On Full Disclosure & Knee Jerk Reactions

Enough with the whining about lack of full disclosure in (a)theist discussion. There are very logical reasons for not painting oneself into some silly little mental category that is both culturally fabricated and deduced via subjective experience. I believe it is ultimately foolish and non-productive for a group of people to assign themselves emotionally-charged and socially-conflated labels while attempting to have anything even remotely close to a rational discussion. FAR too often it's more of the same in the blogosphere: Consider your average internet (a)theist discussion: Believer A shows up on atheist website B and leaves some comment C that falls anywhere between Cro-magnon man and Einstein on the intelligence scale. Atheist commenters D – Z then proceed to accost believer A anywhere from Bill Cosby to Christopher Hitchens on the respect scale, each according to their own ideas of what A believes.

The problem is, say we have at minimum an atheist who’s been abused by a priest, an atheist who was once a believer, and a college atheist who argues like he’s reading The God Delusion for his first time while taking bong rips and watching South Park. Each of these three atheists are almost certain to have different interpretations of A’s beliefs, not to mention different motivations for engaging A in the first place. Each hypothetical atheist in our example retains a very real potential for tainted responses based on preconceptions that may or may not be accurate, and perhaps the best reason not to label oneself "Christian" or "Catholic" or "Buddhist" or "Sikh" or "Mormon" or "Atheist" or "New Age" or whatever is to minimize the possibility of people arguing against their personal and differing interpretations of what "Christianity" or "Catholicism" or "Buddhism" or "Sikhism" or "Mormonism" or "Atheism" or "New Age thinking" logically entails.

More damning to clear logic yet, what if believer A happens to hold a belief that atheist commenters D – Z absolutely cannot stand and never fail to denigrate via sneering insults? Although milder, consider the absurdity of this particular exchange. The atheist asks the believer, "Are you a xtian? Quit playing games." Now, to this particular atheist, and many atheists in general, an "xtian" is about the most moronic and intellectually repulsive thing a member of Homo sapiens could be. Provided word-economy was not the motivation, the atheist's grammar suggests the level of respect we might expect. Yeah! Sign us up to jump around like rabid, blundering fools in the clown suit you're offering, and maybe we can get a couple of cute pictures with the kids while we're at it! And the believer is the disingenuous one for not wanting to wear the suit? How does that work?

My personal reasons for giving little more than "non-atheist" as the general "label" of my belief system is to avoid precisely the types of mis-characterizations I observe time and again on atheist websites. Now, I can hear a particular counter-argument already: "But if someone doesn't tell us what religion they are, we won't know what they believe, and then it's even easier to make all sorts of wrong assumptions, intentional or otherwise." Yes, if you're prone towards making assumptions, in those circumstances it would be easier to make all sorts of wrong assumptions, so consider that your warning! The whole point of rational discourse is to not make assumptions! And even if some person says they're "Christian" or "Catholic" or "Buddhist" or "Sikh" or "Mormon" or "Atheist" or "New Age" or whatever, so what? Faulty assumptions can be made just as easily with any, all, or none of those labels. 

There are other valid reasons to avoid the donning of labels, too. What if no single label fits a person squarely? What if somebody isn't exactly sure what they believe, or if they believe overlapping concepts from a complex and and interweaving sub-system of philosophies, religions and humanities? Yeah, I've read and do read the Bible, but I've also read and do read scriptures on Buddhism, Theosophy, Mormonism, Wicca, Unitarianism and many others, not to mention a wide variety of subjects including the sciences and humanities. So instead of whining and crying "disingenuous" when someone hasn't painted themselves into some silly little intellectual category that quite literally exists separately in each individual's mind, why not just slow down, begin with a clean mental slate by abandoning all assumptions, and ask more questions?

That people seem to want others to categorize themselves is intriguing and lends well to psychoanalytical speculation. Perhaps some people feel threatened when they realize their canned arguments might lose a bit of punch? Perhaps some people resent having to slow down, think critically and really discern what a person is saying? Sure, the rational path requires more effort, but do we want to talk past each other indefinitely or achieve some kind of common ground?

It's not your interlocutor's responsibility to provide detailed exposition of each and every nuance of their particular belief system before engagement so you don't mess up; it's your responsibility to ask your interlocutor if they actually believe what you think they believe before accusing them of error just because you misunderstand their belief system.

When we label ourselves, we simply introduce another filter through which others often unconsciously process our every word, potentially shooting our rationalism in the foot from the outset of each and every discussion. Don't get me wrong. Labeling is great for facilitating categorical thinking, but the whole point of freethought is to think beyond categories.

2 Comments

  1. Lifeguard says:

    Cl:
    I agree with you on the dangers of labels and knee jerk reactions, but I’m not sure avoiding labels helps much. You’ve been pretty fastiduous about avoiding labels and I don’t think you’ve found any more civility than anyone else. Methinks the folks that have engaged you in what you would describe as fair and straightforward terms would do the same whether you were a Christian fundamentalist or a militant New Atheist. It’s who those individuals are rather than how you have held yourself out.
    When you first came on the scene, I think folks thought you were some sort of “stealth apologist” who refused to identify himself as a christian but simply sat back poking holes in atheist arguments. In a way you’re attempt to avoid a label may have been the reason you got the reaction you did. I’m not suggesting that was in any way fair, but it may be the reality.
    That being said I think we both agree that it’s just as, if not more, important to not be so quick to affix a label to someone else (even when they endorse themselves as such). You’re much better off focusing on what someone says and how they behave as opposed to what they hold themselves out as. This is all about exploring ideas, not just drawing lines in the sand, and the labels very much contribute to an “us” versus “them” mentality that ultimately interferes with whatever ability we might have to get beyond some of this stuff.
    Lastly, I think there’s a difference between asking someone to supply a reductionist label for themselves for the purpose of having an argument or denigrating them and asking someone for a “label” to find out where they stand on certain issues. Sometimes it’s more of an invitation to a conversation than a cynical attempt at oversimplifying someone.
    Well put, my friend.

  2. cl says:

    You’ve been pretty fastiduous about avoiding labels and I don’t think you’ve found any more civility than anyone else.

    I know, that’s what I think is bunk. And don’t forget about the very real degree to which doubts and overlapping ideas come into play.

    Methinks the folks that have engaged you in what you would describe as fair and straightforward terms would do the same whether you were a Christian fundamentalist or a militant New Atheist.

    I agree, and also agree that of those who do, that’s just who they are. Hold that thought for a sec- Note to those who might not know: My “entry onto the scene” involves a whole bunch of BS that Lifeguard and I both know was, well, BS.
    But back to it. Like you said in the first paragraph, “It’s who those individuals are rather than how you have held yourself out.” That works for individuals I feel are fair and straightforward, or individuals that are otherwise. Except for you, everyone at Chaplain’s that day fell into “otherwise,” and yeah, I could’ve done a little better myself. Point is, that whole thing with Chaplain denouncing me as the troll (just like at Ebonmuse’s, there’s the troll police again) while “Trinity” ran rampant just sophomoric, immature high-school nonsense. It was totally hypocritical, it really did sour my perception of atheism, and it took a while for me to realize not every atheist blogger was like that. I sorta concluded those must have been the people who just loved to rant and cede zero ground as opposed to learn and maybe reach some common ground. And they don’t act that way all the time, and I’ve had non-inflammatory conversations with each of them since. Nobody is a caricature.
    Your third paragraph gets a hearty bravo in its entirety, and as for the fourth, again I’m glad we can walk away with some common ground on this one.

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