Belaboring the Obvious

Belaboring the Obvious March 26, 2008

When it comes to theist-atheist debates, one sentiment I hear frequently is that there’s no point arguing either side of the controversy, because no one’s mind is ever changed by such arguments. Last summer, in “Be Hot or Cold“, I pointed out two reviewers who both dragged out exactly this same assertion in response to two different atheist books.

There’s no doubt that conversions are rare, on both sides. And I also don’t think there’s any doubt that rational persuasion is usually ineffective. As anyone who’s debated a fundamentalist can testify, it’s all too often the case that even the most persuasive evidence and reason simply run off a sloping roof of blind faith. So, is there any point in debating believers at all? Are all our books and websites just belaboring the obvious, repeating ourselves to no avail putting forward arguments that are as true as they are ineffective? Are human beings, as a whole, too irrational for rational argument to ever make a difference?

Bearing in mind all I’ve said in the past about human irrationality, I still don’t think the situation is as dire as that. When it comes to matters of personal belief and identity, reason is often not a deciding factor on the individual level, it’s true. But on the societal level, it can and does have an impact. It’s like continental drift: on small scales it’s too slow to be noticeable, but over many generations, it builds up to more noticeable results.

To the atheists who feel frustration at the seeming ineffectiveness of rational argument in changing people’s minds, I answer that we have to keep in mind the novelty of the endeavor we’re pursuing. Science has been around for a few hundred years, but other than the small minority who make their living at it, most human beings are not used to making decisions on these matters through rational debate and persuasion. Tribal and national loyalty, familial upbringing, culture, local superstition, and youthful indoctrination have traditionally been the means by which people select their religious beliefs, and for most people, they still are.

We atheists are doing something fundamentally new: we’re not just introducing one more faith position, we’re fighting for a complete reshaping of the underlying basis by which people make these decisions. Compared to what’s come before in history, this is indeed a radical change: the idea that people should make decisions about their religious affiliation based on evidence and not on faith. We can’t expect such an ambitious project to show results overnight, and we’re just getting started in any case. (We have a few bestsellers; they have ministries that churn out apologetics twenty-four hours a day.) But the change, although slow, is real – as we can see from the steadily increasing numbers of unaffiliated in each new generation. To those pessimists who say that rational argument never changed anyone’s mind, that people make decisions based purely on emotion and tribe loyalty, I say – just wait and watch. You may be surprised.

I’m not saying that everyone is reachable. Most certainly, there are obstinate believers who will never be budged by rational argument. And my advice, when you encounter such a person, is: Why waste your time? If you can answer their arguments to your satisfaction, and if they’re not listening to yours, then there’s no good reason to further spend your time and effort. Whenever you enter into debate with a believer, do so with a clear understanding of what you hope to accomplish, and once you’ve made your points, don’t let it drag on. Be aware when your adversary is talking to The Atheist and not to you, and take that as your cue to exit the conversation.

The temptation to keep arguing, even when it’s abundantly obvious that no one is going to change their mind, is ever present. I admit, I’ve done this as much as anyone. Whether it’s personal pride, or a determination to break through to the other person, or a mere obstinate stubbornness which refuses to give them the satisfaction of thinking they stumped you – or, most likely, some combination of the three – it’s always tempting to fight it out to the bitter end. I’ve done my best to change this tendency in myself. I’d rather focus my efforts on the people who may be reachable, and spend my time and energy where it’s more likely to make a difference. When a person tells me that they’ll never change their mind, when they declare their immunity to rational persuasion, that’s when I give up on talking to them. But there are those that can be reached, and we would be better served spending our effort on finding them.

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