Why don't theists admit they're wrong? Perhaps it's a lack of empathy

Easily my favorite part of writing this blog is the fact that I'm fortunate to have a small but engaged and wonderfully insightful readership. And shortly after my previous post Why don't theists admit they're wrong? hit the front page, I had some great comments that spurred me to reflect a bit more on these perpetual impasses. I don't think I've found any precise methodology for shifting another's perspective from what I referred to as a 'defensive mind' to an 'inquisitive mind', but I think the key may lie in our ability to empathize with others.

Consider for example that one could argue til they're blue in the face with someone who is convinced that homosexuals are depraved human beings; but immerse them in a community in which they must cooperate with homosexuals, and it becomes much more likely that they'll be receptive to a shift in ideology. This is why religious conservatives are so terrified of secular colleges corrupting their children – cultural diversity bodes poorly for dogmatism. Cooperating with and befriending those with different sociocultural backgrounds makes it easier to empathize with them, which makes it easier for us to critically self-reflect on our own biases and assumptions.

Reader 'Fraternite' left an insightful comment on the matter that provoked my own reflection:
Maybe it's a capability to imagine a different world? If you don't have that ability to "get out of your own head", you probably won't undergo any sort of significant paradigm shift. In the sense that stories are powerful emotional tools, perhaps it's our empathetic faculties that most often allow us to make that jump, experience things from another's perspective, and catch a glimpse of a different reality than our own.[1]
This reminded me of my own deconversion process, which accelerated greatly when I read a secular book on comparative religion. I'd read books on comparative religion before, but they were all written from the perspective of Christian evangelism – they existed to explain why other religions were wrong, why Christianity was better, and how to 'witness' to people of other faiths. When I finally studied the world's major religions from a secular perspective, I was struck not only by how disingenuous and misleading the Christian authors' representation of those religions had been, but by how closely many of the world's religions aligned with my views. While conceptualizations of deities and the content of rituals vary wildly across cultures, I was humbled to learn that nearly all the world's religions are united by a common humanism.

The result is that when I returned to questions that had been vexing me, like Why are there so many religions?, I was able to address them with a greater measure of dispassionate detachment. I no longer felt bound to or confined by my religious world view; truth mattered more to me than the preservation of my faith.


In the previous post, I mentioned the high cost of deconversion – a cost that can be personal (an existential crisis or depression), social (marginalization from friends in one's religious community), familial (disapproval from parents or strain on marriages), or professional (a loss of one's career, as is sometimes the case with those involved in the Clergy Project). That alone can conceivably act as a significant barrier to empathizing with non-believers, but I think there are others. Reader 'Lunaticus' commented,
Part of the reason why I think it's hard for religious people in general to change their minds, apart from the confirmation bias and sunk cost issues that afflict us all, is that religions seem to go so far out of their way to put horns and a tail on the alternatives. I don't know how often I heard in sermons and read in Christian books how empty, bleak, bitter, and hopeless atheists and humanists were.[2]
Some time ago I criticized the theologian William Lane Craig after he chastised an inquisitive reader for reading atheistic writings before he (the reader) had read a seemingly arbitrary amount of Christian apologetics [3]. Craig's response exemplified the vilification that Christians feel the need to heap upon non-belief and non-believers:
I find myself utterly baffled by the cavalier way in which many ill-equipped Christians expose themselves to material which is potentially destructive to them. It’s like someone who doesn’t know how to swim deciding to take the plunge in the heavy surf. Wouldn’t it be the sensible thing to do to first prepare yourself before venturing into dangerous waters? 
I remember vividly that when I first became a Christian I was very careful about what I read because I knew that there was material out there which could be destructive to my newfound faith and that I had a lot, lot more to learn before I was ready to deal with it. Do we forget that there is an enemy of our souls who hates us intensely, is bent on our destruction, and will use anything he can to undermine our faith or render us ineffective in God’s hands?
The message is clear: belief is to be preserved above all else. The 'horns and tail' to which Lunaticus referred are the ideas that rejecting Christianity leads one to existential and moral emptiness, that the embodiment of pure evil (the devil) is conspiring to seduce us into atheism, and that non-belief will ultimately lead to eternal separation from God. I've always found it remarkably strange from a theological standpoint that the god of Christianity appears to value mere belief over a moral and inquisitive life – isn't it better to be reflective but wrong than it is to be obsequious but right? Looked through an anthropological or sociological lens, though, the reverence of subservient belief makes perfect sense in a memetic view of religion. Not only does it reinforce the preservation of belief through fear of punishment or reprisal for heresy, but it also makes it less likely that the faithful will be able to empathize with outsiders, whom they view not merely as individuals with a different ideology but as lost souls both marching toward their own doom and as capable of coercing God-fearing people into joining them in the abyss.


Years ago I read a fantastic book, which I recommend often, called Religion Explained. In it, author Pascal Boyer examines religion through the lenses of anthropology, cognitive psychology, and social science, the results of which are wonderfully illuminating. I distinctly remember him describing religious communities as in-groups (what apologist Randal Rauser would call a 'doxastic community'), and remarking that religion strengthens inter-group cohesion but does so at the expense of cohesion with out-groups. Anyone who's grown up in the 'us vs. them' subculture of many churches is already intimately familiar with this phenomenon. But far from being relegated to fundamentalists and strident evangelicals, it's embedded in the cultural perspective of the religious believer – as William Lane Craig's admonishment of his inquisitive reader so unambiguously reveals.

So an impasse in a spirited debate, though it may seem to stem from mere stubbornness and egotism, may actually be an indirect outcome of ideas deeply embedded in the religious mind:
  • There is a high cost to one's social and personal identity in deconversion, and in some cases a high professional or familial cost.
  • Religion attaches 'horns and a tail' to non-belief, such that believers are convinced that purposeful and moral living are grounded in their faith – meaning that in addition to real social and personal costs of deconversion, there is a false but perceived cost.
  • Belief for its own sake is valued more highly than critical inquiry and self-reflection; non-belief – more so even than immoral living – is the ultimate crime against God.
  • Non-believers, or anyone outside of one's religious in-group, are considered not just people with differing opinions but lost souls without purpose, morals, or hope.
All of these factors act as barriers that prevent a theist from being able to empathize with non-believers and even those of other faiths. And if indeed empathy is the catalyst for critical self-reflection – and I am increasingly convinced it is – then religion is equipped to perpetuate its own survival though an insidious network of coercive beliefs that prey on peoples' fear of outsiders and the unknown.

In our debates with theists, we tend to hammer on ideas – carefully articulating each and every point in a vigorous and often repetitive exchange, hoping that eventually something will 'click' and they'll concede their errors. Of course, nothing of the sort ever happens. Perhaps a different strategy is in order. While the dissemination of ideas is vital to public discourse, it may be that actively working against those empathy-stifling biases could lead to a more receptive and inquisitive mindset that ultimately facilitates the spread of reason and the subversion of dogmatism. How exactly we do that, I am not sure, but it just may be a start in the right direction.


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