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Strong opinions, weakly held

Context is everything

I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t appreciate context.

I write that sentence after reading Andrew Brown’s post on how the failure to appreciate history on its own terms clouds the thinking of fundamentalists. (In this case, he’s talking about fundamentalist atheists.)

This is the paragraph that grabbed me:

Thinking about the ignorant, angry atheists who infest the Guardian’s comment pages I realised one thing they have in common with scriptural fundamentalists: they have no idea of history. They live in an eternally dazzling present and they can’t imagine that there is anything outside it. Oh, sure, they have legends — the inquisition, the crusades, the middle ages — but within these legends the actors move, as they do in renaissance paintings, entirely in contemporary dress. There is no sense of the strangeness and difficulty of the past; no sense that many things have been tried and failed; no sense that words once meant things entirely different and possibly inexpressible now.

It’s impossible to properly appreciate anything without understanding, to some degree, where it came from. Failure to appreciate things in their own context is a problem I often find when people talk about software development. I read arguments about the superiority of Ruby on Rails to J2EE without any appreciation of the fact that Ruby on Rails is built upon many lessons that were learned the hard way as Java frameworks evolved. Without the 1999 article Understanding JavaServer Pages Model 2 architecture, Struts, and plenty of other lessons learned along the way, there would be no Rails as it exists today. Without Active Server Pages there would have been no Java Server Pages. Without CGI there would have been no ASP. Without Perl and Lisp and Scheme there would have been no Ruby.

Whether the topic is programming, history, politics, or music, attempting to explain or criticize things without judging within their own context is waste of time and energy. The only upside is that when someone persists in doing so, it’s a good signal that their analysis can be safely dismissed without further consideration.

2 Comments

  1. Context is vitally important to understanding and participating in a discussion. I find it ironic therefore that Andrew Brown fails to understand the historical contexts used in his own argument.

    I haven’t read the “angry atheists” comments in the Guardian, so I can’t comment as to wether they appreciate context or not. However I was struck by Andrews comment:

    So when our readers claim that atheists never persecute believers, this is in part an absolute ignorance of some of the basic facts of twentieth century history — what did they think was happening in Poland up until 1989? — an in part a simple reluctance to believe that history is about other people. I haven’t shot any priests, and nor has anyone I know. Ergo, atheists never persecute.

    This is a gross misinterpretation and over simplification of “the basic facts of twentieth century history”. And by taking a purely literal interpretation of the atheist’s statement “atheists never persecute believers” he is, I suspect, making a disingenuous argument.

    Andrew’s argument goes something like this:

    1. Fundamental Atheist’s claim: “atheists never persecute believers”
    2. Marxist Communist are atheists
    3. Under Communism religious believers were persecuted
    4. Therefore the atheist’s claim in 1 is false.

    However, if the comments could be read in context, I suspect that the atheist’s were actually trying to claim that “non belief” (i.e. atheism) has no propensity to encourage the persecution of people precisely because atheists have no beliefs to try and impose. In the historical context a better interpretation is that it was the need to impose the wider fundamentalist beliefs of Marxism and Socialism that led to the prosecution many groups of people; of which believers were but one.

    When looked at in this context Andrews argument is clearly illegitimate.

  2. I’m fond of stating this as “before you can think outside of the box, you have to understand the box.”

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