Thursday, December 18, 2014

In which we infer that the Oatmeal guy has neither faith nor kids

Why does The Oatmeal’s famous comic about religion bother me so much?  I’m not usually troubled by internet atheists [1].  At least, no more than by other varieties of internet ideologue, and often somewhat less, since they’re generally not pushing plans or policies that would be bad for the world.  They can be foolish and annoying, but they’re not my problem.

But I guess the thing that does tend to bother me about internet atheism [2] is particularly strong in that comic, namely the assumption that religious people are not serious, that we don’t actually believe what we’re saying.  Besides being a way of begging the question, it seems like a major failure to empathize with those on the other side of the position.  He sees religious claims as meaningless, so he assumes that anyone making them is just expressing team loyalty, and seems unable to imagine that someone would actually see such ideas as true.

The way I stated it there makes it seem a little different, but it reminds me of a phenomenon Paul Krugman occasionally talks about, whereby economists from other teams misunderstand Keynesian ideas or proposals in a way that makes them obviously stupid, then attack Keynesians for being so stupid.  His point is that they would do better to try to make sense of an idea by putting themselves in the position of a hypothetical intelligent Keynesian, because it makes them look foolish to fail so badly to understand the theory.  Though there, as here, it may be that the current approach works just fine with those economists’ target audience, so they’re not looking for advice from Krugman on how to sound smarter to him.

The part that has stuck in my head most from the comic is the panel where a kid asks what happens when we die and the hypothetical parent who’s doing it right says “I don’t know, sweetie, what do you think?”  So now he’s failing to empathize with both the believer and the kid.  The believer because he can’t imagine a person thinking seriously about the question and coming up with an answer besides his, and the kid because he’s treating what I would assume is a serious question as if it were an obviously fanciful one.  If the Wolverine asks me the name of a person she’s just added to one of her drawings, I might turn the question back like that (especially since she tends to have an answer in mind and reject all suggestions in those types of situations), but if she asks what happens when we die, I’m going to take her seriously and do my best.  (She has, of course.  Not an easy one, though not as tough as “What is God’s name?”)

Re-reading the comic today, I discovered something that had not stuck in my mind–that that exchange is part of a sequence in which he comes out and says that religious convictions are akin to favorite colors.  I.e. that they contain no truth claims and only the mildest subjective importance.  I’m surprised that didn’t stay with me, because it encapsulates the problem nicely.  So let me try to be clear as well: when I say something like “God loves you”, it has very little in common with saying “I like purple.”  I’m not making a statement about what seems aesthetically nice or where I observe my inclinations pointing more often than not, I’m saying that to the best of my ability to interpret the world, and according to how I understand truth and truth claims to work, it is the case that God loves you.

I kind of want to end there, but apparently the stronger part of me wants to talk more.  Which is pretty standard.  Specifically, I want to note that his notion of the evils of indoctrinating your children is just weird to me.  Where are kids supposed to learn things if not from the adults in their life?  Is he aware that after “keep them from becoming dead”, indoctrination is pretty much the primary goal of child rearing, because children left to their own devices will form value systems in which fairness and respect for others are way less prominent than we would like?

And yeah, the problem discussed above affects this, too.  Obviously he has a clear idea of what should be shared with the kiddos and what should not–teach your children true things, don’t indoctrinate them in falsehoods–but he’s forgetting that we’re not all working from the same list of which is which.

[1] I wasn’t sure if “internet atheist” was a standard term, but it seems like it is.  Obviously not all expressions of atheism on the internet would fall under it.  The word “troll” is not unrelated.  The first association for me would be with the Dawkinsian heroes who are always ready to share the gospel of What You See Is What You Get in the comments of any Humans of New York post that makes reference to anything religious.

[2] Aside from the smugness.  That is also exceptionally strong in this case, but smugness is more an intensifier than a problem in itself.  If something is unequivocally true, then stating it confidently is just normal.  Smugness happens when the tone reflects way more confidence than the substance of an argument supports, so it depends on what you think of the argument itself.