Wishing all readers of this blog a happy December 6th, the feast of St. Nicholas!
I admit, I had to look this one up!
Off topic, but I recently read your post on theological malpractice and the article ‘Teaching Humility in an Age of Arrogance‘ that it linked to.
I have been thinking on and off about how to communicate with those we disagree with fundamentally, Trump voters being a case in point. There don’t seem to be any easy answers here.
There are plenty of anti-Trump folk whose rhetoric, at least, is approaching a scorched-earth kind of policy: Trump voters are all irredeemable racists whom with we are at war, basically (and if there is any redemption to be done, the onus is on them, the Trump voters, to repent).
On the other hand I understand and sympathize with the argument that sitting down and listening to their concerns (and pushing for the Democratic party to do something to address them) is something that Black Americans have a very hard time getting, so it’s a bit galling and offends the sense of justice to ignore Black concerns for centuries, yet when a bunch of on average relatively well off white people vote in a racist bully, we’re supposed to go to them wringing our hands and apologising for not having listened to their worries earlier.
Then there is the problem that giving evidence and a rational argument is often not persuasive, and in fact can engender a double-down response.
Anyway, I was thinking about this push for more humility. Certainly I think it’s an invaluable lesson to teach students: it is hardly likely after all that an individual at the age of 18 or 24 happens to have attitudes, assumptions and frameworks that are right and sound in every respect, yet there are an awful lot of people (with advanced degrees, too) who continue for their entire lives as though this is the case.
However, I wonder how useful advice it is to us.
Look at it this way: we want to tell other people to be more intellectually humble (e.g. Trump voters, mythicists, Young Earth Creationists). But we, presumably, think we’ve got this about right: we pay attention to what the experts say.
What would it be to be humble with a mythicist? Surely not the way we typically treat them on this blog. We may be able to say that in some sense it’s patient, and hopefully we aren’t too contemptuous until we’ve been met with contempt ourselves, but it’s not at all humble. We think we know better, and we’re not afraid to let them know.
Presumably dealing with them with humility would be to at minimum listen respectfully to their concerns. But this is basically the same as letting them run riot with their ill-informed prejudices.
And asking humility of them seems in a way one-sided: we want them to listen with more humility to us, but I don’t think we’re willing to do the same for them.
So while it would be nice to have a blanket ‘humility in an age of arrogance’ as a slogan, and I would love to meet someone who instantiates that as a principle, I’m not sure I can endorse it as a general principle to be followed by all, and I don’t know how to go about wholeheartedly promoting humility when I’ve little intention of being more humble myself. “You ought to be more humble and listen to me!” doesn’t seem like it’s going to persuade a great many people of either whatever it is that I want to tell them, or of the importance of humility in general.
‘Balancing humility and conviction’, mentioned in the post, is a much better slogan, but without further clarification isn’t too informative (like most slogans, I guess). I think I’ve got it roughly right (although I am humble enough to listen to a contrary opinion!) but so presumably does a mythicist. They are only pushing with conviction the things they’re convinced of, just like everyone else!
I think humility should generally be commensurate with knowledge (or maybe expertise?). E.g., IMO, there’s no reason for James to be humble when dealing with mythicists, but I probably should, at least at first, even where I agree with the expert consensus. With political opinions, it gets a little trickier, because so much is truly opinion or forecast. I think humility in presentation of verifiable facts can in fact be helpful, if galling, because we can all tap into an experience where we were genuinely wrong about something and it took some real convincing to get us to change our minds. Rationality has its limits – empathy less so, I think.
I don’t think “humility” is as important as being “considerate.” Consider a teacher. A teacher doesn’t “talk down” to a student simply because the student is stuck at an early stage of their learning journey. The teacher tries to identify where the student is on their learning path, and then considerately utilizes instructional strategies such as Socratic Questioning, examples, analogies, exemplars, etc., to assist the student in moving forward on their educational journey.
I’m less interested in etiquette or who has the right to be non-humble, but what is an effective strategy to communicate with them.
If it was actually going to work to treat mythicists with humility, then I’m quite happy to do that myself, and I’d be enjoining James to do likewise, even though he might not want to, isn’t obliged to, etc.
After all, the main point presumably is to convince them that mythicism is not a defensible position, and more importantly that they should examine how they wound up in such a state — probably through a combination of ignorance and bias that they aren’t aware of, and furthermore they probably have work to do on e.g. their own self-awareness and intellectual humility.
But I just don’t think it would work: I think it would just mean they get to be as obnoxious as they please and still not listen to us.
As an aside, neither of us are experts but we’ve both got significantly more than zero knowledge on the topic. Zero knowledge is about where the most ignorant mythicists are at: the ones still going on about Horus, or who have watched one or two of Carrier’s youtube videos a couple of years ago, or whatever. And there are plenty of people like this.
I think it’s perfectly defensible to say “I know significantly more than you do about this topic, which is nothing, so you should listen to me”. This isn’t especially humble, but in a society that actually values knowledge (rather than looking like you know more than people, which is how our society really works a lot of the time) it should be fine, right? Everyone should be happy listening to people who know more than they do.
I’m not sure that James needs to do anything very differently here, it’s just that he gets to say it to us, as well as mythicists 🙂
(Of course, he can add that he’s an expert, but I’m not sure that’s really any less humble? both are just being forthright about the levels of knowledge involved and who should be listening to whom…)
I think humility in presentation of verifiable facts can in fact be helpful, if galling, because we can all tap into an experience where we were genuinely wrong about something and it took some real convincing to get us to change our minds. Rationality has its limits – empathy less so, I think.
Perhaps that could be a good strategy, to include a personal note about how you’ve been wrong in the past and changed your mind.
Unfortunately, my experience has generally been that I was right all along 🙂
I think I’m less sanguine about the empathy thing. I do not get the impression from mythicists that they’re typically the kind of person who is open to being empathically engaged with others, or at least not random strangers on the internet with a contrary view that they suspect of being crypto-apologists.
But it probably merits further consideration. I certainly don’t think that what is going on with many of these people (mythicists, Trump voters, Young Earth Creationists, etc.) has all that much to do with rationality. So in a way, by treating it as a matter for rational argument we’re missing the point.
But it seems very patronizing to say “I know you like to think that you’ve adopted this belief because of rational considerations, but actually it’s a deep-seated emotional insecurity that’s at play here, so let’s talk about that, instead.”
This is also unlikely to work 🙂
And frankly I’ve no idea how to continue that conversation, even if mirabile dictu they seem up for it. Plus I think there’s merit in engaging the rational side: there usually appears to be some rational capacity there, and engaging in a rational debate can do something there.
You’ll catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar. It is easier to persuade others with polite requests and a positive attitude rather than with rude demands and negativity. That’s the truism, anyway.
Apparently with actual flies it’s the reverse, but I haven’t actually tried it.
This guy has:
But nothing worked very well. Vinegar caught a tiny number of flies, honey nothing.
Apparently fruit flies actually like a little bit of acetic acid:
Anyway, I don’t know I agree. I’m sure this adage works well for, say, harmonious workplace relationships, but does it work for convincing strangers on the internet that they are wrong?
I do not believe I’ve ever seen an ideologue move from their position no matter how they have been treated. I think I’ve been extremely patient with ideologues in the past. McGrath is a bit shorter with them these days than I am, and O’Neill and Mark can be downright rude to them. I have had no more success in moving them than the others.
On the very odd occasion I’ve seen someone alter their opinion, but they were invariably less certain and more nuanced to start with than people who are outright committed to a particular view.
Being outright abusive is probably unhelpful, but I’m not sure, say, being very clear that a particular view is nonsensical and ill-informed is unhelpful.
I think the benefit is really realised by bystanders who are on the fence, and if the particular interlocutor does reconsider the matter, it’s often only over a period of time. On the off-chance they do reconsider, I think the fact that the situation has been clearly spelled out for them is probably helpful. Subtlety runs the risk of making no impact whatsoever.
When I am actually debating with someone, I usually take on the role of polite interrogating interlocutor and ask a series of leading question with hopes at peeling away at the onion until I get to the person’s unsupported assumptions (if they have any). Once I find those, I cling to them like a dog with a bone, lol. For instance, I was debating this guy once about whether Matthew’s nativity was just made up (since it recapitulates the story of Moses), and he took the rather idiosyncratic position that the historical Jesus actually did fulfill all the passages about Moses from the Hebrew scriptures – and so Matthew’s nativity is 100% history. What he didn’t realize (and where I eventually got him) was that Matthew’s principle source for the Nativity wasn’t the Hebrew scriptures, but rather Josephus’ retelling of the nativity of Moses. I like debating best when it is like a friendly game of chess. There’s no reason to insult anyone.
A dubious truism.
Well, suppose it was you who had an “un-grounded” opinion about something, and someone was trying to get you to change your mind. Would you be more “open” to counterarguments from someone who was polite and good-humored, or someone who was insulting/demeaning/condescending?
I’ll pass on the rhetorical question. My point is that from what I’ve observed of the saints who make painstaking, civil attempts to move ideologues to consider facts and alternative points of view, it’s all in vain.
No one says it’s easy, but that’s no reason to give up. Even psychologists/psychiatrists need to argue/debate with sometimes rigid patients to give up irrational/unhealthy thought patterns using strategies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I would say if I could help 1/20 people that I talk to who have a fundamentalist, dogmatic worldview become a little more open minded, I would say that would be a pretty successful effort! And part of the beauty of a blog is that you have the ability to effect people who are just “mere observers,” who don’t even join in on the conversation.
I’m not saying anyone should give up, or that civility and careful argument shouldn’t be observed. I’m just saying that with ideologues it doesn’t seem to be any more effective than stridency.
I think there are many well known former fundamentalists who have been persuaded against dogmatism and have adopted a more critical/scholarly view of the bible: including Dr. Bart Ehrman, John Loftus, and I think James also falls into this category too.
Which would seem to suggest that a critical/scholarly approach to the bible may be good medicine for the “Dogmatism Epidemic.” Even conservative scholar Dr. Mike Licona lost his job so as to be able to claim that the bible wasn’t inerrant.
I was speaking of ideologues in general, and I’m certainly not arguing against Biblical criticism (I’m all for it). Maybe this convo is getting off track…
I must admit I’m confused as to what you are arguing.
Well, I’ve repeated it several times, and it’s just a passing observation, so not worth parsing indefinitely.
Well, you said:
“what I’ve observed of the saints who make painstaking, civil attempts to move ideologues to consider facts and alternative points of view, it’s all in vain.”
– but then you admitted it’s not in vain in the counterexample case of religious fundamentalist dogmatism that I suggested. You seem to be arguing that sober argument both is and isn’t a good tactic with ideologues.
Yeah, your counterexample was academia, a cultural sphere where sober argument and collegiality is supposed to be a professional standard.
I was thinking of the internet, where lo these many years I can’t recall a single meaningful concession from a hard ideologue.
I never said I didn’t think it was a “good tactic.” I said it (often) doesn’t seem to make any difference.
I guess we’ve had different experiences on the internet. I’ve debated for years on the “Center For Inquiry” forum and the “Project Reason” forum (which is now merged with the “Sam Harris” forum), and I have seen many people do a complete 180 in terms of their worldview (eg., objective morality vs moral relativism, etc.). I think that if we are optimistic about being able to deprogram someone who has been brainwashed by a cult, we should be optimistic about being able to deprogram someone who has been brainwashed by a groundless ideology.
I have seen many people do a complete 180 in terms of their worldview (eg., objective morality vs moral relativism, etc.)
If anyone is interested in fun online debating forums, including debating religion, I highly recommend:
1. Center For Inquiry: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/forums/
2. Sam Harris: https://www.samharris.org/forum
* Every topic from philosophy to science to religion and more. Check them out. There are some top notch debaters there so you can definitely sharpen your skills!
Checked out Sam Harris’s forum and dislike the format. Not very interested in “mysticism for me but not for thee” Sam, either. Thought his Letter to a Christian Nation was OK but forgettable (can’t remember if he meant to be ironic by that title). Should’ve called it Letter to American Fundies.
I think you’re probably right about most of this. I guess what I think is that when you’re talking about YEC or something like that, there is an attachment to it that goes beyond rationality, so, yeah, you’ve gotta be rational, but one or two conversations is not going to work to change someone’s mind. One or two could well work to harden someone’s mind, though. That’s why I think empathy and, as John helpfully added, consideration is so important. An internet conversation is likely only one thing among many that would eventually change someone’s mind on a topic like that.
” One or two could well work to harden someone’s mind, though. ” ← this seems like a point worth remembering.
I do wonder whether there’s some value in the shock of a value-laden negative criticism, though. I don’t think there’s much place for gratuitous insults, but pointing out someone is an arrogant ignoramus when they know practically nothing about a topic and are presuming their judgement is better than the academy isn’t gratuitious.
Perhaps what is needed is a Nursery Rhyme:
When someone has a groundless point of view
Just do what a teacher would do
A teacher’s job is to provide scaffolding
And to do it without being condescending
I’ve engaged in and observed too many “debates” with Trump voters and religious conservatives, many of whom occupy an alternate reality. From what I’ve noticed humble, considerate approaches to persuasion are no more effective than polemics (needless to say, I’m not one of these patient commentators). Ideologues are practically by definition impervious and intractable. The best that can be done is to insist on the value of evidence, intellectual integrity and truth regardless of the odds of changing someone’s mind.
Apparently the most effective tactic is to argue in terms of your opponent’s perspective, but I haven’t noticed much success with that method, either.
The analog with mythicism is a little off-kilter. Mythicism is a fringe movement with outsized importance on the internet but that is negligible in the larger scheme of things. Trumpism is a crisis of democracy and government that affects the entire planet. Sure epistemology and epistemics are problems central to both conflicts (“Were you there?!”). Here the level of skepticism toward expertise is key. Hyper-skepticism toward expertise is characteristic of conspiracy theorists and ignoramuses everywhere. Trump, with zero grasp of American history and principles of democratic government, is the poster boy for the know-nothing bully contemptuous of expertise except when expedient.
I understand that it’s also better to give an alternative narrative or assert positive facts, rather than deny and negate what they are saying. I should look into this kind of stuff a bit more.
I’m not suggesting mythicists are as dangerous or as bad as trumpists. And your last paragraph covers off pretty well some of the reasons I see them as, if not peas in the same pod, at least both legumes (both fixate nirtogen or something). So I’m not really sure why you see this as “off-kilter”?
Here is another commonality for your consideration: they are both motivated by a sense of cultural grievance. They both feel they are not being taken seriously, they both think other people are getting undiserved attention, they both want to be at the center of things and they’re aware that they’re not, and they hate it, and both have a will to “stick it to the Man”: liberal elitists on the one hand, and Christianity on the other.
One difference, though, is that it may be as or more important to resist Trumpism, rather than communicate with trumpists. Trumpism has its victims in a way mythicism does not, and it does not necessarily help them to carry out patient, respectful and humble dialogue with Trump supporters. (On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a great long-term strategy to treat them an irredeemably evil Other that simply has to be combatted.)
Another point of difference is that while the hardcore mythicists are probably unreachable (through normal dialogue, at least), there’s quite a lot of casual mythicists or mythicist-sympathizers who do seem to be reachable. I felt our discussion with Marquis de Moo was helpful in this regard, for example. And ostensibly there is something of a shared framework, valuing knowledge and rationality.
At this point I’m not sure there are very many people who would say something like “Well, Trump seems to have some good points, but I’m not sure…”…
Well, legumes made me laugh, so I concede, and yes, cultural grievance features in both mythicism and Trumpism, though again mythicism is relatively innocuous. I suppose it continues to gain traction, mainly among atheist ideologues (and even, disappointingly, among non-ideological atheists like Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism).
I think Trumpist cultural resentment is fundamentally racial and misogynistic and should be fought at every opportunity. And frankly I do think the policies the GOP have rolled out since Trump took office are evil. As Jesus of Nazareth is said to have said, They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear,…
I thought at one point that a large contributing factor for some of them was the fact they have, in a sense, been sold upriver. They see, and have been encouraged to see, their work as good honest American work, their towns as good honest American heartland towns, etc. and have bought into the notion that if they just work real hard they’ll have a nice house and a tidy sum for retirement.
But especially post 2008 it’s become pretty clear that no-one apart from them cares a damn about any of this. Their jobs will go, their towns will decay, and their home could be foreclosed and their retirement savings evaporate and it turns out their pride of place and the deal they thought they were working under was all just lies.
I still think this is a contributing factor, but if it were the main thing going on for significant numbers, it should be apparent by now that Trump doesn’t give a damn about them either, so why are his approval ratings ‘so high’? Of course, they’re actually pretty shabby, and lower than his proportion of the vote, so some people have become disenchanted (or never thought much of him in the first place but voted for him anyway), but it’s not like everyone’s walked away from him.
Frankly, on any practical matter it’s difficult to see how anyone can approve of Trump (although the very rich have a nice tax cut to enjoy), so presumably his value is largely symbolic…
That is the narrative that developed in the aftermath of the election, and certainly there are plenty of voters frustrated by decades of wag stagnation. But studies have consistently revealed the strongest indicators of support for Trump are racial attitudes. Google “racial attitudes support Trump” for article after article on this subject. Trump’s base is strongly neo-Confederate and reactionary.
But especially post 2008 it’s become pretty clear that no-one apart from them cares a damn about any of this.
Barack Obama encouraged a slew of initiatives designed to benefit the working and middle classes, who of course got hammered after the Wall Street meltdown. It’s simply not true that “no one…cares a damn about any of this.” Hillary may be hawkish, but she would’ve continued Obama’s legacy in domestic policy. She was demagogued by the right for twenty-five years, and voters fell for the biggest con in US history. It’s tragic, and we are not amused.
Right, I’m tying to kind of describe what their perspective is, not what reality is. Also, as I said, I’ve kind of moved away from this as being the whole story, but I still think it’s part of it.
A few points:
*) they may not really know much about Obama’s initiatives.
*) even if they do, it’s still a kind of slap in the face, from their perspective.
Let me put it more strongly: they thought they were the center of the universe and they were doing good things from which they could expect good to come.
The fact that the Government had to address their plight with policy initiatives significantly undermines this notion. Plus they haven’t resulted in massive rural renewal and the return of good ol’ American manufacturing jobs or whatever.
*) racism is not independent of economic frustration, and it certainly isn’t independent of status frustration. No doubt this doesn’t bring racism into being, but it’s sure ripe ground for amplification.
I’m not saying any of this is good, or reasonable, mind. In fact it’s a pretty akward situation, as what they appear to want economically may well be impossible, and at any rate the people they’ve voted in don’t have any interest in doing anything to bring it about, so they will never ‘win’, which is likely to just lead to more frustration.
OK! Well, you’re right of course about the effects of economic anxiety, but again, the data suggests Trump voters were better off on average than Hillary voters. Voters struggling economically were more likely, albeit by a very slim margin, to vote for Hillary. It’s true the American dream of socio-economic mobility is increasingly a thing of the past. But your analysis ignores race.
Much attention has been devoted to the nagging question of why so many people vote against their own interests. As the GOP has yet again made crystal clear, its overriding priority is satisfying the demands of a tiny economic elite, some of the richest people in history, who feel persecuted by taxes and wish to pursue the accumulation and consolidation of wealth unencumbered by appeals to the common welfare. Ever since the GOP adopted the Southern Strategy to peel off Southern Democrats disaffected by Civil Rights it’s relied on race-baiting and culture war to sustain its unnatural coalition. The conservative base defines itself against liberals and non-whites. As we have seen, it will embrace a traditionally hostile enemy (Russia) against its own liberal countrymen. The core resentment of the liberal-hating conservative is the conviction that liberals take away your hard-earned money and give it away to undeserving minorities and immigrants. Ironically, they see people like Barack and Michele Obama as beneficiaries of an unfair system, affirmative action, that enables socio-economic mobility denied to them and their families. Yet they don’t resent the rich who organize politically against their interests. They admire them, want to be like them, and consistently vote for the rich man’s shills in government.
What I’d like to do is remove the conditions that make these kinds of ideologies seem necessary in the first place.
Of course, I have little idea as to how to go about doing that…
I’m not sure if I witnessed the discussion with the Marquis de Moo, but funny name.
Sorry for taking so long to reply. Thank you for these insightful points. The experience of studying a topic in detail is profoundly humbling, and it seems odd (and yet on another level clear and obvious) that someone who has had that experience – and who, as a result, insists that poorly-informed and dogmatic mythicists or young-earth creationists don’t know what they don’t know – come across as being dogmatic and arrogant ourselves! But the key is that those who study in a systematic academic manner regularly come across new arguments that cause us to reconsider our views. And so it should be clear that the reason we reject mythicism is not a lack of humility, but precisely because no proponent of mythicism appears to have engaged the subject in the kind of detail that produces that transformative humbling experience.
It should be clear to whom?
The internet (and life in general) is full of people who act like they know everything that’s important to know, and express themselves with conviction, and frequently without much respect or patience for people with whom they disagree. Most of these people know far less than they think they do about the subjects in which they take themselves to be knowledgeable, and many are just plain wrong.
If everything that should be clear to everyone was in fact clear to everyone, there might be no mythicists…
My point is that people who know a great deal about a topic tend to be very conscious of how much they don’t know, while many self-proclaimed internet pundits only think they know everything because they have never taken what should be obvious steps to acquire precisely the knowledge they claim to have.
Unfortunately the people who know a great deal about a topic don’t always make the necessary generalization to other people and other topics (after all, a complex and difficult topic you know nothing about looks about the same to you as a trivial and obvious topic you know nothing about…) hence we have people like Jerry Coyne.
Plus it doesn’t seem to be the case that studying a topic in detail always results in intellectual humility. Carrier has studied the New Testament and related material in quite some detail, even if it falls short of what would be expected of a professional scholar in the area, but this hasn’t resulted in any detectable level of intellectual humility (maybe he would have been even more arrogant if he hadn’t?).
A lot of internet pundits don’t seem to know any topic in particular detail of course, so they probably simply don’t have that experience to draw on. I really think the world is ‘flat’ (i.e. lacks depth) to many people, they simply have no idea of the massive amount of detailed, painstaking work that goes on in any particular area. They only ever consume at best popular treatments of a subject matter, so I think that’s their model of how this all works: read a couple of books and pontificate from the armchair.
I remember reading a short account of an evolutionary biologist going to a conference and sitting next door to a couple of conservative evangelicals on a plane. She showed them the programme, and they were kind of taken aback: they vaguely had supposed that it would be the mirror image of a Ken Ham event or something, not somewhere where religion was simply never mentioned at all and the papers were all amazingly detailed genomic studies, population models, etc.
If only everyone could have that experience. We need more creationists and mythicists taking plane journeys alongside academics. Tell the airlines! Or more simply, if the mythicists who read this blog would just look at the SBL program online, and see that the program does not focus on conspiring to promote the view that Jesus existed, but toiling away in trying to make sense of various details even better than we have so far, perhaps they could be converted to embrace secular scholarship!
In the course of this conservation I happened to read the article on Ruth in The Bible and Interpretation, and I was thinking that maybe rather than just argue with them it might be helpful to show them some examples of work in biblical studies, so they can see it’s not just a bunch of apologists shoring up traditional readings, or in fact anything much like that at all.
The other thing I’m thinking of is having a frank discussion about intellectual humility…
My stand-out intellectual humility moment was reading Kant, by the way.
There were a few others (some of which mostly just made me annoyed at not having been told about this earlier), but this was the one that really stands out in my memory.
Unfortunately this probably isn’t the best example for mythicists as Kant isn’t sufficiently enthusiastic and wholeheartedly supportive of the Modern Scientific Worldview, even though he did his part to bring it about, so it’s probably tantamount to being Lead Astray by Crypto-Theology or something…
Also, it seems to me that your experience has been particularly transformative, as lots of things you were sure you knew, that were important to you, were undermined and your entire framework had to change.
That seems to be reasonably common in biblical studies. I don’t think you get this kind of transformation happening in most other disciplines, at least not as a matter of course. I think a lot of people experience study as largely adding to what they already know — this is particularly the case in natural sciences, where learning more about chemistry is unlikely to force any kind of soul-searching or massive revision of one’s fundamental outlook.
Bother, disqus seems to have discarded all but the first two paragraphs of my last comment…