A Better Name for Us, Part 3

Glade Ross

In Part 2 of this series I recognized that, within the pews of the faithful, there resides at least a minority of persons who are at-heart genuists. These are people we can talk to. They can talk to us. It is reasonably easy, even, to find mutual respect between one side and the other. After all, the specific conclusions that are reached, when working on the basis of a genuistic stance, are rather less important than whether we are exercising such morality as is involved in holding that stance, in the first place.

I explain this to setup for a contrast and distinction.

Most pew fillers, obviously, are not genuists. At least often, they are persons for whom the first priority in belief is the emotional and/or social reward as direct-provided by the belief itself. They are persons who care comparatively little about whether there is an authentic and genuine correspondence between their belief and underlying reality.

To be more precise, these persons care very much in the sense they desperately want reality to fit their belief. In other words, if reality were willing to bend, they’d instantly make it do so, and in the specific direction they desire. They care not a bit, however, about making their precious belief bend to reality. From their perspective, that is not an option that’s on the table.

What of our relations with this variety of person?

I will here argue that understanding genuism, having a splendid title for it and clear explication of its precepts, can go a long way toward improving our relations with non-genuists.

In such regard (and as a first principle), I think it’s clear we should maintain warm and friendly relations with all persons, wherever we can. We must always be respectful of persons, as persons,* regardless of theistic or genuistic difference. Love and affection between family members should likewise persist and endure, while we endeavor to overlook or ignore (at least so much as is possible) any such differences as may arise in connection with these matters.

So, whether to be warm, polite and civil is not what I am asking. Rather, I am asking what should be our conversational stance with non-genuists? In particular, what should be our stance when non-genuists wish to engage in talk regarding that very large elephant in the room (i.e., the god or god’s they have found to be so essential to their existential solace)? How shall we react to their desire for such conversation?

I will answer first, and then explain.

Very simply, we must realize that where non-genuism is our counterpart’s stance, any hope for finding common, consistent and logically-coherent ground for discussion (at least regarding that elephant in the room) is an exercise destined to end in frustration. More fully, it is an exercise that is best left un-attempted.

So, suppose you are confronted by a theist who proposes “god-talk.” How can you advance-distinguish between whether he is a genuist (and therefore may be reasonably entitled to discussion), versus being a non-genuist (in which case there is very little point)?

Though there are many potential avenues (some short and some long), I will here describe a somewhat extended one. For convenience of description, I’ll call my counterpart “John Smith.” For this form of the question, I must first set the stage:

“John, I want you to pretend there is a parallel universe. In most respects, it’s just like this one. It also has a John Smith. That John Smith looks just like you, and thinks and feels much as you do. He’s had virtually the same experiences, wears similar clothes, has the same job, etc. In fact, right now that John Smith is talking to that universe’s version of me, just as you are now talking with this universe’s version of me. Just like you, he also believes in a tremendous god. Indeed, like you, his sense of purpose, meaning and repose in life very much revolve around this god. But, in that universe, there is a huge difference. Here in our universe (and as you well know) the god that you imagine really does exist. The difference in that parallel universe is that there the god is imagination only. In other words, that universe has no real and authentic god behind the belief. There, the belief is essentially a fraud. Yes, there the people believe just as much. Your counterpart believes just as intently as you do, and gets the same kind of emotional benefit. But, in that universe, your counterpart is wrong. There, your counterpart is devoutly convinced of a conclusion that, in that universe, is a lie.”

Having thus set the stage, my real question follows:

“John, I want you to suppose that in some science-fiction-like scenario you manage to jump-phase into this parallel universe. Though invisible to the John Smith there, you are nevertheless able to look over his shoulder, and watch his life unfold. You see him encountering things that might trend toward increased belief in the god that does not really there exist, and sometimes things that (at least if permitted their natural tendency) might trend in the opposite direction. My question is: in what direction will you silently cheer for your counterpart’s belief-leanings to go? Will you think that, even if his particular god does not exist, he gets so much joy and comfort from the conviction, it’s best for him to keep it regardless (thus it follows, as you see him encountering a piece of evidence that’s potentially positive, you’ll want him to play it up, while doing the opposite for one that’s negative). Or will you, alternately, feel he should see things as, for him, they really are (thus he should give potentially-negative evidences their full due, and simultaneously avoid exaggerating the positive)?

As mentioned, the above question (or at least its essence) can be asked in many different ways. It is obviously not the detail that matters, but the essence. Perhaps even more than the particular form of the question, it’s the substance of answer that matters most.

Rarely, you may encounter a theist who answers with an honest conviction that accuracy should trump comfort, and that he would cheer for this result in his counterpart. If indeed you encounter this (it certainly would have been my answer back when I was a theist), it will be apparent you’re dealing with an at-heart genuist. Very likely, this will be a person with whom you can speak sensibly, perhaps even beneficially.

Much more commonly, you’ll find a theist answers the question (albeit reluctantly) with indication it would be better, for the alternate-universe’s version of himself, to maintain his supremely-pleasing belief regardless of its failed verity. Where this is the answer, you will know you are not dealing with a genuist.

More particularly, you will know that on the direct topic of interest (whether there is merit in your counterpart’s “god” belief) there is no point in entering discussion. At a foundational level (and if you tried), you’d find there is no genuinely common “language” by which to speak. Nor is there any suitable translation. There are reasons for this.

At every point where it most matters in a discussion (and if you were to indeed engage in one), your interest would be to ask “What is the conclusion toward which this fact most naturally points?” Your counterpart’s interest, contrariwise, would be to ask: “How can I make this matter seem to point in the direction I want.” You would consider a point well-made where it is clear some fact naturally supports a logical conclusion. Your counterpart would consider the same point won, from his side, where any twist could be offered (and there are always twists to be offered) by which to squirm out from under the most natural conclusion otherwise.

At least from our side, it is a fool’s errand to engage in this kind of exercise.
What’s worse, our side always loses. We lose because, so long as the non-genuist succeeds in squirming (and they always do), from his perspective victory is achieved. Indeed, success in squirming is in his mind vindication — strong and wonderful validation — of the conclusion he’s been right all along. If, indeed, his most-favored conclusion can be squirm-justified by any means, in his mind he wins. We lose. It’s almost a law of nature, where this is the dynamic.

Don’t go there.

Instead (and at least where the circumstances trend more toward the antagonistic and less from the friendly side), I suggest an approach (assuming that base question has already been answered to reveal you’re dealing with a non-genuist) along the following lines:

“John, I can’t see any sense in discussing whether this god of yours indeed exists beyond the imagination. I think any discussion of evidences, for and against, would be for you a game and a pretense, making a mockery of the very evidences you’d be pretending to be interested in. You’ve already indicated, after all, it would be your inclination to go on believing regardless of what is the evidentiary state. This means, when push comes to shove, you will ultimately have no respect for the very currency in which you now want me to trade with you. Thus, commerce with you on the topic would be a sham, and I won’t engage in it. I won’t trade in something I fully respect, and you do not.”

“I will explain further, John.”

“Suppose I possessed shocking facts that, by all rights, should instantly make your conviction feel threatened? As a first matter, you’d not want to hear those facts. More practically, it’s clear that whatever facts and arguments I might present, if they were to even potentially push against your conviction, your tendency would be to ignore them, discount them, or seek in some manner to explain them away — as opposed to giving them their full and natural weight. At the same time, I know you’re anxious to tell me things you think are supportive of your faith. But I’m confident you’ve given those things special and exaggerated sympathies, and you’d be immune from anything I might say to diminish them, just as you’d be immune from any penetration by facts that most others would judge as condemning. Given what you’ve told me about your preference to believe even if reality was otherwise, we can fully predict these would be your stances in discussion. Given this, it makes no sense to go there.”

One response, that I’ve learned is often returned from this kind of exchange, is justification for the unfair-to-evidence stance, claiming our side does it too (indeed, the typical claim is that everyone does). For that, there is a very clear and strong rejoinder:

“No, John, our side does not do the same. As we’ve noted, it’s your preference to maintain a set of conclusions, even if they happen to be false. That is the precise stance that pushes one to ignore, discount, and/or attempt to explain away inconvenient facts. No other stance puts one in that place. As for my stance, I have already explained: I am a genuist. As such, it is my first and preeminent determination to accord my beliefs with what’s real. Given this, I am in every instance authentically interested in what the evidence and logic have to say. More than that, even if I happened to have a preference as to what I otherwise wished was real, it is my even greater preference to have any other such preference subjugated to my first. Thus, I have no reason to ignore, discount or explain away anything. On the contrary, it’s the last thing I’d want to do.”

Please notice, in contrast to how our discussions with theists normally go, now the argument is not about whether some silly figment of the imagination exists or not. It is now about matters much more substantive. More fully, we have avoided the silly discussion (where we lose) and entered a serious one. Happily, as well, we have accomplished a result I call “invalidation.”

Essentially, we have informed the non-genuist, because of his non-genuistic stance on the topic of interest, he is prima facie disqualified from even the prospect of having an intelligent, fair and honest discussion regarding its evidentiary merits. He cannot be a valid participant. On sheer basis of his stance, it’s clear that is not a viable option.

Though I’d like to think otherwise, it’s possible I harbor a strain of wickedness. Without doubt, I get at least small pleasure when managing to push the holder — of what I strongly believe is a morally-depraved stance — into such discomfort as is involved when glimpsing a bit of his corruption. I believe the above approach does this in spades.

In the first place, it forces candid admission from the non-genuist that, for him, authentic truth is secondary. For many, this is a highly discomfiting admission — for these are people that, typically, have spent lifetimes extolling and trumpeting the virtues of “truth” (as at least so-called by them). Now your counterpart is forced to realize he is, after all, a traitor to the pretended virtue. His extolling is, indeed, an exercise in rank hypocrisy (as you are perfectly free to point out to him).

Secondarily, it shows he does not possess a valid stance from which to argue for his treasured conviction. His stance is so corrupt as to be unworthy even of discussion — in particular with those who suffer not from his corruption (aka genuists).

As a third matter, there is a useful kind of meta-argument that arises wherever we have pushed a non-genuist into confessing his underlying stance. It goes back to the underlying silliness, the substance of which we shall have (according to the prescription here outlined) refused to substantively address (a refusal that makes eminent sense, given that such silliness is unworthy of serious discussion).

But (and as mentioned), it’s a meta-argument, rather than a direct one. It is to ask, simply: “What are the odds that a belief is genuinely true where it’s held by one whose stance, in holding it, is one of determination to maintain it regardless of whether it’s true or false? Stated another way, how likely is it that a person who believes in this stance has so lucked out that the belief he holds, in heedlessness to authentic truth, nevertheless happens to be true?” This is a question that again forces the non-genuist into a rather discomfited state. It does so better than any evidences you might otherwise line up against him, if from within the arena where he wishes to argue.

As a final benefit, in taking this tack we have kept the discussion where it truly needs to be: focused on the rank absence of either morality or legitimacy in the non-genuist stance. At the least, this is a place we win and the non-genuist loses. More hopefully, there is perhaps a weak possibility some few non-genuists might, on such exhibition, find such virtue within themselves as to wish, eventually, to make the conversion into a more moral and genuistic state.

In short, any such discomfiture as we manage to engender in our counterpart may, hopefully (and in some instances, at least), do more than merely satisfy a perverse “strike-back” urge we might (as humans) fall subject to. It’s possible that in some instances it will trigger beneficial change.

I would say, in short, it is all but hopeless to think you may ever convert a non-genuist theist into a non-theist. There is likewise no sense in ever attempting this endeavor. On the other hand, there may be at least small hope that in some few instances a non-genuist might be willing to convert into a genuist — on the basis of nothing more than obtaining a better understanding of moral principles, and of perhaps wanting, because of innate virtue combined with finally having that understanding, to follow them (conversion into non-theism might follow for such a person, but in my view this is secondary).

Mostly, you will find our theist friends (yes, they absolutely can be friends, even very good ones) simply do not rise to the level of virtue genuism entails. They will often have other great virtues regardless, and these can at least be appreciated. In most cases, the absence of such virtue as rises to genuism must simply be accepted. It is what it is.

For those theists who are my friends, by the way, I mostly do not follow the above prescriptions (at least I do not do so in a manner that’s so direct as described). The friendship in itself matters. If nothing beneficial was likely to be accomplished by causing discomfort for my friend, there is no sense in going there.

Regardless, I think, in seeing that I am first and foremost a genuist (and am but incidentally an atheist, because that is where my genuism leads me), * my theistic friends cannot help but have enhanced respect for me, and my position. This is far better than for them to believe I am in some manner depraved.

With all that said, let’s suppose you’re dealing with a non-genuist with whom you are disgusted, and on whom you would prefer to short-form release. Here is my suggestion.

Ask your conversational counterpart if he can even imagine a state of evidence that would cause him to abandon his most cherished (“I know they are true”) conclusions. When the returned answer is “no,” respond with this explanation:

“John, I know you have zingers lined up to throw at me, but I am not interested, and I’ll explain why. It is positively child’s play for anyone, whose first concern is a genuine match between belief and reality, to imagine a whole gamut of evidences that, if encountered, would dictate instant abandonment of even their most cherished conclusions. Where you cannot, it’s obvious your determination is to hold your belief regardless of its authentic truth content, and regardless of any such genuine light as might potentially be shown on the matter. Given this, I see no sense in discussing evidence or arguments with you, for you’ve advance-warned that any unhappy-for-your belief matter won’t count. If not outright ignored, such matters will be obscured, obfuscated and contorted — in an exercise that deceives distorts and dissembles — to whatever extent as may be needed for you to pretend they don’t count. You will, in other words, conduct the exercise in a manner that’s rigged for a pre-determined outcome that cannot help but to leave you in possession not only of your conviction, but also of a false and unjustified feeling of justification. It would not be a legitimate exercise, and it’s not one I am willing to waste my time on.”

Or something like the above.

Regardless of the form of approach, I want you to please notice, where we clearly understand our own stance is genuism, where we additionally have a magnificent title by which to clearly identify that stance, and where we simultaneously have ability to contrast this meritorious stance against its absence — with all those things in play, we are much better empowered to deal in clarity with non-like-minded others.

The expression clarifies, and as it clarifies it empowers. Again, I plead for its adoption.

 

* To clarify, we should respect persons. The foolish things in which they sometimes believe, however, are another matter. In such regard, it often bothers me when hearing one person say to another (and as though accuracy in belief matters not at all): “I respect your belief.” You will not catch me saying this to anyone regarding his belief that gods reign, that UFOs are the spacecraft of extraterrestrial visitors, that so-called “psychics” possess their claimed abilities, that the U.S. government crafted the World Trade Center collapses, etc. Far from “respecting” such beliefs, I disdain them. I am further bothered when hearing persons assert: “I have the right to believe whatever I want.” Certainly, there should always be a civic right to unfettered freedom of belief. However, the statement claims much more, averring a moral right to believe in whatever manner as one might recklessly and/or irresponsibly choose. This claim of unbridled license heedlessly ignores the fact that, because choice in belief often leads to unjust harm against others, there is an obvious moral duty (owed by all and toward all) for each to do his best to accord belief with what’s real. For such reason I fundamentally reject that statement’s defiant rejection of moral responsibility. I indeed consider it as among the top of contenders for most monumentally crass and greedy a grab for moral licentiousness as can be imagined. I deem it repugnant and reprehensible. To state it otherwise, it is not just foolish beliefs in themselves I cannot respect; more importantly, it is any morally-licentious mode of holding them. To a person in such mode the most I can communicate by way of respect (and directly concerning either his stance or its product) is to acknowledge his conviction is real and strong, and is based on a mountain of matters that, to him, seem extremely compelling (yes, there is indeed condescension in this mode of expression, but it is what it is). If on the other hand I encounter a theist who holds belief genuistically, I will happily respect his stance, robustly and warmly. I will indeed consider its current product as relatively less important, as compared to the stance itself.

* In regard to where genuism leads on that “great theistic question,” it is my impression non-genuist theists all but universally assume, if they were to take a stance that’s thoroughly respectful of the evidence, they would soon find it demands rejection of theistic belief. I find this supremely interesting. It tells me that in spite of how emphatically they are convinced within one part of themselves (as prior described, the conviction is often genuine and extreme), there remains another part that’s more reasonably astute and aware. This is, of course, reflected in the universal confession that faith is required. More than that, it tells me that overall such persons are not quite the full and complete believers they think themselves to be. They are clever. More clever than I was. As an at-heart genuist, I was much more a true believer. In such respect, I was in truth very much more naïve — so naïve as to think everything should check out. Non-genuist theists are not so simple-minded as to expect that. In point of fact, where a non-genuist theist finally understands it was genuism that produced your atheism, he’ll be very unsurprised that A led to B. He will further have some sympathy for that progression. Where he’ll feel critical toward you (even think you were perhaps none too smart) is in you having had an expectation that evidence should consistently (even imperiously) rule. Still, he is likely to feel at least a little respect for your stance, if not also slight intimidation.

Glade Ross

Glade Ross was born and raised a devout Mormon, he was in law school at Brigham Young University when evidence compelled him to confess that it was all baloney. He practiced antitrust litigation for two years in Southern California, then founded a software business of which he is CEO and president. He currently lives on Puget Sound in Washington with his wife and children and is passionate about sailing.


Part 3 of the entire four-part article just as the author submitted it.

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