I had a conversation earlier with a friend about reaching theists. I don’t mean reaching out to them, I mean actually reaching their rationality with logical arguments that will make them re-examine their beliefs. By extension, this applies as much to any kind of true-believer, not just theists.
This friend quoted another acquaintance who had something interesting to say on the matter. It was ‘if your beliefs are not themselves based on evidence, then you aren’t likely to be swayed by evidence.’
This is very interesting, mostly true, and rather worrying. I’m sure anyone with their logical cap on could look at the situation and think “that’s stupid. Who would actually believe something without any evidence, and actually in spite of the contradictory evidence?” Well yes, it is stupid. But we’ve all been guilty of it, mostly as children when we didn’t know any better. We can probably all think of someone we know who disagrees with us (except me; everyone I know agrees with me because I’m infallible), but it’s interesting that we mostly disagree with others over ambiguous (at least seemingly-so) or subjective issues; for instance morality, politics, tax, beauty, music, or art. I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever argued with somebody over gravity, the orbit of the earth around the sun, the colour of the sky, etc.
In general areas of debate, the intensity of argument seems to be inversely proportional to the knowledge available. For example, I am pro-choice, but understand the ambiguity that surrounds abortion. The problem is that not everyone is aware of the facts, and emotion and propaganda get in the way of logical thinking often. Another example might be music or beauty, inherently subjective and very broad subjects; we may argue for hours over Bach or Mozart, the Backstreet Boys or the Pet Shop Boys; or who has the nicest physical features between Christina Aguilera and Avril Lavigne. The obvious problem here is that evidence to support positions is not readably available. And thus we spend hours fighting over whether the Matrix: Revolutions was a stunning action movie or a disappointing clichéd pile of faecal matter. If you introduce objective parameters into the discussion, it makes it easier to reach conclusions: e.g.: camera work, acting, directing, storyline etc – I might agree with you 100% that Film A is objectively superior in ways x, y, and z than Film B, but that doesn’t mean I like it more – how can you prove me wrong? You can’t.
However, if our purpose is to reach an agreement, we help ourselves greatly by establishing some objective criteria. If what we’re arguing about isn’t subjective, and there is sufficient evidence, then we should reach a conclusion that everyone can agree on.
Returning to an earlier example: all the facts in the world can’t tell you to agree with abortion or not. That depends on further issues. But if the question is: is abortion (before a certain time) the taking of a human life? That is an objective question, and the answer is no (fact based on evidence). Therefore abortion isn’t murder, and there is nothing wrong with it from that sense. The question: is it right to terminate the life of a glob of cells living inside a woman? If someone answers yes, then I hope they’ve never stood on ants or swatted a fly, or killed any insect/animal life of any kind. I’d personally answer the question with “no”. In fact, “pro-life” arguments usual appeal to emotion or spirituality of some kind. Whether these arguments are right or wrong is not my point, but they aren’t objective, and they aren’t based on evidence.
A sinister example of belief not based on evidence is theism. Theists make claims that aren’t based on evidence, and they actively deny the evidence that would prove them wrong.
This allows me to return to the conversation I mentioned in the opening paragraph: I used to believe in God. But I think the biggest reason I was able to deconvert is because my beliefs weren’t based on faith. I had faith, but it wasn’t necessary for my belief. When I believed in God, I honestly believed I had good reason to. I believed there was evidence for his existence, and I thought I could logically and rationally prove it. Now, as wrong as I was, perhaps it was because I was receptive to evidence in favour of my belief, I was also receptive to evidence against it. Of course this isn’t always the case; I think the majority of believers are open to evidence for their beliefs but not against it. But how can we tell the difference between a believer and a “true believer”, that is one who will believe no matter what? This is an interesting question, and I think the proof of the pudding is in the eating. That is, a person’s true colours will be shown only when they have to finally decide between their faith and their intellectual integrity.
For me, I didn’t think I had anything to be afraid of, so I learned and read and studied. I have always rejected the notion of censorship because, what does the truth have to fear?! That day unwittingly came upon me, though it was more a brief period of time than a specific day and it didn’t all happen consciously, when I had to either retreat back to the beliefs I’d always held, or reject them. By that time, I’d lost too many bricks in my wall of belief and it crumbled very quickly.
But I have argued with people online and in person, some of them very close to me, and I have seen the first cracks appearing in their wall; I have eliminated every argument they had; I have countered all the “reasons” and supposed evidence for their beliefs, to the point when logic had triumphed – they simply had nowhere else to run; there was no possible logical argument to give to support their belief. And then I’ve seen their eyes glaze over, the bricks in their wall get another coat of filler, and their desire to continue debating end. This is the acid test I referred to above. Want to know if your beliefs are really based on evidence or not? Then see what the evidence has to say! And if you still find yourself wanting to believe despite the evidence, then perhaps your belief was never based in evidence in the first place. It was based on your desire to believe. You wanted to believe, and whilst the evidence seemed to agree with you that was all fine and dandy. But when you discovered that what you thought was evidence was not, and what you thought was proof and reason were not, did you reconsider or run away?
My friend above recently had an e-mail conversation with a fundamentalist Christian. After both sides debunked the opponent’s positions and offered critiques and counter-arguments, one person was left with the same arguments and evidence unchallenged, and one person was left with their arguments and “evidence” debunked, resorting to “I believe” and “I know he exists” and “you will never convince me that the bible isn’t God’s word”. (I’ll leave you to decide which side is which). The funny thing is, this is quite a strong and irrational thing to say. Actually admitting to someone that nothing will ever change your mind is, to me, a concession! Even when I was a theist I would never say that because I honestly thought my position was logically unassailable. To acknowledge that you cannot be swayed by logic is the slightly less-playground version of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “la la la la la!”
However, it takes an actual logical argument and review of the evidence to find out what someone is really basing their beliefs on. Perhaps this is why religions discourage honest enquiry and peer-review? Could this be why fundamentalists are so ignorant – in a twisted way it’s not their fault: they really have no interest in the evidence at all so why would they bother looking at it? At least they’re being consistent, but then why even pretend there is evidence anyway? They may as well come out and say “I can’t find any problems with the theory of evolution, and I can’t really objectively prove that my God exists, but I’m going to believe in him anyway.”
The irony with religion (and other false beliefs) is that most of its claims are actually objective. If there is a god there should be evidence. If there are aliens where is the evidence? If people are really psychic then prove it. If faith healing works then reattach severed limbs. If evolution is rubbish then explain why. Evolution is one of the best scientific discoveries of all time – what part of it is hard for you to accept?
Is any book the word of God? This is an objective question. Let theists and atheists come together and establish some criteria. Then, with the rules set and no one allowed to flake on them, analyse the book. Unfortunately, this has been done countless times:
…to name but two of myriad atheist articles on the internet that prove that no holy book can be the word of a divine being. (But they’re a good place to start).
Many wonder why the debate still goes on then if the facts are so obvious and dramatic. I’ll tell you why: one side of the debate will not accept the facts and the evidence. One side has a vested interest in their beliefs being right. One side has emotion and hope invested in their beliefs, not to mention control, power, and money. One side has a history of deception, superstition, ignorance, delusion, and oppression of opponents. One side will twist and distort the language and words of their own text so as not to appear contradictory or to justify any chosen course of action. One side has absolutely no problem with science until it says something that conflicts with its cherished notions, and then it insists that science change to match its beliefs!
And the other side is atheism.
This may sound like a simple case of tu quoque with theists and atheists pointing the finger at each other. But it really isn’t. When was the last time an atheist got to the point in a debate where they had to resort to faith? When was the last time an atheist ever said anything like “well, nothing will ever convince me that God exists?” It would be silly of me to claim knowledge of everything every atheist has ever said or done, but it almost certainly the case that this hasn’t happened. There is a very simple and powerful reason why this is so: atheism is usually the result of rationalism and critical thinking. For an atheist to use faith would be a contradiction of their worldview because faith is irrational. Theists have no such problem though! Faith is encouraged for them! If the going gets tough: faith. Having doubts about all the suffering in the world? Faith. Evidence for evolution indisputable? Faith. Atheists’ debunking of holy book unassailable? Faith.
As long as theists rely on faith their position is ultimately indefensible. This is because 1. Faith requires the rejection of logic and is the last resort of the desperate and 2. Faith is an admission that there is no evidence, e.g.: if God came down in the sky and revealed himself to all mankind, whether we accepted him or not, everyone would have to believe – so there would be no use for faith). (And we could add 3. Faith isn’t objective).
So if faith is irrational and basically a refusal to argue objectively, then what is its purpose? Why do theists start out handicapping themselves? Well, the simple answer is: because they have to! Faith only exists because there is no evidence or objective proof.
And this is why atheists will always defeat theists in arguments, because an argument is a logical proposition to support a position, and ultimately religion is rooted not in logic, but faith. And the further irony is that theists will of course disagree with me – but not on logical grounds!
So is there a solution? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Speaking for myself, when I had to make that decision, I chose reason over faith – it was a non-contest for me. In all fairness, I did it myself without being pressured or attacked. I never had to react defensively or feel my faith and beliefs being criticised by “evil” atheists. When atheists argue with theists for any length of time, theists are unavoidably going to feel uncomfortable if the discussion gets to the stage where the theist’s belief system is starting to shake. That can be a very scary feeling, and this is often why theists retreat even deeper into the belief system. It’s asking a lot for a theist to be deconverted in one conversation! But what is the alternative? In an ideal world anyone trapped by false beliefs would scrutinise them and free themselves. But then in an ideal world people wouldn’t be so deluded by their belief system that they fly planes into buildings, or set off bombs in schools, or try to change the law of the land to reflect their personal opinions.
Atheists keep speaking out, but not to deconvert. I think this point is lost on many people. Atheists speak out because some theists would change the way other people live their lives. If fundamentalists didn’t try to affect anyone else’s life, atheists probably wouldn’t bother saying anything. I cannot think of any atheist who actively sets out to deconvert people. At most, critical thinking, knowledge, and rationalism is encouraged – but this is just good advice. What results from these will be a multitude of good traits, and a lack of superstition and rejection of belief systems just two examples.
And apart from trying to counter the dangers and lies of organised religion that is trying to wield its power politically, atheists who are prepared to give their time and effort (and often money) to provide resources for other atheists or curious theists, are doing something special. If it wasn’t for websites like the Skeptic’s Dictionary, the Internet Infidels, or Ebon Musings, I might very well still be a theist. Becoming a rationalist is the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I know I am not alone there. Rationalism has had so many positive results for me – actual measurable, useful results that benefit me in every aspect of life. One result of thinking rationally was my rejection of gods, and that makes me an atheist. So most of the positives in my life I have as result of that, I owe to the websites above, and I know many other people have their own similar stories to tell. But if those places didn’t exist, many lives (such as mine) wouldn’t have gotten changed. There are hundreds of thousands of people who were trapped in their belief systems and have been freed because there were other people prepared to argue and debate with them. And when the facts and evidence were presented, the walls of faith came crashing down; the prison break from belief was complete. The deconvertees could just as easily have rejected the evidence and retreated to faith. But how could this be known in advance? Like I said above we’ll never know unless we try.
If believers want to be irrational, that’s their choice (as long as they don’t hurt anyone). But it’s important that everyone knows why: because the reason and the evidence isn’t on their side. Reason and evidence and objectivity are and ever shall be on the side of rationalists. One day, that might result in belief in god; a rationalist might also believe in psychic powers. But if it happens, it will be because the evidence proves it, and not because any belief system tells you “you must believe this, no matter what the evidence says”. And faith will not even enter into it. This flexibility to go wherever the evidence points, wherever the truth leads, is surely what every mind should yearn for: freedom! Rather than being bound by the mind shackles of dogmatic beliefs, why not just follow the evidence? If you already have the truth you have nothing to fear, and if you don’t you will acquire it. Sounds like a win-win situation to me!