?

Log in

No account? Create an account
Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-01-14 06:03
Subject: [religion] Back to pink unicorns, part 1 of 2
Security: Public
Tags:politics, religion
More on religion, politics and me, following this recent post and its rather robust comment thread.

Context for the current post: daveraines expressed some dismay that I recently raised the "pink unicorn" argument, which he characterized as trivial. Likewise, cathshaffer made a lengthy, thoughtful comment about how she struggles with that, and from her view how the "pink unicorn" argument undermines the discourse.

As is usually the case, this sparked a lot of thought in me, but for now, I want to confine myself to the pink unicorn question. I am reluctantly concluding that I do not find it trivial, and in fact it might be critical. I am also concluding that leads to some errors of thought on my part, or at least, a failure of imagination on my part.

First, why I think the "pink unicorn" argument is nontrivial. Let me attempt this with a parable of sorts, so as to minimize the poking of sticks in eyes.
Let's say I'm a Flat Earther. For the sake of discussion, assume this is a sincerely held spiritual conviction of mine, backed by many years of study of Flat Earth scripture, examination of the millennia old traditions of Flat Earthism, regular participation in Friday night Flat Earth Society Meetings, careful consideration of my premises and actions, observation of the natural world, and my own instincts about my body and soul.

As a Flat Earther, I'm very concerned with how international air travel is routed. Surely it cannot be safe for people to fly from California to Japan. They may fall off the edge of the world. Pilots are clever, and fly around the corners, but this is still dangerous. I fear for their bodies, and as a committed Flat Earther, I fear for their souls should the air crews and passengers perish on the journey.

Because I have tens of millions of fellow Americans who (roughly) share my beliefs, and the strong support of a major political party, I decide to seek a seat on the board of the Federal Aviation Administration. This is a critical issue. Flat Earth denialism risks not only the lives and safety of the people who don't understand the issue, but all the innocents who are taken in by them. I want to make sure that air traffic safety standards, navigation practices and pilot training reflect this truth in which I sincerely believe.

Can you imagine giving a Flat Earther a role in setting international air travel standards and practices? The "pink unicorn" of Flat Earthism is rooted in a counterfactual so blatant that it's dangerous.

Fair enough. We'll keep the Flat Earthers off the FAA board. As daveraines says, we live in a democracy, and everybody's voice counts. But this Flat Earther that I am will also have opinions about trade policy. If I don't believe ships can sail from Shanghai to Long Beach, what am I going to say about balance of trade with China? If I believe the Earth is flat and bounded, what am I going to say about teaching plate tectonics in 9th grade Introduction to Physical Science classes?

My "pink unicorn" provides a foundational assumption that flaws all my thinking. How do you, as a rational member of the same democracy, negotiate with me about anything, or convince me of anything different from what I already believe based on my sincerely held, traditionally rich faith?

Now take the "pink unicorn" one step closer to reality and away from ridicule. Say I belong to a recently-founded religion that sincerely believes ancient alien souls infest our bloodstream. I believe that all of our mental issues and most of our physical issues are a result of these aliens, and proper detection and elimination of these alien remnants is the key to health, happiness and power. Do you want me sitting on the grants boards of the National Institutes of Health, ensuring that medical funding goes to those projects most likely to deal with the threat of these alien presences? Do you want my sincere religious beliefs driving your medical standards of care and legally permissible medical procedures?

"Pink unicorns" inflect thinking from first premises upwards. They're critical to the discussion of religion in politics. They're privileged, in a way that, for example, my personal errors of thought (which are certainly legion) are not privileged. When I'm wrong about something, I don't have the passion of faith, the support of a congregation, the endorsement of society, the threat of moral error or even mortal damnation to reinforce my wrong thinking. It's between me, my conscience, and my logic.

And when one stands outside the black box of any given faith structure — Flat Earthism, Scientology, Christianity — they're all equally pink unicorns. From the point of view of trying to work out social and cultural issues in an objective, secular context, all pink unicorns distort dialog in ways which are privileged, unassailable, and wrong.

Later I'll come back to why this argument creates errors of thought and failures of imagination on my part. For now, I am out of time and energy.

Post A Comment | 38 Comments | | Flag | Link






bondo_ba
User: bondo_ba
Date: 2010-01-14 14:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is one of the best posts I've seen on this subject, ever. Thanks!
Reply | Thread | Link



Kerry aka Trouble
User: controuble
Date: 2010-01-14 15:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This has been a really interesting discussion (I've been reading, just not posting until today) and I would like to make two points.

1) The sqeaky wheel gets the grease.
I completely agree with you about the effects of idiocy on our political process. The points brought up by others about the American evangelical Christian right drowning out other Christians, Hindus, Jews, etc. are valid. They are making the most noise, so getting the most attention and affecting legislation. Makes me wonder if the ones who are in office and spouting this drivel got there by doing so, or started after they got elected.

2) Voting is more responsibility than right.
As another poster brought up, we live in a democracy where the majority makes the rules. The largest problem I see is that the majority of people don't vote. People who have the right to vote have the responsibility to do so at EVERY election of EVERY level, not just the 'important' elections.

A belief in God and a scientific/rational thought process do not have to be contradictory. Try reading Conversations with Rabbi Small by Harry Kemelman [Amazon].
Reply | Thread | Link



mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2010-01-14 16:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Pink unicorns" [are] privileged, in a way that, for example, my personal errors of thought (which are certainly legion) are not privileged. When I'm wrong about something, I don't have the passion of faith, the support of a congregation, the endorsement of society, the threat of moral error or even mortal damnation to reinforce my wrong thinking.

You make a great point about the distinction between individual error and institutional error. There's nothing like a stupid idea with millions of people and millions of dollars backing it up.

I'm interested in the distinction between religious institutional error and secular institutional error. Adherents of other political parties don't technically claim your "immortal soul" is at stake if you disagree with them, but their passion often seems equally fierce, single-minded, and immune to logic.

Also, I think it's worth noting that much of the religious right's privilege comes not from the fact that pink unicorns as a class are inherently privileged, but from the fact that members of the religious right belong to the historically dominant religion in our culture.

So, Christian privilege is a bit like white privilege: those who experience it often don't realize they are, and can get downright offended if you point their privilege out to them.
Reply | Thread | Link



Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-01-14 16:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm interested in the distinction between religious institutional error and secular institutional error. Adherents of other political parties don't technically claim your "immortal soul" is at stake if you disagree with them, but their passion often seems equally fierce, single-minded, and immune to logic.

Now you're edging in on the subject of my Part 2 post, whenever I make it. A real simple secular example of this is vaccination denial, for example, which doesn't seem to be much if any loaded by religion, but has many of the attributes of blind faith being willfully ignorant in the face of all evidence.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



daveraines
User: daveraines
Date: 2010-01-14 16:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Pink unicorns" are trivial because it's copywriters' snark about a serious issue (not that there's anything wrong with it). The search for evidence, the search for errors in thinking, is nontrivial.

Your parable works because it is about a trivial issue; Flat Earthism is not a threat to navigation. That allows the shift in perception that makes parables work for the reader. But of course, it's mostly a way of explaining how atheists think about faith, and it works on that level. I, on the other hand, will claim a major fail in the analogy, namely that (a) I find solid evidence for the existence of God, and (b) I can cite plenty of examples of people and communities that have been improved, not degraded, by faith.

You use trivial examples as mind exercises, and they work on that level, but the subjects themselves are "of little value or importance."

Your example about Scientology works because it is about a nontrivial issue. Unlike pink unicorns, Scientology has a fair amount of influence on the way people live; and, presumably, vote. At which point it behooves folks who believe in alternatives (say, the germ theory of disease) to vote also, advocate, etc.

The argument is very much nontrivial. If the word "trivial" offends you or derails the discussion, I'll gladly delete it. But the analogy "God = pink unicorn" is still trivial, and I would argue deliberately so.
Reply | Thread | Link



Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-01-14 16:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Great response.

For what it's worth, I can provide you with solid evidence of the roundness of the Earth. Your definition of "solid evidence of the existence of God" doesn't match my definition of "solid evidence", by, erm, definition. If it did, we wouldn't be having these discussions... :)

But this points back to my own errors of reasoning and failure of imagination, because unlike some atheists, I'm not prepared to deny the value and impact of what I would call mythic truth on the human spirit and quality of life. That's something I want to try to address soon, and square a few of my own intellectual circles in the process.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link | Expand



User: elizaeffect
Date: 2010-01-14 16:09 (UTC)
Subject: My $0.02
I think the Scientology argument is only partially valid, as many Scientologists in positions of minor power are more interested in funneling money to Scientology-owned businesses than protecting people from said alien spirits.

There's good-faith I-really-want-to-help-people power-seeking and then there's bad-faith I-want-to-score-points-with-my-fanbase/constituents/handlers, and of course the problem with the Religious Right today is that we have so many obvious examples of the latter that even true examples of the former are viewed with suspicion by outsiders. Everyone, regardless of their actual danger to society, is assumed to have only the worst intentions, and this poisons the debate on both sides.
Reply | Thread | Link



User: creed_of_hubris
Date: 2010-01-14 16:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
c.f. Pat Robertson's current argument that a voodoo ritual at the beginning of the Haitian revolution was in fact a pact with Satan damning Haiti as a nation, thereby suggesting conversion rather than relief as a solution to the current trouble
Reply | Thread | Link



fledgist
User: fledgist
Date: 2010-01-15 00:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is currently causing me much amusement at the expense of my Christian colleagues,none of whom wish to be associated in any way, shape or form with the reverend Mr Robertson.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



Josh English
User: joshenglish
Date: 2010-01-14 18:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
From the point of view of trying to work out social and cultural issues in an objective, secular context, all pink unicorns distort dialog in ways which are privileged, unassailable, and wrong.

I don't think it's fair to lump all forms of Christianity into one type of "Pink Unicorns." The argument starts to declare that Secularism is True and anything that isn't Secularism isn't True. "True" being used not in the scientific-factual sense, but the way religion handles "Truth." That way, Secularism is a pink unicorn all its own.

Since the discussion involves politics, I turn to the philosophers who have talked about a just society, and the various schools of thought that have sprung up around them. My philosophy is rusty, admittedly, but I remember a constant tension between those who believe an action is only good if it brings the maximum amount of good to the maximum amount of people, or is only good if it minimizes harm.

Removing the "Pink Unicorns" won't fix anything, either. People in charge usually want power, and they will use anything to justify it. That's not a Christian POV, that may be just cynicism.

(Damn, have to get to work, hopefully I can fill these thoughts out later.)
Reply | Thread | Link



Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-01-14 18:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The argument starts to declare that Secularism is True and anything that isn't Secularism isn't True. "True" being used not in the scientific-factual sense, but the way religion handles "Truth." That way, Secularism is a pink unicorn all its own.

Well, that kind of is my point, sort of. Ie, empirical reality has a truth which is orthogonal to faith-based truth. Evaluating empirical reality through faith-based truth can be risky, even dangerous, especially when being done at a formal level of social policy or medical science. (Note that I want to respectfully contrast this with the consideration any person of faith might give their actions and role in the world.)

Confusing empirical realty with faith-based truth is an utter failure of intellect, and an abuse of our god-given reason. Especially when it's done deliberately.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link | Expand



(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-01-14 18:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That is almost certainly true. I'm reaching for a point I haven't quite grasped in my own mind yet about the validity of reasoning with people who proceed from faulty premises -- essentially my answer to daveraines upthread about the germ theory of disease.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



martianmooncrab
User: martianmooncrab
Date: 2010-01-14 19:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
outside the black box of any given faith structure

I am still boggling over Pat Robertson saying that the earthquake is Gods punishment of the locals, and the stray thought that if the epicenter had been right under his church, it would have been a Test of His Faith. Its all subject to personal interpretation.
Reply | Thread | Link



User: joycemocha
Date: 2010-01-15 04:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I am still boggling over Pat Robertson saying that the earthquake is Gods punishment of the locals, and the stray thought that if the epicenter had been right under his church, it would have been a Test of His Faith. Its all subject to personal interpretation.

Me too. The mind just--reels.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



Rachel Swirsky
User: rachel_swirsky
Date: 2010-01-14 21:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Cheers. Well-written, well-argued.
Reply | Thread | Link



gvdub
User: gvdub
Date: 2010-01-14 21:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I still think that the box to which you assign religion doesn't fit, specifically because you take one small example of extreme religious thought and hold it to be representative of the whole of religious and spiritual thought.

At base, your argument seems to merely be calling for people to exchange their black box for the black box that you happen to prefer. In point of fact, they are not interchangeable boxes. Science and rational thought is about 'how', whereas religious thought is more about 'why'. The two only start to become mutually exclusive when one begins to insist that 'how' explains 'why' or vice versa. Even the most expansive versions of cosmological thought don't deal with ultimate causality, only what has happened since the singularity that was the Big Bang started to expand. Anything before that is, in essence, unknowable in any sense of ability to be measured. Since God is widely held to be unknowable, it's a reasonable jump to hold that before the universe began, there was God.

Of course, if one holds to the oscillatory universe theory, then we're just n-dimensional D-branes bouncing back and forth and occasionally slamming into each other to start the cycle all over again. In which case, ultimate causality becomes a somewhat more complex question.

I think that what we should be striving for is simply to build more transparent boxes. Black is so '80s, ya know?
Reply | Thread | Link



Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-01-14 21:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes, and now you are pointing to some of my own errors-of-thinking to which I referred earlier. Trying to reconcile this myself. Stay tuned, and thank you very much for laying this out.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link



(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
Kenneth Mark Hoover
User: kmarkhoover
Date: 2010-01-15 01:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I just want to know if we will ever be rid of the constricting snake that is religion. In other words, will our species ever grow the F up?

I have my doubts.
Reply | Thread | Link



adelheid_p
User: adelheid_p
Date: 2010-01-15 03:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm finding these posts (comment threads) to be helpful for me, too.

Once I'm done reading through to ensure that I'm not repeating something someone else has said, I may comment further.
Reply | Thread | Link



browse
my journal
links
January 2014
2012 appearances