Welcome to the Stifyn Emrys blog. Visit this site to stay updated on the latest news and releases from author Stifyn Emrys, along with serious, silly and occasionally sarcastic observations about the world around us.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Extremism, Appeasement and the Third Option: Scientific Thought

Confirmation bias. These two words are among the biggest obstacles to rational thought we face.

We've all experienced it, and at some point in time, we've all engaged in it. Confirmation bias is a tendency to prefer information that confirms what we already believe. It's why conservatives listen to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity; it's why progressives confine themselves to liberal-leaning websites. To use a well-worn phrase often quoted in Pagan circles, "like attracts like." While this may not always be true, it certainly is in this case.

It's natural. There's even a First Amendment protection for it: freedom of association. We have every right to hang out with the people we want to be around.

If allowed to run its course, however, confirmation bias leads to an even more toxic condition: absolutism. It works like this: the more we allow our beliefs to be reinforced by like-minded people, without allowing ourselves to be challenged by people who think differently, the more extreme we become. Eventually, we become so extreme we become absolutists. Our mantra becomes, "No one will ever, under any circumstances ... (fill in the blank).

I'm not going to actually fill in the blank with specific issues here, because we all know what they are. They've been argued on websites and media outlets ad nauseam. The point here isn't to get sidetracked into a debate over specific issues, it's to focus on the thought process behind those issues.

Our current media culture encourages confirmation bias. There are so many narrowly focused, specifically targeted blogs, cable networks, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts that we can easily isolate ourselves and limit our exposure to those who think differently. We create a cocoon around ourselves and turn on a numbing sound loop of endlessly repetitious endorsements of what we already know. Or think we know.

This process has created a politically polarized country where very little is accomplished because the two sides are too far away from each other to see the middle, much less meet in it. But it has also created a backlash from a group so tired of chaos and confrontation that they throw up their hands and say "live and let live" about pretty much anything. Unfortunately, that mentality is just as foreign to rational thought (and in some senses, just as absolute) as the mindset at either extreme. Accepting everything as valid is just as harmful as accepting only what we already believe.

So here's the situation: We have cookie-cutter absolutists at both ends, with disengaged "let's just all get along, whatever it takes" folks in the middle.

There is, fortunately, a third alternative: having the courage to believe what you believe even if you don't fit the mold and - even more importantly - to modify your beliefs if they don't square with the facts. This is, of course, the scientific approach.

Unfortunately, it won't make you popular with any of the aforementioned groups. Absolutists on both sides will deride you as disloyal, heretical and worse because you don't follow the party line. The laissez-faire folks in the middle won't like you, either, because you're rocking the boat at both ends and they're getting seasick. They don't care who wins; they just want to avoid conflict at any cost by sticking their heads in the sand and hoping it all goes away on its own. Of course, it won't.

Scientific thinkers are the world's referees. We get pelted with tomatoes from both sidelines and accused of bias by partisans of every sort. Take me, for example. I'm an author who has written a book about Jesus called The Gospel of the Phoenix. It paints Jesus in a positive light, which doesn't sit too well with some atheists and Pagans who want nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus or may not believe he even existed; but that doesn't mean fundamentalist Christians will like it. Just the opposite: they're not likely to approve of a narrative that questions several tenets of their theology.

Another book of mine, Requiem for a Phantom God, draws even stronger protests. The book points out the logical inconsistencies of monotheistic beliefs (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). This is, of course, not popular with people who hold those beliefs. But those who don't tend to react in a couple of different ways:

  • "Thank you for writing this book! It reinforced everything I always thought about why all Christians are such idiots!"
  • "How dare you criticize another person's religious belief! We need to respect the beliefs of others and show tolerance. How would you like it if your beliefs were attacked that way?"
These quotes are paraphrased, but they fairly well convey the responses I've received to this work from Pagans who have read the book.

Both miss the point entirely. The book is not intended to reinforce beliefs (confirmation bias). Nor is it meant as an excuse to vilify "all" members of a particular group or dismiss every teaching of a particular religion. On the contrary, it's intended to raise significant questions about elements of Christian dogma and monotheism in general that, I think, are illogical and may promote or justify harmful actions such as slavery, misogyny, bigotry, oppression, murder and so forth.

I'm not condemning "everything" about Christianity or Judaism or Islam, each of which has many positive teachings to offer. "Love thy neighbor" (harm none?) and "reap what you so" (karma, anyone?) come to mind.

Appeasement: U.K. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Hitler, 1938.

On the other end, the hands-off position taken in the second quote misses the point just as badly. Religion has too often been used as an excuse to perpetrate atrocities. The terrorist jihads of Islam, along with the crusades and witch hunts of Christianity, are based on dogmatic beliefs and interpretations that must be condemned in the strongest possible terms, not excused on the basis of religion. We tried the whole "live and let live" approach with Nazi Germany during World War II. It was called appeasement, and it didn't work.

There's a proverb equates wisdom with harlotry, and I think there's something to that. Wisdom is not faithful to any dogma, but follows her own course and will share herself with anyone willing to pay the price: open-mindedness and sincerity. Like referees, harlots tend to be reviled. So do scientific thinkers, because neither side in any debate can count on them for support, and the price to have it may be steep - that price is a continual re-examination of one's self and the facts in evidence (both of which are always changing).

Is it possible to be both civil and open-minded on the one hand, yet unyielding in the face of abuse and tyranny? Absolutely. Don't ask me to condemn any broad group en masse as "a bunch of idiots." That doesn't fly with me. But neither will I stand idly by and allow religious doctrine to become an excuse for atrocity. Don't ask me to "tolerate" that based on some live-and-let-live mantra. It reminds me more of that old Paul McCartney song, Live and Let Die.

If all this leaves me as a referee in the game of life, I consider it a noble position - and not one to which I'm uniquely called. In fact, I believe it's a challenge to which we all can and should rise.

Yes, that's an absolute statement. You can go ahead and pelt me with tomatoes now.


  1. Really awesome. I don't read many blogs, but I can honestly say that this one will change how I live my life. I will question more ... not only beliefs I oppose, but those I accept as well.

    What a great read. Sharing far and wide.