In yesterday’s post, I talked about the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts — a book on cognitive dissonance, and the ways we unconsciously rationalize and justify mistakes, misconceptions, and harm we do to others. I mentioned this book’s relevance to both atheists and religious believers several times, and ended the post by asking, “So how does this apply to religion?”
The most obvious relevance is this: For those of us who don’t believe in it, religion clearly looks like a prime example of rationalization and justification of a mistaken belief. Religious apologetics especially. Since there’s no hard evidence in the world to support the beliefs, the entire exercise — all the explanations and defenses, all the “mysterious ways”es and “this part isn’t meant literally”s and “you just have to take that on faith”s — it all looks from the outside like one gigantic rationalization for a mistaken belief. It looks like a well-oiled mechanism for refusing to accept that you hold a belief — and have based your life and your choices on a belief — that is illogical and unsupported by evidence.
And it looks like a classic example of a social structure built to support one another in maintaining these rationalizations: supporting one another in rejecting alternatives, and repeating the beliefs to one another over and over until they gain the gravitas of authoritative truth.
(This is what I was trying to get at when I called religion a self-referential game of Twister. I dearly wish I’d read this book when I wrote that piece; it would have given me much clearer language to write it in.)
And the more contrary a belief is to reality, the more entrenched this mechanism becomes. The non-literal, science-appreciating, “God is love” believers are usually more ecumenical, better able to think that they don’t know everything and that different beliefs may have some truth and validity. It’s the literalists, the fundamentalists, the ones who deny well-established realities like evolution and the sanity of gay people and the geological age of the planet, who have the seriously entrenched rationalizations for their beliefs… and the powerful institutional structures for deflecting questions and evidence and doubt. (“Those questions come from Satan” is my current favorite.)
So that’s the obvious relevance.
But there’s a less obvious relevance as well. This is an important book for believers… but it’s also an important book for atheists. And not just as a source of ammunition for our debates.
It’s an important book for atheists because of its ideas on how to deal with people who are entrenched in rationalization — and how really, really not to. One of the most important points this book makes is that there are useful ways to point out other people’s rationalizations to themâŠ and some not-so-useful ways. And screaming at someone, “What were you thinking? How could you be so stupid?” is one of the not-so-useful methods. In fact, it usually has the exact undesired effect — it makes people defensive, and drives them deeper into their rationalizations.
Now, many atheists may decide that screaming, “How could you be so stupid?” is still a valid strategy. And in a larger, long-term sense, it may well be. If religion is the emperor’s new clothes, having an increasingly large, increasingly vocal community of people chanting, “Naked! Naked! Naked!” may, in the long run, be quite effective in chipping away at the complicity that religion depends on, and making it widely known that there is an alternative. Especially with younger people, who aren’t yet as entrenched in their beliefs. And it’s already proven effective in inspiring other atheists to come out of the closet.
In one-on-one discussions and debates, though, it’s not going to achieve much. And we need to be aware of that. If we’re going to be all rational and evidence-based, we need to accept the reality of what forms of persuasion do and don’t work.
But it’s not just important for atheists to read this book to learn how to deal with believers’ fallibility. It’s important for atheists to read it to learn how to deal with our own.
Atheists, oddly enough, are human. And we therefore share the human tendency to rationalize and justify our beliefs and behavior. No matter how rational and evidence-based we like to think of ourselves as, we are not immune to this pattern.
And of particular relevance, I think, is one of the book’s main themes: the human tendency to reject any and all ideas coming from people we disagree with. The more entrenched we get in a belief, the more unwilling we are to acknowledge that our opponents have any useful ideas whatsoever, or any valid points to make.
And I’ve definitely seen that play out in the atheosphere. I’ve seen an unfortunate tendency among some atheists to tag all believers as stupid; to reject religion as having nothing even remotely positive or useful to offer; to explain the widespread nature of religious belief by saying things like, “People are sheep.”
I donât exempt myself from this. I think I’ve mostly been good about critiquing ideas rather than people; but I have gotten my back up when I thought someone was being unfair to me, and have refused to acknowledge that maybe I was being unfair as well. And I’ve definitely fallen prey to the error of thinking, “give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile”; of thinking that any concession at all is the first step to appeasement, and I have to stick to my guns like a mule. A mule with guns.
But this tendency isn’t helpful. The issue of religion and not-religion is already polarizing enough on its own, without us artificially divvying the world into Us and Them.
If I’m right, and religion really is (among other things) an elaborate rationalization for hanging on to a mistaken belief… well, that doesn’t make believers ridiculous and atheists superior. It puts us all in the same human boat. It puts religion in the same category as hanging onto ugly clothes and shoes that gave me blisters, for years, because I didn’t want to admit that I’d made a mistake when I bought them. It puts it in the same category as going through with a disastrous marriage, because I didn’t want to admit I’d made a mistake when I got engaged. It puts religion into a particular category of human fallibility… a fallibility that we all fall prey to, every day of our lives.
I’m not saying religion is okay. Let me be very clear about that. I think religion is a mistake; I think it’s a harmful mistake; and I’m not going to stop speaking out against it. And I’m not asking anyone else to stop speaking out against it.
But for my own peace of mind, I’m making a sort of New Year’s Resolution about cognitive dissonance. I’m resolving to be better about acknowledging when I make mistakes, and correcting them. I’m resolving to be better about acknowledging when people I disagree with make good points. And when I’m in one-on-one debates with people, I’m resolving to think, not just about why I’m right and they’re wrong, but about what kind of argument is likely to persuade them.