What's holding us back in Atheism 1.0? Could it be that we're too busy indulging in mind games? It's an issue of authenticity.
Self worth is best achieved by giving ourselves credit for our strengths and admirable traits. However, if something too painful occurs that we can't face, an attack by an authority figure when we're young or a rejection when we're at our most vulnerable, we can settle for provisional self-esteem based on invidious comparison. We soothe our wounds with "I'm better than somebody else." This easy fix is widely encouraged in the culture, socially acceptable.
In 1964 Eric Berne's Games People Play described the mind games of this "I'm OK, You're not OK" position. Instead of living in the full threatening chaotic experience of reality, players buy into a limited version in which it's easier for them to cope. Their reality is narrowed down so that every action is one of a victim, a rescuer , or a persecutor. They're not aware that they edit reality to fit their preferred game. It's just reality as they know it.
Many religious memeplexes include a version of VRP reality. The chosen people are victimized by a cruel, malevolent outside world, but they'll soon be rescued by a god and then it will be the turn of those awful persecutors to be victims in the end time.
If you identify as a Victim, you're morally superior to your persecutor.
If you're rescuing victims, you're morally superior to victims and persecutors.
But here's the kicker that Eric Berne identified. You can start out as a Victim and collect, as he put it, trading stamps. You can collect self-pity stamps, or you can collect anger stamps. When you have collected enough, you get to trade them in as justified persecution of your former Persecutors. You get to be mean without guilt, because "they deserved it", and you are morally superior. Players of VRP games always end up taking every role at some point.
So poor persecuted Christians can attack someone they deem undesirable or a threat, and still feel virtuous. Group bonding offers many opportunities to put your group members up, put everyone else down, and shore up fragile egos.
As I see it, it's no accident that Atheists are stuck in religion bashing and can't move on to construct an authentic vibrant secular community to compete with the religious communities. Part of our problem is that, for too many of our members, giving up theism was easy, giving up VRP too hard. These members can't help but steer our conversations back to the faults of religion.
There's a brand new group forming to redefine society without religion. Imagine No Religion You might want to consider joining, Gareth.
VRP is just a simplistic representation of a complex concept so that its more palatable to the masses. Ironically while arguing against a simplistic world view VRP asserts only 3 simple categories.
In fact we all live in a simplified world in any case, especially if we remove philosophy and focus on the more regular life of a person. Ie. how do you behave and think in the moment and not on a discussion forum.
In any case I would suggest that most VRP arises from actual persecution and persists long after persecution ends. Assuming we define persecution only in institutional terms where a powerful institution attacks an initially less powerful one. Indeed VRP has many parallels to religion in general. Arises from reality but persists beyond its use date.
Now clearly VRP, which affects nationalism as well as religion, is pushed by those in power on the masses as a means of control, again like religion. It benefits the church and also various governments and wealthy interest groups to generate a VRP complex.
I know this will piss people off, but we see the very same "VRP" message in feminism as we do among JeeFrees. Particularly in the radfem separatist movement. As I noted previously VRP is a simplification of a much more complex paradigm, which ironically is adopted by its adherents precisely BECAUSE its simpler than reality.
I would also like to speculate that a "VRP" phase is unavoidable for any culture at some point. The concept of VRP is actually quite similar to the idea of identity politics.
As for how to avoid this in atheism, I would argue that it is very problematic. There are social costs associated with throwing off a "VRP" yoke. Focusing on a more complex understanding of humanity is painful.
Imagine a war where we did not allow ourselves to demonize our enemy. How horrible would it be to slaughter other human beings while accepting that they were human, that they didn't deserve to die, that they were dying because we decided our own survival was more necessary, that in most cases 90% of the people we killed had no control over their role in their society, that they probably did not support or understand the war, if they were even aware of the real reasons at all. Consider the reaction of many soldiers towards being informed that the war in Afghanistan was a mistake, a crime, and a waste of time. Many of them suffer enough while believing what their leaders tell them. Image how they must feel if they learn it is all a lie?
A lot of the things we refer to as mental illness are coping mechanisms for trauma. How many of those people, if we took away their coping mechanism, would be willing to live?
I do not think the human race will move on to greyer, more complex ways of thinking any time soon. There have been studies saying that objectivity correlates highly to depression.
I couldn't agree more with your point Matthew, it's a vicious circle that in order to fight against VRP we usually end up reproducing the same simplifications that created VRP, kinda like fighting evil with evil... I would suggest that taking your point a bit further, that indeed beliefs are coping mechanisms, and that the human race must evolve to accept reality as is or remain staring at the moving shadows in Plato's allegory of the cave.
I do believe that we can move on to such a cartesian acceptance of the world, there was a time when we believed the earth was flat and the sun revolved around us, there was a time when we believed illness were demonic curses, there was also a time when we believed the atom was the smallest and indivisible unit of matter. It seems to me the human spirit always finds a way to overcome, atheism another step towards that cartesian future, but I do agree that we have a long road ahead.
I would speculate that its possible that we will never get passed this kind of thinking. We can combat individual aspects of ignorance. But we will proceed to think of everything we have no individually understood in the same simplistic terms.
Further ideas are a lot harder to get passed than what is scientifically provable as most of the things you listed are.
However we could regard our acquisition of individual truths as at least some form of progress. I think that it would be better in the long run if we did so, in order to avoid feelings of futility.
If we can't, as a culture, get past reducing the world and ourselves to the simplistic and dysfunctional roles of Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer, Matthew, I can't imagine us surviving as a species. The problems of creating a sustainable culture, so future generations can survive, are too complex. Yes, it's very hard to get past entrapment in such a mind game, but it is possible. The first step is knowledge, so self-reflection can occur. People trapped in VPR suffer a lot, and learning that they are inadvertently causing much of their pain is a first step. Finding the sources of strength for authentic self worth can be learned. One might even begin with a movie or TV series in which the main character frees him or her self, with the help of a friend.
A person who manages to escape this mind game will have an immediate tangible improvement in self-actualization and life quality, similar to deconversion. So yes, that's some form of progress. It's something worth celebrating.
Matthew, I'd like to address two of your points.
1."In fact we all live in a simplified world in any case,..." It's true that everyone participates in a process of selecting some of the infinite sensory data flooding in to pay attention to and ignores the rest. This process also involves interpretation, habits of focusing the gaze, habits of speech, etc. Kari Marie Norgaard, in Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life describes how we come to participate in a shared reality, and she focuses on the way it enables denial of Climate Change. But her point is well taken. There is a difference between an emotionally healthy person in a culture, narrowing their attention and interpreting reality according to regional customs, and someone caught in VPR. Yes, some cultures are solidly locked into VPR in relation to war, conflict with other nations, some subcultures are locked in with respect to other subcultures (like the Tea Party with respect to US illegal immigrants). nevertheless, people in these VPR cultures can still avoid VPR in their personal relationships, with family and friends. They can compartmentalize. When an individual is caught in VPR, he or she applies it to their entire reality, most especially with every other human being with whom they interact, even casually, as well as to large issues such as war.
2. "Ironically while arguing against a simplistic world view VRP asserts only 3 simple categories." This misrepresents VPR as a logical argument, while it operates at a different level. VPR doesn't "argue" per se, as a political manifesto might. It doesn't "assert". Such mind games distort perception and thinking at a deeper level than conscious verbal discourse. While some VPR players might be articulate enough to defend their positions by making such arguments and assertions, that isn't part of the mind game. Most victims are consciously unaware of playing a mind game at all, and would deny such intent. It's just a pattern we observe in how they see reality, how they react, how they feel.
Some interesting points here, Ruth; it may be an oversimplification on my part, but there are elements of this idea (at least, allegorically) which reminded me of the confirmation bias (almost as though the more fervently someone else were to enact this role, we enact our own right back) - I think we see evidence of this in more troubled communities, for example. It does raise a few interesting questions/points for me, though:
I. Could we say that people adopt these roles more strictly against singular causes, ie. is the role realized to a lesser extent when parcelled out over larger people groups? Will the feeling be stronger in a smaller, more concentrated group?
II. Would it be fair to make the claim that only humans could legitimize this sort of behaviour? In other words, does Freud's "super-ego" act as some sort of mechanism for this behaviour, or could it be said that lesser creatures behave the same way (at times) in nature?
III. This is more of a claim than a question, but I don't think (and maybe this isn't what your contention was) that VPR alone could possibly address all of various nuances of ideological differences on our planet. I think we as a species DO INDEED suffer a bit of an identity crisis in this regard, and I absolutely believe that the VPR paradigm both validates and consoles many of us, but I think, for example - and to address you from earlier - that the satire, ridicule and attack of atheists against religion (maybe even other atheists) cannot all be explained by this principle alone. I think it's partly instinctual and partly adopted through the evolution of our social behaviour/ego and ability to rationalize/excuse the things we do, but I believe that sometimes an idea or action is just worthy of scrutiny or confrontation, even if it doesn't yet contain any potential for harm.
Great post - what an intriguing conversation :)
I would have to agree Ruth. I would enjoy learning more about mind games. I'm going to add that book to my Amazon list.