A Debate About The Wisdom of Trying To Deconvert People

A Debate About The Wisdom of Trying To Deconvert People October 20, 2011

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:

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