A Debate About The Wisdom of Trying To Deconvert People

Jaime: So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how best to debate the existence of God with religious believers…

Kelly: Why would you do that?

Jaime: Do what?

Kelly: Debate the existence of God with religious believers. What’s the point in that?

Jaime: What do you mean, “what’s the point?” We live in the 21st Century, in a world with highly complex modern challenges and the vast majority of our fellow citizens (including an entire major political party) are enthralled to ancient, regressive superstitious beliefs with harmful real world consequences. I think we have a responsibility to actively oppose such falsehoods and their corrosive effects.

Kelly: If what you’re worried about is politics, then fine, I don’t like the religious right any more than you do, and I’m all for standing up for freedom of conscience to be an atheist, or whatever—but what you said a moment ago was that you wanted to debate people over the existence of God. I hardly see the point of that. Whatever other people want to believe is their right. If it makes them happy to have an imaginary friend, who am I to get in the way? As long as they don’t base the laws I am subject to on their discussions with said imaginary friend, it’s none of my business, as far as I’m concerned.

Jaime: Well, that’s a false dichotomy if I’ve ever heard one.

Kelly: What is?

Jaime: The idea that somehow you have to choose between supporting people’s rights to believe as they wish on the one hand and trying to rationally dissuade them of false beliefs on the other hand. It is quite possible to both acknowledge, and even vociferously defend, someone’s legal rights to their opinions, and yet simultaneously challenge their rights to their erroneous opinions from an epistemic and a moral standpoint.

Kelly: Oh I see, so now believing in God is immoral?? And so people do not have “moral rights” to disagree with you?

Jaime: I didn’t say that, don’t put words in my mouth.

Kelly: I’m not. You just sound really self-righteous here. So not everyone thinks like you, what’s the big deal? Why do you always want to impose your values and your beliefs on everyone?

Jaime: I don’t want to impose anything on anyone.

Kelly: Well you sound awfully imposing and judgmental to me.

Jaime: Well, what would you prefer—that no one ever cared about truth? What if chemists or physicists or historians or city planners or federal judges took your indifference to the truth? How would there be any improvements in knowledge or their correlate improvements in our communal life?

Kelly: The existence of God is not an objectively answerable question like that. It’s not one for the community to agree on and settle. It’s a personal issue. Just defend your right to have your own opinion on it and allow others’ rights to theirs. That sounds fair enough to me.

Jaime: So you don’t care if people live according to falsehoods as long as it’s not your life they affect?

Kelly: Their beliefs don’t affect anyone’s lives but their own. And apparently they like the the effects of their beliefs on their lives or they wouldn’t be so goddamned hard to dissuade of their beliefs. You’ve talked with true believers—if there’s one thing they are thrilled with in their lives, it’s their religion. They hardly sound like they are in desperate need of you coming along and setting them straight for their own good. They are happy as they are. Insistently happy, passionately happy, “spread-the-good-news-of-their-happiness-to-any-one-with-ears-happy” with their faiths as they are. So, again, why disabuse them of their bliss-inducing illusions? What makes your version of the truth so important that it needs to disturb and displace that happiness?

Jaime: They could be equally happy with the truth. Happiness is as much a function of personality as anything else. But at least with the truth, they can actually engage the real world more fully and make truer value judgments based on a clear-eyed grasp of how things really work.

Kelly: But the vast majority of them do engage the real world, in practical terms, just as much as you or I do. They keep their trips to fantasy-land nice and contained, what’s the big deal?

Jaime: But they don’t keep their false beliefs so neatly compartmentalized. Religious guilt is overwhelming and harsh. Religious judgments about values has them slavishly obedient to long outdated moral priorities. They wind up implacably committed to ethical judgments which harm themselves and others and which have no rational justification. They commit themselves to onerous, pointless rituals and self-sacrifices, they bully other people who don’t share these rationally indefensible ethics—both those outside their community and especially those within it. You accuse me of being a self-righteous moralist and yet here you are defending the people who claim divine authority in ordering people around? You are defending people who terrify children with threats of eternal torture so that the rest of their lives they will be fearful of ever thinking too hard for themselves about religious questions. You are defending people who exploit earnest people’s desperate desires to be good to turn them into slaves of patriarchal, body-hating, world-fearing value systems. They are the ones who systematically and unashamedly impose beliefs that have no rational support. I only use the force of reason to persuade, nothing more bullying or coercive or arbitrary than the same rules of logic we are all bound to accept as rational beings.

Kelly: But the people you are criticizing are not all religious people. They are just the extremists.

Jaime: No, they’re not just a fringe. Mainstream religion quite often preserves all the nasty threats of hell and all the infantilizing teaching that morality comes from ancient texts written by ignorant barbarians and that it never permits fresh new free thinking. Religions of all varying degrees of intensity involve the corruptive, moralizing pharisaical attitudes among the rank and file members of the flock. And mainstream, and even very liberal, religion regularly exacerbates people’s natural cognitive biases and teaches them to deliberately adopt fallacious modes of reasoning. You don’t think actively miseducating people in critical thinking skills is morally wrong?

Kelly: They don’t “actively miseducate” people in critical thinking skills. There are plenty of very smart people who were educated in private religious schools. Heck, for ages all advances in learning were done by monks.

Jaime: Yes, those were the Dark Ages.

Kelly: That’s an unfair put down. There was a lot of learning going on.

Jaime: But for as long as learning was constrained by the hegemony of religious authority it could not progress at anything like the rate it has now, since being liberated from having to answer to religious dogma which it was never allowed to contradict. For too many centuries all the leading thinkers were religious (at least outwardly) because religious power would not permit dissent. Now, we have the right of dissent. We have the latitude to speak our minds and expose the falsehoods propped up by brute bullying power and I see no reason to abdicate my right to finally shout from the rooftops what those irrational institutions insist I shut up about. I will not be silenced from saying that anyone teaching people to willfully and prejudicially believe things contrary to evidence (i.e., to believe on faith) is corrupting their minds and retarding the progress of knowledge (and of civilization with it). The centuries long unfounded moral authority granted to religious institutions is worth opposing on principle and for pragmatic reasons. Liars and charlatans should not be revered as moral oracles. It’s unconscionable to witness such wrongness and not speak out. And speak out I will, even if it upsets the selfish consciences of lazy people who willfully choose to believe whatever transparent falsehoods which they find pleasant and uplifting—regardless of whether it has oppressive, regressive, and/or cruel consequences for anyone else.

Kelly: But there you have it, they believe on faith. They are absolutely, prejudicially, and unshakably committed to their beliefs. They have incorporated their religious allegiances into the cores of their identities in most cases. And in most cases they did this as children and have sustained this emotionally central bond until adulthood. How can you possibly hope to reason them out of beliefs they were not reasoned into in the first place? It’s like trying to convince an Italian to renounce spaghetti when you ask her to renounce the pope.

Jaime: But it’s fallacious to assume that just because someone did not come to a belief rationally that they cannot be dissuaded from it rationally. If that were true most false beliefs would be impervious to all efforts at correction.

Kelly: Most are.

Jaime: I don’t think that’s true. Reality is real. You can create cognitive dissonance if you can show people that their baseless beliefs are incongruous with their most basic beliefs. People live everyday in the real world and their beliefs about it can be very well exploited to undermine their fantasies about supernatural worlds beyond.

Kelly: But they often base those beliefs in supernatural things on their misunderstandings of their basic everyday experience. They feel like their mind must be different than the physical world and they think it is intuitively and obviously true that this proves they have an immaterial soul (of some potentially immortal sort). They feel themselves effective in choosing actions and so think this proves they have a free will (by which to choose to love God). They are overwhelmed by the unfathomable complexity and breath catching beauty of the natural world—and even of their very own bodies and “souls”—and are convinced that only a great intelligence (their god) could design something so brilliant.

Jaime: This is true. We have to work against people’s backfiring common sense a great deal. But science has an ace up its sleeve.

Kelly: And that is?

Jaime: As counter-intuitive as it might be that blind nature created consciousness, creates our choices for us, and creates the apparent orders and beauties of the world around us, nonetheless these inferences logically outflow from the scientific perspectives that have given us piddly humans awe-inspiring capabilities to mold the world to obey our wishes in the forms of technology and medicine. When you really grasp that our abilities to harness nature to our purposes in stupefying and undeniably impressive ways has all been due to scrupulously rigorous intellectual methods that have unriddled the universe by accepting counter-intuitive truths, then you start to appreciate that the answers that uncompromisingly honest thought gives are deeper, richer, and more compelling than the thoughtless all-too-common and all-too-simplistic mistakes of common sense.

Kelly: But people don’t want to hear that. They don’t want to hear rational arguments. And so they won’t listen to them.

Jaime: You may not often (or ever) be able to completely change their minds with one debate, but you can certainly moderate their positions. They will not see all changes of mind as inherently a threat to their core identity and emotional commitments. And as rational beings they will often want to defend what they think and try to change your mind and even want to improve their own understanding. So, even if they also think they are committed in principle to never abandoning their current beliefs, when they engage in debate they risk opening themselves up quite a bit in spite of themselves. Lunging forward to plunge their sword at you, they leave their bodies open to counter blows. And if you land the right ones, you can shock them into having to confess they were wrong about something. Or maybe many things. Or maybe the entire thing. It has happened. Countless times. It’s hard, but it’s not worth giving up on them and conceding their minds eternally to the influence of shameless manipulators. Even if all you wind up doing in the end is swaying a fundamentalist to be more moderate, one has still pulled the other side a little more towards yours in the Great Religious Tug of War of the Centuries.

Kelly: Well, I still don’t agree but I at least see where you are coming from.

Your Thoughts?

More debates between Jaime and Kelly:

A Debate About The Value of Permanent Promiscuity

Moral Perfectionism, Moral Pragmatism, Free Love Ethics, and Adultery

On The Ethics of “Sugar Daddies” and “Sugar Babies”

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • NewEnglandBob

    It is working, even in the US. Hitting the irrational, faithful believers from all sides, gently and vigorously is causing the rise of atheists, agnostics and ‘no religion’ in the population. In a generation, the US will be more like many European nations and will be approaching a majority of secular people. Unfortunately, Europe is starting to turn back due to Islamic immigration.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I wonder how much all the public arguments for atheism are causing the rise of the no-religion set or are actually a consequence and manifestation of its natural emergence in the first place as decades of practical secularism have finally created matching expressions of secularism in theoretical terms.

    • Crommunist

      To a certain extent I think we are benefiting from the availability heuristic – getting out the common refutations to religious arguments makes it easier for atheists to defend their disbelief, and harder for the religious to justify their belief. The conversation has spilled out of universities and into the public discourse.

      It’s sort of like vaccination – if you can readily call the refutations to mind, you’re less likely to get sick.

    • abb3w

      I strongly suspect that the “Rise of the Nones” is more underlying cause of the public discussion, not the effect. Smoothing out short term attitude fluctuations by the ham-handed approach of lumping together all four decades of the GSS data suggests the Nones are on a logistic growth curve versus Cohort. The curve seems present even if you take subsets by decade – which implies the start was well underway by the end of the 1970s. PZ, Dawkins, and the others are perhaps making waves; but the tide seems to have been shifting since long before they started getting noisy.

      The question to which the tidal shift is a result of court-mandated (McCollum, et seq.) increases in secularism in government (if that’s what you mean by “decades of practical secularism”), or whether there’s older causes underlying the erosion, I’m not sure. I strongly suspect the increased move away from traditional religious epistemology dates much, much further back. Before Dawkins, there was Sagan– and O’Hair, and Darrow, and Ingersol, and on and on back.

      I also suspect the “Rise of the Nones” is only partially cause of the current discussion, with a comparable or larger contribution from perceived increase of religious fundamentalist impact in the US (in politics, or into buildings; whichever), to the disapproval of the secularly inclined.

  • The Lorax

    Pretty interesting. I think both sides of the debate were fairly examined and defended, and the question itself is quite a vital one after all.

    Whilst I agree that everyone should have the right to choose what they believe and be free from the beliefs of anyone else, that is unfortunately not the case in the real world. Jamie is right; religious people, even if they’re not protesting abortion clinics or running for office, are still, in some small way, retarding the advancement of science. These quiet masses will vote for those who share their ideology, they will become visibly or audibly upset if anyone discusses evolution or marriage equality around them, and they rarely shy away from saying things like “thank God for this or that”. This matters, it really does, because hundreds of millions of people do it, and those voices add up! And we know, since history has shown us, that if an ideology refuses to accept data, that ideology will attempt to suppress said data, even if the data is scientifically valid and accurate. This could mean a vaccine doesn’t get developed, or we never discover the arrangement of planets in our solar system, or we cannot study stem cells (all of which are historical examples). This means that the masses of quiet, but not silent, religious people are, as a whole, injuring humanity, as a whole, by reducing the available knowledge of nature. In short, people are actively harming other people. And we do have laws against that; our laws are just more direct, like with guns or knives.

    If we can agree that no human should harm another human, and I believe both secular and religious folks (at least most of them) should be able to agree to that, then the religious folks must accept and admit that any attempt by their institution or by them as a whole to influence scientific advancement to better conform to their ideology is harmful. And thus, if they support it, they contradict themselves.

    That’s why I fight against religion; I’m fine with people believing what they will, but only if they’re capable of keeping it to themselves entirely. Some are… many are not.

  • NewEnglandBob

    If we can agree that no human should harm another human, and I believe both secular and religious folks (at least most of them) should be able to agree to that…

    Unfortunately, “The Lorax”, there are many people who do NOT agree that no human should harm another human. There are many who take the attitude “I got mine, so the hell with the rest of you”. There are many who say they can do whatever they want in business and do not care who they harm, whether it be environmentally or those who take advantage of those who are not informed, ill, or aged. I am not even talking about psychopaths here.

  • Brad

    Very worthwhile topic, and very effectively written. I think the discussion format is a very good way to engage the debate.

  • mazeRunner

    Kelly: Well, I still don’t agree but I at least see where you are coming from.

    See? Right there. Right in front of your eyes, Kelly. The Importance of being Earnest…debater.

    Excellent write up.

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Jaime & Kelly have certain advantages. They fall into a philosophical tradition of using arbitrary names beginning with consecutive letters, for one. For two, they directly *buck* the trend of using explicitly masculine names for the voices in important debates. For three, they do not merely replace a presumption of feminine voices as representative of important perspectives for the previous presumption of important perspectives being representable only through masculine voices, no: Jaime & Kelly quietly subvert all assumptions about gender other than those privately held by the reader…and if the reader has occasion to be jolted out of their assumptions that Jaime is a man and Kelly is a woman or some other gender combination, then in addition to the other work the writing does, it also can serve as a lens for a person to think about one’s own gender mechanics. How does one come to the conclusion that X must be a woman, Y must be a man, and O must be a person who is trans (possibly also “really a woman” or “really a man”)? This is very useful.

    However, I wonder: what about other traditions, in which the speakers’ names are not arbitrary, but give a lens into the arguments themselves?

    Utopia = Kelly
    &
    Ver = Jaime

    for example might provide an additional insight into the arguments being made.

    Out of curiosity, what makes you choose J&K rather than U & V (or some other combinatioin)?

    • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

      Oops, typo FAIL.

      I meant “Vera” not merely “Ver”.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Thanks Crip for validating my goals in name selection. I chose J and K because J/K is internet abbreviation for “Just Kidding”. It is a reference to the fact that their ideas are not necessarily to be taken for my own positions. Even though I am not literally just kidding, and I think there is something to be said for at least some (but definitely not all) of what either of them think, I am giving myself the distance to disassociate myself from anything they say that is wrong.

    • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

      I should have known the choice wasn’t completely arbitrary. J/K – didn’t think of that. However I don’t know that *this* non-arbitrary choice is once that I think is as valuable as, perhaps, others. There is the other advantage, however, that you can use J/K for **any**conversation, whereas U/V is not so universally transferable.

      So this raises another question, however, having put this level of thought into the J/K choice, and given that you have soooooo many posts up on the right, is there value in recording these thoughts? Especially since you’ve clearly done thinking about gender on this topic and there is a long history of either NOT doing the liberatory gender-thinking or explicitly supporting sexism in professional philosophy circles.

      Thanks for doing the thinking that you do.

  • Beth

    Overall, quite good. I do have a few comments and questions, mostly about Jamie’s remarks as I am predisposed to Kelly’s POV.

    We live in the 21st Century, in a world with highly complex modern challenges and the vast majority of our fellow citizens (including an entire major political party) are enthralled to ancient, regressive superstitious beliefs with harmful real world consequences. I think we have a responsibility to actively oppose such falsehoods and their corrosive effects.
    What does this have to do with debating the existance of god? I agree with Kelly here, you are concerned about the religious rights impact on social policies. Believers in god (as well as atheists) are not uniformily in favor or opposed to any particular political positions, although the liberal/fundamentalist religious specturem does correlate closely with the liberal/conservative political spectrum.

    While I agree that it’s quite possible to both support someone’s right to believe as they choose and simultaneously challenge their beliefs as being incorrect, I don’t see this an a reasoned response to the point Kelly made. It seems a non-sequitor instead.

    I will say this though, you do not need to justify your desire to debate the existance of god with believers. There’s nothing wrong with doing so. People have enjoyed debating that particular question for centuries – at least in times and places where they weren’t afraid of being punished for voicing their opinions.

    Religious guilt is overwhelming and harsh. Religious judgments about values has them slavishly obedient to long outdated moral priorities.

    What does this have to do with debating the existance of god? Religous guilt is not necessarily overwhelming and harsh. Nor does getting people to become athiests mean that they will give up their ‘outdated moral priorities’. You don’t expect them to start robbing and murdering people as a result of giving up belief in god. Why would you expect their other moral values to change and not only change, but change in the direction you are presuming?

    They could be equally happy with the truth. Happiness is as much a function of personality as anything else. But at least with the truth, they can actually engage the real world more fully and make truer value judgments based on a clear-eyed grasp of how things really work.

    I don’t know that this is true. First, losing belief in god can be very unsettling and can often lead to people becoming very unhappy for a variety of reasons. It can also lead to profound unhappiness on the part of other individuals, such as the parents or spouses of that person.

    Second, I don’t think this argument is supported by objective evidence. How can such things be evaluated for anyone but themself? While you may feel that your atheism has lead you make truer value judgments, other people make the same claims for their religious conversions.

    Jamie: You don’t think actively miseducating people in critical thinking skills is morally wrong?
    Kelly: They don’t “actively miseducate” people in critical thinking skills.

    Jamie never answers this objection of Kelly’s. Instead, the discourse goes into the history of education, the importance of the right to dissent (I strongly agree with that!) and religious leaders are universally equated to liars and charlatans. That doesn’t address Kelly’s point. Where is the evidence or reasoned argument that religious believers are actively miseducating people in critical thinking skills?

    I will not be silenced from saying that anyone teaching people to willfully and prejudicially believe things contrary to evidence (i.e., to believe on faith) is corrupting their minds and retarding the progress of knowledge (and of civilization with it).

    Who is attempting to silence Jamie? And by what methods? Not Kelly, who only asks why Jamie wants to debate the existance of god with religious believers. Kelly never even asks him not to do so.

    All in all, a good read. Thanks.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Good questions, Beth, worth addressing in a post of their own (whether soon or down the road, I am not yet sure…)


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