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← Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and Other Delusions: Just Say No!

Gary W. Longsine's Avatar Jump to comment 19 by Gary W. Longsine

This observation from Metamag is spot-on true in one sense, but overlooks an important consideration. Peter Boghossian is clearly trying to reach people who have been largely unaffected by the decade long efforts of The Four Horsemen of the Counter Apocalypse, and the many tireless champions of free thought, like Michael Shermer, and others.

Comment 12 by Metamag :

"We are not the audience for this, heck, even when Sam Harris, Krauss or Dawkins speaks it feels unsophisticated now because we all know this stuff in great detail."

Boghossian's project is an attempt to explore the problem domain, familiar to most of you, but using at least one important additional criteria: avoid triggering the Backfire Effect, or dismantle the wall it erects around thought processes. Direct assaults on the destructive effects of religious belief (e.g. Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris or God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens) have persuaded some. As Dawkins and Harris have both noted, they do receive emails from such people, recovering believers. This web site includes a page of testimonials from people who have been emancipated from dogmatic religious belief. However, it's a safe bet that they receive far more angry email from people who, rather than being persuaded, were probably re-enforced in their belief that the non-religious must be allies or instruments of Satan.

Everyone who engages "believers" on a regular basis will know that attempts to dissuade them from even simple factual error for which there exists solid, easy to grasp scientific findings are met, not with cogent argument and evidence, but with accusations that you must be angry, or that you should "respect their beliefs". (Rather than the complex debate over creationism, consider instead the findings that "abstinence only" sex education leads to higher pregnancy and STD rates, while traditional/rational/scientific sex education leads to reduced teen pregnancy rates, and a delay in early sexual activity). Such people, faced with utter defeat on the facts and reasoning of any given issue, double-down on their "belief in belief".

As a community, we don't have a good response, at this point in the discussion. One tool here seems to be comedic mockery and open disdain, but we're not all comedians, and disdain works best applied uniformly by large groups, not so well one-to-one. What else do we have in our toolkit, which we can use as individuals in discussion with other people, to counter this, the last ditch defenses of not merely arbitrary, but blatantly incorrect beliefs with real world political and economic consequences? Not much, it would seem. Sam Harris often points out that we don't have a good way to engage people who don't think that evidence and reasoning matter (what evidence or reasoning can you offer, to persuade them of the value of reasoning and evidence?)

So, yes, people who are already free thinkers are not the target audience for the notion, "unreliable reasoning processes lead to unreliable outcomes in your search for truth." We already know that, right? But we could certainly benefit from Boghossian's efforts to distill and simplify the argument against belief, down to the very essence, down to simple, clear arguments that the religious might actually feel the need to confront, because this essence isn't, strictly speaking, religious at all. Boghossian's approach is deceptively simple: ask tightly focused questions. Do you care about truth? Most people seek to minimize false belief, and maximize true belief. Do you? Does evidence matter? If you believe something which is shown to be false, you might not change your belief on the spot, but will you reflect on it? Are you willing to change your mind, if you're wrong?

Some folk here feel that these ideas are overly simplistic. I don't agree. It took five hundred years of the Enlightenment before we got down to Hitchens' Razor ("That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.") This obviously owes debt to prior thinkers, notably Carl Sagan, and yet it's so much more powerful, by being ever slightly so much simpler. It turns out that making things seem simple is actually pretty hard work!

We need a cluster of simple memes, that help each other. The fear of death, the fear of hell, the promise of heaven, respect for authority, respect for arbitrary dogmatic religious beliefs -- these simple powerful memes work together to help religion maintain it's grip on the minds of so many.

We need a toolkit not merely to counter "belief in belief", but to replace it: beliefs can be changed, some processes for forming beliefs are more reliable than others, false belief is not helpful, beliefs formed without evidence might be right but they are much more likely to be wrong, willingness to change belief in the face of new evidence is a virtue, and so forth.

Boghossian's work will help us develop a meme cluster that we can use, to persuade people that epistemology matters, without using that five dollar word. Importantly, Boghossian is also championing the idea that in political discourse and educational settings, delusions are not to be tolerated. Delusions don't get a seat at the adults table. This seems obvious to us, but it's not the dominant cultural meme. We are tolerating and treating seriously a whole slate of presidential candidates who openly flaunt delusional belief (consider Rick Santorum's candidacy, which was entirely based on two stone age religious ideals -- institutionalized discrimination against gay people and women -- until a couple weeks ago when he added his belief that higher education is the work of Satan, to the mix.

If you look at the world we live in, it's clear that we have work to do. Science, skepticism, rationalism, free thought -- whatever you want to call it, it's not winning in the United States. Considers this discussion by David Brin on the problem of anti-science thought in America, and a few recent books on the subject. One of the two political parties in the United States is now fully, completely, anti-science. They still get half the voters to support them. We need new tools in our tool bag. Boghossian knows this, and knowing is half the battle (apologies to GI Joe).

Sat, 10 Mar 2012 16:56:31 UTC | #925895