When (And How) Should We Bother To Push The Issues?

When (And How) Should We Bother To Push The Issues? July 27, 2009

Njustus offers a probing challenge to my recent post in which I defend Daniel Dennett’s argument that atheists should stand up for atheism rather than take the attitude that the religious beliefs that they do not share are good for their neighbors and should be encouraged.  I argued that Dennett’s position is not “ideologically narrow” but is simply equivalent to a political partisan, say a Democrat, demanding that his fellow Democrats not take the attitude that their neighbors are better off Republicans.  It only makes sense if you believe the world is a certain way to demand that those who agree with you not advocate for the opposite beliefs in their neighbors.  It’s just backwards for atheists to encourage faith in others and it’s fair for the New Atheists to complain about that.  Along the way in that post I distinguished the times and places for being contentious about belief thusly:

Now, maybe political partisans and religious partisans should know the boundaries of when it is fitting or civil to actively try to disabuse people of their illusions.  Richards Dawkins has said explicitly that he is not advocating bothering to dispute dying people’s desire to rest on their religious beliefs in the privacy of their death beds.  Both PZ Myers and Sam Harris have talked about how there are numerous contexts in which it is unnecessary, inappropriate, or uncivil to bother getting into an argument about religion. There are plenty of times where it is simply gauche or outright rude or cruel to raise or persist in a debate about religion, politics, or money.  The conventions of politeness which oppose these discussions are sometimes rather justified.

But this is not about the niceties of daily life, it’s about the positions we claim when we speak up, when we are asked to give a viewpoint on important matters of morality, policy, and thought.  It is about which institutions we prop up, how we raise our children, how we conduct our politics, how we give serious advice.  We can allow people their illusions where civility or politeness are at stake.  We must allow people many of their illusions where their rights are at stake.  We should allow them the privacy of their illusions as well.  But wherever truth and policy are at stake, we should stand up for what we really think and not condescend to our neighbors out of our lack of trust in their abilities to handle reality.

In reply to all these considerations, Njustus writes the following (the first paragraph of which I think is superbly put):

one observation i often come back to is that people’s beliefs are a function of their experience. to take it another step, sometimes i see people’s beliefs as an explanation of their experience and existence, and to the most obsessive of us, our ability to state our beliefs is the moment and power of self-actualization that allows us to completely communicate everything we’ve experienced.

what i’m latching onto here then is an analogy you made how a clear-thinking Democrat would not want anyone to think like or be a Republican.
Of course we are all shaped by forces beyond our control, and we do not choose to a large degree much of these events or people who influence us early on. Having been on both sides of the spectrum and now a self-described moderate, the question is how much leeway do we give people for holding onto their beliefs if they seem irrational? Do we take into account their intelligence? Do we take into account personal experiences like “born again” moments or consolation from deaths of loved ones?

I do commend you for breaking this issue down and identifying times when it is appropriate and inappropriate to press the issues. I think it’s impossible to separate an arguer or an argument from this very personal dynamic, though; unless you are playing devil’s advocate (and getting paid for it), who is going to take a stand on this kind of crucial topic if they don’t have some life experience that places a value on that belief? I guess I’m saying it seems impossible to extricate the rational arguments in this area from the irrational authority of experience…which raises a further question of why such a premium should be placed on rationality in discussing these issues.

I take your central observation to be that we form our beliefs through a lived process, rather than through inferences made in a vacuum, and that that’s where, inevitably, we do a great deal of intermixing irrational factors into our processes of belief-formation.  Probably because religion is a way of life and/or an identity, it takes root in one’s life and does not stay a matter for the brain alone.  This is also complicated by the fact that the vast majority of us are indoctrinated into our religion when we are children and especially intellectually vulnerable to deception.

As a result of the interaction between faith and life (and, not to mention, the interaction between lack of faith and life), people’s personal narratives play an integral role in why they believe what they believe.  And unlike abstract positions to which people come through abstract persuasion and against which they would therefore be receptive to abstract dissuasion as well, faith beliefs did not come to most people through abstract persuasion and so, in many of these cases, are immune to abstract dissuasion.

If psychologically someone came to assent to certain belief claims as part and parcel of their allegiance to family or friends or in response to an emotional trauma or as part of finding acceptance in a loving church community, etc. then psychologically the choice to believe feels right, no matter how much people throw abstract arguments their way which show problems with the abstract contents of their beliefs.

We are not first and foremost rational creatures but adaptive ones and most of our use of reason involves adapting ourselves to our circumstances.  Good abstract, careful and formally defensible reasoning is frequently an advantage to us and so quite frequently, even usually, we reason accurately because it is in our interests to do so.  But as soon as a psychological adaptation to the world or a relationship, etc. rests on some self-deception, rationalization, unjustified belief, or prejudice, then our minds will naturally tend to and cling to these various strategies.  And our minds will cling to them even in the teeth of evidence that we are being self-contradictory, hypocritical, self-deceiving, or irrational in any of a number of ways.

So, given all of the points you raise and the ones that you’ve inspired me to think about, we face the question of how and when should we approach debating these questions.

First, I think it is simply important to embrace the reality of human psychology and it’s tendencies to intermix good reasons and bad and to use reason as a tool for rationalization rather than truth-seeking.  We need to own up to the fact that this is the way our minds work.  We seek to confirm our biases and we seek to maintain our identities and our relationships and we do all of this because we are hardwired first and foremost to adaptively flourish in our environment and not to have disinterested truths or ones that would thwart our purposes altogether.

While I think we should find ways to cut through the psychological thicket that protects people’s beliefs about metaphysical realities (like God), epistemic justification, (like that faith is a good grounds for accepting a belief), and morality, I think we should remember not to blame others for their psychological process of belief-formation.  It’s nobody’s fault that this is how our minds operate and that we form beliefs about these most important matters in rationally inconsistent ways.

I think that with this awareness, we can help people pay attention to the roles that non-cognitive factors are illicitly affecting their abilities to be honest or objective.  I think that there is a place for making emotional appeals like shaming and ridiculing the most ridiculous examples of irrational religious thinking.   This is controversial of course.  I am queasy about being cruel, disrespectful, or belittling.  But I know that in my own case, Nietzsche’s emotionally aggressive attack and his mocking tone of dismissiveness played a key psychological role in telling me to “cut out the bullshit and face what you already know to be true.” Having spent all my thinking years in a project of rationalization of faith beliefs, I needed Nietzsche to call me out so unequivocally on what I was doing if I was ever going to be deprogrammed.

So, there is a place for highlighting religulousness as Bill Maher does, for getting people through humor and through vigorous emphasis on the contradictions of the fringe’s beliefs to get them to associate religious contradictions with silliness and stupidity.  Maybe they will still want to hold on to the more mildly irrational aspects of their faith or to pare down the number of irrational things they will stick by.  Last week I posted an interview with an esteemed astronomer who is a Catholic priest and the week before I debated a Greek Orthodox priest on this blog, and both of them were willing to eschew many aspects of biblical literalism but still felt the need to stick with the ressurrection (and in Father Coyne’s case, the virgin birth) if nothing else.  So, some believers will pare down the unsupported claims to just a couple key ones like that.

All of that is progress at least, even if rationalists like me cannot completely convince people to abandon faith, since they experience it as too inextricably interwoven into their personal narrative and identity, we can at least participate in the tug of war and contribute towards pulling them further and further towards the middle of the rationalist spectrum.

And, so, appropriating an old phrase from my evangelical days, my goal is to meet people where they are, empathize with the interconnection of their faith with their life since that’s an experience I have had and can identify with, and to focus on getting them to see what I think is irrational about what they are thinking and saying in a way that appeals to our common ground of reason, experience, evidence, etc.  In this context, one can easily focus on the contradictions of religious faith and on religious faith’s inherent dimensions of arbitrariness.  And from there it is a matter of driving home the conflicts between arbitrariness and reason and between arbitrariness and political freedom.

When should we bother to do this?  Well, for New Atheists like Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Myers, etc., they should do it all the time professionally since they have a role to play as public defenders and advocates for atheism. That’s why it is absurd that people whine because they have the temerity to make forceful arguments against faith.  Faith is eminently vulnerable to philosophical challenge and regardless of how individuals feel about hearing it attacked, the public discourse should not make faith off limits in any way to criticism.  It is a legitimate target and having strong, clearly reasoned, non-violent opposition to it is not “mean” nor “militant” but philosophcially appropriate in every way.  These are public debates about both truth, science, politics, philosophy, and morality and those are serious enough matters that they should not be worried about people’s feelings as long as their arguments are sound and their personal comportment is decent.

This does not mean that every atheist must take up a public charge like the New Atheists.  It only means that wherever the topic comes up, they should not feel like pariahs or bad people or like they have a disease they should fear infecting others with.  For most people I imagine it will rarely come up, and that’s fine.  A raised atheist consciousness among atheists does not require that we all become evangelical about it and go out and try to change our neighbors’ minds.  All it means is that people who really do not believe should stop feeling like they should send their kids to church to appease their families or because it’s a moral thing to do.  It does mean that when one does wind up in a debate about religious matters and it’s a reasonable time to debate, that one have some backbone to stand up against erroneous thinking, etc.  It does mean that atheists should look for ways to create constructive places for fellow atheists to meet some of the needs that most people turn to church for.

In my case, I do philosophy and my interests are in ethics, Nietzsche, and the epistemology of faith, so I see it as my place to be involved in actively and publically making the case against faith.  Primarily I am a philosopher, more interested in philosophical arguments than in being an atheist.  My dissertation is on ethics, for example, not atheism.  And when I teach my focus is on helping my students develop their critical thinking skills and not on getting them to think like I do.  What I think personally is 99% of the time irrelevant to me and to them in the classroom.

But I also think that one of the philosopher’s main social contributions is to be a defender of reason against her culture’s irrationalism and insofar as I think that faith is the root of irrationalist authoritarianism in thought and politics, here on the internet and among receptive friends with philosophically open minds, I see my role as one of promoting intellectual scrupulousness, rationalism, philosophical inquisitiveness, and freedom of thought and practice.  And, to my mind, promoting those things involves countering faith, irrationalism, and authoritarianism, and so that’s what I do.

On a one-on-one level, with those who would only be ultimately injured by what I have to say or with whom arguing would be futile, as Nietzsche writes in the case of Zarathustra and the old hermit, it’s better in those cases just to pass them by.

I hope this addressed your criticisms and concerns adequately.  Please let me know if I missed something or am wrong in some way.

Your Thoughts?

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