Monday, January 25, 2016

Regressive Left-Wing Authoritarianism

Yesterday, I wrote a piece analyzing the ultimately religious nature of the Regressive Left, or more broadly the Religion of Identity Politics (in that both form Ideologically Motivated Moral Communities, IMMCs, which I argued are the correct generalization of religions). I encourage you to read it before continuing here, as I will use some of the concepts, though I'll try to at least casually define them as I go. Today, my goal is to explain the manifestation of the authoritarian impulse within the Regressive Left and characterize it according to Left-Wing Authoritarianism, an adaptation of an established psychosocial concept known as Right-Wing Authoritarianism. I want to illustrate how the IMMC of the Regressive Left exhibits similar traits and clarify what could be meant by Left-Wing Authoritarian. Indeed, I hope to do so by defining a general Ideological Authoritarianism and letting Left- and Right-Wing variants define themselves accordingly.

So, first, some lingo.

An IMMC (read: "imm-cee") is an ideologically motivated moral community, that is a community defined along likemindness in certain moral attitudes (which I call a moral framework) that has defined certain of those attitudes as sacred, that is being regarded as having infinite value and absolute correctness.

The absurd-sounding term ophobophobia refers to the irrational fear of being labeled a bigot in the form of something-ophobe. Examples include Islamophobophobia (fear of being seen as an Islamophobe) and whore-ophobophobia (fear of being branded a sexist for giving off attitudes that might be considered "slut-shaming"). It is my contention in the previous piece that ophobophobia is the largest driving animus of the Religion of Identity Politics and thus the Regressive Left--the fear of being socially stigmatized as a bigot, which in pluralistic societies, like we rightly honor in the West, is one of the most damning insults. This is seated primarily in a strong psychological need for personal esteem, though as I explained, there are other elements as well.

Right-Wing Authoritarianism is "a personality and ideological variable" characterized by three attitudes (drawing from the Wikipedia entry, linked to above, these being drawn ultimately from Bob Altemeyer's analysis.)
  1. Authoritarian submission — a high degree of submissiveness to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives.
  2. Authoritarian aggression — a general aggressiveness directed against deviants, outgroups, and other people that are perceived to be targets according to established authorities.
  3. Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities, and a belief that others in one's society should also be required to adhere to these norms.
Odd as it sounds, Right-Wing Authoritarianism need not correlate with right-wing political attitudes, but attempts to attach it to left-wing attidudes have proven difficult. This essay will attempt to use the phenomenon of the Regressive Left to reformulate a more general Ideological Authoriarianism model and clarify how both the Left and the Right can be Authoritarian in that way. Something important to keep in mind here is that I think "Right" and "Left" here apply to social politics, not economic positions, though these are often conflated (and thus often argued in tandem).

First, some psychological philosophy

Before getting into that, I want to try to address why IMMCs in general will tend toward authoritarian impulses, and the reason is the generalization of faith which follows directly from the adherence of sacred values.

As I argued previously,
Of course, what sacredness describes is a belief-state, then, not a knowledge-state. We cannot know anything, much less something as complicated as a moral attitude, with such finality, however sure we can be about anything. When something is held as sacred, it is believed to be both completely right and completely settled, and hence unquestionable. This point of view is subjective, of course.
When one believes herself completely and finally right and imbues that attitude with a sense of righteousness, authoritarianism is almost certain to follow--even in cases where she actually is right. Why? She's maintaining the belief, even if correct, for the wrong reason, one that isn't actually reasonable at all. In place of epistemic justification--knowing how she knows it--there is simply blinding adherence, and in reality, this essentially only occurs in wanting and in place of epistemic justification.

Any deviation from the belief on anybody's part initiates cognitive dissonance in a mind holding such an attitude, and that dissonance is uncomfortable and must be resolved. The authoritarian impulse is little more than the cheapest avenue to settling the issue: do what she can do to force other people to agree with her. A more reasoned approach would seek to persuade or convince, but in the cases where persuasion cannot be achived by careful reasoning, what's left is the authoritarian impulse. Note, additionally, that that is usually impossible with any sacred value (if for no other reason than assigning infinite value to any idea isn't likely to be reasonable).

Notice that I'm not saying that holding a sacred belief will certainly initiate the authoritarian impulse. I'm saying that the authoritarian impulse frequently arises out of that circumstance. The degree to which it doesn't is the degree to which the person in question holds an attitude of secularism, in the broad sense (that sacredness is subjective, thus local, and not objective and global).

Ideological Authoritarianism

Let me do a little tinkering with Bob Altemeyer's formulation of Right-Wing Authoritarianism to generalize it to Ideological Authoritarianism (my additions/changes are italicized, outright deletions struckthrough):
  1. Ideological Authoritarian Submission — a high degree of submissiveness to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the social hierarchy defined by the IMMC to which one adheres.
  2. Ideological Authoritarian Aggression — a general aggressiveness directed against deviants, outgroups, and other people that are perceived to be targets according to established authorities.
  3. Ideological Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms that are perceived to be endorsed by the IMMC and its established authorities, and a belief that others in one's society, both within and outside of the IMMC, should also be required to adhere to these norms.
Let me quickly justify my changes, and then I'll get specific about Left-Wing Authoritarianism as exhibited by the Regressive Left and broader Religion of Identity Politics. I'll also note quickly here that these traits shouldn't seem surprising in the context of the psychological note I made just above.

On authoritarian submission, I have changed the phrasing "society in which one lives" to "social hierarchy defined by the IMMC to which one adheres." The reason is that the relevant variable is the operating moral framework, and where it talks about "authorities," it must be remembered that the social hierarchy defines those. Generally, I'd suggest that Right-Wing Authoritarians often define goodness in their moral framework in terms of the status quo, or more often, the imagined status quo of an idealized yesteryear. I suspect, generally, Left-Wing Authoritarians would define it vaguely in terms of an imagined idealized (maybe utopian) future. Note that the tendency for Regressive Leftists to eat their own is a feature of this trait, not a deviation from it. It's simply the result of ideological purity campaigns changing the guard.

I made no changes to the wording of authoritarian aggression, although it's likely to be the case that the Left and Right engage in this sort of behavior or impulse differently. My general impression is that the Right is more inclined to resort to physical, police, and military violence than is the Left, and both are highly prone to using social shaming along framework-moral axes that resonate with their moral intuitions (see Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind for elaboration). Again, I urge the reader to remember that "authorities" here is to be taken in terms of authoritative voices or persons within the relevant social hierarchy, as defined by the relevant IMMC or IMMCs in operation.

To conventionalism, I struck "the traditions" for two reasons: one is that traditions can be understood already as social norms, and the other is that Right-Wing moral frameworks are more concerned with traditions than are Left-Wing moral frameworks. I also changed "the society" to "the IMMC," for the same reasons as before. I added that the second reference to society demands conventionalism both within the IMMC, which is best referred to as conformity, and upon the broader society outside of the IMMC, which is really the root of the more concerning authoritarian impulse, which we could label submission. This is the difference, by analogy, between the American Religious Right (who evangelize and demand conservative Christian-based theocratic legislation) and the Amish, who by most accounts are far more conservative and conformist and yet do not expect outside submission.

That should give us a working definition of Ideological Authoritarianism that isn't politically biased to the Right and that can be applied locally to any IMMC, regardless of its political or social orientation.

(Regressive) Left-Wing Authoritarianism

I've placed "Regressive" in parentheses here because it is nearly redundant. Ideological Authoritarianism, as defined above, is probably inherently Regressive, even when it's in service to apparently progressive social politics. The Regressive Left, however, isn't purely redundant in that term because they are explicitly motivated by a non-obviously socially regressive politic on intrinsic characteristics (like race and gender) and upon cultural views (like religion), though some conditions apply (like that Christianity and Judaism are considered fair game because of a greater emphasis on Westerness and "whiteness" in those religions whereas Islam is not because of a significant emphasis on victimization by Western/Christian/Jewish imperialism and colonialism and "brownness," even though that doesn't properly apply except by bigotry).

As my generalized definition of Ideological Authoritarianism indicates, the relevant object for the Regressive Left and this brand of Left-Wing Authoritarianism is the operative IMMC that defines it. I described that IMMC in detail in my previous essay, and I argued that it is largely, but not entirely, based in ophobophobia.
Given the Regressive Left's ophobophobic adherence to the Religion of Identity Politics, it is unsurprising that the language that facilitates the overlap of these two branches of Regressive Leftism is hyperbolic accusations of bigotry. From their deepest fear they swing their hottest brand. These frequently bogus and horrifically consequential accusations of bigotry seem peculiar at first because they flow only along grossly oversimplified, caricatured lines of social hierarchical power--defined in almost cartoonish evaluations of social grievance and oppression. The blinding nature of adherence to the Regressive Leftist IMMC renders invisible to ophobophobes that such social power dynamics are often far more complicated than they recognize.
I also explained that the notion of victimhood is central to these closely related IMMCs.
The two [major denominations of Regressive Leftism] overlap in that their central animus is victimhood. Islamophobophobes perceive Muslims as victims, often of Western imperialism, militarism, exploitation, and disapproval (for their religious views). Adherents to the more solipsistic brand perceive themselves and those like them mainly as victims, though they have an entire moral hierarchy of victimhood, defined almost entirely on intrinsic characteristics instead of content of character. Both present with a marked hyperirritability to a perceived victimhood by systemic social forces, on e in which beliefs about systemic power dynamics, exaggerated, accurate, or invented, trump the realities of victimhood, exploitation, unfairness, bigotry, and harm in the real world.
The rest of that essay details ways in which the Regressive Leftist IMMCs present and potential psychosocial motivations for those presentations.

That said, it isn't difficult to conceive of the Regressive Left as something like a religious phenomenon in its own right (though non-theistic and not overtly religious, in that IMMC is the proper generalization for the concept of religion). The relevant social hierarchy is one of almost cartoonish assumptions about social power dynamics (arising from post-structualism and critical race/gender theory, largely, combined with a guilt-laden anti-Western perspective) combined with exaggerations of the psychological harms of unfairness. Its authorities are its most visible exponents and demagogues.

One of its most glaring traits is the simultaneous demand for conformity (in-group) and submission (out-group) to its moral framework of perceived victimhood, power dynamics, and their connections to Western attitudes and actions, and thus to the kinds of framework-proper behaviors in light of those things. These traits establish characteristics (1) and (3) almost beyond question for the Regressive Left as a form of Ideological Authoritarianism. Perhaps its most garish trait is its willingness to engage in vicious social shaming, including hyperbolic slurs, character assassination, social dogpiling, employer manipulation, blacklisting, and doxxing (the revelation of sensitive personal information to the mob on the Internet). This set of behaviors is consistent with (2), Ideological Authoritarian Aggression, again, essentially beyond question.

A Critical Distinction

A critical distinction where the authoritarian impulse is concerned has to be made regarding how that impulse is expressed. Usually, we think of the authoritarian impulse as being statist in nature, and this has apparently proven a major sticking point for explorations of both Right-Wing Authoritarianism and its proposed Left-Wing analogues. I think it's better to think of as statism as a means to the authoritarian end that some people (both on the Right and on the Left) are prone to, though in different ways. Statism is a simple way to effect power, after all.

Generally speaking, Regressive Leftists seem to fall into statist and anti-statist camps, complicating the understanding their authoritarian impulses. Some are outright statist and easily understood in the authoritarian context: this or that (speech or behavior) should be made illegal and carry heavy sentences, the state (or university) should serve as an effective nanny to care for us, and so on. Some are outright anti-statists (Glenn Greenwald is a clear example) and recoil against the notion of state application of such laws and punitive actions. (I'd suggest that this arises from a deeper mistrust of state actors than anything else, but I digress.) Some--probably most--aren't sufficiently clear on the potential roles of the state, how states work, or any such thing to fall neatly in either category and thus float nebulously and often inconsistently between statist and anti-statist attitudes regarding their ideologically driven views.

Their uniting feature, however, is that both groups, however much state intervention they seem to desire, want to achieve their authoritarian impulse via social dominance. They want to change the culture so that that which they deem unthinkable is what everyone deems unthinkable, and that's an authoritarian impulse. They want call-outs. They want social shaming, sometimes on grand scales. They want serious real-world consequences, like no-platforming, blacklisting, firings, individual marginalization (to be distinguished from the marginalization of ideas), and perhaps even vigilante retributions (which may not actually include physical violence) in response to perceived deviations, often vastly in excess of any reasonable definition of "justice." They want punishment, and they want to make examples of offenders. That's an authoritarian impulse. Whether the state acts upon it or not, the mob, or as they would have it, the prevailing culture, can act just as (or more) effectively and with equal (or greater) force and consequence.

Not All Regressive Leftists

As a final note, I want to reiterate a point I made in passing earlier. Not all (social) Leftists are Regressive Leftists, and not all Regressive Leftists are necessarily Regressive Left-Wing Authoritarians. The relevant variable, again, is secularism, in the broad sense.

For my part, I'm willing to accept that the Regressive Left is an identifiable IMMC that can, like any religion/IMMC, possess highly secularized members. One can hold the ophobophobic victimhood hierarchy sacred and yet not feel or act upon the authoritarian impulse it proffers. There are, indeed, noble ways to engage with it. Sacredness is an seduction to authoritarianism, but one need not fall for the lure. It is always possible to recognize that conversation and compromise, and the secularism that facilitate them, are competing sacreds as well. Like with all extremism, however, the authoritarian impulse and all its attendant problems often lies nearer to hand from within an IMMC than from outside of it.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Ophobophobia and the Religion of the Regressive Left

I'm going to start by introducing a term that sounds funny but isn't. Ophobophobia.
Ophobophobia is the irrational fear of being perceived a bigot (by self or others) by being deemed insufficiently sensitive to the experience of some identifiable group of others.
Ophobophobia is the strongest motivating animus in what we might call the Religion of Identity Politics, which, in its extreme forms, is now rightly being called Regressive Leftism. The most obvious example of an ophobophobic position is a rationally unjustifiable and rabid defense of obfuscation between Muslims, Islam, Islamism, and Jihadist Islamism, and it is the irrational fear of being branded an Islamophobe by being insufficiently sensitive in the discussions surrounding those terms. Such people exhibit Islamophobophobia.

In my recent book, Everybody Is Wrong About God, I make most of my case by proceeding from the observation that religions are a particular kind of societal object called a moral community. A moral community is a group of people who share similar moral attitudes. (Here, when I say moral, I do not mean it in the broad and nearly useless sense offered by moral philosophers, answering 'what is good?' but instead in the nearer, normative use often applied by moral psychologists--sets of beliefs, attitudes, intuitions, and social codes that enable and define communities. I will use the terminology framework-moral (or moral framework, depending upon syntax) to indicate that I'm referring to morals in this local sense.)

Religions are generally a special kind of moral community that I define in Everybody Is Wrong About God; what I call an Ideologically Motivated Moral Community (IMMC, pronounced "imm-cee"). What makes religions IMMCs is that they have taken on board certain unquestionable, or sacred, propositions. IMMCs are one correct generalization of religions, and include certain political parties and other societal objects. As intimated by calling it a Religion of Identity Politics, it, and thus Regressive Leftism, represent an IMMC, a kind of quasi-religious object. Thus, it is no surprise they act in ways so frequently identifiable with the worst of religious behavior.

Here, I hope to explain how this works.

Denominations, already

There are at least two major denominations of the Religion of Identity Politics running already, and both are pretty profoundly ophobophobic and Regressive Leftist, but they are different. The reason that they are different is that they have different underlying primary motivations. On the one hand, we have a branch that is largely characterized by Islamophobophobia. Its major doctrine is indiscriminate hatred and blame directed at the West (or, cynically, capitalizing upon it where it is held by others). On the other, we have a narrower, more self-centered, self-satisifed and solipsistic variant that, while ophobophobic generally and Islamophobophobic specifically, reeks of societal advantage by pretending it doesn't have any such advantage. Its driving attitude is a combination of the usual blinding ophobophobia and, it seems inescapable to deny, a perverse self-aggrandizing self-pity.

The two overlap, in that their central animus is perceived victimhood. Islamophobophobes perceive Muslims as victims, often of Western imperialism, militarism, exploitation, and disapproval (for their religious views). Adherents to the more solipsistic brand perceive themselves and those like them mainly as victims, though they have an entire moral hierarchy of victimhood, defined almost entirely on intrinsic characteristics instead of content of character. Both present with a marked hyperirritability to a perceived victimhood by systemic social forces, one in which beliefs about systemic power dynamics (exaggerated, accurate, or invented) trump the realities of victimhood, exploitation, unfairness, bigotry, and harm in the real world.

The Regressive Left's exquisite hypersensitivity to systemic abuses illustrates the fundamental and peculiar hypocrisy at its core: adherents to the Religion of Identity politics will ignore relevant abuses, such as the treatment of women under strict Islamic Sharia, in favor of far more trivial causes closer to themselves personally. Examples include microaggressive cafeteria food at universities, body-hair-shaming, imagined lapses in safety allegedly caused by insensitive Halloween costumes, and tone-policing on Twitter. Meanwhile, they will defend perpetrators of far worse abuses, as we saw following the attacks in Cologne, Germany, on Islamophobophobic grounds. Amazingly, on that same basis, they will also abuse the critics of abusive power structures; "gross and racist" Sam Harris is a frequent and favorite target (a reference to Ben Affleck's famous injunction when he appeared with Harris on Bill Maher's Real Time).

Given the Regressive Left's ophobophobic adherence to the Religion of Identity Politics, it is unsurprising that the language that facilitates the overlap of these two branches of Regressive Leftism is hyperbolic accusations of bigotry. From their deepest fear they swing their hottest brand. These frequently bogus and horrifically consequential accusations of bigotry seem peculiar at first, because they flow only along grossly oversimplified, caricatured lines of social hierarchical power, defined in almost cartoonish evaluations of social grievance and oppression. The blinding adherence to the Regressive Leftist IMMC blinds ophobophobes to the reality that such social power dynamics are often far more complicated than they recognize.

Religion is "good" for something

Regardless of the denomination in question, the Regressive Left represents at least one IMMC. The purpose of this essay is, in establishing the foregoing, to explain further that all IMMCs exist for the same purposes: to help people meet psychological and social needs, particularly needs for attribution (meaning making), control (security), and sociality (including esteem). These are the same fundamental categories that underlie religious belief, and are the real driving animus behind the Regressive Left. (Ophobophobia, as we will see, is itself motivated by a need for esteem and identity.)

Most important among these psychosocial needs, especially where the Regressive Left is concerned, are needs for identity, control, esteem, comprehension, community, and purpose, and their expression lies almost entirely along moral lines.  A significant difference between the Regressive Left and theistic religions that should be noted is that theistic religions utilize the term and concept they call "God" to give attribution to morals, while the Regressive Left generally does not.

All IMMCs are a kind of moral community, and, as such, have at their core a moral framework. Something like a basic description of the moral frameworks defining the Regressive Left IMMCs served as the introduction to this essay. To understand what makes this moral framework ideological, we have to address what the Religion of Identity Politics holds sacred.

Sacredness

First, we must understand the concept of sacredness. Sacredness is a moral concept. The sacred is that which has been given infinite value, to paraphrase Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. This means that the sacred is unquestionable. It is, by belief, inherently "right." There is no need for debate about a sacred claim, because it is already accepted with finality. A sacred claim is thought to hold truth of infinite "value," which, in this context, means infinitesimal likelihood of being shown false by any means.

What sacredness describes, therefore, is a belief-state, not a knowledge-state. We cannot know anything, much less something as complicated as most moral attitudes, with such finality. When something is held as sacred, it is believed to be both completely right and finally settled, and hence unquestionable. This point of view is subjective, of course, and as a result, people often disagree about what is sacred and have a terrible time amicably settling such a dispute. Incidentally, secularism, broadly construed, is the attitude that nothing is globally sacred, although things may be considered locally sacred.

Generally, questioning or rejecting a sacred belief is called blasphemy. There is a reason that IMMCs aim to outlaw blasphemous speech and conduct: it upsets the IMMC’s capacity to maintain the sacred belief. It's important to understand, as I'll explain in just a moment, that people don't make beliefs sacred arbitrarily. There is generally an important goal or value underlying a sacred belief – much more could be said on this topic, but is omitted for brevity. Usually, and germanely, the sacredness beliefs imbue their believers with a very real sense of righteousness, which is, apparently, a hell of a drug.

What makes an IMMC an Ideologically Motivated Moral Community, rather than a regular moral community, is that the IMMC has adopted certain moral attitudes as sacred. Because people believe their sacred beliefs are already perfect and already settled, arguing against these beliefs has a low likelihood of success. The mind will easily concoct as many rationalizations and defense mechanisms as are needed, ignoring other relevant imperatives (such as being right, consistent, or civil) in order to maintain a sacred belief.

Why is this so? Sacred beliefs are often tied to core psychosocial needs, and accordingly, the fear concomitant with being unable to fulfill those needs. It's worth remembering that when arguing against a sacred belief, one is also arguing with core psychosocial needs and often deep-seated fears. I don't say this to stymie such arguments, to be clear, but rather to shape them to greater efficacy. Keep this knowledge in your back pocket any time you engage in such arguments.

The remainder of this piece will highlight some of the ways in which the Regressive Left IMMCs express certain needs through their beliefs, many of which are held as sacred.

Personal Identity

The Regressive Leftist IMMC generally elevates personal identity and individual context more highly than any other psychosocial need. The deafening roar of this need creates fanatics about identity and extremely strict adherence to the social norms peculiar to the Regressive Leftist IMMC. Ironically, people tend to derive most of their individual context from their conformity with and roles within a like-minded community. Like all moral communities, the Regressive Leftist IMMC defines itself by means of a moral code. This moral code is obsessed with ophobophobia, as discussed above.

It is therefore very important to understand that for the Regressive Leftist, fitting into, exemplifying, and virtue signaling within an ophobophobic community is how one feels value in oneself. It's what makes the Regressive Leftist feel like a “good person”. It imbues her with self-righteousness and thus justifies whatever means she might feel the need to employ to achieve these ends.

We could easily speculate about what causes Regressive Leftists to feel value in ophobophobic displays -- self-directed guilt, bucking a sense of oppression, a sense of victimization, a love-affair with self-pity, projection to mask their own bigotry, terror over the social stigma of being (mis)identified as a bigot, even a genuine and laudable desire to help the social milieu and its least-advantaged members (even if measured by a skewed metric) -- but what is important to recognize is that the Regressive Leftist engages in ophobophobic behavior on the impulse that this, more than any other kind of action, makes one a good person. This need for esteem, especially pushed to the degree that it is by fear of a powerful social stigma and a sense of guilt -- and reinforced by love of the attention attendant to pity -- is probably central in the psychology of the Regressive Leftist. Consequently, the Regressive Left makes ophobophobia sacred.

Sadly, this sense of identity and thus righteous esteem often leads to outright othering, the negative side of a groupish effect known as parochial altruism. Parochial altruists defend and help members of the in-group, and they distrust, demonize, and even become hostile or violent with members of perceived out-groups. This is the dark side to an ethic of identity politicking (and all manifestations of social identity), and it is pervasive within the Regressive Leftist IMMC.

Purpose

A pursuit of goodness is typically the very definition of purpose. People generally need to feel a sense of purpose, often significant purpose, in order to achieve psychological satisfaction. The Regressive Left IMMC offers this in spades. A Regressive Leftist is, in her own mind, fighting the damaging forces of evil, which are often entrenched and hegemonic, especially on behalf of the underdog. A Regressive Leftist is crusading for social justice and the reparation of harms, historic and present. A Regressive Leftist is fighting a holy war to create a safer, happier, more tolerant and accepting space. So they believe, and so they define their purpose in life -- and it is a fulfilling one.

As is the case with many "grand" purposes, the Regressive Leftist is fighting for a romanticized notion of social justice, not necessarily a real one. And, as with all things romanticized, she must bulldoze nearly all of the relevant details in order to fill the cast of her drama with obvious, type-cast archetypes. Nuance is distracting and unromantic, after all. Real societies are complicated and difficult, but categories that can be neatly made into hierarchies, dramatic themes of power dynamics, and Manichaean roles are simple, efficient, and romantic. Thus, when reality presents the Regressive Leftist with characters outside of these neat categories, the easiest resolution to the ensuing cognitive dissonance is to conclude that they are somehow traitors -- which is itself a neat, Manichaean category. The addiction to the romantic drama is the problem here, and the need to feel a clear sense of purpose on a tractable problem is the psychological basis upon which it runs amok.

Human beings often derive meaningful purpose in life from struggle, especially noble struggle: hard, demanding work done in service to some higher ideal. The struggle over identity politics, as defined by the Religion of Identity Politics and its central doctrines of ophobophobia and a perverse elevation of victimization (in order to remedy it), is certainly one that has romantic appeal, and seems noble. In fact, social justice progressivism is noble, so long as it maintains a firm tether to reality.

As the best lies are half-truths, ophobophobia, construed as a noble struggle over identity politics, seems both romantic and noble. It therefore possesses enormous capacity to cause its adherents to feel properly meaningful and good, and thus it is very seductive as a worldview. Indeed, it is something they are likely to make sacred, as, of course, they do.

Sacred Justice

It is my expectation that, of all of the various ways in which moral attitudes and intuitions arise (Jon Haidt and his collaborator Craig Joseph name at least six moral axes in their Moral Foundations Theory), Regressive Leftists will be particularly sensitive to a rather narrow and peculiar understanding of fairness. In fact, I generally think that of all of the moral foundations, fairness is usually the most sensitive knob to human psychology. If you really want to send someone into a dither, make something unfair. One will quickly find that it is probably even more potentiated than the care/harm knob (and, of course, these two axes can be understood in terms of each other -- unfairness causes harm, both real and psychological, and harm is often unfair).

Regressive Leftism, the Religion of Identity Politics, and ophobophobia seem to grow out of an exaggerated distortion of a narrow view of fairness assessed upon a simplistic, ironically bigoted metric of perceived structural unfairness. That metric itself results in bigotry, insofar as it relies upon assumptions about intrinsic characteristics and their relationships with societal power dynamics, which (as explained above) is frequently an oversimplification born from romanticization.

Sensitivity to this metric appears to be the root of the Regressive Leftist’s tendency to elevate perceived victimhood and injustice (as perceived along their moral hierarchy, often painfully oblivious to the realities of victimhood). To the Regressive Leftist, ophobophobic hierarchy is written in the languages of bigotry. This skewed perception often has the consequence of increasing bigotry, while simultaneously incensing actual garden-variety bigots to even greater reactionary bigotry.

The pursuit of a sense of justice is certainly something worth making as near to sacred as sensibility should allow, but this impulse taken to an extreme -- without that sensibility -- is characteristic of the Regressive Left and the Religion of Identity Politics.

Control

Have you met a Regressive Leftist, or an adherent of the Religion of Identity Politics, or any other ophobophobe, who isn't also deeply given to the authoritarian impulse? Me neither.

People undoubtedly need to feel a sense of control over an uncertain and dangerous world, as well as over an uncertain and dangerous society. Often, afraid when confronted with their powerlessness, people exaggerate some fears, and diminish others. Regressive Leftists seek control over a society that they find hurtful either to themselves or to people with whom they identify via their moral valuation hierarchy, which is based in oversimplified, perceived victimhood.

Authoritarianism, an almost ubiquitous feature in all IMMCs, is an easy way to feel a sense of control, and a sense of control in life often comes with a high value. Add to this that the moral valuation hierarchy for the Regressive Leftist is based upon perceived victimhood, and it's unsurprising that the impulse for control in this case is brazenly despotic. Operating on the dubious assumptions that offensive speech constitutes violence and that society follows speech, one of the main things that the Regressive Leftist wishes to control is speech. This is merely the impulse to craft blasphemy laws arising in a non-theistic context. It is, therefore -- however well-intended -- equally misguided and odious.

There is a great deal more that can be said on this subject, but it will wait for a later essay. A need to feel and exert control, however, is central to the impulse underlying ophobophobic behaviors that seek effectively to create "secular" blasphemies. Critical to my point is that the behavior is typical of IMMCs, and indeed, religions, including the Religion of Identity Politics and, thus, the Regressive Left.

Understanding

The worldview of the Religion of Identity Politics, and of the Regressive Left, is the result of one of humanity's most central occupations: trying to make sense of something complicated and yet obviously important to living a good life. In this case, the social universe is the primary thing that is under consideration.

Usually, simple answers to complex questions are wrong, and wrong answers held sacred become ideologies. This we see with the Religion of Identity Politics and the Regressive Left. The complex question, in this context, is how to organize society in order to make it fair, without clearly specifying even what "fair" must mean (as that is unknown and itself desperately difficult to answer). The simple answer offered is the perceived intrinsic victimhood hierarchy that grew from the seeds of the rotting fruit of deconstructionist academic sociology. Still, it defines a perverted heuristic by which one can "make sense" of the social universe in which we live.

People will go to great lengths to defend the ways in which they understand the world, especially when those attributional schema, as we might call them, are intimately related to core values, a sense of personal identity (esteem), and a feeling of control over the environment (even if illusory). This is a feature of the Religion of Identity Politics, just as "Jesus died for my sins because I am saved" is a feature of the religion of Christianity.

In closing

The Regressive Left is an ideological branch within a broader IMMC that I have termed the “Religion of Identity Politics”, and the case that it represents a religious object is compelling. As such, it should be treated like a religion in most regards, which entails that it should not be given any undue credence based upon the sincerity of the conviction of its adherents, nor should it be afforded special attention or acceptance in secular spaces.

Understanding the Regressive Left as a religious object, together with understanding the nature of religious objects themselves, should allow us to have more fruitful discussions about these phenomena, and thus hopefully arrive at better solutions. Adherents to the Religion of Identity Politics that are reading this -- especially those who are non-religious in the usual sense -- should take this opportunity to reflect and see if, indeed, this poisonous, damaging approach to a set of social goals (however noble it may seem at a glance), is something better met with doubt, skepticism, open-mindedness to change, reason, and, ultimately, reconsideration.

Though I won't get into it here or now, much could be said about the ways in which religions, and IMMCs in general, represent manipulative groups, that seduce their members into particular skewed world views in service to their beliefs, aims, and goals. They do this by manufacturing or cultivating vulnerability, and then manipulating it (and the people they entice). The Religion of Identity Politics cultivates vulnerability along axes of victimization, self-pity, and ophobophobia, which is a kind of self-shame about the possibility of really being bigoted. It is no more honest in doing so than any other manipulative group.

If we understand how a group is manipulative, we can resist it. That we should do -- if finding effective, reasonable solutions to our problems is a desired goal.


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This essay has been edited from the original version. Thanks are due to John May both for his editorial contributions and for encouraging me to polish and republish this essay.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

On (Some of) the Varieties of Superstitious Experience

Have you ever noticed that people believe a lot of weird stuff? Superstitious stuff, ranging from religious beliefs to crackpot medicine to talismans and good-luck charms and all that? That vaccines cause autism (they don't!)? It's not surprising. I want to talk some about why.

To write Everybody Is Wrong About God, I spent a couple of years studying religious and moral psychology. The main theme of the book speaks to what I found as it applies to the word "God" and to corollaries. One of the most important facts I learned in studying the psychology of religion is that people turn to religions for what seems obvious: to meet psychological and social needs. Particularly, they turn to religion to meet needs for meaning making, control, and sociality. These are tied up in core human needs for esteem, security, and connection, plus the need to understand.

One of my primary resources while reading and writing was a psychology of religion textbook, The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, 4th edition, by Ralph Hood, Jr., Peter Hill, and Bernard Spilka. I'll call this book HHS for convenience. One thing HHS does almost immediately is link "meaning making" to attributional needs. "Attributional" roughly means explanatory. Religions, among other things, offer people attributional schema, ways by which they make sense of the world by telling themselves and each other how it works.

Then again, we all do this, religious or not, and we do it all the time. What matters to us is some grasp on how things work, which only has to be as good an explanation as seems to work. Human beings, if little else, are very fond of heuristics, mental shortcuts that are "good enough" rules of thumb for solving our problems. As it works, in a lot of cases, a lot of superstitions are, or seem, good enough, especially if we don't know what else to do.

This state of affairs generates a lot of superstitions and is the basis for theologian Alvin Plantinga's so-called "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism," which posits that evolution would only select for getting good-enough answers, not right answers, and that we humans can get to right answers at all must argue against a naturalistic universe. Sigh.... Plantinga's obvious irony aside, given the superstitious set of beliefs he hopes to defend by saying that evolution should make people superstitious, a real take-home point here is that people are always seeking attributions.

Science is humanity's best attempt at finding good attributions for phenomena, even if it may not be equipped to provide "ultimate" attributions. What really matters, though, is that we all take and run with explanatory guesses that seem good enough, and part of what defines "good enough" for us is that they comport with how we think and feel.

To explain a bit, one of the most important observations I gleaned from reading HHS is the following:
Our theoretical position asserts that attributions are triggered when meanings are unclear, control is in doubt, and self-esteem is challenged. There is, as suggested, much evidence that these three factors are interrelated.

Given these three sources of motivations for attributions, an individual may attribute the causes of events to a wide variety of possible referents (oneself, others, chance, God, etc.). For the psychologist of religion, these referents may be classified into two broad categories: "naturalistic" and "religious." The evidence is that most people in most circumstances initially employ naturalistic explanations and attributions, such as references to people, natural events, accidents, or chance. Depending on a wide variety of situational and personal characteristics, there is a good likelihood of shifting to religious attributions when naturalistic ones do not satisfactorily meet the needs for meaning, control, and esteem. (p. 45)
I think this observation is very important for a number of reasons that I discuss in Everybody Is Wrong About God, but my intention in this essay is not to touch upon those. Instead, I want to mention a bone I pick in a footnote and run with that: the "broad categories" in HHS are too broad and mislabeled.

The correct labels for the two broad categories are "naturalistic" and "superstitious." Religious attributions are a particular kind of superstitious attribution, and not all superstitious attributions are religious in nature. Thinking one has bad luck, including if that bad luck is believed to be a result of some mistake (like breaking a mirror, for an old-fashioned one), would represent a common superstitious attribution that isn't religious (as almost every sentence beginning with "Knowing my luck..." attests). There are others, and they're nearer than you may think.

What binds them together is that they are beliefs about how the world works--that is, attributional schema--that either lack evidence supporting them, have unworkable theory underlying them, or both. In other words, they're superstitious. They sometimes seem to work and get repeated because of that, but that seeming to work is a misattribution of observations, usually to a extant attributional schema, often supported by little more than confirmation bias and cherry picking, besides a lot of cultural momentum, but we'll come back to this.

What, in fact, I want to talk about most here are a few particular kinds of nonreligious superstitious attributions, which in a way is saying a few kinds of "woo." I'm leaving out the usual kinds of things we call "superstitions" for the obvious reason--we already understand them as superstitions.
  1. Stuff like astrology.
  2. Quackery.
  3. Nearly natural superstitions.
I think it's probably best simply to highlight what I mean by each of these categories and then talk broadly about the big point, why people adopt such attitudes and what we can do about them.

Stuff like astrology:

Almost everything New Age falls into this category of superstitious attributions, and as long as they don't get too religious in nature, these can be distinguished from religious attributions in a substantive way (however fuzzy the boundary is). Some things in this category, like astrology, are older and more venerated, and some things are newer, like "the Law of Attraction" and whatever Deepak Chopra has been spewing over the last decade or two. These are rather like belief systems, and they often have to pull upon pretty dualistic or otherwise out-there sets of beliefs to be anchored as attributional in nature. ("God" is the religious anchor in theistic religions, for comparison.) They often benefit from their sheer size and, sadly, wide cultural acceptability.

What's relevant here is that these beliefs are not religious and often point to things that are legitimately natural, like planetary behavior, the mysterious nature of the mind, and so on (as opposed to transcendent super-reality) and thus feel more naturalistic than many religious attributions. They're really not.

Quackery (and "alternative" medicine, partly minus herbal):

Again, we're going to deal with fuzzy boundaries here, especially to my next category, but included here is quackery like (most) chiropractic, (most) acupuncture, all homeopathy, and many other brands of bullshit dedicated to a misguided (and often well-intentioned, yet often opportunistic) attempt to improve health or life-experience (or make money from that hope). I think some elaboration will be needed, and I really want to urge you not to care too much about the rather arbitrary division between quackery and what I'm calling "nearly natural superstitions."

Particularly, I want to qualify my two parenthetical "mosts" above. For example, chiropractic is more subtle as a superstition than is astrology if for no other reasons than that if you go to the chiropractor, your back probably is going to pop, you're probably going to feel somewhat better, and there are definite reasons to think that something real and possibly beneficial happened (if the doctor didn't injure you...). In fact, I'd argue that chiropractic is probably legitimately medically useful about ten percent of the time that it is applied, but its theory is utterly crap. Chiropractors often bill themselves as "nerve doctors" who manipulate the spine so that the nerves aren't impeded so that the body can use the better, more natural nerve conduction to facilitate healing, cure sicknesses, reverse serious disorders, and so on. That's crap, but sometimes bones are out of place and benefit from chiropractic adjustment.

Things are similar with acupuncture. The theory is crap. The vast majority of what it does is crap. However, dry-needling and certain types of massage that are often employed by DAcs can be genuinely effective (sometimes for medically understood reasons and sometimes not). I don't have a good estimate for what proportion of acupuncture application is legitimately useful, but it's probably lower than that for chiropractic. Still, it's very probably true that sometimes under very specific situations (like when dry needling might be medically indicated and happens to get applied by the acupuncturist in the relevant way) it can work, like really.

In both of those cases, and in other similar ones, the relevant issue is that, however successful the treatment might be in certain cases, the underlying mechanism is misattributed. That's not good, and it's ultimately sad because whatever legitimacy is there promotes the modalities and gets obscured by the crap theory and therefore is harder to pry out of the dungheap and improved upon.

Nearly natural superstitions:

What I'm talking about here is really anything that isn't systematic or out-there enough to stick into one of the other categories. Critically, these superstitions present in a way that seems to rely upon naturalistic attributions but don't. A lot of "detox" stuff, many herbal remedies, and dietary and fitness advice or other health advice fall under this umbrella. This will probably require some elaboration as well before proceeding.

What really stands out in this category is that we're working with a genuinely complicated system in many cases (like human bodies or society), and it's really hard to tell what's working and what isn't. The supplements industry, and a lot of the fitness industry, and much of the wellness industry, rely pretty heavily upon this epistemic fog, and they make billions off it. These are really subtle things, too, in a lot of cases.

What makes them "nearly natural" is that almost everything about them is natural in seeming but inaccurate. Not to pick on ginseng, which may or may not have therapeutic benefits, taking a ginseng supplement is intentionally consuming a substance full of chemicals that plausibly could have some effect (many drugs are very effective in very small doses). We also usually really want to feel better. Whether it be by placebo, by some effect, by the change in habit, by some ancillary aspect (like drinking a glass of water to take your ginseng), a sunk-cost commitment, or some of any or all of these things, it can be pretty easy to convince yourself that you've taken something beneficial. To the degree that it isn't really beneficial, congratulations, you've just installed a nearly natural superstitious attribution.

Terrifyingly, anti-vaccination superstitions probably fall into this category. In that seemingly bizarro world, no one is claiming that there is anything magical going on leading from vaccines to autism. All of the purported (and false) mechanisms are entirely naturalistic.

Lots of other examples exist too, especially in the social arena. Almost every ideological exaggeration in almost every political direction (examples from the Regressive Left, Whackadoodle Right, and any other highly motivated political zealots should easily spring to mind instantly without having to name them). Society exists, and so do the people in it, and superstitions about what's going on in it are rife.

...and in the Darkness, bind them

So, what's going on with these non-religious, not-overtly-superstitious superstitious attributions?

First, let's remove the obvious: people simply not knowing better yet. Even if the best guesses we have about how things work are ultimately superstitious, there's some reasonableness in not branding them so in cases where the person legitimately doesn't know better. That is, I'm particularly interested in when people are choosing superstitious attributions when naturalistic ones are available. The critical difference is that people will often change beliefs readily when simply mistaken, but they will not do so when there's some psychological investment in the beliefs.

That said, what's going on here is roughly the same thing, I think, as with religious and more overtly superstitious attributions. Let's turn back to HHS for an explanation, repeating what I think is most relevant:
Our theoretical position asserts that attributions are triggered when meanings are unclear, control is in doubt, and self-esteem is challenged. ... Depending on a wide variety of situational and personal characteristics, there is a good likelihood of shifting to religious attributions when naturalistic ones do not satisfactorily meet the needs for meaning, control, and esteem. (p. 45)
So, what's going on is that people want to understand things. With astrology, for example, they want to understand people and how to have effective relationships with them. This includes understanding themselves--Why do I seem so reluctant to commit to something...? Oh, but could it be that I'm a Gemini? They also want to understand how things are going in life. That meeting didn't work out, but of course not, Mercury is in retrograde, so I shouldn't have bothered (and won't next time). The superstitious astrological attributional framework gives a context in which one can better understand, and darkly, perhaps control others and oneself. Instead of relying upon deities and magical entities, however, it references nonsense about the real planets and stars (even if the asterisms are fictions).

Feelings of meaning, control, and esteem are pretty central to all superstitious attributions, and I think often control is often pretty fundamental. Notice how readily examples concerning health and well-being came up in the above discussion, and probably in your own mind if you try to think of more examples. The reason is probably because of what I already said: we all want to feel better but don't really know what works. If we're afraid (of feeling bad or being ill or living poorly or having autistic kids), control is in doubt, and we're likely to latch onto beliefs that restore some illusion of control. HHS discusses this important point too:
Though the ideal in life is actual control, the need to perceive personal mastery is often so great that the illusion of control will suffice. Lefcourt (1973) even suggests that this illusion "may be the bedrock upon which life flourishes." ... The attribution process described earlier represents not just a need for meaning, but also for mastery and control. Especially when threatened with harm or pain, all higher organisms seek to predict and/or control the outcomes of the events that affect them. This fact has been linked by attribution theorists and researchers with novelty, frustration or failure, lack of control, and restriction of personal freedom. It may be that people gain a sense of control by making sense out of what is happening and being able to predict what will occur, even if the result is undesirable. (p. 17, italics in original, bold added)
What do we do with this?

What this tells us is that we've really got to think about how we're going to handle certain kinds of nonsense if we want to try to diminish its harmful impacts (and we should). If people are holding superstitious attributions, ranging from strongly religious ones to nearly natural ones, because those satisfy some deeper psychological or social needs, we're not likely to argue them out of those beliefs, or not easily. We may, in fact, increase their commitment to those beliefs via the Backfire Effect, which in this case might arise along a vector of cognitive dissonance trying to protect the deeply needed beliefs and those related to them. A different approach than arguing is indicated, and the entire skeptic (and reasonable) community should be curious about finding ways to do better in this regard.

It isn't hard to tell the difference between an error and a superstitious attributional schema. An easy litmus test is simply attempting a factual correction of incorrect information. People aren't generally dumb. Thus, people who aren't holding superstitious beliefs for deeper psychological reasons will often simply change their minds about their erroneous beliefs. If they argue back, however, they've told us as plainly as they probably can (literally) that something deeper is at work, so we shouldn't argue with them. We need a different way that either unseats their ability to cling to that belief (and we know arguing isn't usually one of those) or that helps them identify the underlying needs and meet them differently (and, in the case of superstitious attributions, more successfully).

Usually, two things seem true about people psychologically attached to superstitious attributions: they can't really justify their beliefs, and they're (often) afraid (or, possibly, angry, but those aren't far apart in this regard). Asking them to justify their beliefs, say via Socratic dialogue and actual interest in their thoughts, and leaving enough safety to escape can help introduce doubt and unseat such beliefs, or at least make room for competing ideas that aren't so superstitious. Seeing why people believe as they do may help us understand what might help them find better attributions than the ones they hold. Failing to recognize the (probable) fear at the root of their adherence to those beliefs is an almost sure recipe for failure, though.

Monday, January 4, 2016

An Ideologue's Handbook: An Easy Guide for Hacks, Zealots, and Other Nutjobs

Here's a partial annotated table of contents for the imaginary book, An Ideologue's Handbook: An Easy Guide for Hacks, Zealots, and Other Nutjobs.

Photo of a living muse.


Lesson 1: Escalate: When Challenged or in Doubt, Say Something Even More Ridiculous and Call Names.

Lesson 2: Bulldoze Nuance: Nuance Is Distracting and Often Upsets Your Agenda.

Lesson 3: Cherry Pick: If You're Going to Throw Fruit at Your Enemies, Choose Only the Rotten Stuff.

Lesson 4: Assassinate Character: If You're Going to Make an Ass of Yourself, Take Your Enemies With You.

Lesson 5: Never Apologize: That's for Lesser Mortals Who Are Obviously Wrong and Scum.

Lesson 6: The Law of 1-2-3: Ask for One, Take Two, Demand Three.

Lesson 7: Divine Right: God is Always on Your Side, Not Theirs, Even if You Don't Call it 'God.'

Lesson 8: Demonize: Your Enemies Aren't Just Wrong; They're Malicious, Evil, Subhuman Monsters.

Lesson 9: The Inverse Law of Charity: Demand Charitable Interpretations of Your Views While Assuming the Worst in Your Opponents.

Lesson 10: Rationalize: It Is, After All, For the Greater Good.

Lesson 11: Run in Packs: If Lots of People Agree with You, Loudly, You Can't Be Wrong.

Lesson 12: The Law of Hypocrisy: Everyone Else Is a Hypocrite, So You Can't Be.

Lesson 13: Clean House: Only Listen to People Who Already Agree With You.

Lesson 14: Outrage: Outrage Is Your Friend, and Giving in to It Does Not Lead to the Dark Side if You're Right (And You Know You Are!).

Lesson 15: Persecution: Everyone Loves a Good Martyr, so Claim Persecution and Exaggerate Liberally.

Lesson 16: Excommunication: Anyone Who Questions the Eating of Their Own Shit Isn't Loyal; Eject Them.

Lesson 17: Shoehorn: Anything Can Be Pressed Into Service for Your Agenda If You Try Hard Enough.

Lesson 18: Organize: Call Your Agenda a Movement and Brand Nonparticipants as 'Traitors.'

Lesson 19: Manichaean Wisdom (Law of the Excluded Middle-Ground): You're All Right, So They're All Wrong, and Corrupt, and Evil.

Lesson 20: Polarize: The Ends of the Spectrum Are All There Is, and They're at the Wrong End of It.

Lesson 21: Use Big Words: Words Like Racist, Bigot, Sexist, Genocide, and Terrorist Make a Big Splash, Use Them Liberally, Whether They Fit or Not.

Lesson 22: Greenwald: If in a Pinch, Get It Intentionally Wrong, Do It Big, Blame the Wrong Thing, and Call it Journalism. Yell on Social Media and Apply Sock-Puppets as Needed.

Lesson 23: Shout Down: No One Can Prove You Wrong If You Can't Hear Them. 

Lesson 24: The Law of Bullshit: It Requires an Order of Magnitude (Or Two!) More Effort to Correct Bullshit Than It Does to Say It; Take Full Advantage of This Fact! 


Please, feel encouraged to add more 'lessons' in the comments below, or feel free to write sample paragraphs for any of the ones listed here (I'll keep adding more without noting that I edited to add them, so don't get fussed about that and maybe check back sometimes). Don't be a jerk, though.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

Ten Rules

Here's something completely different...

I realize with the timing of this post, it being a new year and all, it may appear that this is something like a New Year's Resolution or some such reflection, but indeed, it isn't. For several years now, I've had a number of rules of thumb that I think enhance my life, and now that that list has grown to ten (or so), I thought it might be fun to share it, rather like a completely new take on the Ten Commandments. Since I don't go in for commandments and don't think anyone else should either, I refer to them as "rules," but the context on that is rules of thumb for a better life. I'll present them and then elaborate briefly on each.
  1. Let whatever comes up be okay.
  2. Remember that everyone sucks at everything at first.
  3. Never feel that you are wrong for loving someone.
  4. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, now.
  5. Never claim ownership of another person, explicitly or implicitly.
  6. See life as a series of opportunities.
  7. Go according to the situation.
  8. Smallness is sufficient.
  9. The more you give, the more you have.
  10. Anytime it is possible, choose kindness. 
Some of these are pretty obvious, and some may rub people the wrong way or elicit knee-jerk reactions against them (I'm thinking mostly of the first one here, actually). Therefore, I'll elaborate on the meaning of each of them quite briefly. It's also pretty obvious that this list isn't exhaustive. I think I could pretty easily come up with ten more in an hour (like think for yourself, question everything, you don't owe some people anything, and many others).


Rule #1: Let whatever comes up be okay.

The rule speaks for itself, and of the rules, it's the only one that's placed intentionally where it is on the list: first. This rule is likely to bother people because there are obviously things that come up that are heinous, traumatic, awful, and heinous, and many of those things demand and deserve remedies, which are sometimes available. That seems to be the immediate problem falsifying the rule, but that's an immature understanding of the rule. What comes up cannot be changed in that instant, and adding internal turmoil to it not only rarely helps, it often stands in the way of effecting a change when it is needed. This rule is something of an extension of "be calm in the face of adversity" in spirit, then. It's also very difficult in that it requires surprising honesty, presence of mind, selflessness, and mastery of one's emotional responses to be possible. My advice: cultivate those.

Rule #2: Remember that everyone sucks at everything at first.

Life is trying. People mess things up all the time, and it's frustrating. We mess things up for ourselves all the time, and it's maddening. We also quit on ourselves way sooner than we usually should (often at least an order of magnitude of attempts too soon to even be capable of judging whether or not we have any possibility with some new task). Learning is how things go, and everyone therefore sucks at everything at first. Patience--the kind that Christopher Hitchens couldn't possibly have been condemning--is a virtue in this regard (though not others). This rule is, therefore, in the spirit of "patience is a virtue," "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again," and Hanlon's Razor, "never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity."

Rule #3: Never feel that you are wrong for loving someone.

This is a big one, and it requires a very grown-up view on love to make any sense. This rule depends upon having an outward view of love, which if you ask your grandparents, they've probably realized as they've aged. You can love people truly without expecting anything in return, and it's a beautiful thing. Never feel like you are wrong for seeing the best in people, caring about them, supporting them, and doing what you can for them without overextending yourself. Note also that this rule extends in reverse too: never feel that you are wrong for loving yourself (but watch out for narcissism).

Rule #4: Stop feeling sorry for yourself, now.

I'll just quote Stephen Fry here,
Certainly the most destructive vice if you like, that a person can have. More than pride, which is supposedly the number one of the cardinal sins - is self pity. Self pity is the worst possible emotion anyone can have. And the most destructive. It is, to slightly paraphrase what Wilde said about hatred, and I think actually hatred's a subset of self pity and not the other way around - 'It destroys everything around it, except itself '.

Self pity will destroy relationships; it'll destroy anything that's good; it will fulfill all the prophecies it makes and leave only itself. And it's so simple to imagine that one is hard-done-by, and that things are unfair, and that one is underappreciated, and that if only one had had a chance at this, only one had had a chance at that, things would have gone better, you would be happier if only this, that one is unlucky. All those things. And some of them may well even be true. But, to pity oneself as a result of them is to do oneself an enormous disservice.

I think it's one of things we find unattractive about the American culture, a culture which I find mostly, extremely attractive, and I like Americans and I love being in America. But, just occasionally there will be some example of the absolutely ravening self pity that they are capable of, and you see it in their talk shows. It's an appalling spectacle, and it's so self destructive. I almost once wanted to publish a self help book, saying 'How To Be Happy by Stephen Fry: Guaranteed success'. And people buy this huge book and it's all blank pages, and the first page would just say - 'Stop Feeling Sorry For Yourself - And you will be happy '. Use the rest of the book to write down your interesting thoughts and drawings, and that's what the book would be, and it would be true. And it sounds like 'Oh that's so simple', because it's not simple to stop feeling sorry for yourself, it's bloody hard. Because we do feel sorry for ourselves, it's what Genesis is all about.
Rule #5: Never claim ownership of another person, explicitly or implicitly.

This rule seems obvious, but that's the explicit half of it. The implicit half is much more subtle, much more insidious, much more common, and often taken as a virtue. We often make the mistake of feeling as though we own our friends, our partners, our employees, and so on, and this is a horrible mistake. Fix it at once literally everywhere you do it, and you'll have a better life.

Rule #6: See life as a series of opportunities.

It sounds simpler than it is. To the degree one fails to do this, one also misses good opportunities. And don't forget, you only get one go at this. 

Rule #7: Go according to the situation.

The gem of Taoism--go according to the situation. This, again, is a simple-to-state, hard-to-live rule. It requires thinking for yourself; it requires letting go of many of your best-laid plans; it requires changing your expectations and letting go of your attachment to them; it requires perception, calmness, adaptivity, flexibility, and sensitivity. Whatever comes up, though, once you've let it be okay (and seen it as an opportunity), go with it. That doesn't mean agree with it or accept its continuation; but you have to work with what is, not what might have been, seemingly could have been, what was hoped for, or any other such counterfactual fantasy. Go according to the situation. It doesn't help to yell at the tide.

Rule #8: Smallness is sufficient.

You're not very big, and most of what you do will only matter locally, which is where it is most important. It's often very frustrating to define our purposes in grand ways, and the horror of doing so is losing sight of what is near, the people and activities closest to us that, in many relevant ways, matter most. Smallness is sufficient. 

Rule #9: The more you give, the more you have.

This apparently paradoxical folk wisdom taps into the nature of community. Think about it that way and then try to realize it.

Rule #10: Anytime it is possible, choose kindness.

Life is short and hard, and pain, grief, and misery are all but guaranteed at times. Everyone carries struggles, and even knowing a list of heuristics like this doesn't free you from them, even if you can put them all into continuous play in your life, which is ridiculously difficult in moments of adversity.


So, like I said, here are some rules I've found useful for living well, and the list is nothing like exhaustive. If you have others, I'd love to hear them in the comments!

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Complicated Relationship Between Religious Belief and Mental Illness

As many of you will know, I just published a book, Everybody Is Wrong About God, that is described on Amazon with the following,
A call to action to address people’s psychological and social motives for a belief in God, rather than debate the existence of God. (bold original) 
That said, it's perhaps unclear whether or not I am suggesting that theistic religious belief constitutes a kind of mental illness. I'm not. I am, however, pretty sure I had this coming and probably should have done something proactively before Everybody Is Wrong About God came out (but who would have read it, and who complaining about it would have cared?).

To begin, there is a relationship between mental illness and religion, and it's complicated. Everybody Is Wrong About God explores this delicate topic somewhat, but it boldly proclaims something that people are pretty likely not to like (or, perhaps, understand). To cut to that chase, I wrote,
Every time someone says that he believes in God, he’s saying that he
has psychological or social needs that he doesn’t know how to meet.
(p. 41, bold and italics in original)
It's punchy; I know. In fact, I'm fairly certain that statements like this garnered me a stunningly confused one-star review on Amazon (which, somewhat to my dismay, a majority of responders currently think is helpful, 60% of them in fact), one that I have no interest in addressing in depth here or anywhere else. You will find, if you follow the link, however, that I made a couple of substantive comments under that review.

Despite its stunning confusion, I will quote from the review just deeply enough to indicate what I haven't argued. I'm doing so as a way of opening a more careful discussion of an important topic that is actually more interesting than a rear-guard presentation against what appears to have been a gross misreading of what I wrote. The reviewer, Ian, after presumably having read my book, astonishingly believes,
James Lindsay's method of dealing with the belief in god seems to be, in essence, to call religious folks psychologically ill and to suggest that god is a coping mechanism. While it may be true that theists are mentally ill (though I doubt it), I'm not sure that's a good way of making religious folks open to atheism.
Well, that's not the case. I do have a rather nuanced view of the relationship between mental illness and religious belief, and I think I thread that ugly needle even more carefully than, say, Richard Dawkins has done. It may work best to quote myself a couple of times and then riff from there.

I'll start with a selection from the fourth chapter.
Even those who do not believe in a deity cannot escape the word “God” and thus its significance. It is easy, and not far from correct, to write it off as a kind of delusion, held en masse, but the danger in doing so is forgetting that the people using this word are normal ones. They also mean something so important by it that it can prove nearly impossible to free them from their beliefs, however delusion-like they may be.

It is time to lay the groundwork so that we can understand what this word means in how it is used, and to do so, we need to understand some of the basics of the psychology—not philosophy—of religion. To understand what good “God” might be to all of these people, we must start by trying to understand what religion does for them. As all theistic religions have “God” at their centers, it would be sheer pretense to imagine that the idea of the deity isn’t directly connected with what religion is doing for them. (emphasis original)
Continuing, here from a section, "On God and Delusion," in the fifth chapter that spells things out pretty clearly.
Religious belief, however, is not typically delusional belief. One somewhat unsatisfactory reason that delusion doesn’t quite describe religious beliefs is that there is some relationship between them and social norms.

Believing in God, lamentably, is still quite normal, and so belief isn’t, itself, an indication of mental illness so much as simply being mistaken. The main reason that delusion isn’t quite the right idea to describe religious belief, and that mistaken is a better term, is that while God does not exist, “God” does. It is the acceptance of theism (usually with attendant certainty, denial of death, and other issues in their own rights) that is the actual issue. That is, religious believers aren’t so much deluded; it’s more that they are confused about the meaning of the term “God.” It isn’t exactly a delusion to believe in something real, even if one goes on to misunderstand its nature via a mythological construct made to that purpose.

The distinction is subtle but consequential. Branding religious belief delusional tars billions of genuinely sane people with a pejoratively understood disorder. ...

People who believe in God do so because they don’t know how else to meet certain psychological and social needs. By labeling these people as delusional, we miss the opportunity to address the actual issues in play.  Probably more importantly, we also lose the nuance necessary to identify the legitimate delusions that arise from mistaking the mythological for the real. Of note, though, some of the beliefs that spring from this confusion  are genuinely delusional. That said, religious beliefs tend not to, but can be, delusional and they are likely to serve as the source of genuine  delusions that are unlikely to be recognized as such. It is delusional, for instance, to believe that prayers will heal someone or that a deity will protect one’s home in a natural disaster. This is a problem that deserves  serious attention.
I go on in the eleventh chapter to make an admittedly controversial suggestion, one that could be mistaken for a view indicating some core relationship between religious belief and mental illness that I don't actually think exists. I wrote,
My last suggestion for a transitional effort will be perhaps my most controversial. We should have therapists and counselors trained to specialize in the challenges associated with leaving behind one's religious beliefs, and we should have lots of them. People leaving their faith traditions are having to completely reconstruct much of the way in which they understand the world, including their own identities, and this is likely to be a difficult process. Trained professionals can facilitate the change via online resources, direct counseling, and, when needed, outreach hotlines.

It may be tempting for some to assume that making such a statement is tantamount to implying that religious belief is a kind of mental illness that needs to be cured, but that is not what is being said at all. Instead, it is merely a statement that a significant shift in worldview is likely to come with some psychological and social challenges that proper therapeutic intervention could mitigate. Importantly, this is not a call to train and employ therapists with the task of deconverting believers. Instead, it’s merely a recognition that people undergoing the psychological and social struggles associated with undergoing a deconversion could benefit from specifically trained help. Therapists could be of tremendous help for people transitioning from a state of faith-based life to one in which that has been outgrown, and it seems obvious that if this change can be made more smoothly in some ways than in others, then it should be.
Okay, as that should make most of my actual stated position in Everybody Is Wrong About God more clear--I don't think religious belief is a mental illness, at least not in general--I feel like I can move on to discussing the delicate relationship between the two ideas.

Delusion

Karl Jaspers laid out in General Psychopathology three criteria for delusional belief states, and once you see them, it's hard to deny that the delusion shoe fits theistic religious beliefs pretty snugly. They are:
  1. Certainty of conviction: people with delusions are absolutely sure of their "truth;"
  2. Incorrigibility: people with delusions are not easily persuaded by argument, facts, or evidence to the contrary of their belief; and
  3. Impossibility or falsity of content: what they believe is either impossible or not actually true.
It's really, really hard to read those three criteria for delusion honestly and not see belief in God as meeting the criteria. In fact, I think it does meet them, and yet the delusion shoe doesn't fit (not least because the colloquial definition for 'delusion' includes that the beliefs are idiosyncratic, which belief in God isn't). I obviously argue that it isn't appropriate, despite the snugness of fit between delusion and theism.

Because a set of ideas called "God" exists and does real, observable things for people who believe in it, and because that set of ideas gets mythologized into an entity called by the same name, it is effectively impossible to disentangle whether a believer talking about his beliefs means "God," a real set of ideas, or God, a mythological entity in any generic application of the phrase "belief in God." (In fact, I think part of the power of mythological thinking lies specifically in blurring that line to the point where even the believer doesn't always know which thing he is talking about, although he's sure to side with the entity almost every time.) That is, I don't think believers in God are usually delusional for that belief. They're mistaken about what they're referring to because of mythological thinking.

That said, I do think most religious believers harbor delusions that arise directly from their religious beliefs. As I stated in the book, quoted above, it is delusional to believe that intercessory prayer will do anything for you. It is delusional to believe that an all-powerful entity is taking care of you. So far as we have any business talking about, it is delusional to believe that we will survive death or carry on otherwise in some heaven or hell. These are legitimate delusions that are very common, perfectly direct consequences of belief in God, even if belief in a mythological construct itself isn't.

As I said, I also think this is a big problem. The way it stands now, we have no way whatsoever to pull apart common religious delusions--like belief that a deity is in control, that death is an illusion, that life is eternal, or that intercessory prayer works--and attempt to do something about them. Normally, religious delusions have to be of such a grand nature to be diagnosed that huge amounts of smaller, consequential problems are overlooked as a matter of principle and an ethic of practice. This is unconscionable.

Of note, having the threshold on diagnosing religious delusions turned too far up is also a very significant issue where con artists fleece poor people (often literally poor) out of gobs of money they don't have on selling a "Prosperity" delusion. Offenders of this sort, like Joel Osteen, are a real problem, and this is just one tip of one iceberg in the sea of legitimate delusions that arise from religious beliefs.

Still, generally speaking, belief in God isn't delusional, though the more things a person thinks God does, the more real delusions are probably creeping out of the beliefs and becoming manifest--and potentially treatable.

Psychosocial needs

Everyone has psychological and social needs (collectively termed psychosocial needs). Everyone throughout life has difficulties with meeting these needs. Some we figure out; some we don't. This is part of the process of growing up. If there are major complexes of difficulties with these needs that interfere with normal life, then there's a possibility of some kind of underlying psychopathology that presents. Otherwise, having  psychological and social needs is just part of being human, as is having more and less effective ways to meet them.

"God," and thus belief in God, is one strategy people have used since time immemorial to attempt to address, cope, meet, or ignore--yes, ignore--a variety of psychological and social needs. In that, "God" allows people to address them (or ignore them) on some level that (usually) enables more-or-less successful navigation of life and its stresses. Thus, possessing only an inadequate tool for genuinely meeting those needs (belief in God) doesn't constitute a kind of psychopathology, even if believers could do better by trading belief for more successful, real-world means.

When I say that declaring belief in God is tantamount to having psychological and social needs that the believer doesn't know how to meet (without relying upon superstitious attributions and a mythological construct to give them a false sense of reality), I am not saying a word more than I said. In other words, and specifically, I'm not saying that these people are mentally ill or mentally deficient. I'm saying that they're using a particular (relatively bad, though there are worse) strategy for managing those needs, belief in a non-existent God.

Coping

One of the specific needs I discuss in the book, particularly where it comes to prayer, relates to a need for coping mechanisms. These all show up under the heading of control-based needs, which all speak to a single psychological theme: human powerlessness. Death and dangerous uncertainty are the two biggest categories in which we need coping mechanisms for which people turn to beliefs in God.

Prayer is one religious coping mechanism. Prayer allows people to believe they can do something when they can't really do anything, or don't want to (in addition to a number of other functions of prayer, but here I'm talking about its use as a coping mechanism).

Prayer, then, gives people a sense of control, which may be enough to effect coping with a terrible stress--even if that sense is illusory (as is supported by evidence in the psychology of religion). Prayer is a cheap coping mechanism, though, and it's often used as such in the intercessory fashion, a belief in which is delusional. It's worth noting, however, that nuance is again important. Turning to a delusion in moments of peak stress probably shouldn't (and doesn't) constitute a legitimate mental illness. It's just human desperation in a bad situation.

Death is the other big religious coping arena, and thus by "death," I mean death's denial. It's easy to argue--as does Terror Management Theory--that the primary occupation of theistic religious belief is the denial of death (although I think it plays a close second to defining and codifying a moral framework, in practice).

Coping with death is hard. Very hard. It's one of the most monumental challenges of a human life. Religious beliefs that offer eternal life (usually through God) are an easy dodge, another cheap coping mechanism that lets people get by pretending to have met a need, perhaps indefinitely. The lines between mental illness, unhealthy coping, and healthy coping are particularly blurry where it comes to religious denial of death.

Fundamentalism

A special case worth mentioning is religious fundamentalism, which I think probably legitimately should constitute a recognizable psychopathology--a mental illness. I mention this point a couple of times in Everybody Is Wrong About God, and in it I try to also offer a suggestion by which we might understand religious fundamentalism as a subtype of a delusional belief structure. I wrote,
Incidentally, it is my opinion that whatever religious fundamentalism means—this being its own topic of important and complicated research—a key feature by which it can be distinguished is a preference for religious attributions over natural ones when naturalistic ones are available. It is not hard to see, if this conception of religious fundamentalism holds some merit, how it constitutes a kind of psychopathology, hopefully one that could be treated. It specifically manifests as adhering to a set of false beliefs about the world with such tenacity that established and available countervailing attributions are denied or rejected in an attempt to  prevent revision of the beliefs. That these beliefs are maintained in order to meet or ignore psychosocial needs that can certainly be met in other ways should qualify it as a kind of pathological mental state, fundamentalism as a subtype of delusion. (pp. 77-78, emphasis original)
This statement is a little bit technical, but what it is driving at is that when someone's adherence to a superstitious (religious) belief structure is so psychologically important that they will reject established facts about the world--say the biological theory of evolution--there's a legitimate problem going on. The ways in which religious beliefs are attending to someone's needs, at that point, have legitimately impinged upon her ability to deal with basic, well-established facts about the world, facts that are relevant in a variety of important ways, not least in terms of policy  making and choosing policy makers. The superstitious beliefs in such cases are more important than apprehending and accepting reality. That constitutes a pathological level of being unwilling or unable to deal with those needs.

Belief isn't mental illness

So, generally speaking, belief isn't mental illness, though theistic belief is very likely to evoke legitimate delusions, mask delusions that arise in religious contexts, inhibit meeting psychosocial needs, provide cheap but poor coping mechanisms, and potentially evolve into a legitimately psychopathological adherence to beliefs known broadly as "fundamentalism." And yes, ardent creationism is probably legitimately a symptom of a mental illness, not just a religious belief.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Post-Theistic Conversation

It appears I'm going to get to quote myself.

I've heard a few times now, and sadly from some rather noteworthy figures, that my new book, Everybody Is Wrong About God, makes the critical mistake of asserting that now is the time to make the post-theistic turn (away from "atheism") when it is, quite obviously, not that time. Today, the ever-insightful Damion Reinhardt at the Skeptic Ink Network blog Background Probability joins that list in a thoughtful and concerned review.

Damion, writes a few things worth noting particularly, and I'll jump into a little discussion, clarification, and tedious quoting of myself after that.
It is a fine book, packed with sundry insightful ideas about how to move secular society forward, and I commend it to your reading. That is, I commend it with one major caveat: Ask yourself whether now is indeed the right time to go post-theistic. (emphasis original)
Damion, of course, thinks it is clearly not that time. He immediately takes a bat to my statement that New Atheism "did it's job; it changed the conversation" and likening it to a can opener, from which we would drop after opening the can, not continuing to use it for scooping out its contents. Damion wrote, abbreviating by leaving off the good argument he gave supporting his contention (which you can obviously click over to his blog and read for yourself),
The job of New Atheism is emphatically not to open the can and start a conversation about whether any gods are truly guiding humankind. 
I don't know how old Damion is, but I remember the 1990s pretty clearly, a decade not all that long ago and long after figures like Voltaire and Ingersoll. The conversation is changed. New Atheism made atheism and nonbelief standard articles of our culture, things you can talk about without having to hide, even in the hillbilly South. (I, for example, hid my own lack of belief from my own brother for almost a decade, which implies he hid his from me likewise.) At a party last night, I was asked by a Christian woman, "are you an atheist?" which was followed by "that's cool" when I replied, "sort of, but I don't take the label to myself anymore." A Jewish woman also found this non-controversial. Something is different than it was twenty years ago.

I should clarify what I think the goal of New Atheism is. To quote myself from the Introduction to Everybody Is Wrong About God on what I specifically identify as what New Atheism accomplished, in the paragraph preceding one Damion took objection to:
[New Atheism] defeated theism at the level of ideas and obliterated the taboo surrounding an open lack of belief in God, which was its main goal.
The latter of these two things is really the bigger, but in doing so, it made public all the arguments (and new ones) that Damion mentions in his defense of his point. Perhaps I should have added the word "popularly" before "defeated," looking at it in hindsight. But this is all a digression to make me feel better about his taking to that point with a verbal bat.

To the point of whether or not we should turn post-theistic now (or, really, toward it), I urge you to read my arguments in the book and critiques of everyone that provides them. My point really isn't to argue that in this blog post. Here, I want to address a very common misconception, that I think (or suggest) we should stop talking about religious belief.

To see what I mean, Damion gets to this soon after,
The proper mission of New Atheism is just the same as that taken up by every previous wave of freethought, that is, to liberate minds from received dogma. We are here to engender “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” whether those mental shackles come in the form of purported theistic revelation or otherwise.
Lindsay argues that it is time to move to a “fully post-theistic position, one where we consider theism beneath serious consideration” by which we stop “arguing against belief in God” and move on to the next step, were we leave talk about God behind entirely. (emphasis added, to make a point, not to point out the non sequitur lurking here)
To which he concludes, conveying some sense of horror at the suggestion,
Suppose we were all to take this advice, and immediately cease engaging with those who continue arguing for belief in God. Some few will still manage to free themselves from religious dogma by performing their own proactive literature review, applying the existing tools of epistemology and philosophy of religion to the intellectual scaffolding put in place by theistic apologists. Others will languish in their childhood faith, with none of their peers taking the trouble to challenge their worst ideas. I’m fairly confident that I would have ended up in the latter category myself, but for a scrappy band of atheological counterapologists who took my peculiar theistic delusions seriously enough to show me exactly where I had gone wrong. (emphasis added because I don't know where I gave that advice, ever)
Of course, I made the case in several places in the book that we should have easily accessible anthologies of rebuttals to stock theistic arguments and encourage their spread, so I won't bother with that misconception again. I also think that stories like his aren't uncommon and are hopeful. The thing is, he had to care where he had gone wrong before those "atheological counterapologists" (:cringe:) could really impact him. My book is, circumstantially, about addressing why many believers don't. New Atheism will save people like Damion, but it won't save the majority of people I know down here in East Tennessee. Ever.

Damion, though, also objects to my claim that eventually, as we turn post-theistic, we, as a culture, won't take theism seriously enough anymore to argue against it (rather like how we already treat street preachers). He puts it eloquently,
So long as at least one person that I care about takes any delusional belief seriously and allows it to guide their actions, I will take that belief seriously as a threat to their health and well-being. This holds true for theistic and secular utopian faiths no less than chiropractic subluxations and homeopathic medicine. Rationalism has no shelf life, so long as at least some people are suffering from their faith-based beliefs.
Good for him. This is an effort, if properly directed, that I fully applaud and encourage. And now that I've quoted the majority of his review, I'll stop and get to some thoughts and the laborious displeasure of quoting things I already wrote.

First, I'll mention that it's curious that he brought up chiropractic and homeopathy, given the utter lack of effectiveness arguing against those has proved--see this fun New York Times piece from October of this year. Or maybe the anti-vaccination people are worth bringing up, given the huge consequences of their adherence to dead-wrong bullshit and the studies showing that arguing with them and educating them simply doesn't work and often makes it worse.

Now I'll mention that what Damion (and Loftus) fear isn't what I actually advocate and isn't what I mean by a post-theistic position. To be clear, I don't think we should stop talking about beliefs, but we should do so differently. I must have done something wrong since I feel like the single best sentence for accurately marketing Everybody Is Wrong About God is "It's time to change the conversation about God." Change. Not end.

That said, I think it's time to quote myself a little instead of explaining this again.

When I say that theism has lost and "atheism" has won--and that we should therefore go post-theistic--what I'm saying is that the intellectual and philosophical legs that theism has enjoyed up until recently have been completely cut out from under it, nothing more. In other words, I think it's time to stop arguing about theism in the terms of theism. There are other ways to engage the topic, and there are other much more fruitful endeavors to turn our attention to.

One of the main ideas presented, repeatedly in fact, in the book is that if people feel like they have the psychological and social space to leave their religious beliefs, they often will. Efforts that work to create that space--secularism, critical thinking, social environments, socioeconomic security, community, contextualization of death, humanist ethical systems, etc.--are what I advocate over most of the arguing about philosophical (or pseudo-philosophical) stuff. None of these are "atheism," though, and none of them are helped by branding them that way. (emphasis original)
And from a different post:
I'm certainly not advocating that we give up the fight, I'm really just arguing that we engage in it more appropriately, addressing what's really at stake and what really matters. In a way, I'm saying we should stop treating the symptoms and start treating the cause.
And another from this same different post:
Question: To what degree is the conversation [about God] still relevant?

It is obviously still relevant, and will be for some time, everywhere religious belief is common, especially where it is societally privileged. The cultural fight is going to continue for a long time yet in a lot of places, although that doesn't mean the intellectual fight retains any merit. We don't have to keep having the conversation, however, in the same tired and damaging terms. We can talk about belief differently, and Everybody Is Wrong About God is an attempt to start that new, better direction of conversation. (emphasis and bold in original) 
Of course, I don't expect that Damion had read those posts, so I'll quote a bit from the book as well.

Here's a pretty definitive statement from the Introduction:
It could be misunderstood that placing theism beneath serious consideration is just an attempt to shut down discussion, but it is, in fact, a strategic maneuver designed to facilitate productive conversations that move us forward. The goal isn’t to shut down any discussion, particularly not in an authoritarian way. Instead, we should shift our mentality and admit that the terms of theism aren’t serious and are therefore not owed serious consideration.
There also, I argue that we should now consider approaching things in a different way:
Over the idea of God, like with racism, there are two battles being fought at the same time, and they tend to get conflated. On one front, there is a war of ideas, which I claim has ended with the notion of God as the clear loser. On the other is a cultural fight, and that will endure for some time, maybe indefinitely. We saw the idea of racism collapse long before the culture started really catching on, a process lamentably still continuing today. The cultural fight is mostly distinct from the arguments over the idea, and it must be fought in a different way. (emphasis added)
Adding to that point, also in the Introduction:
...apparently straightforward questions like “does God exist?” and thus “is theism true?” only seem to have meanings, but it is not clear that they do. These phrases, and the terms in them, are best characterized by perpetually seeming to elude any clarity at all. What this tells us is plain and the subject of this book: we’re talking about the whole thing the wrong way.
Clearly, I'm making a point that we should try talking about it in the right way instead, and that we probably shouldn't stop talking about it at all. In case my meaning isn't clear, also from the Introduction:
Religious beliefs and conviction to those beliefs by faith are relevant matters in the world today, along with their consequences, but theism itself is not. We must stop pretending that the meanings usually given to words like “God” and “soul” should be taken on their own terms. Of course, it isn’t that we don’t have some idea of what people mean by these words. It’s that the terms, as they are intended, are misleading and should be rejected as such. (emphasis added)
I hope it's clearly implied that "relevant matters in the world today" should continue being vigorously discussed. The rest of the paragraph gives a hint as to how. Later in the Introduction, I mention,
I insist that the time to drop this thankless job [arguing for the obvious, that there is no God] is either very near or upon us already. It is time to keep making the noises, beset by religious dogma as we still are, without pushing “atheism.” (emphasis added)
I'm getting the impression I think we should probably keep having these conversations. How about you? Still, just to really make the point clear, though, I'll quote the Introduction once more:
One might worry that theism will “win” simply by its refusal to go away—rather like we must continually address certain kinds of medical infections to prevent them from festering. If we were just dropping the matter entirely and walking away from culturally relevant discussions, there is little doubt that this would be the case. Giving up isn’t the goal. Instead, we are moving away from treating theism as if it has any theoretical legs to stand on in serious discussions, such as in academics and politics. ... We shouldn’t continue to conflate the debate over the idea of theism, which is over, with the needed cultural shift away from it, which is not. (emphasis added)
So, in the first thirty or so pages of the book, noting that I just grabbed a few passages as they jumped out at me, I think it's fair to say that I may even overstate my point that the conversation is to be changed, not ended, almost like I anticipated people wouldn't get it.

But let's continue a bit, mostly so I can share a few more little excerpts to give more flavor of what's really written in my book that so many are apparently so reluctant to open (this being a common comment I keep seeing all over the place, not something I believe Damion is guilty of).

Chapter 1 says,
To be sure, the conversation about “God” need not be put in terms of theism at all, although this statement is likely to seem profoundly controversial. In fact, it is the other way around. It is rather astounding that we seem unable to see where to place the terminology of this conversation if not in theism. There is no mystery whatsoever to where we should look to make sense of the word “God.” The term is personal, and the term is cultural. Psychology—which is to say the working of the human mind—is the obvious locus for the actual, nonmythological meaning of the term “God.”
And adds,
But God is a mythological object and thus emphatically not best treated philosophically because philosophy takes the idea too seriously in the wrong way. Philosophical terms should be jettisoned, then, and we should address “God” in terms of what it actually seems to do for people. We should also recognize theism as a pseudo-philosophical position instead of a properly philosophical one. (emphasis original)
And then,
What we cannot ignore, then, is that the word “God” does mean something, and that something has nothing to do with theism. Something that nonbelievers are sorely missing when it comes to handling the fact of religious belief in our world is a nontheistic account of the term “God.”
In Chapter 3, where Damion complains that I'm wrong to say arguing against religious belief has a shelf life, I continue from what he quoted in this way,
Note, however, that taking theism seriously enough to shoot it down has to have a shelf life. As theism becomes less and less meaningful culturally, antitheism becomes less and less appropriate. There is little reason to argue against something that most of us don’t take seriously. Ignoring it, scoffing at it, and outright making fun of it are sufficient to the task at that point. (emphasis added)
We'll come back to "outright making fun of it," which is a way, by the way, to continue talking about it--a very effective way. But I go on two paragraphs later to write,
People in this position realize that the vague, hence meaningless, general use of the term “God” is best ignored as unclear and irrelevant while the specific uses of the term are to be rejected for being incorrect and misleading.
I do this before devoting an entire short section to an example of how post-theistic conversations can be done well, citing the debate between physicist Sean Carroll and Christian apologist William Lane Craig in 2014--a clear example of conversation continuing. That section concludes,
[Carroll] directly states that theism is “not well-defined,” and his attitude is that because it isn’t well-defined, it isn’t a serious (cosmological) model. He does, however, take pains before, during, and after this set of comments to shoot down Craig’s arguments where they were specific enough to be commented upon. In this debate, Carroll gave us a perfect example of how post-theistic people, especially highly qualified ones, should handle the sophistry of theism.
I'm getting very near, or well beyond, belaboring this point, but I'll mention here that a third of the seventh chapter, about uprooting faith (as aggravated many a person on Hemant Mehta's Friendly Atheist blog), is dedicated to the application of satire. The other two thirds are dedicated to directing people to engage in conversations of the Street Epistemology kind (see Peter Boghossian's Manual for Creating Atheists) and that guide people into taking the Outsider Test for Faith (see John W. Loftus's The Outsider Test for Faith).

Before wrapping this up with a couple more quotes from near the end of the book, should it not have been conveyed that I make the point of my goal being to change (not end) the conversation, I'll note that the exact phrase "conversation and compromise," indicating something that I think is central to what we need to be having, appears no less than six times in the book, every single time in a context that indicates its importance.

That said, the ninth chapter is specifically about how we should "unthink" atheism and do things differently, and it notes,
The goal is to have open, honest conversations that move people away from myth and toward more fruitful and solidly grounded topics, and achieving that is an art that often requires swallowing a lot of pride and frustration. Figuring out which activities are good and bad uses of our time is important, and of all the things listed here, it is probably the most straightforward once we’re honest about what the term “God” means. Anything that treats theism on its own terms, except in particular one-on-one conversations meant to help people uproot their faith, is probably a waste of time. That which sees “God” in the light of psychosocial needs that people have and do not know how else to meet is likely to be fruitful. (emphasis added)
I don't know how to get clearer than that on the point that I think we should keep having conversations about this stuff. To wind down, though, and perhaps in bad form (spoiler alert?), I'll actually put the last paragraph of the book here too.
This is possible. Knowing that “God” doesn’t mean what people think it means clarifies the entire discussion and improves our approach. If we have a sense of where we’re going, a sense of where we are, and a sense of what the terrain between is like, charting a course will be straightforward. Our charge is to do just that, no longer wrong about God. (emphasis added)
Hopefully that clears this up a little. Really. I'm not asking anyone to end the conversation. I want the conversation to keep going, but I want it to proceed in a way that is properly informed on its topic.