Once upon a time I used to argue with atheist philosophers–but I’ve always lived with doubts in my own faith. The appearance remains; religion does not make people moral. In some cases it gives people cause to act in reprehensible ways. Nor does humanism offer a complete enough answer for me, but more on that later. It is common for the unschooled on both sides to see the other side as monstrous or stupid. The opinions on both sides of the debate always seem intractable. As I see it among the worst potential dangers of strong opinions like these are as follows:
-People sacrifice flexibility for dogma.
-People have more negative relationships with those who disagree.
-People examine their own viewpoint less critically than perhaps would be beneficial.
There are probably more issues than that, but I think those three summarize the majority of my own worries. With less flexibility and increasingly judgmental attitudes the opinionated can develop more negative views of those who differ from them even a little bit. I’ve seen this in myself, first-hand. And it has to do with writing. Bet you saw that one coming.
When I was a sophomore in college I was really opinionated. I’d written four novels and I’d absorbed more episodes of writing-related podcasts than was healthy in the last 6 years. I had my mind made up about how to become a writer. I tried to get into the college’s Writing: Fiction class, but ended up not getting in. Instead I entered a non-Fiction writing class with my advisor. I didn’t think I’d ever want to use that stuff, didn’t see the point of it. Boy did I have a lot to learn!
The class was small, and when it began I, arrogant sophomore that I was, was not impressed with many of them. A few seemed alright, but if I had to make a generalization I was uncomfortable or annoyed with each of them. One in-particular rubbed me the wrong way, by declaring her wish to write science fiction in a prior class, along with the key reason she hadn’t started yet: She said she was waiting for a good idea. That does not make sense to me, or jive with anything I ever learned as a writer.
My experience was this: One has to write a lot in order to get stories down, and the more one writes the better one’s ideas will become. A writer is more often not ‘good enough’ for an idea than any idea is not ‘good enough’ for the writer. I still maintain this is true, but no longer would I be so annoyed, even hateful, towards someone who went around talking as if she knew about writing any kind of fiction though she was still waiting for a grand idea to use. I don’t want to rant though, and even now I find it difficult not to criticize this approach. But back then I was worse. I managed to stay polite with her, by hiding my opinion and ranting to others I trusted in private about it. But I’m still going to criticize my approach to the problem.
At this point I had made writing into dogma. I had chosen what I believed, and anything short of that was (gasp) untrue! Like so many people, back then I couldn’t stand for people to be wrong. “Wrong, wrong, wrong. How could people bear with being so dumb?”
Though I did my best to hide it, I hated those who believed differently from me. Now I can’t help but see those who argue one way or the other about theological or a-theological matters with conviction as having the same sort of problem. In fact, I have the same sort of problem with different things now, but being aware of it is helpful nonetheless. And the best I can do is to reduce my hatred while not expressing it.
In any case, I’ve argued that I can’t control my emotions with a snap of my fingers before. I still believe that’s true. Like Buddhist karma, emotions can be toughened, built-up, or reduced with practice, and making habits. Habit is one of the strongest tools in the human mental kit. Positive reinforcement makes use capable of growing to like certain events and objects. Negative reinforcement helps us whittle away at guilty-pleasures and bad habits if we so desire. Throughout our lives systems of habits can make us happier and more stable people, or they can degrade and destroy us.
But is belief just a habit? I sometimes fear it is, and I still feel this is one of the toughest arguments one of those atheist-preachers can use. If God is all in our heads many people think there isn’t a reason to believe or worship. And I’m not here to tell you what I think about that. I’m also not here to tell you what you should think about it. I’m just thinking with this keyboard.