…that they weren’t reasoned into.
I’m so sick of this little nugget of nonsense. (This nugget of nonsense is, by the way, on par with the sort of arrogance and surrender we see from atheists who claim that, while they no longer need religion, the “little people” are simply incapable of behaving without it. But that’s a different post…)
I saw it on a Facebook post this morning and it was mentioned by David Eller at the Rapture RAM in Oakland less than 24 hours after my talk which focused on, among other things, changing the minds of atheists who think that reasoned arguments simply aren’t going to convince people. Evidently, I failed to achieve my goal…sort of.
David is an anthropologist and he said a number of things that really challenged the way I’ll think about these issues in the future (I’m hoping to write a trip report soon). The talk was enlightening and educational in many areas but he also said a number of things that were, as far as I can tell, flatly wrong or dependent upon very different usages of words like “belief” than I’m used to.
To be fair, when Greta Christina challenged him on the fact that he seemed to be strongly advocating an end to reasoned debate, David immediately noted that this wasn’t his intended message and that those who are skilled at doing so should absolutely continue. That was encouraging, but there were so many points in his talk that directly implied the opposite that it left us a little divided at the end. (There were other issues, but for today, I’m focusing on this one.)
[Edit: There's been an apology on that issue and I'm encouraged, because David had a lot of great things to say and I hate to only focus on sloppy sexist comments or fine-points where we disagree. He's someone I'd love to spend more time talking to.]
So, what’s wrong with this particular saying?
Well, if we’re being very literal, every position someone holds is the product of reasoning. Believing a proposition is the result of being convinced. You can be convinced for good reasons or bad reasons, but as long as the brain is involved (and how could it not be?), reason is involved. In that scope, the statement is wrong because the premise is false. They were, in fact, reasoned into their belief.
Also, in a more colloquial sense, it refers to people whose beliefs were spawned by indoctrination, emotional appeals, socialization/inculturation and other things that aren’t normally in the realm of ‘pure reason’ – and in this scope, the statement becomes a claim that you’re just not going to be able to convince them of their error by using strict logical reasoning.
This saying is, at best, a deepity, though I’m convinced it’s just false.
As noted during my talk, I’m walking, talking proof that it’s false. My religious beliefs were not the result of critical thinking and skepticism, but my freedom from those beliefs most definitely is. (If my data set of 1 is unimpressive, I’ve got about 6 years worth of e-mails from people with nearly identical stories…and I’m betting there will be several “me too”s in the comments to this post.)
The problem, though, isn’t just that this statement is wrong, it’s that it’s a white flag. It implies that efforts to free people from religious thinking, via reason, are futile.
There may be some people who are forever beyond the reach of reason, but this isn’t true of everyone and I haven’t seen any data to support the idea that it’s even true for most people.
In fact, I think we have evidence to the contrary. People, even if they don’t realize it, value reason and evidence. We’re thinking creatures and critical thinking represents the “best practices” of human thought.
The trick, if that’s a fair word, is to get them to realize how much they value the principles of sound thought and get them to apply that to beliefs that have previously been protected from such scrutiny.
I’m not implying that it’s always (or ever) easy to accomplish this, but the statement in question implies that it’s simply impossible – and nothing could be farther from the truth.
Skepticism, critical thinking, logical reasoning, science – however you prefer to label the most consistently reliable tools we have for discerning reality – are ubiquitously recognized as valuable though not universally applied. We must continue to try to convince people of the value of applying these principles to every claim.
People often become convinced of things for bad reasons and are remarkably good at protecting those beliefs from critical examination – especially if those beliefs have been long-held, publicly professed and are shared by many others in that person’s social network. But that doesn’t mean that they are forever incapable of recognizing that they’ve accepted something for bad reasons. People can, and do, understand the value of having good reasons for their beliefs – it’s the reason why there are so many attempts to provide apologetic arguments for those beliefs.
Finally, this statement is often accompanied by claims that the failure of reason implies that we need to use other methods. I’m open to many different approaches, but too often the suggested alternatives really equate to saying, “If we can’t convince them with good reasons, let’s use bad ones!” (Ironically, this call to religious mimicry is often immediately preceded by a call to stop using religious language when addressing religious claims…)
This is, I think, an absolutely stupid idea.
The very reason we’re able to change minds is because religious beliefs have such flawed foundations. Why would you want to build someone’s atheistic house on that same unstable sand? This is the very reason I’ve railed against the bad arguments (Pi=3, astro-theology/zeitgeist) I’ve seen from atheists: it creates non-believers who, when they encounter a believer who can expose these bad reasons, are left confused, defenseless and prone to falling back into religious thinking.
Garbage in, garbage out.
You can, in fact, reason a person out of almost any belief – it just won’t work if the person doesn’t see the value of holding reasonable beliefs. The good news is that many, if not most, of the people who don’t currently see that value can learn to see it and most already think they do, which is why the Socratic method is so darn useful.
It may sound insightful and it may accurately represent the frustrations of dealing with the most skeptically-challenged, fundamentalists – but it’s simply not true in any useful sense and it’s time for this sentiment to drift off into Bad Idea land…