27 May 2014

Why don't theists admit they're wrong?

I've been through at least two major shifts in my perspective – one, my deconversion from Christianity some 15 years ago; the other, my deconversion from a self-described 'theistic agnostic' to a full-blown atheist. Both were gradual processes, with the resulting outlook the culmination of many months, and in some cases years, of critical reflection.

My transition from agnostic theist to agnostic atheist was rather unremarkable. Nothing really changed in my daily life, though I did seem to get heckled a bit more by family. They've long since backed down though, and at the end of the day I'm not really convinced there's much if any functional difference between someone who holds to a vaguely defined theism and someone who identifies as an atheist. They may disagree on issues like fine-tuning, creation, and near-death experiences, but those are generally relegated to the margins – they're coffee-table discussions interesting only to other armchair philosophers. But neither category of believer holds to any religious dogma, creed, or doctrine; functionally, both live as though God is not watching, without fear of judgement and reprisal.

My transition from Christianity was quite a bit messier, though. My faith was the backbone of my social life and an integral part of my personal identity. Throughout high school I'd felt disconnected from peers at school, whom I viewed as lost souls, while I integrated myself more tightly with my fellow Christian youths at church. I'd grown up with the mindset that without belief in God, there couldn't be any meaning to my life. After all, what's the point if we just die, soon to be forgotten among the countless billions of humans dead? (Fun fact: approximately 2.5 million people died in 2010 in the U.S. Seems like a lot, no?) Jettisoning my faith required me to develop a new social network, it caused tension between me and my family, and it plunged me into a bit of an existential crisis. I got off easy. I've known several deconverts over the years whose departure from faith caused them to lose their marriages, strained their relationships with their children, and cost them their jobs – and that's to say nothing of some I know who, despite trying to keep their deconversions private, are continually harassed and belittled by family and church members.

I, and many others, have been able to admit we were wrong. But why is our message so frequently ineffectual? Why do debates between atheists and theists almost inevitably end in an impasse?

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It's tempting to think, in all the internet debates I've had over the years, that the reason others won't admit they're wrong is because they're stubborn and they just don't want to admit I'm right. But of course, they could just as easily adopt the same perspective – and maybe I am the stubborn one; after all, being wrong and not knowing it feels pretty much exactly the same as being right. I'm reminded of Tim Minchin's quip that arguing with someone who is operating from a completely different set of assumptions is like trying to win a tennis match by scoring perfectly executed shots from opposite ends of separate tennis courts. 

I've often wondered if the high cost of deconversion is a reason for the inevitable impasses in my discussions with theists. But of course that would require some more self-reflection on my part as well – what would be the cost of me re-converting? The answer, I think, is not much. From my perspective, the claims of Christianity are so comically absurd, and the rational argumentation against the divine nature of Bible so overwhelmingly conclusive, that the odds of me re-converting are virtually non-existent. It's far more probable, though still unlikely, that I'd become some sort of deist or pantheist. But let's say, hypothetically, that I returned to the Christian faith. I'd have an easier time making friends, and could return to my family's church. It would ease a bit of tension that still exists between my family and me. It would cause some tension in my soon-to-be-marriage, and I know my fiance would be quite disappointed. But I'm also confident that as long as I didn't feel the need to shove it down her throat, we'd be fine. As it is, she doesn't share my hard-nosed atheism anyway. My blog would be discontinued or reformed, but I can't see that as a significant cost since few of my real-life peers even know that I have a blog at all.

That's just my personal situation though, and I'm sure that for other atheists the cost might be much higher. But generally speaking, I think it's safe to say that the broad in-groups that conglomerate around religious doctrines make the cost of deconversion significantly higher than the cost of conversion for most people. But is the cost of deconversion really a reason why the theists I've encountered are so difficult to persuade?

I'm not convinced that it is. I think a more plausible explanation is that the nature of the in-groups promotes reinforcement of the belief system – i.e., when one's family, peers, and academics like William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga and Ed Feser hold various doctrines of Christianity to be true (to say nothing of the 2 billion or so people the world over), it's counter-intuitive to entertain the thought that they could all be completely and totally wrong. When theological conundrums arise and bring with them some measure of cognitive dissonance, it can be eased somewhat merely by the assurance that many others, some of whom are likely much more educated on such matters, still hold fast to the beliefs.

More than that, I think the old sunk-cost fallacy plays a role, at least in online debates. It can be tempting for both sides to drag futile debates out indefinitely, repeating and reiterating the same arguments until we're all red in the face, with the thought that maybe this post will be the one that finally persuades our interlocutor to admit their folly, particularly when one has a strong social and personal investment in the beliefs they are defending. And admitting that one has spent considerable time and energy defending a fallacious argument might be seen as reflecting poorly on one's intellect and critical thinking skills – after all, no one wants to be viewed as someone who has passionately devoted themselves to a farce. I'd speculate that the longer such conversations go on, the less likely someone is to change their mind largely because the sunk-cost fallacy (in the form of "I would not devote so much time, passion and effort to defending a position that is false!") becomes amplified the longer the debate is drawn out.

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So how do we change people's minds? Scientists aren't really sure. It's depressing to note that in the face of corrective facts that undermine a set of beliefs, people's beliefs tend to actually get stronger. The New Yorker recently detailed just how difficult it is to persuade someone in their article I Don't Want to be Right, which begins by describing a study which attempted to correct false beliefs about vaccines:
The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked. The first leaflet—focussed on a lack of evidence connecting vaccines and autism—seemed to reduce misperceptions about the link, but it did nothing to affect intentions to vaccinate. It even decreased intent among parents who held the most negative attitudes toward vaccines, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. The other two interventions fared even worse: the images of sick children increased the belief that vaccines cause autism, while the dramatic narrative somehow managed to increase beliefs about the dangers of vaccines.
Well, shit. So let's say I'm right about, say, the inability of Christians to justify their belief in divine inspiriation/authorship/whatever of the Bible. To paraphrase Sam Harris, there is nothing that is written in the Bible that could not have been conjured up in the minds of the people who wrote it; that is, there is absolutely nothing whatsoever which compels a rational skeptic to accept the claim that some quality of the Bible (it's supposed cohesiveness, purported prophecies, etc.) was in any way influenced by or the product of any divine being. It's a hodgepodge of mythology, hagiography, and uncorroborated history, and the overwhelming evidence demonstrates there is no reason to take claims of divine inspiration of 'scripture' even remotely seriously.

I think that's a pretty damning problem for Christianity. This is supposedly the one book gifted to humanity by the all-powerful, all-knowing lord and creator of the universe, and that's what we got? That's to say nothing of the bizarre conundrums that are attached to claims of divinity, like why an all-loving God would go out of his way to have a 'chosen people', why he would choose people in the tribal Middle East (not exactly a beacon of enlightenment), why he'd tell them to just go around killing everyone else, and why all this stuff pretty much looks exactly as we'd expect it to if it were just a cultural fabrication and not actually a reliable account of history. Clearly, the Bible is much better explained as a product of mundane cultural affairs rather than a miraculous gift from an all-powerful deity.

I have often challenged Christians on this matter, and without exception the first tactical response has always been to shift the goalpost: I cannot disprove the claims of divinity associated with the Bible. Perhaps this or that scripture is meant to be understood in this or that context, etc. etc. And I sit there, flabbergasted. You're not even close to addressing the central issue, I think to myself.  I would think the distinction between providing incontrovertible evidence of divine inspiration and the weasel excuse that divine inspiration can't be disproved (which is true for literally anything, including this very blog post) is obvious. But the discussion quickly reaches an impasse as we are, to pull from Tim Michin again, operating on completely different assumptions.

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The article in the New Yorker goes on to describe an experiment in which positive associations were effective in changing erroneous beliefs, but researchers haven't figured out how to translate their findings into practical advice for public discourse. I'm of the belief that broadly speaking, there are really two types of mindsets: inquisitive minds, and defensive minds. The latter work fiercely to preserve the structure and coherency of their belief system even in the face of strong evidence and arguments to the contrary. The word apologetics comes from a Greek word meaning "speaking in defense". This means that the core assumptions have already been formed, and the apologist simply works backward to fit the arguments and evidence to their conclusion. It can be coherently argued that, for example, structures in the universe that appear designed are consistent with the idea of a designer, but there's no evidence or argument that leads us from a blank slate, or the null hypothesis, to a divine designer – indeed the very argument known as the "Fine-tuning argument" assumes its conclusion right there in the name.

So I think that whether any progress is made in a discussion is ultimately the product of the mindset of the interlocutors. And when you're dealing with someone dedicated to the post hoc rationalization of unquestioned assumptions, an impasse is inevitable. I'm reminded of a great comment by reader 'AdamHazzard' on a post of mine about testimony as properly basic belief:
[One] irony here is that even if one supposes that testimony "can be" basic, the basicality evaporates as soon as the claim is contested. If I ask two people directions to the nearest Starbucks, and one says "two blocks east" and the other says "two blocks west," I can hardly accept either claim as (ahem) properly basic.
Which is why Randal [Rauser] so often uses the term "doxastic community" -- i.e., he would assert that one can accept as properly basic the claims of one's "doxastic community," because the definition of the "doxastic community" is one in which the core claims are not contested.
But as a freethinker my "doxastic community" is all human thought to which I have access, and in my "doxastic community" the existence of gods is very much a contested claim. Testimony can only provide us with a basic belief that "Jesus rose from the dead" if we're deaf to other voices
Examples like this are abundant in my own experience. I've heard several intelligent Christians lay out complex, nuanced arguments about how Aristotlean metaphysics can lead us to all kinds of inescapable logical conclusions about the nature of God and the universe. But press them on why we ought to view Aristotlean metaphysics as valid descriptions of reality in the first place, and you're unlikely to get a straight answer. Atheists are all too frequently told by Christians that without God there can be no objective morals, but when pressed on why we ought to think objective morals exist at all, again direct answers are not forthcoming. Authors at BioLogos have seen it fit to indulge in astonishingly elaborate rationalizations that attempt to harmonize the Biblical story of Adam and Eve with evolution instead of simply accepting the vastly more parsimonious mundane explanation that it's a cultural myth and nothing more.

Before they'll ever change their mind, a believer has to be willing to assume an outsider's perspective, and that requires a certain voluntary detachment from one's religious faith. For me, that shift in perspective came from a study of comparative religion. I questioned the fundamental tenets of Christianity as though I was someone who had no particular reason to favor them over the claims of any other religion. While I was certainly capable, as a sort of masturbatory intellectual exercise, of conjuring up elaborate rationalizations to make my beliefs fit the evidence, I couldn't help but be acutely aware of what I was doing and it didn't feel right. I was ultimately persuaded by another experiment of self-critical analysis: answering my questions in the simplest way possible. That meant tossing out the assumptions that upheld my faith and allowing myself to go where the evidence led. A few months into the process, I was no longer a Christian. When I applied the same critical process to theistic arguments that I'd used to justify my agnostic theism for nearly a decade following my original deconversion, I became the agnostic atheist I remain today.

The most important point to recognize is that beliefs in general, but religious beliefs especially, are not simply ideas that can be dispassionately tossed aside out like a tattered pair of jeans. They're deeply intertwined with social and personal identities, and discarding them carries a cost – whether real, as in the affect on one's reputation, marriage, or career; or perceived, as in the false notion that life will feel meaningless, amoral and empty with the comfort and guidance of religion. Before someone will change their mind, they need to be actively receptive to the possibility that life will go on without their current beliefs, and that may require an understanding that they are not defined by their beliefs, and that they owe their beliefs nothing. Beliefs are meant to be analyzed, challenged, and scrutinized from every conceivable vantage point. How exactly we persuade someone to adopt that mindset, I'm not sure. Scientists don't seem sure either, as the New Yorker article explained. But if there's any lesson to be learned, it's that persistence does not pay off and we're usually better off bowing out of debates once we've articulated our point, no matter how tempting it may be to respond to a stubborn critic. Perhaps changing minds is itself a futile goal; perhaps instead the goal should be to create inquisitive minds, and let them change themselves.

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