Groupthink

Are we all awash in a sea of mutual agreement and back-patting and groupthink here? Is all this discussion of lame defenses of religion just another smelly little orthodoxy*? Do we agree with each other too much, with the result that we are smug and arrogant, as the beleaguered minority that doesn’t agree with us says? My colleague probably thinks so, even though he’s just as critical of religion as I am. He thinks blogs tend to foster groupthink; he’s just written a very good column on the subject for TPM. He also thinks a lot of other skeptical things about blogs, which is tiresome of him. No doubt he thinks I’m being very pompous, vain, boring, etc, as some commenters do.

Well, maybe so, maybe I am. But if what I’m saying, and if what other skeptical commenters are saying, about religion is nonsense and self-satisfied arrogant drivel – fine: convince us. Talk us out of it. Make a case. Give an argument. By all means. I just haven’t seen any that convince me yet.

What I have seen is some more material for the Rhetoric Guide. For instance: the easy equation of failing to agree with, failing to be convinced by, a dissenting opinion, with arrogance and smugness. But not all failure to assent to dissenting opinions is arrogance or smugness, is it. One can’t agree with any and every opinion that’s offered, can one, not without risking total incoherence and getting everything wrong most of the time. As so often, there is a conflation, an elision, a running together going on here, a non sequitur. You disagree with me therefore you are being arrogant and smug and obstinate and you’re not listening. But that ‘therefore’ is bogus. One can continue to hold an opinion despite proffered dissenting opinions, without necessarily being arrogant and smug. The one does not entail the other. Surely all sorts of alternative explanations are obvious: the evidence is not there, the arguments are not well-founded, the basic commitments of the two parties are different, and so on. And then, a further possibility is that we are indeed being arrogant and smug, engaging in an orgy of mutual congratulation, and still are right, or still have a better case, or still have better arguments. Or not. But the mere failure to be convinced by opponents, by itself, does not equal arrogance.

And one thing that’s a bit disingenuous about the charge is that there is no shortage of arrogance and smugness on the Hooray for religion side. At least that’s my view – in all its arrogance and smugness. That’s part of the point of this whole discussion – that many of the commonly-heard defenses of religion, defenses that come even from atheists like Gould, in fact have a good deal of arrogance and smugness to them, such as the idea that religion has a monopoly or even a special expertise in morality for example. That’s one reason I want to deconstruct them. (The main reason is just that I think they’re wrong.)

Don’t get me wrong – I certainly don’t think I’m doing any original philosophy or anything like that here. I ain’t qualified to do that. I’m just trying to take a look at some familiar public rhetoric on the subject of religion, and say what’s wrong with it. Anyone can do that. A cat may look at a king, and we citizens and consumers of mass media are allowed to offer our opinions on various subjects. That’s something I for one (differing with my esteemed colleague on this matter) think blogs can be good for.

But I don’t refuse to be convinced. Only I have to be convinced.

*One of our more vituperative critics accused me of setting up a smelly little orthodoxy a couple of weeks ago, which was odd, because in the context the phrase meant the exact opposite of what Orwell meant by it: the context was the argument over the hijab, and surely, surely, among the bien-pensants (that’s French for ‘smelly little orthodoxy’) in the Anglophone world the smelly little orthodoxy is emphatically against the hijab, not for it. It’s smelly and orthodox precisely for the extent to which one is forbidden to say anything at all in favour of the ban, and to which one is called rude names and made mock of for daring to do so. What could be more smellily orthodox than that I really don’t know.

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