This is one of my “thinking out loud” pieces. I’m trying to decide what I think about this, and I want y’all to help me.
Back in April, JT Eberhard gave a talk at the American Atheists conference, with an idea that struck me strongly. (Lots of ideas that struck me strongly, actually, but one in particular that I’m talking about today.) He said that private debates about religion were a waste of time. He said that, when believers say they’re concerned about our immortal soul and ask to sit down over coffee and debate atheism versus religion, we shouldn’t just say, “Sure, why not.” Instead, we should say, “Sure — can I videotape the conversation and put it on YouTube?” If someone emails us and says, “I saw something you wrote about atheism, here’s why I don’t agree”… we shouldn’t email them back saying, “Sure, let’s debate.” We should email them back and say, “Sure, let’s debate — can I post your letter on my Facebook page or my blog, and discuss it with you there?”
This accomplishes two things. First, it screens out people who aren’t serious. As JT argued: It’s amazing how quickly their concern for your immortal soul vanishes when they’re faced with making a fool of themselves in public. And second: If they do say yes? They’ve given you a public forum for making your case.
I was very struck by this idea. To the point where I included it in my talk at the Secular Student Alliance national conference in July: the one on why arguing about religion isn’t a waste of time, and what our strategies about it should be. And I included this idea when I posted an outline of that talk in my blog.
But when I posted that outline to my blog, a lot of people pushed back on this idea. They said that private debates about religion were most emphatically not a waste of time. And many of them gave examples of how they’d changed people’s minds about religion in private, one- on- one conversations.
So now I’m rethinking. I want to be a good skeptic, and not hang onto an idea just because it’s appealing to me or because I’ve already gone out on a limb about it.
Okay. Here are my thoughts.
On the one hand, I think JT has a point. In a private debate, you only have a chance at persuading one person. In a public one, you have a chance at persuading dozens, or hundreds, or thousands, depending on how big a forum you have. And I think he has a point about how people will make appallingly bad arguments in private that they’ll be embarrassed to make in public. In a public debate, they’ll be forced to think more carefully about what they’re saying and whether it makes sense — and thinking more carefully is exactly what we want them to do.
On the other hand: Psychological research shows that, the more that people have committed to an idea or a decision, the more likely we are to hang onto it. When we have more at stake in a decision we’ve made or a conclusion we’ve come to, we cling to it harder, we rationalize it more intensely, we defend it more hotly, and we get entrenched in it more deeply. That’s why people who have quit their jobs and sold their homes because they thought the Rapture was coming actually cling to their beliefs more tightly when the end of the world turns out to not be nigh… whereas people who only took the week off are better able to say, “Oops, guess I was wrong, my bad.” It’s not rational, but it’s how our brains work.
And going out on a limb in public is something of a big commitment. It puts a fair amount at stake. Yes, people are ashamed of making asses of themselves in public… but that doesn’t always result in them saying, “Oops, guess I was wrong, my bad.” It can result in the opposite — in people insisting, to others and to themselves, that they didn’t really make a mistake and weren’t really asses. People may be ashamed to express stupid ideas in public — but once they’ve done so, they’re likely to get even more entrenched in them. Once we’ve made an assertion in public, it’s harder to walk it back. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
Hm. This is a toughie.
Initial thoughts: I think our decisions about how to handle this decision may vary depending on a couple of things: How close is the relationship, what’s your personality, and how much of a public forum are you likely to have?
I think part of the reason I’m drawn to the “Smack them down in public” route is that I have a pretty wide public forum. Not to be all self-aggrandizing, but my blog is read by a couple/few thousand people every day. So the risk/ benefit analysis is definitely in favor of the public smackdown. If my public humiliation of the person I’m debating entrenches them more deeply in their beliefs, I’m still reaching a whole lot of other people — and that makes it worthwhile. But if you post your coffeeshop debate on YouTube and half a dozen people watch it… that might not be worth making someone go out on a limb in public with stupid ideas and taking the risk that this will entrench them even more.
Some of this may also just be a question of personality. I’m not very conflict- averse, and I’m very comfortable with public speaking and having a public persona, both in the flesh and online. So I’m reasonably comfortable having arguments, and I’m reasonably comfortable having them in public. If you, personally, are more conflict- averse generally — or if you’re not comfortable with the public forum, either in meatspace or on the Internet — you might be more inclined to keep your debates more personal, and limit them to people and situations that you think are really important.
And when we’re deciding whether to make our debates about religion public or private, I think we have to consider how close our relationship is with the person we’re debating. I actually made this caveat when I gave the talk at the SSA. That whole “exposing them to public humiliation thing” that you might be willing to inflict on a casual acquaintance? You might not want to go there with people you’re close to. You might decide to have a public debate with the random guy who came up to you on campus and tried to convert you… and keep it in your living room when you’re explaining atheism to your mom.
Hm. I don’t know. I’m still thinking this one through. Thoughts? Pro, con, or context dependent? Are there other factors I haven’t considered here that might affect our decisions about this?
(Oh, and for the record: I don’t want to debate here whether debating about religion is ever a good idea in the first place. It is. Thousands of atheists have been persuaded out of religion by atheists’ arguments. I’m one of them. Today I want to discuss strategies for how to carry out these arguments, and I don’t want that strategy discussion to get derailed into defending a position I think is self-evident. We can have that conversation some other time. Thanks.)