Several months ago I was asked to contribute a few paragraphs for the new Atheos app, a mobile app to help skeptics deconstruct the arguments of religious believers in order to nudge them toward a more consistent rationality. People who know me know that I’m not much for prolonged debate, even if I do succumb to an argument myself from time to time (sometimes it’s just fun, alright?). But I did contribute a few lines to the project, both because it was being put together by friends and because I do have some thoughts on the subject.
The project demanded a high degree of brevity, which is a challenge for me (now make your shocked face). So after each excerpted paragraph below, I’ll try to flesh out a bit of what I meant. I called the short piece I submitted “What Lies Beneath the Suit of Armor.”
Fighting the Wrong Battles
Religion springs from the emotions first, and then the intellect.
Like a body of flesh wearing a suit of armor, its core content is sentimental even though it surrounds itself with a protective layer of rational justification. You can confront the surface layer of belief with logical argumentation, but the animating force behind it all defies direct analysis by purely philosophical tools. You can expose the flaws in their system of belief, but their minds will resist change because their real reasons for believing lie elsewhere, on another level.
I contend that, more often than not, rational argumentation misses the point. The real reasons people believe what they believe lie elsewhere. So when you spend most of your time trying to deconstruct the other guy’s epistemology, you’re not really getting to the root of the issue.*
I’m not saying that’s a completely useless endeavor, mind you. I’m only saying that, after you’ve eviscerated the other guy’s points, if his mind doesn’t budge, you shouldn’t be too surprised. Perhaps his most powerful reasons for maintaining his belief system aren’t subject to the kind of argumentation you are trying to use.
I would recommend doing a little digging into the sociology of belief, learning to better understand how belief systems function in groups, how they survive the test of time, and why they hold the power over a population of people the way they do. It will likely affect the way you approach the “interfaith” dialogue (for the lack of a better term).
For Some, God Does Exist
Your approach to conversation with the devout must also take into account that they themselves are active participants in their religion, continually creating their own personal experience of the divine on a subconscious level, apart from their own awareness.
Many theists enjoy an ongoing relationship with a person of their own invention, one whose existence depends on their continual re-creation. When you tell them this person doesn’t exist, you are contradicting an experience they know to be real because they themselves are generating it. Losing that would come at a great psychological cost.
I’m not suggesting here that people are aware that they are doing this, and I recognize the presumptuousness of claiming to know what’s going on in another person’s head. I get onto Christian friends for doing that to me all the time (e.g. “You’re really just angry at God”). The main difference is that in a sense I have already walked a mile in their shoes (or maybe ten), and I remember how my own relationship with God worked in the past.
Looking back, I can see how I actively worked to conform my own perceptions to match my devout expectations. I learned how to “hear God’s voice” and I reveled in it for many years. Of course I wasn’t one of those who went around telling other people that I knew what God says about this or that—I simply enjoyed my own personal experience of this person who I sincerely thought was real, and was talking to me personally in one manner or another.
[Related: “Yes, Virginia, God Does Exist“]
Over time you get really good at it, especially if you’re smart. Too many atheists who have never been on the other side of faith suspect that religious people are less intelligent, but that’s not necessarily the case. The more intelligent you are, the better you simply are at rationalizing what you already believe. And for the record, I’ve seen the exact same dynamic happening among “skeptics” as well. Maybe with us it’s not about invisible beings, but we can be terribly good at defending our own pet issues, allowing our own feelings to cloud our judgment about certain things. We’re just better arguers.
But back to my main point: Since they are the ones creating their own personal experience, no one but they themselves will be able to effectively uncover what’s going on inside their own heads.
Let Them Do the Work
This is why, generally speaking, an indirect approach works best when introducing critical thinking into another person’s religious belief system.
For many of us who deconverted, the journey away from supernaturalism began with a great deal of introspection. We began to ask ourselves: How did we come to believe in the first place?
We also began to notice how perfectly our beliefs seemed to be constructed around our own psychological needs, and how immune to falsification they had become after centuries of collective rationalization.
You could begin by suggesting they ask themselves honest questions about how conveniently their beliefs meet their own psychological and social needs.
I simply had to get to a place in my life where the environmental factors were right for me to ask myself the really hard questions that I had asked myself so many times before, but without flinching this time around. Sometimes you just have to get to the right place in your own head to finally do business with your own inner skeptic.
For me, that happened when I finally began to see how immune to critique my own beliefs had become. Something about it all being so neat and tidy and perfect finally raised a red flag for me, and that got me to thinking a bit more earnestly about how I knew that the things I believed were really true. In time I came to see how perfectly I tailored my own experience of the divine to meet my own needs. I think it happens that way for a lot of people.
You might also help them recognize how consistently their system of belief categorically excludes anything which would invalidate or falsify it. How much of what they believe could still exist apart from their own active participation in maintaining it? How much of what they believe can be evidenced apart from what goes on inside their own heads?
A belief system that is impossible to disprove should automatically raise the suspicions of any critically thinking person.
By itself, it doesn’t invalidate a belief to discover that it is impossible to disprove. But the more unfalsifiable beliefs a system contains, the more suspicious of it we should become. For me personally, the hermetically sealed “perfection” of my own beliefs made me realize that it wasn’t divine providence that made them so—it was the ongoing editing and revision of my beliefs to conform to each challenge that assailed them in my own life.
More than anything else, what struck me as I began to more seriously question my own faith was the way that all of my evidences for the things I believed were so consistently subjective. I was taught to redirect my focus from things outside of myself (empirical observation) to things inside my own head (my feelings, my own sense of “peace” and well-being, etc).
Always the impetus was to train myself not to look for external evidences of what was supposed to be happening in my “walk with the Lord,” instead looking for those internal things which I could ensure happen the way they should (because I and I alone am in control of what happens there, inside my own head).
Does that necessarily mean what I believed wasn’t really real? No, it doesn’t. You could call all of this circumstantial evidence, and we all know how that can mislead. But it’s a piece of the puzzle nonetheless, and it’s one which many of us picked up along the way on our journey out of our own beliefs.
Missing Your Target
Some folks like to debate. It just runs in their blood. I figure it can be a useful mental exercise, provided you are capable of not getting so buried in philosophical minutiae that you lose everyone you are trying to persuade. It’s always a good idea to discuss ideas publicly, because no ideas should be immune to critical analysis. I agree with Greta Christina when she says that religious ideas shouldn’t get a free pass simply because they are “felt” so strongly.
I would only caution that religious beliefs are slippery things, and they spring forth from a psychological place which isn’t always apparent. Like trying to shoot an arrow into a body of water, your true target might not be where you think it is because the water itself distorts your view.
That’s kind of like the human mind. Even when you take aim at the thing you want to hit, you have to realize it might not really reside where you think it does.
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
* Someone will eventually notice that it appears hypocritical for me to say that the real reasons religious people believe what they believe lie somewhere other than on the level of rational argumentation. What makes it potentially hypocritical is that I’ve so often pushed back when a Christian says “The real reason you disbelieve is ________” (fill in the blank with a motivation of your choice). Rather than addressing the intellectual or epistemological issues I bring up, they keep redirecting the discussion to something far more difficult to discuss objectively: my inner motivations.
I contend that this moves the discussion from something debatable to something completely subjective and therefore impossible to nail down. People whose lives are built on faith learn to be more comfortable in this “squishier” space, where things aren’t measurable, where goalposts move at will, and where personal beliefs and feelings count as “evidence” which should for some reason persuade other people to change their minds.
The main difference, to my mind, is that when I suggest that people hold to their religious beliefs at least in part due to environmental factors, I can actually point to the things I mean. They are not difficult to discover. For example, people born in English speaking countries tend to be raised in Christian subcultures, while people born in North Africa and Malaysia tend to be raised Muslim, and so on.
You can even quantify the sociological influences within a region or subculture, which makes the discussion even more concrete. Sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists are constantly building onto our knowledge base, allowing us to see “behind the curtain” of religious beliefs and practices. This is far sturdier stuff than studying theology, which splinters and mutates according to external forces which its own investigative tools can never fully comprehend, but which the aforementioned social scientists can explain with amazing precision.