Thursday, January 10, 2013

Boxed In

By Adam Taylor

My birthday is in the beginning of January, which means that I typically associate New Year celebrations with getting one year older.  I usually find myself reading philosophy or poetry in some vain attempt to gain new perspectives or approaches to the stress of everyday life.  
Don’t be alarmed, I am not going to bore you with some new life-affirming coda that rephrases things you already know.  My most recently devoured book was 'Mortality' by Christopher Hitchens (thanks to Steve for reminding me that I’m going to die on my birthday).  I recommend this book to anyone who can handle the gravity of a dying intellectual writing about the process of dying.

What I want to talk is something I realized after a conversation with my wife when she was looking for the book. My wife, who is not at all interested in atheism and less so in the “atheosphere;” was trying to find this book based on a vague description, a misremembered phonetic variation on Hitchens’ name, and not knowing if it was in the religion or philosophy sections. Knowing just enough of Hitchens' work, she was skeptical when I told her that it wasn’t really about atheism.  This is my subjective opinion, of course, but the thoughts and ideas of an atheist are not always necessisarily atheistic. We do think of things not related to atheism.

This is as much an aspect of sociology and culture as personal preference.  We tend to accentuate the attributes of a person by what most separates them from the majority.  I recently joked on the podcast that I am a black, left-handed atheist: a minority triumvirate.  These specific minorities rarely affect my life in suburban northeastern America.  I don’t often find myself struggling to operate a chainsaw in the deep south at a CFI convention and in the event of a zombie apocalypse, I would probably travel north.

I am probably more interested in music than atheism actually.  I am also passionately drawn to visual art and film.  I’m a hell of a dancer too..but that might be a black thing.  

Most of these particular traits stay neatly compartmentalized.  My atheism may color my worldview (or uncolor it), but it is hardly my sole outlook on life.  The god question does not really apply to everyday life choices and I don’t go out of my way to avoid religious themes in the art, music or literature that I consume.  Some in the atheist movement actively shun things that don’t fit into their atheism box.  This became so problematic to maintain that a few idealistic individuals tried to re-brand atheism to include political and pro-social movements not without controversy.  I don’t actually care about Atheism+, it is just the example that comes to mind.  I think it may resonate with some people because it is an attempt at combining the many compartmental ideals that individual athiests hold into an atheistic community.  Others, [insert broad liberal theism observation] tend to separate their interests and perspectives into a bento-style segregation: science here, spirituality there, political affiliations next to the sashimi.

So how do we find balance?  How do we keep from trying to fit our identity into one stretched out box or keep our interests neatly categorized in mental filing cabinets?  I don’t have any idea but as far as cultural concepts go: fusion is much more prevalent in the modern age than purity.  Ideologues may be useful to other ideologues, but they are pretty unbearable to everyone else.

The issue at hand is discomfort.  Most of our behaviors are motivated either by our desire to obtain something or to avoid something.  Most of our belief systems are global precisely because  contradictory beliefs are anxiety producing.  One needs to blur the lines or overlook aspects of conflicting belief systems to avoid cognitive dissonance.  The same goes for mental operational philosophies.  Skeptics who tout reason and logic as the only tools in the box are undermining emotional decision-making and intuitive problem-solving.  Over-compartmentalizing leads to cognitive blind spots.  A person can selectively ignore aspects of an idea that are inconsistent with their worldview via confirmation or availability bias. 

We don't need more boxes or bigger boxes. I think we need to accept that our mental lives are messy.  Myself included.  I'm going to try to appreciate the complexity of the human condition and give the categories a rest.   


Andrew Hall said...

I'm simply schlepping through life too, man.

Happy B'day!