something Seeking Omniscience said.

Both religious and nonreligious people seem to have a rather nasty habit of imputing negative motivations to people who disagree with them.

For instance, someone said to me a few months ago, "I find that everyone who leaves the Catholic Church, no matter what excuse they give, are just trying to find a rationale for doing something they want to do."  In other words, the Church's moral teaching is hard to live up to, so naturally people try to weasel out of it and thus claim the grounds for it are false when they aren't.

Meanwhile atheists say that religious people are just playing make-believe -- believing in God simply because they are scared of reality and want to hide behind the idea that a loving God will protect them.

In both cases, it actually makes a good deal of sense.  When you are really convinced that something is true, you have to figure out an explanation for why not everyone sees it the way you do.  It goes like this:

1.  My opinion is so well-supported that it is obvious.
2.  Yet people who otherwise seem intelligent don't agree with me.
3.  Therefore they must not be approaching the question with the objectivity that I am.

Every person I know who has ever left the Church, has been explained by mutual acquaintances like this.  Sometimes, because they try to be charitable, they come up with more creative ideas -- "X left the Church because he was hurt by something a priest did," "Y left the Church because her boyfriend dumped her to be a priest," "You can hardly blame Z for leaving, her Catholic parents were a terrible example of the faith."

Certainly every Catholic who reads my blog probably has a theory for why I have so many doubts.  If you're uncharitable, it's intellectual pride because I won't believe what I don't understand.  If you're charitable, you probably assume it's because I was traumatized by Regnum Christi.

But if you do this, you have to acknowledge as well that someone might look at your own life story and say, "You are only Catholic because you want to fit in with a group of people you respect," or "Your conversion happened at a time when you were going through a tough time and you looked to religion to make sense of it."  Whatever.  Only you can know that isn't true, because you know what your faith is founded on, and you know you're not lying when you say it's something real.

On the other hand, none of us is objective anyway.  We all have preferences.  I've stated my preference is for being Catholic, but on the other hand I have deep moral objections to certain teachings, so that does blur my objectivity as well. Every conversion experience is influenced by how much you like the Catholics you know, your emotional state at the time, your barely-remembered past influences, and so forth.  It is possible (as Enbrethiliel likes to point out) for two people to look at the exact same argument for the faith, and one of them to see it as obviously true and the other as obviously false.

I think what would help this situation is for us to have a bit more humility about what "obvious" means.  Any time there is a huge disagreement in a field -- whether it's climate change, or whether fat is good for you, or how many dimensions there are -- it's usually because the information isn't really quite as clear as all that.  Sure, it may strongly lean one way, but there must be a decent argument for the opposition or there wouldn't be an opposition.  They'd all just accept they were wrong!

Which is why it bugs me a little bit when arguments against the faith are considered "debunked" just because there is a counterargument.  Of course there is a counterargument!  It's been 2000 years; there are no new arguments.  A Protestant says, "The Bible says we should call no man father."  A Catholic replies, "Aha!  But Paul refers to himself as a father!"  That doesn't actually prove anything.  All it shows is that Catholics have addressed this before and have come up with an explanation--that the Protestant's verse is not so convincing as to wipe out all possible disagreement.  It's still (in this case) more convincing than the counterargument.

When I look at the Faith, I see a vastly complex quilt of ideas, some of which are easily credible and some of which are the opposite.  It's complicated enough that people can sit quite comfortably with the doctrines that make sense to them, and not be much troubled by the doctrines that don't.  It's in that fuzzy region between "obviously true" and "obviously false," where anyone who honestly wants to know which it is has to dedicate some serious time and energy to finding out.  And even if they do that, the answer they come up with is going to be affected by their biases.

I don't think my own disbelief comes from my biases, because it seems to go counter to most of what I want.  But you can't tell for sure, to look at me, can you?  And I suppose that's a good part of why I still act like a good Catholic despite not believing, because I want to prove I wasn't trying to get away with anything.  I am not trying to free up an hour every Sunday or looking for an excuse to go on the Pill.

And yet, no matter what I do, that's how it's going to look.  Because here I am not convinced by the arguments you all think are obvious.  I must be dumb, bad, or hopelessly traumatized, or else I would believe!  Certainly God wouldn't let the truth be so hidden that a person who honestly wanted to believe would not be able to.  So another explanation is necessary, no matter how little I like what you think of me.

This morning I woke up to see that a comment of mine, where I confessed to not believing despite wanting to, had earned me this reply: "We are mere creatures whom He fashioned from the mud of the earth. He who fashioned us out of the mud with His hands put Himself into the hands of the mud. And the mud was ungrateful."

Ungrateful mud, because I don't see as obvious what others do.  I guess I'd better get used to this attitude, because I don't see how it can possibly go away.


Enbrethiliel said...


"Ungrateful mud" is what you write when you don't have the vocabulary to say "ineluctably creepy." LOLOLOL!

Belfry Bat said...

Enbrethiliel, just what are you saying?

Sheila said...

She is saying that S.O.'s comment to her last thread ("ineluctably creepy") is the same sort of thing as the comment to me, a harsh thing said to someone who doesn't share one's opinions.

Alas, sometimes people say rude things; and also some people say things which aren't meant unkindly but which are taken that way. Perhaps I was a bit hypersensitive about the "ungrateful mud" thing. I don't want to be ungrateful. I certainly am full of gratitude for the universe, but if there's no one out there to thank, what exactly am I supposed to do about it?

Unknown said...

"Certainly God wouldn't let the truth be so hidden that a person who honestly wanted to believe would not be able to."

Yes! I completely agree with that idea. People like to think there is a deity out there in the great unknown. From what we have learned from science the universe is both mysterious and intelligible. The more effort we put into learning about it, the more information it yields. Just accepting God as the explanation for what is beyond our present understanding and referring to that as Faith is unsatisfactorily to me.

Belfry Bat said...

See, I had thought S.O had been complaining about something I wrote...

S.H, I agree: God is not an explanation for what is beyond our present understanding. I'm glad we both don't believe in that sort of God.

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, in fairness to SO, he wasn't doing what the mud guy was, which was trying to read the state of my soul in my comment. But I related them because they seem to have a similar root: the fact that even when we're at our fairest and most objective, we'll have emotional reactions to the things that other people say. The problem is when we think we're being so objective that we take our emotional reactions as rational judgment. Again, that's not what I think SO did. He was clearly just voicing a reaction and not making a bigger issue out of it.

And we never know what will creep out the other guy, do we? I was really surprised at my roommate's knee-jerk disgust when I said that I wished everyone in the world were Catholic. She admitted that she knew what I meant by it, but that didn't stop it from sounding like a wish for cultural genocide to her. And she felt sad that one of her best friends thought that way.

Sheila said...

The ancient Romans thought the early Christians were irresponsible for not exposing their disabled or weak infants. As long as there are different moral codes on the same planet, there will always be someone horrified at your own version.

kori said...

I find it interesting that you consider the diagnosis of "intellectual pride" an uncharitable reaction to your struggle. If anything, I would think you might at some level agree - and I don't mean that uncharitably at ALL. Another study in how people perceive things I guess. I would rather be condemned for overthinking a problem rather than be accused of acting rashly out of emotion (what I would think the trauma of RC would boil down to). But I guess that's just me...

Sheila said...

But wouldn't you rather not be condemned for anything?

Sheila said...

The big difference between those, though, is that one would be my fault and the other wouldn't. I could choose not to be prideful (presumably) but I can't choose not to be traumatized. That's why the people who are closest to me usually assume it's that option, saying in sympathetic tones, "Well, you can't help not believing, it's all Regnum Christi's fault!" Which I don't think is quite true, but I understand the good will that went into the explanation.

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