Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Thinking In Groups

This is perhaps my least favorite form of religious thinking, simply because it afflicts many an Atheist as well. It's a useful heuristic of classification built into our brains, but nevertheless I also consider it a very harmful bias simply because of all the baggage it carries. Allow me.

Can you spot the difference between these two quotes?

I am a scientist.
I am an Objectivist.

Is is true that both can mean:

I belong to a group whose members are known as scientists.
I belong to a group whose members are known as Objectivists.

However, only the top one can mean this:

I do science.

And this meaning is indeed the one most commonly used. It's the meaning when we state our profession, some activity we enjoy, but the key thing is it has to involve action. "To do" is an active phrase, "To be" is a passive one.

It is this passive "being" that is a core of religious thinking pervading humanity. But let's be extra-clear on this, since not all passive verbs reflect this passive "being" I'm going to discuss:

I am unhappy.
I am human.

The top one means "I feel unhappy", which is to say "My neurons currently fire in such a way that my brain-state causes my thinking-self to think thoughts I and others classify into a group called 'unhappy thoughts'."

The second one means "My neurons currently fire in such a way that I believe I belong to a group of people called humans."

Now, it is true that the first one can mean "I belong to a group of unhappy people[, pity me!]", but that is typically not the meaning. It is this notion of group-belonging that I'm trying to get at, rather than just a categorical statement.

This happens among the non-religious, as I have said earlier. "I am a Christian!", "I am an Atheist!", "I am an Objectivist!", "I am a Pythonista!" are all instances of this religious-thinking I call thinking in groups. You put yourself in a category, and inherit all the wonderful things you think about yourself or your category as part of that label. If you say "I am NOT a Christian", you are doing the same thing, but only conjuring up all the hateful things you think about those in that category that cannot possibly apply to you. For this reason it's fun to call these religious-thinking atheists religious, because you get the same response as if you called a Christian an atheist. (Or a Muslim?)

I've been fighting against this form of thinking since before I even recognized it for what it was. I've long been careful about applying a singular label to myself, and if asked I would typically respond in either an action-way or give multiple groups. A while before my ascent to atheism, I called myself a Taoist [Sp]Agnostic Mormon. If I get more specific beyond "I'm a programmer", I may mention I'm mostly a Pythonista, but I'll usually mention the other languages I can work with or like. I can readily recall stating how I like both Python and Perl's philosophies of having One Way and Many Ways. I think I've embraced a Taoist fondness for seeming contradictions. While I appreciate "furry" art, love the Star Fox games, even frequently use Furcadia, I do not consider myself a furry. If someone were to draw my "true form", it'd just be my head. Perhaps a little less tired looking.

I am not immune, and I catch myself sometimes, and other times I'll purposefully leave something to see if anyone calls me on it. I nevertheless know there are instances of group thinking I haven't caught, that just slipped out of me, naturally, easily, but I hope to overcome this for good one day even if that means messing with my brain. The best I can do is be on a constant lookout, and keep myself away from singular groups. This is perhaps the most dangerous form of religious thinking, since it begs to be exploited. Indeed, "I am an American" may end up being one of the last things said before humanity's light goes out.

Posted on 2010-07-22 by Jach

Tags: religious thinking


Trackback URL:

Back to the top

Amaroq November 11, 2010 10:27:51 PM I am a scientist.
I do science.

I am an Objectivist.
I agree with Ayn Rand's philosophy.
Jach November 11, 2010 10:54:33 PM Sorry, but "I am an Objectivist" is distinct from "I agree with Ayn Rand's philosophy." One is group-signaling, and a sign of group thinking, the other is a statement of belief. If agreeing with a certain philosophy was all at stake here, you wouldn't need a Group Label for people subscribing to the philosophy. The group label isn't equivalent to professing a set of beliefs, either.

"I am a Christian" ==> "I belong to a group whose members are Christians." How many Christians actually quote Jesus? How many of them actually follow Jesus' teachings?

In group signaling, the ideas are buried. Saying "I am a Christian" or "I am an Objectivist" is group signaling. If you said "I think we should have a limited government", this is not group signaling, whereas "I am a libertarian" is. "I am a scientist" isn't group signaling, because you're stating an occupation, you're stating something you do. A statement of belief is not something you do, and a group signal also is not something you do. These are three distinct categories...
Back to the first comment

Comment using the form below

(Only if you want to be notified of further responses, never displayed.)

Your Comment:

LaTeX allowed in comments, use $$\$\$...\$\$$$ to wrap inline and $$[math]...[/math]$$ to wrap blocks.