Nov 15 2011

Contextual gullibility

Following up on yesterday’s “Rabbit Math,” post, let’s look at the interesting question of why people revert to using rabbit math when they have a far superior math at their disposal. Granted, it’s harder than rabbit math, but still, you can do a lot better than rabbit math without getting into theoretical physics. People can do better, and in other contexts they do think more clearly. But somehow, in religious contexts, they become gullible to the point of actively participating in fooling themselves. Why is that?

I can think of 3 reasons. One is fear: fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of the unexpected, etc. We’re small creatures in a big world, after all, and therefore it’s appealing to adopt a mode of thinking that’s tuned in on reassuring us there’s some friendly Big Guy up there taking care of us. “Rabbit math” makes it easier to reach the desired conclusion, therefore it’s preferable to many people.

Another reason is laziness. It’s easier to jump to superstitious conclusions than to go through all the work of digging out all the facts, sorting the relevant from the irrelevant, analyzing the data, and drawing rigorously logical conclusions. In some ways it’s arguably a more efficient use of your time and resources: if you can tell when it’s going to rain by assessing “the mood of the sky god,” and if you’re right as often as you would be if you spent years charting barometric pressure, humidity, temperature, wind velocity, and so on (especially if you’re not terribly good at the latter), then maybe you are just as well off with the superstition. (Speaking as a devil’s advocate, that is).

I think there’s a reason that’s far more compelling than either of these two, however.

The main reason (IMO) that people resort to “rabbit math” in religious contexts is because religion is primarily a means of establishing and asserting social dominance. By joining a religion, you establish yourself as a member of an influential group within society; by advocating your religion, you are promoting both your own social dominance within the religious group, and the social dominance of the religious group within society. Thus, for example, gay marriage bans are an exercise in establishing Christianity as the dominant political force in American government: those who advocate persecution of gays are promoting both the political power of conservative Christianity in America, and their own personal political power within conservative Christianity. Rick Santorum, take a bow.

Note that this is a purely secular phenomenon. The same thing happens in political parties and even, to some extent, in high school cliques. By submitting yourself to the ideals and dogmas of the group, you identify yourself as a group member, and by arguing for those ideals and dogmas—even when they’re stupid and incredible—you’re establishing a level of influence within the group, and advancing the agenda of the group as a whole. Valid logic and reason are counterproductive here, because if you take a hard look at your group’s cherished beliefs, and find them wanting, you can’t admit it without becoming a renegade or apostate, and suffering the loss of your social identity and influence.

Look at William Lane Craig. I’m convinced at this point that he knows that a lot of what he says is simply bullshit. It defends the faith, and he cannot pursue his profession as a Christian apologist without it, but it’s bullshit. And he knows it, at least at some level. But he can’t admit it, even to himself. Real math gives him answers that threaten not just his social standing but his whole career. Ergo, rabbit math—and his future is secure.

This is why “counter-apologetics” is a somewhat futile, yet necessary, endeavor. It’s futile because you can’t reason people out of the beliefs they are using to establish their tribal allegiances. They aren’t looking for the truth, they’re looking for ways to improve their social standing, and your ability to shoot down their dogmas isn’t going to help them do that. On the other hand, it’s a necessary endeavor because if you can establish skepticism as the dominant social power, then people will have reasons that matter to them for switching their allegiance to a new group. The uncompromising New Atheist works to establish free thought as a more powerful social force, and the accommodationists have at least the potential to open a warm, inviting doorway people can peek in, to see if they might perhaps feel at home in a new group. Or at least that’s an ideal worth pursuing.

So there it is in a nutshell: rabbit math, and the social reasons why people short-circuit their own thinking. There are other factors as well, of course, so feel free to add them in the comments. But I think this is the most significant factor, and that we need to plan our strategies accordingly.


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  1. 1

    “They aren’t looking for the truth, they’re looking for ways to improve their social standing, and your ability to shoot down their dogmas isn’t going to help them do that.”

    It is often even more simple than that: the belonging to a ready made social group that supports you (sometimes), helps to establish business links, networking.
    Having grown up in a catholic environment, the religion is mostly secondary.

  2. 2
    Tige Gibson

    It actually depends on a person’s psychological disposition. For many it is indeed fear, as being completely fearful to the point of psychotic paranoia is an immersive delusion. The most hypocritical religious types are actually of this sort because they must constantly battle against reality’s intrusion into their delusion.

    Most religious people, however are in the middle ground and simply do not wish to offend. All kinds of horrible things can be tolerated on the premise of not wishing to offend. This does not mean they are fearful, just don’t want to be bothered.

    The more extreme personalities are really only acting for what they believe is their own (material) sake, not in any kind of spiritual sense, but because there is money, fame, and power involved. Most politicians fall into this category. Such people have weak ego and tend to blow with the wind. The wind just happens to blow a certain way these days.

  3. 3

    Apologetics is the organized study of which logical fallacies can best support insupportable claims. Nothing more.

  4. 4
    Beau Quilter

    Speaking of rabbit math, remember this gem from Craig’s “Reasonable Faith”:

    “The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel. In light of the Spirit’s witness, only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate. Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology.”

    Can Craig be taken seriously by scholars of philosophy with driveling bias confirmation like this?

    But lest we dare question the logic, he has this:

    “The Bible says all men are without excuse. Even those who are given no good reason to believe and many persuasive reasons to disbelieve have no excuse, because the ultimate reason they do not believe is that they have deliberately rejected God’s Holy Spirit.”

    Basically, he’s saying, “I’m right and you’re a big fat liar. How do I know? The bible tells me so.”

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