Engaging silly beliefs in multiple ways

John Wilkins discusses the utility of believing in nonsense. He knows some members of a branch of the Plymouth Brethren down there in Australia; they’re a pretty distinctive sect here where I live, too. The interesting thing about them is their intentional isolation. They don’t proselytize, they don’t even talk much to us outsiders, and as John says, these are probably survival tactics for the sect — silly beliefs can flourish if you only talk to other people who share the same silly beliefs.

So what do you do when your opponent avoids engagement?

What does this mean for practical purposes? How do we counter these false beliefs? There is no simple answer. In the short term we can insist that our functional bureaucracies and social institutions do not give credence, but that will only harden those who deny the facts in their beliefs. At best it will slough off the fence sitters, and reduce the core denialists to a rump. That is one good thing, but we want people to face reality when it really matters. A better, but longer term solution is to insist that education teaches not the facts, but the methods by which we understand those facts, in order that people can develop their cognitive stances appropriately. This denies the next generation of denialists their replacements, until they become at best an extremely small minority. Education is the solution, which the denialists well understand. This is why we have objections to even discussing these “controversial” matters in schools, and why the denialists (whether of evolution, global warming, or whatever) continuously try to insert their agenda into public education. An uneducated community is more easily controlled and manipulated.

This is a good general approach, not just for dealing with creationists, but for teaching the general population. Teaching to the test just generates competing authorities, and we can’t win that battle; parents, peers, and coercive religion hold all the trump cards. But teaching kids to think for themselves…now that’s where we totally rule.

But I think there are a couple of issues that John didn’t engage in that blog post. Yes, please, better teaching. But what about these problems?

The Brethren or the Amish or any other sect that withdraws from the larger society really isn’t a long-term problem. They’re going to fade away or evolve eventually. The reality is that, at least in America, we have to deal with evangelical religions: Answers in Genesis or the Southern Baptist Convention aren’t simply retreating into their own navels, they are actively proselytizing bad beliefs. Simply trying to erode their base away with good teaching hasn’t worked here, at least (or possibly, we just don’t have good teaching), and direct and aggressive opposition is necessary.

Even religions that have insulated themselves and just want to be left alone do harm. Consider just the problem of faith healing; we have laws in the US that shelter ideas that lead to dead children. Unless we’re willing to say that society as a whole has no interest in kids, and parents are free to abuse them intellectually and medically, intervention is often called for. Our local Brethren aren’t proselytizing directly, but apparently they have quiet clout: they’ve compelled the school board and local businesses to avoid ‘controversial’ issues by threatening to withhold their custom or withdraw their kids from school. They’re smart and are using passive techniques to prevent kids from getting good educations.

Finally, if we’re going to concede that creationists are following a rational social strategy (and I do!), then we also have to recognize the godless complement: while many scientists and naturalists certainly follow the similar tactic of cloistering themselves with their like-minded colleagues, many of us are rationally pursuing a strategy of active, public opposition to believing in silly things. While teaching children how to think and learn is part of our goal of taking over the world, another important aspect is consolidating and reinforcing a non-believing community.

The inward-looking community is one approach to sustaining and strengthening a group: look to those Brethren or most academic departments, for instance, and you’ll see that in action. But the flip side is forming outward-looking communities — Answers in Genesis has a little bit of that, poorly done because they can’t really afford to engage the evidence, but it’s a fairly natural direction for science-based communities to take … we’re supposed to be evaluating new ideas all the time.

Also, we do it for the lurkers. Exclusive sects aren’t very good at gaining new recruits.


  1. kevinalexander says

    Also, we do it for the lurkers.

    Yes. I rather enjoy it when an accommodationist or even a creationist comes into the comments and plays the part of Simplicio in a dialog of two world systems.
    I have learned most of what I know about evolution from lurking here and at Jerry Coyne’s place

  2. says

    “While teaching children how to think and learn is part of our goal of taking over the world, another important aspect is consolidating and reinforcing a non-believing community.”

    You want to take over the world? If so, you’re just like them! Another damn evengelical! Another wannabe dictator!

    I want government to stay out of the fray, and that’s all.

  3. says

    In fact, in the 2012 elections, the Texas state GOP election platform explicitly called for an end to the teaching of critical thinking in schools. Passive resistance is only one stream.

  4. magistramarla says

    “Teaching to the test just generates competing authorities, and we can’t win that battle; parents, peers, and coercive religion hold all the trump cards. But teaching kids to think for themselves…now that’s where we totally rule.”

    This jumped out at me. This is why I was so glad that Latin wasn’t a part of the awful standardized testing when I was teaching. The teachers in the “core” classes weren’t allowed to teach creatively at all. Since it was Texas, I think that they were discouraged from teaching critical thinking at all.
    They were required to always be on the same page at the same time with the other teachers of their subject in the school and in the district. They were constantly teaching to the test, which meant that it seemed that all the students were learning was rote learning.

    In my class, I got to teach some independent and critical thinking. All I had to do was show that I was contributing to some of the TEKS goals a couple of times a year. I was quietly subversive. We would discuss all sorts of subjects by talking about how the Romans encountered such things as philosophy, religions, math, science, etc. as they conquered other cultures and learned from them.
    My students got a chance to look at lots of different ideas and formed their own opinions about those ideas. Oh, and they learned the languages as we went along.

  5. Snoof says

    jenny6833a @ 2

    You want to take over the world? If so, you’re just like them! Another damn evengelical! Another wannabe dictator!

    Either your irony detector is on the blink, or mine is.

    I want government to stay out of the fray, and that’s all.

    Just government? Not the corporations, militias, warlords, gangs or mobs?

  6. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    It’s not worth bothering much with Jennynumbers. She consistently, without fail, misses the point of every post and constructs a stupid (and sometimes offensive) fantasy that she then flails at. For a comment or two.

  7. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I agree, Josh.

    Still there are lurkers who may not immediately realize that “stay out of the fray” means “do nothing”.

    Should we build more roads, maintain the ones we have, or dig up roads to install mass transit? Stay out of the fray (means potholes never get filled and the infrastructure is neither maintained nor improved)!

    Should the government be providing health care for all, health care for the poor and the old and the dislabled, or health care for none? Stay out of the fray (means health care for none – and no pesky regulations on taking your premiums then dropping you as soon as you get sick)!

    How much dioxin should paper mills be allowed to discharge? Stay out of the fray (means mills will do whatever they want, and damn your health)!

    “Stay out of the fray” means “have no government whatsoever”.

    It is something that appears reasonable at first glance, but is patently absurd, and not at all the neutral concept it appears.

    Jenny6833a’s idiotic statement deserves at least a little scorn before we move on and ignore it.

  8. Al Dente says

    I hope PZ was serious. I’d hate to think I spent all that time shining my jackboots for nothing.

  9. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Good points, CripDyke. It would have been more accurate for me to say, “I don’t find Jennynumbers worth any of my personal attention as she’s a known quantity of stupid.”

  10. says

    Good compulsive public education.
    Germany has a ban on homeschooling and I’m quite happy with that.
    Sure, there are great homeschooling parents out there, but I cannot sacrifice the rights of the children of religious parents to get a decent education for the sake of a few who are getting a slightly better education because they have great parents.
    And yes please, stop that “teaching to the test” bullshit. It’s really the height of fashion in Germany and in german teacher training now. It’s all about how to I get testable facts and skills into their heads and very little about “how do I help these children in becoming responsible adults”. Apart from the fact that this, together with a renewed interest in “IQ” suggests that we have a meritocracy.

  11. says

    Tony: the important question is, where are we going to get sixteen Portuguese-speaking seagulls, a dive-certified yak juvenile, and a total mass conversion engine?

  12. says

    I want government to stay out of the fray, and that’s all.

    If government is to stay out of this, we can’t teach anything in schools, because religion has opinions on everything. We can’t have any kind of licensing of doctors, because that’s government passing judgment on which school of thought is more legitimate, science-based medicine or faith healing. Can’t have building regulations because if somebody claims that god will protect them, the government has to respect that.
    Can’t have any kind of safety regulations in relation to food, because the bible clearly says “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them…” Demanding that food items not be toxic is a de facto rejection of that statement. Think that this is not a proper interpretation of that passage? Tough. We can’t have the government sit as an authority over the correct interpretations of scripture. If a single sect says that’s the right interpretation, government has to stay out of the controversy.

    I don’t think you’ve spent five seconds thinking about the implications of what you’re saying. They reach much further than a few arcane scientific matters. You’re talking about just throwing out the state altogether and leaving us in the hands of fanatics and business moguls.

    Alternatively, you can say that the government should only stay out of some subjects, while regulating others. In that case, I think it would be hilarious *cough* interesting to hear you explain which subjects and why.

  13. Al Dente says

    Tony: the important question is, where are we going to get sixteen Portuguese-speaking seagulls, a dive-certified yak juvenile, and a total mass conversion engine?

    CatieCat, are you pondering what I’m pondering?

  14. vaiyt says

    Tony: the important question is, where are we going to get sixteen Portuguese-speaking seagulls, a dive-certified yak juvenile, and a total mass conversion engine?

    I can provide the seagulls.

  15. unclefrogy says

    well those hard to get items can usually be found in the Acme catalog and can be delivered the next day!

    uncle frogy

  16. Sastra says

    jenny6833a #2 wrote:

    You want to take over the world? If so, you’re just like them! Another damn evengelical! Another wannabe dictator!

    I think jenny’s statement here is important to address because it gets not only to the heart of the major criticism of gnu atheism, but to the substance of our best defense. It’s based on the idea that a person’s religion is an essential aspect of their identity, a personal or communal choice which must be respected if we’re all going to get along in mutual appreciation and harmony.

    In this version of a world in which everyone is free to believe as their conscience dictates, one of the worst things anyone can do is try to change someone’s religion. Since nobody can know for sure then all beliefs about God basically come down to a matter of faith. Saying “I am right and you are wrong” is thus an unforgivable act of intolerance and aggression. The goal is to accept that the people who think different than you are still people, still fine, and okay just as they are.

    Respect diversity. Do not dictate truth in religion. Do not proselytize, do not evangelize, do not convert as if YOU were God.

    I’ve just outlined the accomodationist stance here and I hope jenny would agree that I’ve fairly represented her views. New atheism and its outspoken campaign to ‘take over the world’ is basically turning atheism into fundamentalism. If we try to take people’s faith away then we are as jenny says just “another damn evangelical.” We’re as bad as they are. We have to avoid that.

    Ok. Now I’m going to try to explain to jenny why I think that is wrong.

    What we see as dangerous about fundamentalism isn’t its “I’m right and you’re wrong” attitude and its desire to convert everyone to one point of view. No. What we see as dangerous about fundamentalism is that 1.) it’s wrong — and 2.) it’s not allowing the debate to be on a fair footing. It either quashes the idea of debate altogether or it uses specious arguments, logical fallacies, appeals to emotion, lies, misdirections, underhanded tactics and then — when those don’t work — quashes the idea of debate altogether. Faith.

    We see it this way because we reject the starting premise that “religion is an essential aspect of an individual’s identity.” If that is the case, then attacking the tenets and beliefs of Catholicism, Islam, or theism in general is just like attacking gay people, minorities, or harmless pursuits and preferences. How you choose to identify yourself as a person shouldn’t be up for debate. If you’re a science fiction fan or an environmentalist or a person with physical challenges then you do not and should not have to defend yourself to bullies who think you’re somehow “wrong.” There is no right or wrong when it comes to one’s basic identity: there is only different.

    But when you get to the heart of religion, it’s not a matter of identity. It’s fact claims: the existence of God, the existence of the soul, spiritual realms, supernatural essences, magic, the afterlife, karma, reincarnation, ESP, PK, NDE, etc.etc. Sure, it becomes a matter of identity — but this is wrong. They shouldn’t do it by their own standards because it reduces religion to its trappings. Religious beliefs are what define religion and accepting them as true are what define a person as religious. Flat out. Not the buildings, not the community, not the charity work, not the art, not the values and virtues attached to a system. Not the comfort and meaning and being the kind of person who believes. The truth of the source of these things. It’s supposed to be central by that very system.

    Faith is not a virtue. It’s a vice, a dogmatic refusal to consider and accept an alternative as if one was standing by a commitment. A commitment to God, or a commitment to oneself, to stand firm and not falter. But what we’re dealing with here isn’t an identity issue — or a love of “God” — but a sincere commitment to pursue an issue, a claim of objective fact, by avoiding subjective bias and personal needs. “It’s not all about you,” as the evangelists say. And we say it right back to them and mean it.

    Nobody should base who they are on a need to be right. If they care about truth — and they ALL care about truth if you specifically ASK them — then they ought to be able to change their minds. The existence of God is a hypothesis and one’s human values and virtues do not rest on having the “faith” to draw the conclusion on the positive side. The debate ought to take place and be fair. It’s not “evangelism” or “conversion” or “force” or “taking over.”

    It’s rational persuasion. And it only “takes over the world” by consent. When that happens, jenny, it’s not seen as “dictatorship.” It counts as “human progress.”

    Bottom line, if atheists care about being genuinely accepted as equals in society then we cannot tacitly agree the chance that the process of critical thinking may result in “atheism” should be considered a threat worse than death: the loss of identity. Accepting “peace” on those terms is unacceptable.

  17. thinkfree83 says

    It seems to me that what is going among the religious right today is extreme sheltering mixed in with aggressive evangelization. Think of the people in the quiverfull/patriarchy/Christian homeschooling world. The products of that world are the “shock troops” of the religious right that can be deployed on short notice and have a network of contacts and fellow travelers in politics, entertainment, and business. The fact that the song from an obscure Christian patriarchy movie (“Alone Yet Not Alone”) is being considered for an Oscar shows what kind of connections these people have. What do you do about people like the Duggars, who combine extreme sheltering with a pathological need to show themselves on TV? Those kids are never allowed to be in an situation when they will have free access to information, whether from a book, the Internet, or another person. To make matters worse, when they get interviewed on TV, the so-called reporters give them the most softball questions, which obscures what they really believe.

  18. David Marjanović says

    a renewed interest in “IQ”

    Oh, barf!

    Is your state red or black? I have suspicions.

  19. says

    As someone who has to make formal reports of child abuse to CPS fairly often, I’m sorry to say the funds are not there to even investigate many egregious incidences of physical and sexual abuse. I often point this out to the so called “Pro Life” crowd, aligned as they are with a political party that has slashed funding for child abuse prevention and intervention services.

  20. says


    Is your state red or black? I have suspicions.

    For me it’s symptomatic that they renamed the university faculty from “Erziehungswissenschaften*” in “Bildungswissenschaften”

    *”Erziehung” for the non German speakers being something between upbringing, raising and educating with a focus on having a decent person at the end. “Bildung” = academic education

  21. says

    Few comments:

    1. Thanks for the PZ Tsunami of referrals.

    2. It wasn’t about the Plymouth Brethren as such. That was just how I came by the insight.

    3. This is part of what I think of as the Developmentalist Hypothesis of Belief Formation (the capitals make it true). We do not just acquire our beliefs in one step, but accrue them as we develop into adults. There is a cost to this, and so to move someone from their core beliefs and values, you have to make it something that would outweigh the costs involved in acquiring and maintaining those beliefs.

    4. Denialism has a strong function in making communities of those who hold a particular belief more cohesive. As such, one has to ask, why does that community exist in the first place? As a proto-Marxian I think the reason is about the social and economic functions such beliefs play. Those whose sociopolitical interests are served by denying the facts, either because some influential class benefit, or because there is a deeper underlying fear of modernity or change the community represents, need these beliefs to defend their own (imagined?) way of life. The reason, for example, why many conservatives vote against their objective interests, has to do with their loss of community and cognitive investment if they change. The “narrative” they have developed to justify their beliefs is what Marx called “false consciousness”, and so pointing out the harm they do to themselves will not be effective. If we want to shift what the population believes to make it more reality-based, simple engagement, as valuable as it is, will not be widely effective.

  22. says

    I have met members of the Plymouth Brethren in Australia and they are, if you pardon the pun, angels compared to the Exclusive Brethren. This particular sect is even more isolated. Information about it only comes from former members. It has access to considerable amounts of money through its business ventures and despite forbidding its members from taking part in politics its uses its money to buy political influence. For several years they had the financial ear of one of the most conservative, blinkered Prime Monsters Australia had the misfortune to have.

  23. davidrichardson says

    There was an interesting case here in Sweden with the button you press to activate the crossing ‘green man’ at traffic lights. The company which got the contract to produce them was owned by people from the Plymouth Brethren, so they designed the button to include a clenched hand with the index finger extended, which is apparently a symbol of something in their religion. The idea was to flood Sweden with a religious symbol that everyone would have to press a few times a day. The only problem is that Sweden’s such a secular country that no one even noticed that it was a religious symbol – they thought it was just, well, a finger pointing to where you had to press the button. I can well imagine that in years to come children will be pointing to crosses wondering what exactly they’re supposed to represent.

  24. steffp says

    “I can well imagine that in years to come children will be pointing to crosses wondering what exactly they’re supposed to represent.”
    A Cartesian Coordinate System? Or the symbol for “plus”?

  25. says

    Yeah, P|Z isn’t going to take over the world. That’s my destiny. But when I do, perhaps I’ll offer him a position, say Subtyrant of the Northeastern US Zone.

  26. Azuma Hazuki says


    Aaaaaargh! That, right there, is my hot-button issue, since the same bloody thing happened to me at CCD.

    And same as what happened to me, they’re telling these children only selected parts of the story. How many of the educators, let alone the children, can speak or read koine Greek? How many of them know who Origen, Gregory Nazianzen, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Blessed Macrina, or Basil the Great were? How many of them even know there was ever a Universalist thread not only running through early Christianity but actively tying it together?

    This is what happens when a worldview based on fear, dogma, and half-truths propagates. The antidote to fear is knowledge. But what chance do the children have if the adults are clueless?

  27. David Marjanović says

    A Cartesian Coordinate System? Or the symbol for “plus”?

    The number 10 spelled out in Chinese (十).

    Seriously, in China crusaders are called “10-sign knights”.

    (…And now I fantasize about crusading for SI measures in the US. X-) )