Thursday, May 20, 2010

Is There Evidence That Public Debates About Core Beliefs of Christianity Are Effective

At Common Sense Atheism, there's a post about two philosophers debating the reality of Christ's resurrection. Of course these discussions are interesting, but I would challenge the community to look for evidence of further value. I have no evidence that they are no, but it would be good to get some.

What I mean by this: certainly among atheists there are no debates as to the reality of Christ's resurrection. We don't care; we've moved on. My concern is that by having the debate about whether Christ was resurrected, we already grant rhetorical territory. By the same token, if your next-door neighbor tells you she believes in leprechauns, would you take the time to research leprechaun mythology and challenge her to a debate? Or do you just politely tell her you don't and then go about your day?

Of course the question of how to and whether to engage, is strongly affected by whether the believers in question are an aggressive political force (Christians) or not (leprechaunists). So, if we do debate Christians, why not debate whether the idea of gods is even coherent, or even better, whether religious people can be as moral as non-religious people? Aren't we giving theists good field position by having such a specific debate as whether the resurrection really happened?

I think the arguments rationalists would make against my concern are two-fold: first, to start the deversion ball rolling you need to begin with a question that's concrete and close enough to pre-existing beliefs that theists will engage, and will understand it. How easy is it to get a church to let you debate whether they can be moral? Will the parishioners even be able to understand the point that question is making? (This is not an insult to theists' intelligence, but a recognition of the foibles of human cognition in general.) Second, there's a perception among atheists that if you weaken Christian beliefs regarding this specific cornerstone of the Christian faith (the resurrection), that the whole game is up. Of course I'm suspicious of this. Since the start of the Enlightenment, there's been no shortage of arguments and no shortage of people willing to make them. For crying out loud, they even just discovered a whole new gospel in the previous decade, and you can't find a Christian who cared! Religious beliefs are not a form of rational thought, and we need to let this and its implications for atheist activism sink in a lot more. I submit that arguing with theists is like playing basketball against the Pittsburgh Steelers. While people certainly do become rationalists after being exposed to such inconsistencies (thank you!), certainly not everyone does - not even close to the majority. Or so I suspect. But that's the point - I don't know if we have data on whether it's effective. And we need it.

Of course we can't talk about whether something is effective unless we define a goal that these activities are working toward, and that goal is open to debate - but we should be debating it more. What exactly are you as an active atheist trying to do? To end religion, period? Or at least to get everyone in the world to understand and fight for separation of church and state? To in general increase critical thinking activity? Probably the purest of these goals, but how do we measure that?

In this case, the ideal would be something like this: after the debate, give a questionnaire to two groups of Christians at this particular church: ones who witnessed the debate, and ones who didn't. Control if possible for age, education and income. Ask about their beliefs, their positions on separation of church and state, and positions on specific issues. Find them, I don't know, three years from now and ask again. Repeat for different methods. Of course the church in question may not want you deriving data from their parishioners on how to destroy religion, but you get the idea. We need data to tell is if this technique work, and we should always be looking for other techniques that work better.

I'll plug again the most data-driven rational-thought oriented blog I have found, Epiphenom, where the author applies demographic methods to religion - an outstanding contribution.

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