Made-up minds

There's a great article over at The Week that discusses just how stubborn people are when it comes to changing their minds about deeply held beliefs. The article focuses on political views, but certainly religious views are subject to the same biases. It discusses how end-of-the-world cults, when the world doesn't actually end, find ways to rationalize the events in a way that actually reinforces their beliefs. As the article details, we've seen the same thing with vaccine deniers, the debunked Iraq-Al Queada connections and climate change denial. I would add creationists (including the intelligent design movement) and a litany of believers with whom I've argued who, when presented evidence against their view, either change the subject or attempt to discredit the evidence rather than offering counter-evidence of their own. From the article:
In other words, by the time we're consciously "reasoning," we may instead be rationalizing our prior emotional commitments. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers. Our "reasoning" is a means to a predetermined end — winning our "case" — and is shot through with biases. These include "confirmation bias," in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and "disconfirmation bias," in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial. Plainly put, if I don't want to believe that my spouse is being unfaithful, or that my child is a bully, I can go to great lengths to explain away behavior that seems obvious to everybody else.
So, the big question is, of course, how I can know that I'm not falling victim to those things. And I suppose that to some extent, the answer is that I don't – and can't – know. It's always easy to assume it's the other person who is being stubborn and failing to correctly understand the arguments and evidence. But I think that I have taken steps to minimize this, and they've borne out in the fact I've changed my mind on several issues over the years (for example, my recent endorsement of ontological naturalism, which I had previously rejected, or even the fact that my original blog The Apostasy was initially dedicated to defending theistic agnosticism). Essentially, I have done my best to make skeptical inquiry and self-criticism cornerstones of my thought process. 

This practice first began when I was an earnest Christian attempting to improve my understanding of my beliefs by reading C.S. Lewis' The Case for Christianity. It would have been simple enough to take his arguments at face value, as they are in many respect persuasive. But, wanting to prove to myself that the arguments for Christianity were well-founded, I asked myself how I might try to disassemble and rebut Lewis' arguments. To my dismay, I found it terribly easy to dismantle the vast majority of his arguments by questioning the core assumptions he lays out at the beginning of the book. By positing what I felt were more sensible explanations for the dilemmas he proposes, all his subsequent arguments became worthless.

This is essentially what John Loftus is trying to get believers to do with his "Outsider Test for Faith". A common refrain from Christians, when they are asked what would cause them to doubt or reject their faith, is that they would do so if the Resurrection could be disproved. Embedded in this claim is a litany of a priori assumptions: that the Bible is a reliable historical document, that there are good reasons to believe that the Resurrection occurred, and that it is possible in principle to conclusively disprove a supernatural event which purportedly took place two millennia ago. And in my experience, no matter how much you point out that this is a fallacious shifting of the burden of proof – and that one could use the exact same 'logic' to defend belief in any religion – the believer remains stubbornly steadfast. It's only by approaching our most deeply held beliefs as "outsiders", questioning the basis for our most foundational assumptions, that we can truly be good skeptical thinkers.

It's a wonder, then, that I was able to change my own views so radically. Certainly the fact that I'd stopped attending church – which exists almost solely to reinforce groupthink – coupled with the fact that I experienced cognitive dissonance in a number of areas simultaneously all served to gradually allow me to critically consider alternative explanations rather than stubbornly trying to rationalize the ones I'd already been handed by Christian thinkers. Since my initial deconversion, I've changed my mind on a myriad of issues as I gained more information and insight, which often came from discussions with others. It's still possible that I'm wrong on certain issues and am simply being stubborn, but I've done my best to put stock in truth and reason rather than any idea, no matter how appealing to me it may be. As Carl Sagan famously said, "It is far better to grasp the universe as it actually is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." While I can't claim to be immune from errors and bias, I've done my best to live by those words and hold no idea as sacred.

Read the full article at The Week here.

p.s. – Actual reader comment from a past post:
"The only reason you are 'unimpressed' with the arguments for Christianity is because you dont want to believe. There is enough evidence for God, you just dont want to think about it because it means that if true, you will have to change your life and you wont."


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