Framing and accommodation


FtB co-blogger The Crommunist Manifesto explains why he is not an accommodationist.

I am not persuaded that any argument, no matter how friendly or accommodating, can persuade a person away from faith. Faith is not a position that is found by reason; it is one that is found through indoctrination and reliance on heuristics and flawed cognitive processes. It is well-insulated against emotional appeals, and uniquely protected against reasoned counterargument, by virtue of the fact that it claims to be ‘beyond mere human reason’.

The same sort of idea is expressed by the old saying, “You can’t reason somebody out of a position they were never reasoned into.” It’s pretty much an undeniable fact, as you know if you’ve ever tried to argue someone out of their religious superstitions. People sometimes de-convert after listening to arguments against their faith, but it’s virtually unheard of for anyone to do so during an argument about their faith.

And yet—you can see it coming—I’m going to try and make a case that we should try and understand the religious audience, and to frame our arguments in terms they will understand.

I don’t want to mislead anyone, so I’ll say up front that I’m not an accommodationist myself, and I’m not saying that if we just try to get along, we’ll gain a better hearing for our arguments. I’m saying that understanding a Christian worldview, and being able to state our case in terms familiar to Christians, will make our arguments more compelling, and possibly more offensive.

I go back to the early days of ScienceBlogs, when the “framing” debate first broke out. The New Atheists, it was said, were needlessly offending people with their “harsh” dismissal of concepts and values that the faithful held dear. But worse, the New Atheists were undermining the effectiveness of their message by their failure to properly “frame” the debate in more appealing terms. Besides, look how effectively the voices on the Right were communicating their message through their heavy use of framing.

There’s something to be said for that last point, but I couldn’t help noticing that right-wing framing was specifically not the kind of framing the New Atheists were being urged to employ. You never hear Fox News, for example, going out of its way to promote respect for liberal ideas, or to uphold liberals as honorable and virtuous citizens. “Framing,” as used so effectively by the Right, has little or nothing to do with having respect and good manners towards one’s opponents. Framing is all about making your side of the argument sound so superior to the other point of view that your eventual victory is all but inevitable.

At a certain point, the dividing line between framing and sheer dishonesty becomes hazy at best. Still, even a conscientious debater can exercise some discretion in how he or she frames their point, without crossing over to the wrong side of the line. And the more effectively you can frame your argument in terms that will be familiar and compelling to your audience, the more effective your argument will be, if only in terms of planting seeds that will bear fruits of critical thinking later on.

I tried to provide an example of good framing in a recent post comparing Christian homophobia with the description in Galatians 5 about “works of the flesh” versus “fruits of the Spirit.” We can say that homophobic practices are bigotry, and Christians will only cry persecution. If we can show that it actually conflicts with Biblical teaching, however, they might have to stop and think.

One commenter pointed out that Christians have a built-in defense against such arguments, saying that “the Devil quotes Scripture for his own purposes,” and it’s true that you can rationalize away even Scripture if you try hard enough. However not all rationalizations are equally easy, and the hard ones are a burden on the believer’s mind (speaking from personal experience here), so the point is still worth making, even if the believer seems to reject it.

Comments

  1. Deacon Duncan says

    Apologies to those who caught the first version of this post. WP was behaving badly for some reason, and kept re-publishing an earlier version regardless of subsequent changes that I made. I ended up having to delete and re-post it to get my edits to stick. This orphaned one comment, which I will try to restore below.

    • Hank Fox says

      Re: Republishing old versions.

      WP has been doing that to me A LOT lately. It’s just mystifying — I can add a pic to the post, then attempt to view the finished post, and the pic won’t be there. Then when I go back to the post-in-progress, the pic will have vanished. I’ve had to re-load pictures as much as 5 times.

      As with you, corrections I make never show up on the final posted piece, and seem to undo themselves in the post-in-progress.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        I think it might have something to do with time zones–it kept telling me I had a more recent auto-save, even after I did a manual save.

  2. Deacon Duncan says

    [Originally from “Susan”, commenting on the deleted version of this post–DD]

    “I’m going to try and make a case that we should try and understand the religious audience, and to frame our arguments in terms they will understand.”

    So if I’m reading this right you’re saying in order to get people to see the truth you’re going to quote from a book of lies, because the book of lies are all they’ll listen too.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hi Susan,

      This is the sort of misreading I was trying to prevent by editing my post, but regardless, my response would be that I’ll quote from the Greek myths, from Terry Pratchett and other fictional authors, and from whatever other source may help to get my point across.

      Not everything in the Bible is false, even when falsely attributed. The true stuff is fair game, but remember, I’m seeking common language with believers not to accommodate their superstitions, but to connect with them intellectually in hopes of stimulating critical thinking. Even if it only works a small percentage of the believers, it’s worth doing for the sake of that small percent (of which I was once a member).

  3. Susan says

    I’m sorry if I misunderstood but what’s wrong with telling people who believe that:

    ‘women should be kept bare foot and pregnant, chained to the kitchen sink’ because there holy book told them so
    or ‘the earth is 6000 years old’ because there holy book told them so
    or ‘gays are evil’ because there holy book told them so

    that they are wrong. Why do we need a special ‘common language’ to talk to believers in?

  4. Larry Clapp says

    “The Devil quotes Scripture for his own purposes” — I think when believers say this we should a) make sure to point out that they’re quoting Shakespeare when they say that, not the Bible (cf The Merchant of Venice), and b) ask them if they think we’re the devil? I dunno, just to make sure we point out the full measure of the crazy in their thought patterns, framing, metaphors, or what-have-you.

  5. Larry Clapp says

    “I am not persuaded that any argument, no matter how friendly or accommodating, can persuade a person away from faith.” It is demonstrably true that this happens. Go read /r/atheism for a few weeks, you’ll see several people that say not just that an atheist convinced them that they were wrong, but that the discussions and links posted in that very forum had a lot to do with their deconversion. (To be sure, that forum has a lot of crap in it, too. I like it, but YMMV.)

    See also Greta’s discussion, Atheist Arguments — Public or Private?

  6. mikespeir says

    I and others of us here are proof enough that believers can be disabused of their faith under the right conditions. It’s just that I’m not sure reason, in and of itself, is going to do it. Our beliefs are emotional entities. We’re invested in them; they’re part of who we are and how we make sense of the world. The only way to overcome the tight emotional bond the believer has with his belief is for it to be overpowered by a strong, competing emotion. Only when the bond is loosened can the believer take a step forward, turn around, and look back at his beliefs with something like an objective, critical eye, sometimes for the first time in his life. But that window of opportunity can snap shut again in a flash and the chance for escape is lost.

  7. Crommunist says

    I really should have inserted the word “single” into that passage. I certainly do think that believers can be reasoned out of their positions, but not at a single go. Wholesale changes of philosophy happen in quiet, reflective moments, not when under fire. But I still think that it takes a variety of tactics to roll away the stone covering the tomb of the reasoning brain. Mockery and insult are among those tools, and should be used by the skilled whenever appropriate.

    • usagichan says

      On the whole I think this is the most sense I have read on the whole topic

      But I still think that it takes a variety of tactics to roll away the stone covering the tomb of the reasoning brain. Mockery and insult are among those tools, and should be used by the skilled whenever appropriate.

      But what gets me down most about the way this argument takes place is when one side gets on their high horse and preaches to the other (I find the We should be better than them variant particularly irritating – the unspoken implication being if we don’t live up to the writers ‘standards’ (and we should accept those standards handed down by fiat) we aren’t better than them). But most of all I find the argument a divisive one (I can almost hear the echoes of John Cleese, Eric Idle et al yelling “Splitters” every time I see the words “we should…”).

      To the good Deacon, explain your position, your techniques by all means; set out the considered background to your approach to guide those that want to follow. But how about considering dropping the “we should…” attitude? Those that value your advice will take it without the imperitive, those that favour a different approach will just resent being preached at! Perhaps one should give as much thought to ‘framing’ when dealing with potential friends as one does when dealing with open adversaries? Just a thought…

  8. Stevarious says

    In my experience, for every person that can be convinced out of religion, there is a person that will retreat even farther into madness with every logical argument.

    For example, I was poking around on some apologist blog yesterday (I can’t remember which one and for my own safety, I clear the cache and history on my work computer here every day, sooooo….) where an atheist was pointing out the similarities between the Jesus story and earlier mythologies. He received the response that, of course, Satan had planted false Jesus stories throughout history to discredit him when he came along. There really is no logic that can penetrate that bubble of willful ignorance – they have to care about the truth first.

  9. DS says

    “If we can show that it actually conflicts with Biblical teaching, however, they might have to stop and think.”

    the only problem is that biblical teaching conflicts with biblical teaching

  10. sailor1031 says

    “…Faith is not a position that is found by reason; it is one that is found through indoctrination and reliance on heuristics and flawed cognitive processes…”

    Please don’t knock heuristics which can be a very useful tool for solving difficult problems. We had a whole course in it back in university. Perhaps the writer meant something else?

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