Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Is Your Religion *True*: Part 2

The following is a response to reader Dan, who commented on my "Is Your Religion *True*" post. Dan raised good points so I thought this deserved its own spot.

Dan - you are certainly correct that none of these tricks have a 100% success rate. In fact I don't expect any of them to induce a forehead slap and an immediate deversion. "Duh, I've wasted my life! Thanks for showing me the way Mike!" It's rare that the tricks aren't immediately rejected. Furthermore, I suspect that far, far less than half of the faithful that reject this one out of hand will attack the question in the analytic way that you have here, and the rest will not be able even to entertain it. "It's true and that's just it, and I don't need to think about it anymore."

Like many atheists, I used to imagine that there was some shining argument that, like the metavirus in Snow Crash, would upon delivery immediately permeate a religionist's being and make continued belief impossible. Such a thing is restricted to the pages of Dune. Airtight logic fails badly as rhetoric on everyone, including you and me. Your point is well-taken that logic ultimately has to underlie our way of looking at the world, but this isn't necessarily so for the propagation of rationalism.

What I have tried to focus on recently are simple questions short and easy enough that they have a chance in hell of echoing in the hearer's head for a while - questions that turn the hearer's values against each other and force assumptions to the surface. Other than your wife and family, the proportion of time people will spend in your presence is vanishingly small compared to the rest of their lives (which in your case is a great boon). So I try to think of questions that will keep repeating themselves in an "internally viral" way, to bring about a very gradual erosion. Erosion must be gradual if it is to happen at all; there are no depiphanies.

Discussion is damaging to religion, which is why I think so many published atheists are seemingly intent on continuing the public debate for its own sake (e.g. Christopher Hitchens).

Of course, these are almost entirely untested or at best rely on the anecdotal experience of myself and a handful of atheists with whom I correspond. What we need is data! It's hard to get theists to sit still for deversion focus groups, although something like this is exactly what we need to do.


Dan said...

I'm flattered. How did you know that I force my family members to watch Dune whenever I'm near them?

My guts-on-the-table augury of the future is that "true religion" conversations with strongly religious folks will fail to devert even slightly. I don't think you'll get a discussion at all. I think you'll just get a fight.

If your goal is deversion, don't go for the top-down approach by attacking their religion. Go for the supports by having a discussion like "What makes something true?" or "What kind of information should be acted upon?" or even "Deduction versus Induction."

Consider whether your goal is to defeat religion (best of luck with that one,) or to discourage magical thinking and special ways of knowing.

That's why the fight against I.D. is very important. The real fight is against magical thinking. An atheist who likes to fight theists plays Whack-a-Mole. An atheist who wants to get something done traces the wire and unplugs the Whack-a-Mole machine.

Michael Caton said...

The goal is not to defeat religion. The only thing that will get rid of religion is genetic engineering. That's why the best plan is to continue pushing it out of public life, and to focus on the young, the on-the-fence, and the reasonable who know it doesn't make for good government. This debate will surge back and forth as long as there are people.

The less obvious head-on attacks (like "what make something true") do tend to work better. A less abstract and possibly more effective technique is to work with Islam. So, you think it's ridiculous that people base their lives on this silly book without evidence? Me too! Not only does it establish common ground, but it's a less abstract way to start eroding the barriers that allow doublethink. I've been having fun recently talking about Islamic creationism. The spaghetti monster can be dismissed because no one really believes it, but hundreds of millions of people really do believe that Allah created us in our present form. Islam gives a nice chance for an end-run.

Dan said...

Using Islam as a target dummy is only useful if you can swing a connection to another religion and make it stick.

From the outside, it's easy to see the similarities between religions, but from the inside, they look radically different. Why else would we have religious wars?

Of course it's foolish to follow Islam. It's false. Christianity is the true religion because it says so in The Bible.

You don't have a prayer (heh) of making headway with your analogy, until you can explain why Scripture is not Evidence.

Michael Caton said...

They do look different from the inside. That's why you have to start with another one (and politically today, Islam does the trick). There's no shut-down defense mechanism, and you can try to get people in the habit of thinking critically about other religions. At the very least it makes doublethink more challenging. I don't envision every saying in conversation "If you attack Islam for X, then you also have to attack Christianity for X." After enough under-the-door assaults on tricks in the Qu'ran and Islam, there will be some degree of dangerous thoughts popping up.