Friday, 27 June 2014

Madness, Stupidity and Certainty

This week, a man in Nigeria was forcibly commited to a mental institution by his concerned family.  His symptoms?  A tragic case of severe atheism.

I have to confess that I am struggling not to be slightly amused by this story.  In reality it’s an unbelievable and deeply concerning situation, in which a man’s freedom of and/or from religion is being impinged upon in a very serious way.  However, the idea that his family, when he told them he didn’t believe in God, came to the conclusion that this could only be explained by the fact that he’d gone stark raving mad, is one that nonetheless makes me smile.  In a comedy it would be hilarious.  In real life it is less so.  Certainly the impression I get from the story is not that it’s a case of cynical religious oppression, but a genuine case of familial bewilderment and concern.

As human beings, we become very certain about things, and when people question what to us is obvious, we are often left wondering whether they (or perhaps we) are mad, or just incredibly stupid.  If someone insists to me that the sky is green and that flowers emit a constant shrieking noise, I will wonder if he’s firing on all cylinders.

It is common theme for atheists to attribute religious belief to irrationality, gullibility or plain stupidity.  I have seen someone online state that in their opinion, anyone who hasn’t been able to think their way out of religious belief by the time they’re an adult shouldn’t be entrusted with public office, or even allowed to work with children, due to their obvious mental inadequacy.  The response from some theists is to assume a moral, rather than an intellectual high ground.  Instead of implying that atheists must be incredibly stupid not to believe in God, they imply it is because they are wicked, or possibly just deliberately contrary.  Stupidity is not to be ruled out entirely of course.

I find it very strange that so many people can look at the same information, weigh up the same evidence and arguments, and come to so many very different conclusions.  Obviously, they are not looking at the same body of evidence, are starting with different asumptions, with different parts of their minds closed or open, and the information comes through a variety of filters, mixers and distillers.

I have neither the desire nor the ability to embark on a philosophical treatise on the nature of truth, and it’s subjectivity or otherwise.  However, we are forced to question whether all of these conclusions hold the same weight.  In theory, the best conclusions would be those that are unfiltered, unmixed and undistilled.  The heady spirit of raw, crude Truth, drilled straight from the ground.  However, humans are completely incapable of dealing with this, we can only interact with the world through these filters and mixers.

Inevitably, I can’t help but feel (and I make no claims as to the actual correctness of this) that my own position is the best, given current information.  As a moderate theist, all avenues of exploration are open to me, philosophical, theological and scientific.  No avenue of science is for me forbidden or heretical, no branch of theology to be automatically dismissed as superstitious nonsense.  Now obviously I have not read every book of theology and philosophy (in fact a pathetically small amount), nor am I a devotee of the cutting edge scientific journals.  However, I hope that as I come across new information, no doubt somewhere far behind the curve of intellectual progress, I am open minded enough to reassess my position, but as it stands, it seems pretty good.

I am left wondering how people can be so very stupid as to look at the same things as me, and yet inexplicably come to conclusions other than my own.  It is entirely possible that I am the only sane, or truly intelligent person in the world.  Certainly I’ve not met anyone who agrees with me on every single point, so this is the only logical conclusion.  It can only be a matter of time before my concerned but mentally insufficient family and friends lock me in a Sane Asylum, leaving the mad and the daft to wander the world unhindered by my blatant correctness.  Maybe they’ve already done that to all the other sane, intelligent people, and that’s why I can’t find anyone who agrees with my completely?

They might be coming for me next!  A disturbing thought...


  1. The questions of how people see things, resultant thoughts from the evidence imperially experienced or logically deduced, and the journey of these ideas and thoughts has always fascinated me. I've been colour blind since young, I cannot distinguish between certain shades - now - here is the question - why is it that very few people can see the elephant on picture 3 of the colour blind test - the one with a number 12 showing for those with 'normal vision'...? who is right?
    If Paley's watchmaker walks around in a desert and finds a watch compared to a time traveller who leaves it there and to another who... etc.
    Ultimately, we all have to deduce the world based on our own experiences and the 'mass' determine what is right and wrong, correct and false and ultimately, 'true' and 'false'. Galileo and his contemporaries being questioned, and persecuted, by religious authorities due to seeing the world differently. I see the world a certain way, hold a belief that is different to others. i cannot describe it scientifically but know it is there. My asylum ticket is already booked, but should it be that the majority rule in this case? Does it depend on culture, society, independent thought? How far should someone challenge those around them... and when does one's own sanity get questioned?

    1. Greetings! Like I said, an in-depth debate about the subjective nature of truth is beyond my abilities, but can reality be decided by majority vote? After all, most reality is contextualised by the experience of others, and we can only attempt to decribe it by assuming that we have common points of reference. There's no point in me insisting that the sky is blue, if the word 'blue' means something different to me than to everyone else.

      Ultimately, I think humility requires that we assume that the majority are probably correct in most cases, but to reserve the right to occasionally disagree if we feel that we must.

      "If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind." John Stuart Mill