Sunday, April 10, 2011

Categorizing Believers

It is important to remember that not all believers are the same.  There are many different types.  Each type presents its own particular difficulties to non-believers faced with them.

The first distinction to be made is based on age.  In general, there is usually no point in trying to discuss religion with the aged or the very young.  I mention this category first because in such cases there is often little point in making any effort to discern which of the other categories fit the person and because any attempt to point out the absurdity of religion will be seen as rudeness even by many other non-believers.

Elderly believers have virtually every emotional investment in religion possible.  To stop believing at their advanced age would mean admitting they had been fooled for decades and wasted most of their lives and that their fast approaching deaths will not be doorways to heaven where they can see their loved ones again. 

If someone has been a believer all of his or her life, religious thinking can be extremely entrenched.  There is quite a bit of data showing that older people have a harder time accepting new paradigms.  Furthermore, an older believer is inevitably closer to his own demise and may well be feeling fear at the prospect.  This fear can actually drive some non-believers to become believers as they approach the end of their days.  It is a powerful force.

Finally, older believers often have had to cope with the death of loved ones, perhaps recently.  They have spent a lifetime using this fantasy to deal with death; do not expect them to be willing to consider its falsehood in the Winter of their years.

There are no more understandable motives for religious belief than the death of loved ones.  No matter how much a non-believer may think religion is a bad thing, those motivated by the death of loved ones should be handled with special care.  None more so than people who have lost children, especially if the children were young when they died.  In fact, this group deserves a special category of its own, in addition to whatever category the believer otherwise might fit.  

Of course, everyone has to deal with loss from time to time, so it will always be a judgment call concerning whether or not to put on the kid gloves and remain silent.  A couple of examples should illustrate the opposite ends of the spectrum.  Someone has lost a child recently, especially if he feels guilty about it, is clearly not someone whose belief one should challenge.  However, if a believer tears up over the death of an acquaintance from high school, then it is probably safe to say that he or she is really crying at the thought of his or her own death and the death of the acquaintance is probably just an excuse.
Young believers are not responsible for their beliefs and cannot change them.  Young children are hard-wired by evolution to believe what their parents tell them--even in the face of contrary evidence.  They do not usually possess the independence of mind to doubt what they have been taught to believe.  Furthermore, young believers probably do not yet possess the intellect to understand the logical arguments relating to the existence of god.  There is no harm in dropping a factual hint or two that might take root later, but otherwise there is no point in trying to engage them on the issue.

Once a person has reached the age of reason, however, then it may be possible to discuss religion with him or her in an intelligible manner--and without angering his or her parents.

Unfortunately, the "age of reason" varies from individual to individual.  In general, a person should begin to have some ability to reason independently by the time of early adolescence.  A lack of intelligence or education, however, can delay the age of reason--or even prevent it from arriving altogether.  Believers who are clearly mentally deficient for some reason should be treated in the same manner as young children for largely the same reasons.

The distinction is between the educated and the uneducated is an important distinction when dealing with believers who have passed what should have been the age of reason.  In my own experience, a lack of educational opportunities (broadly defined) can delay this age.  By the time believers are in high school, however, they should be held somewhat responsible for their religious beliefs.  Those who are adults should be held completely responsible.  (As much as anyone can be held responsible.  It's a sad fact, that most people are simply adhering to what their parents taught them and thus are rarely completely responsible.)

If the believer is an adult with a basic level of education, then one must ascertain whether the person truly believes.  (Do not be fooled by education, however.  Our education and economic systems have inherent discriminatory aspects that tend to discourage or even force out non-believers.  Believers are over-represented amongst the ranks of the educated.)

Perhaps the most important distinction is between those who truly believe and those who only believe in belief.  I have mentioned this in passing in the past, but it is a point that bears emphasizing.  This is a categorization that a non-believer needs to make as quickly as possible when dealing with believers.

Believers can all be dangerous to us because we non-believers are the "other"--the members of the out-group who are seen as a threat and less than human.  True believers are especially dangerous to us, however, because of the extent to which they are lost in their delusion and the extent to which their views differ from ours.  Those factors will cause them to view us with a particularly jaundiced eye.  We will not only seem to be out of the group but far, far outside--and far more dangerous.

You may think that you don't mean them any harm and therefore they couldn't really see you as dangerous.  Or you may think that they will only think that way until they get to know you and realize you aren't a threat.  But, if you do think that way, then you really don't understand who you are dealing with and how they think.

You have to realize that they see your very existence as a threat.  Their belief system has taught them that this life is not important and that all that matters is the next life.  They think that it is very important to maintain their own belief and that of their children and other church members intact.  They implicitly understand that the perception of unanimity is crucial to achieving this goal (though they don't understand that this is an implicit admission that the belief is a delusion).  This type makes up the core of the theocratic movement.  They wish to impose a totalitarian tyranny over all of us.  Just read up on what life was like in John Calvin's Geneva for an example.

They will also be the type of people who believe in conformity for its own sake and will have a very strong authoritarian streak.  They will be the type who sees disobedience to authority as morally evil--more so than any other moral transgression.  And, you as a non-believer will be seen as completely guilty of this most serious (in their minds) moral sin.

If the believer is an adult with a basic education or better and still a true believer, then, in my opinion, the only possible explanations are a lack of intelligence or a lack of sanity.  This is an important distinction because those who believe because they can't think for themselves are not as dangerous as those who believe because their emotional needs are out of control.  They will both usually present the same threat to the non-believer (they will try to set the "mob" on you), but the ones who have invested their insanity in religion will be much quicker to take offense and will be much more implacable.  This is because, as I have mentioned, they are usually driven by some form of narcissistic personality disorder, which almost always includes psychopathic traits.

Adults who claim to be religious but who appear to only believe in belief, however, are almost never a threat.  In fact, there is often very little difference between them and closeted non-believers.  Except in one very special type of case:  manipulative psychopaths.

The manipulative psychopath is the most dangerous of all the categories.  As I mentioned before, such people may or may not actually believe.  The truth is that they don't care about the truth.  They care only about the usefulness of religion as a power base.  This type differs from the narcissistic believer because his church membership is not based on a pathological inability to admit he was ever wrong--even as a child--or an inability to admit he doesn't know the answer to an important question (where the universe came from).  It is based solely on a cold-blooded calculation that membership will help reach his or her goals.  It is this ambition that will make such types easier to identify.

It is very important to spot this type of person because he or she should be avoided like the plague and handled in a very superficial but pleasant manner when unavoidable.  Under no circumstances should you give such a person any information about yourself or your loved ones, once you have identified him or her.  To such a person, all information is simply a tool to be used for his or her own benefit--regardless of the effect on others.  In addition, they are not at all adverse to "altering" or even fabricating information about you in order to achieve their ends.  If you spot one of these types, run.

Because religion is just a means to an end for such types, they will usually not display a great deal of fervor--just enough to be accepted and respected in the congregation.  They may even say the types of "usefulness of belief" things that are the hallmarks of those who only believe in belief.  This makes them deceptive and dangerous to non-believers because you can mistake them for this usually harmless type of "almost" non-believer.

To sum up these points, believers can usually be categorized along certain axes:  How much do they really believe this nonsense?  How dangerous are they to you, the non-believer, and how much should you try to avoid bringing up the subject of religion or your non-belief in particular.  In addition, there are certain specific types that must be of particular concern to you as a non-believer, such as the manipulative psychopath and the narcissistic true believer.

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