Thursday, December 01, 2011

Barriers to communication

kw: social trends, religion

A couple days ago I had a mini-rant about atheism and theism, and since then I've been thinking about it from another angle. Any spectrum of opinion or attitude typically has about seven "positions", which represent "mental distance" and express the ranges over which communication is possible. My classic example is the abortion scale, or the "choice-versus-life axis". The great majority of people (at least in the West) fall into one of these groups:
  1. "Abortion for any reason is a right that must be protected."
  2. "Abortion is allowable under most circumstances, and such choices should be protected."
  3. "What's the big deal?"
  4. "Life should be protected from conception on, except under certain circumstances."
  5. "All abortion is murder."
People in a two-position range (such as from 1 to 3) can communicate, though they may not agree on much. Two people who differ by more than two positions are not likely to understand one another at all, and groups 1 and 5 cannot communicate at all. Above I mentioned seven positions. Position 0 is "I'd kill to defend the right to choose" and position 6 is "I'd kill to prevent an abortion." Both kinds of killings have occurred, so these are not just theoretical.

Now to the religious divide. As a prelude, take a look at this Google Ngram that shows published accounts in English containing the words atheism, theism and deism, in order. Click on the chart to see it more clearly. You can see that atheism in its modern sense was practically invented about 1790, and the other two terms, now having a reason for being, came along for the ride. The heyday of atheism lasted until about 1900. These terms have a suspicious synchrony with a signal political event, the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1789. People had no option to be openly atheistic in America prior to that date.

I deliberately left out the word Christian because it completely swamps all the others. In literature and much philosophy, "Christian" became synonymous with "human" by the end of the Enlightenment in Europe, so it is meaningless to pull statistics on it.

Like any new thing, atheism spiked to its greatest popularity in about a decade, then slowly waned for a half century, leaving a small, vocal group who are also the ones that most frequently use either "theism" or "deism" in their writings. Committed believers in a God or gods may use the term atheism, but very seldom the other two.

What then are the seven positions along the religion axis?
  1. Evangelical theist: "I really believe in God, and I'd like to tell you about it."
  2. Lukewarm theist: "Sure, I believe in God. I even go to church … usually."
  3. Deist: "Yeah, there's a god out there, but we don't interfere with each other."
  4. Agnostic: "I don't know (and I don't care)".
  5. Nontheist or Atheist: "There are no supreme beings."
Again, I left off 0 and 6. These are the murderous ends of the spectrum. Let us take note, however, that historical slaughter in the name of religion was primarily political in nature; the perpetrators were typically entirely cynical about religion (that is a different axis, which crosses this one at position 3.5). In modern times, I would place those rare folks who call themselves "evangelical atheists" at about 5.5; not murderous, but more radical than the non-angry non-theists. Position 0 is possible (as is 6) but is much less commonly seen, at least outside China, than murderous pro-choice. I would then place the most extreme theists, those who want laws passed hindering atheistic practice, at 0.5; not murderous yet, but not far from it.

Where should governments stand? American experience has shown that the government is least damaging when it is slightly deist, in the 3.5 range, but not cynical. Rather, indifference is best.

The strongly theistic and the strongly atheistic among us cannot communicate meaningfully. Both can (barely) communicate with those in the middle, and they look to them for converts. The murderous extremes along any social spectrum need to be controlled by government. Otherwise, it is best to let folks argue it out their own way.

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