Sins of a Skeptic Empire
I don’t even know where to begin. I suspect that even if I were to share this article from the rooftops, on Facebook, on twitter, on Reddit, most people would not get it. They would not get it with a vengeance. They wouldn’t even see — for a moment — Stephen’s point.
I still don’t even know where to begin. I don’t want to just quote various parts, because to do the article justice, I would have to just quote the entire thing. So, instead of quoting this piece, I’ll make tangentially related thoughts that hopefully hit at a similar spirit to what the article describes.
At least in ex- and postmormon forums, there is a lot of criticism of the LDS church because of its marginalizing, socially conservative viewpoints. So, there is much to hear about the poor treatment of gay folks in the church, much to hear about the poor standing of women in the church, and so on. This tends to get lumped together in such ideas as, “The church is a patriarchal organization.” And so, the issue is that institutionally, the church perpetuates heterosexism and sexism and so forth.
OK, OK, so I can see that. I am not immune to the stories I hear about ecclesiastical abuse. The outrage at how the church speaks about modesty. The church’s policies toward gay members — such that whenever some ward in some city does something marginally less bad like allowing an openly gay person to be in a calling as long as they are single instead of excommunicating them as soon as they find out, it’s a huge deal.
…but…the “skeptic” community is not much better. It’s not as if skeptic communities are bastions of feminism — in fact, I’ve been in several discussions on ex-mormon threads where people openly question the existence of male privilege and so forth. Or maybe they’ll accept that male privilege may exist for some, but not for “beta males” like them. (Can I just say that I find that term disturbing when used in a human context? And yet, I see people using it for themselves, so I guess I’ll use their own words) And their beta male status, to the contrary, shows to them the privilege that women have, not men.
I don’t want this conversation to devolve into a discussion on whether privilege exists or not. But I bet that if this article spread far enough, there might be commenters who want to start that fight. I’ll just point out that I totally agree when Bond writes:
Skepticism, of course, is only one of the many online interests which attract barely-closeted sexists. But the particular attraction of skepticism is also its particular problem: it allows the sexist to disguise his prejudice as rationality and “common sense”. You can spot guys like this easily on skeptic forums: the word “feminism” brings them crawling out, like slugs after a downpour. For them, feminism is an unscientific discipline (but how could it be otherwise?), as nonsensical as astrology or Roman Catholicism, and as ripe and essential for debunking. They’re okay with women’s lib, within reason; but now it’s gone too far, and the firm hand of reason must rein it in. Reason, weirdly enough, never seems to disrupt their own grip on power. It’s always on the side of the patriarchy.
I have experienced that. I have seen someone actually compare “privilege” to “the holy ghost”.
This discussion reminds me so much of the circular discussions back when I used to go to church. Except substitute “the holy ghost” for the word “privilege.” Those who believe in the holy ghost are the people we want in positions of trust. Those who don’t acknowledge its presence in their lives are outsiders, sorely mistaken and arrogant, they won’t open their eyes to see.
The thrust of the argument — like the holy ghost, feminist concepts are unscientific. But not only that, these are unscientific ideas that hold people (read: the beleaguered male, especially if “beta male”) back.
I raise examples like these up to point out that even though skeptics tend to think that they see through institutional bullshit…apparently, there can be plenty of bullshit even without an institution.
If this is the case, then the issue is that one can’t just “defeat” religion and then usher in a paradisiacal millennial era of peace and prosperity. No, all the stuff that we call bad but think are enshrined in institutions…came from other places and continue to thrive even without a religious vehicle.
Another section I really appreciated was Bond’s section on the neo-liberal metaphors that are requisite features of the skeptic community. As a snippet here:
It’s impossible to imagine the breakthroughs of Newton or Copernicus or Descartes happening in 14th-century Europe. The medieval mind did not perceive the world in the right way to make them. It was too clouded with metaphors of heaven and hell and angels and divine will and oaths and tithes and loyalty and hierarchy and feudal exchange; metaphors that, in our understanding, obscured its perception of reality. When these metaphors were transformed and replaced, people could see more clearly; but these transformations were not and could not have been wrought by the scientific method alone, even if such a thing existed at the time. Scientific advance was inseparable from political, social, and economic advance. And the same has been true of all scientific advances. It’s just as impossible to imagine Darwin’s breakthrough in Newton’s time, or Heisenberg’s in Darwin’s time.
Skeptics, in insisting on the primacy of scientific knowledge, deny the value of non-scientific metaphors in future scientific advance. As far as they are concerned, western liberal democracies have made all the political, social, cultural and economic advances they need to. Western thought is already so free that anyone who tries can perceive reality direct and unmediated, with no obscuring metaphors in the way. To the trained western eye, the truth simply reveals itself, in as much detail as our scientific understanding allows. It’s difficult to imagine a more absolute statement of confidence in liberal democracy.
Similarly, when skeptics insist that scientific thinking should be spread worldwide, they necessarily mean that liberal democracy should be spread worldwide. Which is to say, they are neoliberals.
I could write several essays from things I’ve thought about with respect to this. Firstly, if you’ve paid much attention to my writing at all, you should know that I’m big on subjectivity. So, of course, I am very interested in the metaphors that define our world.
I am bored with this emphasis on objectivity and empiricism and blah blah blah. I mean, that is not to say I have gone off the deep end and believe in (insert woo concept here), but that’s because subjectively, I don’t feel convinced rather than thinking that objectively, there is no case.
One thing that I haven’t delved into as much (but I should) are the ways that we can radically change the world by radically changing our metaphors. Pure magycks. (in after woo, I guess)
I find it difficult to speak on this subject. I recognize that in many instances, we don’t “choose” our metaphors. Rather, my experience is that we are thrown into and raised into. So, while I can recognize the vastly different worlds produced by vastly different metaphors, there is a sense in which I can’t fully make them “real” because I am stuck in my metaphor. I want to understand why some people believe, but because I don’t, I can’t really make it “real.” (I sometimes wonder if it’s truly impossible to understand something without accepting it — does “understanding” include knowing the subjective experience of being convinced by that understanding?)
I was listening to John Dehlin’s podcast interview with John Hamer on Mormon Stories, and one thing that intrigued me were John H’s comments about the different worldview that people lived in during Joseph Smith’s time. A good post that John H has written that captures the gist of this idea is Hamer’s Living Scripture and a Vision of the Living Restoration at Saints Herald. Relevant sections from that post:
Among the most important ideas [the early adherents of the latter-day Restoration movement] got right was a rejection of the “Golden Age Myth.” Living, as they were, in the wake of the Enlightenment, they and people all around them had begun to read symbolic stories as though they were merely literal history. This change created new and highly distorted readings of sacred, symbolic stories in the Bible. New literalists couldn’t help but notice that in the Bible, animals occasionally talked, prophets turned sticks into snakes and caused the sun to stand still, and God talked to humans like humans talk to each other. They likewise noted (correctly) that such things did not happen in the present day. From this, many believers understandably concluded that the past era was different from the present era. In the past there had (apparently) been a spiritual or heroic age filled with miraculous, enchanted happenings — a Golden Age — while in the present age, the heavens were closed. The spiritual gifts of the past were no more.
The early members of the Restoration disagreed. “The heavens were not closed!” they declared. The same spiritual gifts that were ever available of old continued to be available. Prophets could yet respond to the Divine in the prophetic voice. When the Restoration’s first historian, John Whitmer, began his history of the latter-day movement, he used the same scriptural language — so identified in English because of the then unchallenged popularity of the King James Bible — that Joseph Smith used in composing the Book of Mormon and the revelations that formed the initial sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. For the early members of the Restoration, scripture was not just consigned to a heroic past or Golden Age — scripture could still be lived today.
This was partially because early members remained in a liminal period — they had one foot in a world of unexplained enchantment and one foot in a more fully understood and explained world. Standing on the threshold, they were not always to discern between the symbolic and the literal. For example, the witnesses who viewed the plates understood that their visions were visionary,† but many who read the testimonies the witnesses signed did not. The members who saw angels in Kirtland temple understood the difference between the eye of the spirit and the physical eye. But early members who took up arms at the Battle of Crooked River did not understand that the Biblical account of Gideon’s defeat of Midianites (Judges 6-8) was a myth. In imagining God would similarly deliver their enemies, early members of the Restoration came close to precipitating their own actual extermination in the 1838 Missouri War.
As people in the 21st century, we have largely crossed the threshold into a post-enchanted world. And ironically, that means for the bulk of Restoration believers today, the heavens are again closed — there is no new scripture; there are no new revelations. The early Restoration now represents a Second Golden Age whose sacred stories (in many cases) are once again misunderstood to have been literal…
Since I have heard many people say similar things on this subject, in a sense I can conceptualize that people back in earlier days lived in a more magical world…and it was more magical precisely because of the metaphors they employed. And, to an extent, I can get instances where we still have “magic” embedded even in our modern, neo-liberal skeptical mindset.
…but…it doesn’t feel real at the deepest level. When John H says that in the past, animals and their actions and traits were viewed symbolically, I can’t really “feel” what that would be like…what it would be like to live in a world where that’s credible to you.
As John H writes, I — as a 21st century guy — am living in a post-enchanted world. In some ways, this is what led me “out” of the church…but in other ways, it’s what keeps me from re-conceptualizing the scriptures as metaphorical. At some level, I think, if this isn’t literally true, then what’s the big deal, even though in general, I value the subjective. (Basically, my subjective experiences are mediated by cultural scripts that value literality and objectivity.)
I wonder what it would be like to step out of the 21st century mindset of the sterile, post-enchanted world. I know plenty of folks online or offline who have done it, but their stories seem so strange to me. I just don’t grok it.
Still, I feel that the mundane, non-magickal world isn’t necessarily better, more enlightened, or more advanced than the enchanted worlds of yesteryear. Rather, the same sorts of marginalizations happen — the same inequity of power structures exist — but this time, things are just so much more boring about it.