The Simpsons Church Sign Generator

I ran across this when I was hunting for images to illustrate my Non-Science of Intelligent Design piece. It’s unbelievably nifty, and I thought I should share the wealth and the glory.

Simpsons_church_1It’s the Simpsons Church Sign Generator.

It’s a website/ widget that lets you put any text you want onto the sign in front of the Simpsons church. Blasphemy, obscenity, stupid jokes, football scores, total gibberish — whatever you want. As long as the text fits… and you can change the font size, so it’s fairly easy to get longer or shorter text fitting snugly into the sign.

Like this:


Or this, from the Duelling Billboards comment thread (thanks, Mark!):


Or this, inspired by my cat’s newfound worship of the Norse gods:


I’ve used other image generators before for this blog — most notably a gravestone generator and a newspaper headline generator. But this one totally takes the prize, and I suspect that you’ll be seeing a lot of it in the months to come.

BTW, the Simpsons Church Sign Generator site does link to some regular Church Sign Generator sites as well, using photographs of actual church signs as their templates. But somehow, that doesn’t seem right to me. I don’t like having words put in my mouth, and I don’t feel right putting my words in the mouth of actual, literal churches.

I am, however, perfectly happy to put my words in the mouth of the Reverend Lovejoy. Fictional ministers seem like fair game to me.

So go forth and spread the gospel of the Good Reverend Lovejoy. Whatever you decide that is. And if you put your own made-up Simpsons church signs on your blog, please drop me a comment and let me know.

Darwin Day, Judgment Day, and the Non-Science of Intelligent Design

Happy Darwin Day, everybody!

I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while, and I realize I’m very late to the party. But Darwin Day seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Judgement_dayI want to talk about the PBS program “Nova”
 and their episode about the Dover trial on teaching intelligent design in the public schools, “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design On Trial.” (They have an entire web page about the episode, and the program is available to watch online (as are the transcripts.)

I could easily blog about this program for pages. It was one of the best summaries I’ve seen or read of both the science and the controversy surrounding the Dover trial, and I strongly recommend it to everyone. But in the interest of brevity, I want to focus on what jumped out at me most dramatically from the program.

It’s this: Intelligent design is not science.

CreationismI don’t even mean that it’s bad science. I mean that it’s not science at all. The theory is not a scientific theory, and its proponents do not engage in the activities of science. It is, purely and entirely, an attempt to provide a scientific cover story for getting religion taught in public schools. And when its proponents testified under oath that ID is not based on religious beliefs or convictions, they — how exactly shall I put this? — lied.

The theory isn’t a scientific theory for some fairly obvious reasons, reasons which I already knew about going into “Judgment Day.” It’s not testable; it’s not falsifiable; it doesn’t make predictions; any possible outcome can be explained by the theory. All of that, just by itself, makes it not a science.

BlindfoldAnd it’s also not science in the sense that its practitioners either are not familiar with, or spectacularly ignore, the current scientific information, even in the areas they’re most focused on. (They are, for instance, obsessed with the bacterial flagellum and its supposed irreducible complexity, how it could not possibly have evolved from previous forms… without, apparently, being familiar with the current scientific thinking on how, precisely, the flagellum probably evolved.)

ManusingmicroscopeBut what really struck me was how dramatically intelligent design is not science… not just in theory, but in a practical, physical, day-to-day sense. Its proponents do not engage in science. They do not engage in experiments to test their theories.

And as a prime example of this, I’m going to quote a section from the trial transcript (as taken from the PBS Website): an interchange between ID proponent Scott A. Minnich and the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Robert Muise.

ROBERT MUISE (Dramatization): Now, Dr. Minnich, a complaint that’s often brought up — and plaintiffs’ experts have brought it up in this case — is that intelligent design is not testable. It’s not falsifiable. Would you agree with that claim?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): No, I don’t. I have a quote from Mike Behe: “In fact, intelligent design is open to direct experimental rebuttal. To falsify such a claim, a scientist could go into the laboratory, place a bacterial species lacking a flagellum under some selective pressure, for motility, say, grow it for 10,000 generations and see if a flagellum or any equally complex system was produced. If that happened my claims would be neatly disproven.”

ROBERT MUISE (Dramatization): Is that an experiment that you would do?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): You know, I think about it. I’d be intrigued to do it. I wouldn’t expect it to work. But that’s my bias.

STEPHEN HARVEY (Dramatization): Now you claim that intelligent design can be tested, correct?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): Correct.

STEPHEN HARVEY (Dramatization): Intelligent design, according to you, is not tested at all, because neither you nor Dr. Behe have run the test that you, yourself, advocate for testing intelligent design, right?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): Well, turn it around in terms of these major attributes of evolution. Have they been tested? You see what I’m saying, Steve? It’s a problem for both sides.

Science_magazineI’m not just going to point out that Minnich is flatly mistaken here, that the theory of evolution can be tested, and has been tested extensively. And I’m not going to go into detail about why I think he’s mistaken about ID, why ID isn’t actually testable or falsifiable. (Very short answer: If the flagellum developed in the experimental example he gave, they could always say, “Well, okay, the flagellum didn’t need an intelligent designer — but what about this other thing over here?”)

What I want to point out is this:

Minnich believes himself that ID is a testable theory. He’s even thought of an experiment he could do that might falsify the theory.

But has he done that experiment?

He has not.

Scientific_method_2This is what I mean by ID not being science. That’s not what scientists do. When scientists have a theory, and an idea for an experiment that could show that theory to be false, they run the experiment. The fact that the ID proponents have not done this makes it clear as day: Whatever they’re doing, it’s not science. It’s not a scientific theory, and it’s not a scientific practice.

It is, instead, a religious belief: a belief in a supernatural power that interferes with natural processes. And one of the most dramatic parts of “Judgment Day” was the way it showed the ID proponents being caught red-handed at it.

Of_pandas_and_peopleThe program reveals smoking gun after smoking gun after smoking gun. Statements by ID proponents slipping and using the word “creationism.” Drafts of an ID book that originally read “creationist” having the word replaced with “design proponent” (including places with the transitional fossil, “Cdesign proponentsists”). The publisher’s catalog of said book listing it under “Creation Science.” Documents showing that ID books had been sent to the Dover public schools by a fundraising drive in the local church. Internal documents from the ID organization The Discovery Institute stating that they want to change American culture back to a religious foundation and plan to use ID as a wedge to accomplish this goal.

Church_signI could go on an on. The evidence is overwhelming: Intelligent design is not science. Intelligent design is a way of getting around the Supreme Court decisions banning creationism from being taught in public schools. Intelligent design is a religious belief, and it differs from science in all the ways that religion differs from science. The evidence is overwhelming… just like the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.

The Content of Their Character: Judging On the Basis Of Beliefs

Martin_luther_king_jr_speaking_at_t“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.

“Hey mister don’t look down on me
For what I believe in…”

-The Minutemen

Mitt_romneyThere’s this trope. Lots of people say it, on many sides of many cultural divides: liberal and conservative, secular and believer. And it’s come up a lot in the Presidential campaign: especially regarding the now-retired candidate Mitt Romney, with pundits and opinion-makers and the candidate himself decrying how prejudiced it was for people to refuse to vote for Romney because of his Mormon beliefs.

There’s this trope. And it goes like this: It’s not right to judge people for what they believe.

So here’s what I want to know:

JusticeWhat the hell else am I supposed to judge people on?

What basis are we supposed to use to judge people, if not their beliefs?

Yes, their actions, of course. But our actions are shaped and decided by our beliefs. Why shouldn’t people’s beliefs be a relevant factor in guessing what their actions are likely to be? Beliefs shouldn’t be the only thing we judge people on, for sure — but why should we ignore them entirely?

I mean — “the content of their character.” Aren’t our beliefs a huge part of that? How are we supposed to judge people by the content of their character and not judge them on the basis of their beliefs?

Pat_robertsonIf someone believes that gay couples shouldn’t be allowed to adopt because homosexuality is a crime against God and humanity, should I really not judge them on their morality? If someone believes that their tax money shouldn’t pay for poor children’s health care because “those people are always looking for a handout,” should I not judge them on their compassion? If someone believes that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago despite human historical records dating well before that, should I not judge them on their good sense? If someone believes that all human beings have been infested by space aliens, should I not judge them on their sanity? If someone believes that they don’t have to reduce their fuel consumption because one person can’t make any difference — or because the Rapture is coming and none of this pollution and global warming stuff will matter — should I not judge them on their social responsibility? And if someone believes that the moon landing didn’t happen because they read it in the Some Guy On The Internet Journal, should I not judge them on their… well, on their judgment, their ability to discern, among other things, what is and is not a good source of information?

I look at these questions, and I get very puzzled. Why, again, is it not appropriate to judge people for what they believe?

Ganesh2Now, if you’re talking about something like employment or housing rights, then the “don’t judge people on their beliefs” concept suddenly makes a lot more sense. A person’s belief in the infinite wisdom and mercy of Ganesh is irrelevant to how good they are at software design; a person’s belief in the Celestial Kingdom is irrelevant to whether they’ll pay their rent or their bank loan on time.

NgltfI can think of a few exceptions to this rule — if someone believes that God wants homosexual sex eradicated from the Earth, that would probably disqualify them from an executive position at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. But on the whole, personal beliefs, including religious ones, aren’t relevant to questions like housing and employment. And they shouldn’t be.

VoteBut for a lot of other questions — ranging from who you vote for to who you marry — personal beliefs are very relevant indeed.

So maybe a better principle would be, “Don’t judge people irrelevantly on the basis of their beliefs.”

And of course I understand that religious prejudice — which is a lot of what people mean when they say, “Don’t judge people for what they believe” — has a long and ugly history, in the U.S. and in the world. I understand the desire to not be bigoted, the will to fight bigotry in yourself and others. I share that desire and that will. Passionately.

Protocols_of_the_elders_of_zionBut I would argue that much of that ugly prejudice is, and always has been, based on false perceptions of people’s beliefs… not an actual perception of their actual beliefs. Ignorance and vicious lies about people with different beliefs are the foundation of religious prejudice. (Well, one of the foundations…) People hate Jews because they supposedly have plans to take over the world; Catholics because they supposedly grind up babies into communion wafers; Mormons because they supposedly all have six wives on the sly; atheists because we’re supposedly selfish, nihilistic hedonists with no basis for morality. People hate those with different beliefs because of lies they’ve been told about them. They rarely hate those with different beliefs because of what those people actually believe. They often don’t even know what those beliefs are.

And maybe more to the point:

You can’t always judge an individual person’s beliefs simply because of the religious group they belong to.

Religion_worldsvgFor most people, religious beliefs are only part of a whole constellation of beliefs, and for many people it’s not a very important part. So even if what you know about the Jewish or Catholic or Mormon faith is more or less accurate, you still won’t necessarily be able to judge any individual Jew or Catholic or Mormon simply because of the religious group they belong to.

Jimmy_carterJimmy Carter, for instance. Jimmy Carter is a born-again Baptist, and was when he was President. But he also opposed the death penalty; and supported the Equal Rights Amendment; and opposed the Briggs Initiative which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools. I disagree with many of his positions and actions — but if he were the Democratic nominee for President this year, I’d vote for him, and I’d do it reasonably happily. His born-again Baptism isn’t completely irrelevant to me, but it’s obviously only one part of his belief system, and when it comes to the Presidency, the other parts are a lot more relevant.

So maybe we need to modify the principle again. How about this:

“Don’t judge people irrelevantly on the basis of their beliefs — and don’t judge them inaccurately on the basis of what you think their beliefs are.”

EyeBut what if my perception of someone’s beliefs is accurate? What if it’s based on things they’ve said — and done — and not just on the group they belong to? And what if their beliefs are relevant to the topic at hand, to whatever question it is that I’m deciding on
 whether it’s who I want to vote for or who I want to marry?

Why on Earth shouldn’t I judge them on the basis of their beliefs?

JudgeMaybe the problem is with the word “judge.” It’s something of a harsh word, with strongly negative connotations these days. We’re not supposed to be judgmental. It implies, not just the forming of an opinion, but the passing of a sentence.

So okay. Feel free to substitute another word if you like. Instead of “judge,” read “assess.” “Discern.” “Conclude.” “Form an opinion.” “Evaluate.” “Appraise.” “Critique.” If you don’t like the word “judge,” any of these will do.

Mitt_romney_laptopBut when Mitt Romney said that “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom… Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone”; when he cited religious scripture to support his opposition to same-sex marriage… then you’re effing well right I’m going to judge him on it. Or critique him, or appraise him, or form an opinion of him.

Barack_obamaI never cared very much that he’s a Mormon. Voting against someone just because they’re a Mormon would be just as wrong as voting against someone just because they’re an atheist. If Romney were a Mormon in the way that Jimmy Carter is a born-again Baptist, I wouldn’t have given two figs about his religion. I don’t care about the specific religious group that Romney or Carter, Mike Huckabee or Barack Obama, or any other current or former Presidential candidate, belongs to. But I damn well reserve the right to judge them for the content of their character.

And that includes their beliefs.

“Strive to keep the door open”: An Interview with “Mistakes Were Made” Co-Author Carol Tavris

Mistakes_were_madeAs regular readers will know, I recently had one of those “books that changed my life” experiences. For Santamas, Ingrid gave me Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, the book on cognitive dissonance and our rationalizations thereof… and I quickly became fascinated, bordering on obsessive. I couldn’t shut up about the book for weeks, and I’ve already blogged about it in a two part post.

And I was fortunate enough to get an interview this week with one of the book’s co-authors, Carol Tavris. We talked about cognitive dissonance and rationalization, and how they relate to international politics, gay sex, religion, wedding plans, and other burning issues of the day.

Greta: Thank you so much for talking with me. Let’s start with a really basic question: How did you and Elliot get interested in this topic? How long have you been researching it, and what made you decide to pursue it?

GeorgewbushCarol: The two of us have been friends for over 30 years, sharing a passion for psychological science and its relevance to human problems. I’d gone to visit Elliot as he was beginning to lose his vision to macular degeneration, and we were talking about George W. Bush. Bush had already become the poster boy for the inability to admit a mistake — that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that warranted preemptive action, that Iraqis would be greeting our soldiers by dancing in the streets — and Elliot and I got to talking about this universal glitch of the human mind: Why it is that most individuals, when confronted by evidence that they are wrong or made a mistake, do not say, “Hey! thanks for that great information!” Rather than change their point of view, they cling even more tenaciously to their beliefs or courses of action.

Social_animalElliot has been at the forefront of the scientific study of self-justification for many years; he has conducted many experiments that have illuminated its workings in all corners of our lives. His research and writings are world famous, and his understanding of cognitive dissonance began to answer questions that had motivated my own writing over the years — why so many professionals are unable to give up theories and practices that have been shown to be wrong, including therapists who cling to outdated methods or theories like “repression,” scientists who are unconsciously corrupted by conflicts of interest, and social workers who fed the daycare sex-abuse hysteria with the notion that “children never lie” about sexual matters.

And so we said to each other, in effect, “say, we are on to something important here.” We decided to pool our areas of expertise to examine how self-justification operates across many domains, from the public sphere of politics, justice, and war to our most private lives — and how, with a little self-awareness, conscious effort, and sense of humor we can all learn to beat the brain’s wiring. The title was Elliot’s, which is ironic, since, as he says, he’s only ever made one mistake himself in his life, oh, around 1973.

ThinkingThe book had a very strong effect on me, as you probably noticed from my review. As a writer and a thinker, of course, but also in my personal life. I’ve been much more conscious about rationalizing, and I think I’ve been better about copping to it when I make mistakes. But I’m also seeing what you mean when you say that rationalization is necessary. When I’m trying to be super-conscious about it, it can be paralyzing — it’s hard to make decisions, I keep second-guessing myself. And I’ve been getting kind of overwhelmed with guilt over very small misdeeds. (I’ve been apologizing to my girlfriend ad nauseum. She finally had to tell me to knock it off.)

Yes, anything is bad in excess — even chocolate and apologies! OK, maybe not chocolate.

My question: Is that something you’ve dealt with as you’ve been researching and writing about this subject? And if so, how do you cope with it? You, personally — but also, what’s your professional advice about it? How do you stay conscious about rationalization so it doesn’t screw things up for you and everyone else… but still let yourself rationalize enough to get on with your life? How do you strike that balance?

AngerWhen I wrote my first book, on anger, that was the hardest lesson: How do you decide which battles are worth fighting — when is anger morally and politically necessary — and when should you let things go. It is the same here. None of us could get through the day if we stopped to examine everything we do: “What, exactly, are the data for brushing your teeth?” But there are guidelines, and I try to follow them myself.

EyeFirst, the more important the decision, the more vigilant we have to be. Knowing that we will start reducing dissonance the moment we make a choice, for example, means forcing ourselves to keep an open mind about disconfirming evidence that might come along later. If the decision is unimportant, it’s no big deal; let it go; reducing dissonance lets you sleep at night. If the decision could have major consequences in your life, personally or professionally, strive to keep the door open. Intellectually, this is crucial — to keep an open mind about, say, hormone replacement therapy or medical procedures or psychological beliefs that are important to us. On the latter, many developmental psychologists and parents still can’t give up the belief that parents determine everything about how their kids turn out. I’ve modified my own views about the power of genetics in human behavior — I was once a radical behaviorist.

Of course, as we say in the relationships chapter, sometimes it is good to blind ourselves to disconfirming evidence — say, to our loved ones’ flaws and foibles!

Another good example of rationalization sometimes being necessary. :-)

Interview continues below the fold.

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Duelling Billboards

One_nationHere’s a nifty godless video that I think you’ll enjoy. It’s a video response to those awful, arrogant, theocratic, willfully ignorant “God Speaks” billboards you see blighting highways across the country. Comedian and videographer Mario DiGiorgio shows what his billboard replies would be if he had the money…. and his replies are freakin’ hilarious.

Of course there’s a couple that I would do differently. (My personal answer to “Have you read my #1 bestseller?” would have to be, “You mean The God Delusion?”) But that’s half the fun of the video, what makes it a game: thinking about which ones you like, which ones you’d do differently, which ones you’d keep exactly the same. And most of them are spot-on, with a couple that almost made me spit my coffee onto the keyboard.

Video below the fold, since putting them above the fold fucks up my archives.

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Faith, Science, and Advertising: An Ethical Quandary

I had this odd ethical quandary the other day, and I wanted to run it by y’all and ask what you think about my decision. I had to make a decision somewhat quickly, so it’s actually already been made — but it’s a question that’s likely to come up again, and it’s therefore not just a moot point.

Advertising_now1The situation: As you may have noticed, I have ads on my blog. It’s not a huge source of income, but it’s a decent trickle, and as my blog gets more widely read, there’s a good chance that the trickle will increase to a somewhat larger trickle. I don’t have to accept every ad that gets submitted to me, and I have rejected ads in the past (most memorably an ad from some multi-level marketing firm that was obviously Scam City).

UccbluelogoSo an ad was submitted to me the other day… from the United Church of Christ.

Not advertising a particular church program; not advertising an educational series or a charitable fund. Just advertising themselves. The church, qua church.

Specifically, advertising themselves as a science-friendly church.

The tag line of the ad was: “Science and faith are not mutually exclusive.”

(You can see more about the ad campaign here.)

And I had a very hard time deciding whether to accept it.

How_to_succeed_in_advertisingUntil now, my policy has been to accept any and all ads unless I found their content flatly objectionable. (Or dishonest, like the multi-level scam ad. Which I guess is just another version of objectionable.) I don’t think a publication has to agree with or endorse every ad that they publish, and in the same way that I like having a variety of dissenting opinions in my comments, I’m happy to have a variety of dissenting opinions in my ads. I’ve even had ads with religious content before — religious content that I didn’t really agree with.

OnasettingwebvAnd as churches go, the UCC isn’t a bad one. They’re not the Unitarians or the Quakers, but as far as I can tell they’re on the progressive side, pretty gay-positive and all that. I like that they’re taking on the fundies on the science question; I don’t think they’d put it into those words, but I think it’s clear that that’s what they’re doing. And I was actually pretty impressed that they wanted to advertise on an atheist blog. (Especially this atheist blog. In fact, part of me really wanted to take the ad, just to have the United Church of Christ ad right under the Blowfish ad with the buttplug.)

But ultimately, I couldn’t do it.

I couldn’t do it because the fundamental thrust of their ad campaign is one that I totally, completely disagree with.

I think science and faith are mutually exclusive.

ManusingmicroscopeNow, before you jump down my throat: I think religious believers can be scientists, and good ones. The evidence for that is pretty obvious. Most scientists throughout history have been religious believers, and many scientists today are as well. I’m not saying that having religious faith means you can’t be a scientist.

Defending_your_faithI’m saying that — as approaches to life, as approaches to understanding reality and engaging with the world — faith and science are radically different. Science is an approach to life and learning that is willing to question anything, give up any belief or opinion, if a preponderance of evidence contradicts it. Faith is an approach to life and learning that starts with an assumption that it isn’t willing to discard. The more progressive faiths are willing to bend and change to adjust to reality; but the basic assumption — the existence of God and the soul — can’t be relinquished if you’re going to maintain the faith. It’s an approach to life based on an assumption that’s not only unproven, but unprovable. And it’s an approach to life that says it’s okay to make this big, unrelinquishable assumption about the nature of reality based entirely on tradition, authority, and personal intuition.

(That’s an oversimplification — of both faith and science — but for the purposes of this post, it’ll have to do.)

DarwinAnd if you’re a scientist with religious faith, it’s very likely that, at some point, your faith and your science are going to collide. And when/if it does, you’re going to have to make a choice. You’re going to have to decide which approach you value more.

(The big conflict in the 20th century was obviously evolution, colliding with the idea of life being designed. In the 21st century, I think the big conflict may be neuroscience, colliding with the idea of the soul.)

That’s what I mean by faith and science being mutually exclusive. I think faith and science are significantly different approaches to life, representing significantly different values. They can both be accommodated up to a point — but when that point is reached, one has to be chosen, and the the other has to be set aside.

Now, I don’t actually feel like debating that point right now. I’m currently working on a larger, more comprehensive piece about faith and rationality where I go into this idea in more detail, and I’d like to hold off on debating this point until I do that. (If you really feel driven to argue in the comments, knock yourself out, but I’m letting you know now that I’m probably not going to get into it.)

Online_journalism_ethicsMy question is this: Given that I do disagree so diametrically with the basic message of the ad, what should I have done?

Should I have accepted it — and should I accept other ads like it — on the theory that this blog is a forum for lively but respectful debate about religion, and this ad would have been just one more part of that?

Or should I have rejected it — and other ads like it — on the theory that I shouldn’t accept ads that are the 100% opposite of my most passionately held beliefs?

HeartI’ll admit: A fair part of my decision was just emotional. I did not want that ad on my blog. I think it’s clear that. as a blogger, I don’t necessarily endorse every comment that’s made on it. I think that point is rather less clear when it comes to ads. I didn’t want anyone coming to my blog and thinking that I endorsed this UCC ad, in any way, shape or form.

And even more emotionally than that: I just didn’t want it. Nothing against the United Church of Christ (well, apart from the fact that they’re perpetuating a belief that I think is mistaken and ultimately harmful), but I did not want that ad on my blog. It made me feel icky.

No_heartsvgBut icky feelings aren’t a very good basis for making an ethical decision. If I’m going to keep accepting ads, this kind of question is going to come up again. And I think I need to have a consistent, coherent policy about which ads to accept and which ads to reject. Something more coherent than, “No ads that make me feel icky.” Based on my experience with this ad, I’m leaning towards, “Ads are okay unless they’re flatly objectionable… or their content is in complete opposition to my own beliefs and values, even if it’s not actually offensive.” But I’m still developing it, and would like to hear what y’all have to say about it.

Money1(Oh, and P.S.: In case you’re wondering, the money was not that big an issue. It would have been nice, of course — especially since they wanted to run the ad for a whole month — but I just don’t charge enough for my ads for money to be a make-or-break factor in deciding whether to accept one. Not yet, anyway.)

Defensiveness, Rationalization, Mulishness… What Does That Have To Do With Religion? Mistakes Were Made, Part 2

Mistakes_were_madeIn 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?”

Defending_your_faithThe 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.

Church_serviceAnd 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.)

Jerry_falwell_portraitAnd 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.

Cheshire_regiment_trench_somme_1916It’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 them
 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.

Emperors_new_clothesNow, 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.

HumansvgAtheists, 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.”

MuleI don’t 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.

Boat1If 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.

GoddelusionI’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.

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts — A Review

Mistakes_were_madeI am totally having fits about this book. Everyone reading this blog has to read it. Everyone not reading this blog has to read it. I was already more or less familiar with the concepts in it before I started reading… and I am nevertheless finding it a life-changer.

And in particular, anyone interested in religion has to read it. It doesn’t talk much about religion specifically; but the ideas in it are spot-on pertinent to the topic.

For believers… and for atheists.

Excuses_for_dummiesA quick summary. Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts is about cognitive dissonance: the uncomfortable-at-best feeling you get when things you do, or things that happen, contradict your beliefs — about yourself or the world. It’s about the unconscious justifications, rationalizations, and other defense mechanisms we use to keep that dissonance at bay. It’s about the ways that these rationalizations perpetuate and entrench themselves. And it’s about some of the ways we may be able to derail them. The book is fascinating and readable; it’s clear, well-written, well-researched, loaded with examples, and often very funny.

Im_with_stupidThe basic idea: When we believe something that turns out to be untrue, it conflicts with our concept of ourselves as intelligent. When we make a decision that turns out badly, it conflicts with our concept of ourselves as competent. And when we do something that hurts someone, it conflicts with our concept of ourselves as good. That’s the dissonance.

And what we do, much if not most of the time, is rationalize. We come up with reasons why our mistake wasn’t really a mistake; why our bad deed wasn’t really so bad.

“I couldn’t help it.” “Everyone else does it.” “It’s not that big a deal.” “I was tired/sick.” “They made me do it.” “I’m sure it’ll work out in the long run.” “I work hard, I deserve this.” “History will prove me right.” “I can accept money and gifts and still be impartial.” “Actually, spending fifty thousand dollars on a car makes a lot of sense.” “When the Leader said the world was going to end on August 22, 1997, he was just speaking metaphorically.”

PropagandanazijapanesemonsterIn fact, we have entire social structures based on supporting and perpetuating each other’s rationalizations — from patriotic fervor in wartime to religion and religious apologetics.

More on that in a bit.

I could summarize the book ad nauseum, and this could easily turn into a 5,000 word book review. But I do have my own actual points to make. So here are, IMO, the most important pieces of info to take from this book

Brainlobessvg1) This process is unconscious. It’s incredibly easy to see when someone else is rationalizing a bad decision. It’s incredibly difficult to see when we’re doing it ourselves. The whole way that this process works hinges on it being unconscious — if we were conscious of it, it wouldn’t work.

Crowd2) This process is universal. All human beings do it. In fact, all human beings do it pretty much every day. Every time we take a pen from work and think, “Oh everyone does it, and the company can afford it”; every time we light a cigarette after deciding to quit and think, “Well, I only smoke half a pack a day, that’s not going to kill me”; every time we eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s for dinner and think, “It’s been a long week, I deserve this”; every time we buy consumer products made in China (i.e., by slave labor) and think, “I really need new sneakers, and I just can’t afford to buy union-made”… that’s rationalization in action. It is a basic part of human mental functioning. If you think you’re immune… I’m sorry to break this to you, but you’re mistaken. (See #1 above, re: this process being unconscious, and very hard to detect when we’re in the middle of it.)

Circle_of_two_arrows_23) This process is self-perpetuating. The deeper we get into a rationalization, the more likely we are to repeat the bad decision, hang on to the mistaken belief, continue to do harm to others.

This is probably the scariest part of the book. When we hurt someone and convince ourselves that they deserved it, we’re more likely to hurt them — or other people like them — again. Partly because we’ve already convinced ourselves that they’re bad, so why not… but also, in large part, to bolster our belief that our original decision was right.

PrisonThe most chilling examples of this are in the justice system and international relations. In the justice system, cops and prosecutors are powerfully resistant to the idea that they might have made a mistake and put the wrong person in prison. As a result, they actively resist revisiting cases, even when new evidence turns up. And the justice system is, in far too many ways, structured to support this pattern.

As for this process playing out in international relations, I have just three words: “The Middle East.” Any time you have a decades- or centuries-old “they started it” vendetta, you probably have one of these self-perpetuating rationalization processes on your hands. On all sides.

Mean_girlsBut this happens on a small scale as well, with individuals. I know that I’ve said snarky, mean things behind people’s backs, for no good reason other than that friends of mine didn’t like them and were being mean and snarky about them… and I’ve then convinced myself that I really couldn’t stand that person, and gone on to say even more mean things about them. And I’ve more than once tried to convince my friends to dislike the people that I disliked… because if my friends liked them, it was harder to convince myself that my dislike was objectively right and true. All unconsciously, of course. It’s taken time and perspective to see that that’s what I was doing.

Commitment4) The more we have at stake in a decision, the harder we hang on to our rationalization for it.

This is a freaky paradox, but it makes a terrible kind of sense when you think about it. The further along we’ve gone with a bad decision, and the more we’ve committed to it, the more likely we are to justify it — and to stick with it, and to invest in it even more heavily.

History_of_the_end_of_the_worldA perfect example of this is end-of-the-world cults. When people quit their jobs and sell their houses to follow some millennial leader, they’re more likely to hang on to their beliefs, even though the world conspicuously did not end on August 22, 1997 like they thought it would. If someone doesn’t sell their house to prepare for the end of the world — if, say, they just take a week off work — they’ll find it easier to admit that they made a mistake.

Helter_skelterAnd this is true, not just for bad decisions and mistaken beliefs, but immoral acts as well. Paradoxically, the worse the thing is that you’ve done, the more likely you are to rationalize it, and to stick to your rationalization like glue. As I wrote before when I mentioned this book: It’s relatively easy to reconcile your belief that you’re a good person with the fact that you sometimes make needlessly catty remarks and forget your friends’ birthdays. It’s a lot harder to reconcile your belief that you’re a good person with the fact that you carved up a pregnant woman and smeared her blood on the front door. The more appalling your immoral act was, the more likely you are to have a rock-solid justification for it… or a justification that you think is rock-solid, even if everyone around you thinks it’s transparently self-serving or batshit loony.

Icepick25) This process is necessary.

This may be the hardest part of all this to grasp. As soon as you start learning about the unconscious rationalization of cognitive dissonance, you start wanting to take an icepick and dig out the part of your brain that’s responsible for it.

Long_dark_teatime_of_the_soulBut in fact, rationalization exists for a reason. It enables us to make decisions without being paralyzed about every possible consequence. It enables us to have confidence and self-esteem, even though we’ve made mistakes in the past. And it enables us to live with ourselves. Without it, we’d be paralyzed with guilt and shame and self-doubt. Perpetually. We’d never sleep. We’d be second-guessing everything we do. We’d be having dark nights of the soul every night of our lives.

Mistakes_were_made_2So that’s the gist of the book. Cognitive dissonance, and the unconscious rationalizations and justifications we come up with to deal with it, are a basic part of human consciousness. It’s a necessary process… but it also does harm, sometimes great harm. So we need to come up with ways, both individually and institutionally, to minimize the harm that it does. And since the process is harder to stop the farther along it’s gone, we need to find ways to catch it early.

That’s the concept. And I think it’s important.

It’s important because, in a very practical and down-to-earth way, this concept gives us a partial handle on why dumb mistakes, absurd beliefs, and harmful acts get perpetuated. And it gives us — again, in a very practical, down-to-earth way — a handle on what we can do about it.

Wicked_witchWe have a tendency to think that bad people know they’re bad. Our popular culture is full of villains cackling over their beautiful wickedness, or trying to lure their children to The Dark Side. It’s a very convenient way of positioning evil outside ourselves, as something we could never do ourselves. Evil is Out There, something done by The Other. (In fact, I’d argue that this whole cultural trope is itself a very effective support for rationalization. “Sure, I set the stove on fire/ shagged the babysitter/ gave my money to a con artist… but it’s not like I’m Darth Vader.”)

Osama_bin_ladenBut reality isn’t like that. Genuine sociopaths are rare. Most people who do bad things — even terrible, appalling, flatly evil things — don’t think of themselves as bad people. They think of themselves as good people, and they think of their evil acts as understandable, acceptable, justifiable by the circumstances. In some cases, they even think of their evil acts as positive goods.

EyeIf we want to mitigate the effects of foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts, we need to look at the reality of how these things happen. We need to be vigilant about our own tendency to rationalize our mistakes. We need to be knowledgeable about how to effectively deal with other people’s rationalizations. We need to create institutional structures designed to catch both our mistakes and our rationalizations, and to support us in acknowledging them. (The scientific method is a pretty good model of this.) And especially in America, we need to create a culture that doesn’t see mistakes as proof of incompetence, misconceptions as proof of stupidity, and hurtful acts as proof of evil.

And this book offers us ways to do all of that.

OptimismThe book isn’t perfect. There are, for instance, some very important questions that it neglects to answer. Specifically, I kept finding myself wondering: What’s the difference between rationalization and simple optimism, or positive thinking? What’s the difference between rationalizing a bad decision, and just having a silver-lining, “seeing the bright side” attitude? And if there is a difference, how can you tell which one you’re doing?

Journey_outAnd, as a commenter here in the blog asked when I mentioned this book earlier: What’s the difference between justifying why your bad behavior wasn’t really bad — and genuinely changing your mind about what is and isn’t bad? Think of all the people who believed that homosexual sex was wrong and they were bad people for even thinking about it
 until they actually did it, and spent time with other people who did it, and realized that there wasn’t actually anything wrong with it. How do you tell the difference between a rationalization and a genuine change of heart?

ThinkerSomewhat more seriously, the section on “What can we actually do about this?” is rather shorter than I would have liked. The authors do have some excellent practical advice on dealing with cognitive dissonance and rationalization. But while their advice on dealing with other people’s rationalizations is helpful, and their ideas on creating institutional structures to nip the process in the bud are inspired, their advice for dealing with one’s own dissonance/ rationalization pretty much comes down to, “Just try to be aware of it.” Problematic — since as they themselves point out, rationalization and justification are singularly resistant to introspection.

But it’s a grand and inspiring start, an excellent foundation on an important topic. It’s been a life-changer, and I recommend it passionately to everyone.

So what does it have to do with religion?

(To be continued tomorrow.)

Humanist Symposium #14

CarnivalThe Humanist Symposium #14 is up at Countries Beginning with I. The Symposium is probably my favorite blog carnival; it’s the atheist carnival that focuses on the positive aspects of atheism, rather than the negative aspects of religion. (And this particular Symposium is making me especially happy, since the host said such nice things about my blog.)

My piece in this Symposium: The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises. My favorite other piece in this Symposium: Hard to say, a lot of them are very good indeed. But the one that jumped out at me was Atheist Spirituality at Atheist Revolution. I’m not personally crazy about the word “spirituality,” since I think of it as meaning “metaphysical” (which I don’t believe in), and I associate it with woo (which annoys me). But if you go with Vjack’s definition of “spirituality” as meaning “vitality, connectedness, transcendence, and meaningfulness,” then he makes some really good points. Check it out — and check out the rest of the Symposium. It’s all good.

If you blog about humanism and want to participate in the Humanist Symposium, here’s the submission form. Happy reading, and happy blogging!