Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Threat Model of Epistemology

Imagine you're watching television and a car commercial comes on. The screaming used car salesman sputters and twitches as he shows off some of the cars on his lot and their prices. Throw in some costume mascot, and a distant shot of the location, featuring some air-powered flailing critters. And then he mentions that if you don't believe his deals are the best in town, you'll be found eventually and taken to a torture chamber and left there for the rest of your life.

That's an image that comes to my mind with religion. There always seems to be a double standard. If your average person were to make such a horrible threat, everyone (or at least I hope everyone) would be shocked and inspired to retaliate with anything from vitriol to criminal charges. But for some reason, people give (thankfully fictional) deities, (unfortunately real) preachers, and generally pious people free reign to say whatever threats they like. It's even acceptable to make bigoted jokes with the threats as a premise.

What I want to know is why such exceptions exist. I want a fundie to explain it to me. For now, I've got a number of suspected reasons which they probably don't want to admit. First, they think morality is relative: The preachers can do whatever the hell they want to because they serve a deity who can do whatever the hell he wants to. Moral standards don't apply to them because they've drawn a line in the sand, declaring their side 'holy' or 'spiritual' or whatever.

Second, in something of a more specific variant of the first, they think might makes right. Because their deity is super-powered, he can do whatever the hell he wants. It's not like you could realistically rebel. I suppose I should call that 'appeal to futility' or something. Kind of reminds me of a number of strained paladin-breaking either/or decisions: "You can't win, so give up on finding a way to do the right thing."

Third, in another form of moral relativism: The ends justify the means when it's their ends being pursued. Anyone else who uses their means for a different goal is vilified while they praise their own for doing the same. When called out on this attitude, they pretend morality is beyond mortal ken, which is why double-standards are allowed, and fairness is a sin.

That, in a nutshell, is one of the core reasons why appeals to the eternal torments of Hell mean nothing to me. They're nothing but intimidation, and conversely, Heaven is only a bribe, not a reward. Naturally, the other big reason they mean nothing is because I've seen no evidence for them, but that's a topic for another post.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, you're probably right on all three counts.

I will say that the people who try to save you from eternal torment are doing it wrong. The point of Christianity and choosing to follow Christ isn't so you can avoid Hell and get to Heaven. That's just not it. The point of "getting saved" is the relationship between the Creator and the created.

Far too many people have lost sight of that.

Anonymous said...

hm, interesting analogy, but i like it. why should threats, however fictional, be accepted because they're in the name of religion. like you said, threatening someone with a lifetime of torture (let alone an eternity) because they don't believe what i'm claiming is not generally considered acceptable behavior, nor should it be. why should wildly superstition and unverifiable claims get a passL

Anonymous said...

*shit, i meant "superstitious"

Anonymous said...

No, no. I think you're way off the mark.

The preacher's pitch is so powerful because it involves a delightful little two-step: a terrible torture awaits you and you're only being told this for your own good. It's a frothy mix of threat and comfort that's shown its power time and again over the centuries.

The analogy you present isn't that good; the preacher's sales pitch is more like a homeland security huckster telling you that terrorists are going to pump poison toad juice through your windows, unless you buy his special anti-poison toad juice duct tape with which to seal them.

See, the threat here is supposedly coming from someone other than the huckster, which lets the huckster play good cop. I remain fuzzy on how the source of the threat is also the good cop. Maybe the frequent invocation of Satan works to obscure the obvious question of why Captain Yahweh the Magnificent put all these tortures in place?

Blaming the target of the sale for their own impending doom also works well. Maybe something like the homeland security huckster telling the mark that because they've been insufficiently patriotic and shown less than total dedication to the homeland, the terrorists are coming for them with their poison toads and their juicers.