The end of god-9: Honey and vinegar

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

An argument that is often made against the new atheists is that their strong rhetoric (such as labeling god a delusion) can alienate people and not win them over to the atheist side. Thus one finds even those who concede that the new atheists are right and that they have all the science and evidence and logic and rationality on their side, still suggesting that the atheists may be losing the bigger public relations war even as they win individual battles. Such people, retrieving the old saying that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar, suggest that a softer approach may yield better results.

This is a very interesting argument (one that has been made by commenters here too) and is worth examining. The question of what exactly makes people change their minds on anything is an empirical question that, to my knowledge, has not been studied as much as it should. (I would be grateful to any readers who can point me to relevant studies.) What follows are some speculations on my part.

Here are my starting assumptions, which I think are reasonable: (1) People can and do change their minds about things. (2) They find it easier to change their minds about some things than others. (3) Beliefs about anything are held in place by emotions, reasons, authority, and evidence, but that the relative weight of the contributions of those four elements can differ widely depending on the nature of the belief. (4) Beliefs are harder to change the smaller the factual content they contain, the longer one has held on to the beliefs, the stronger the emotional attachment to them, the more widely held the beliefs, and the more publicly one has committed to them.

The last point is important. Once you can get people to commit publicly to a belief in anything, it is far harder to get them to change their minds. People have an emotional attachment to their stated beliefs and when those are challenged, tend to manufacture reasons to sustain the belief rather than concede that they were wrong. This is why religions are so resilient: they indoctrinate children in their belief structure at a very early age, while they are still under the strong influence of their parents, priests, teachers, and other elders. Religious parents do not wait for children to make their own informed choice about what to believe, sometimes even going to the extent of having public rituals that commit the children as infants by baptizing them (for Christians) and circumcising them (for Jewish and Muslim boys). Once children can be made to see themselves as adherents of a belief, which they do by labeling themselves as Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or whatever, and are then sustained in those beliefs through their adolescence and early adulthood by a community of like-minded believers, it is much harder emotionally and otherwise to persuade them later to concede that they were wrong.

Herbert Spencer pointed out this phenomenon in an essay dealing with evolution titled The Development Hypothesis published in his book Essays Scientific, Political & Speculative (1891):

Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution as not being adequately supported by facts, seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all. Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief, they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse belief, but assume that their own needs none. Here we find, scattered over the globe, vegetable and animal organisms numbering, of the one kind (according to Humboldt), some 320,000 species, and of the other, some 2,000,000 species (see Carpenter) and if to these we add the numbers of animal and vegetable species which have become extinct, we may safely estimate the number of species that have existed, and are existing, on the Earth, at not less than ten millions. Well, which is the most rational theory about these ten millions of species? Is it most likely that there have been ten millions of special creations? or is it most likely that, by continual modifications due to change of circumstances, ten millions of varieties have been produced, as varieties are being produced still?

Doubtless many will reply that they can more easily conceive ten millions of special creations to have taken place, than they can conceive that ten millions of varieties have arisen by successive modifications. All such, however, will find, on inquiry, that they are under an illusion. This is one of the many cases in which men do not really believe, but rather believe they believe. (my italics)

I believe this last statement is true for religion. I think that most religious people do not really believe, they just want to believe they believe. How many Christians genuinely believe that Jesus was actually born of a virgin and physically rose from the dead? Where would he go? After all, since even many Christians do not believe that there is a physical heaven in the sky where the physical Jesus lives, that means that after going to all the trouble of resurrecting his physical body, Jesus then had to get rid of it again. Why bother?

Similarly, how many Catholics really believe that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus during the communion service? How many Muslims genuinely believe that god directly dictated the Koran to Mohammed and that the angel Gabriel really spoke to him? I suspect that it is only the fanatics who really believe and they are the dangerous ones who can be persuaded to do terrible acts in the name of their god. But all the others who simply believe they believe give the fanatics the license to think that their own delusions are quite reasonable.

Given this fact, what is the best strategy to persuade people to change their religious beliefs? Suggest that those beliefs are reasonable but that the atheist approach is better (the honey approach)? Or to argue that religious beliefs are irrational and even pernicious and that any thinking person should be embarrassed to hold on to them (the vinegar approach of the new atheists)?

That question will be explored in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: The power of prayer

Did you know that America has an official National Day of Prayer and that this year it was on May 1st? If you want to start planning your prayers now for 2009, that date is May 7.

And did you know that the group behind it sponsored a car at the NASCAR race held at the Talladega Speedway on April 27? So how did it do?

Not too well, I’m afraid. Their car ended up 25th. The next time they need to pray harder. Or maybe god was too absorbed watching the basketball playoffs and simply forgot to act in time. It can happen to anyone.


  1. Josh says

    I think the problem is in the approach. People don’t want to be changed, and the more you try to change them, the more they will resist. We should not have to prosteltyze atheism. Based on my own experience with people who have given up religion later in life, it is not some atheist or group of atheists that convinced them to change their minds. Typically, it is a life changing event or experience that causes the person to seek change. The best thing we can do as atheists is to remain positive and visible so as to provide an alternative for those who are looking for one. I say that atheists need to be active in community service and active in social programs. Lead by example, and people will follow. Religion’s own problems will push people away. Atheists should be careful not to make the same mistakes

  2. says

    Mano, it doesn’t answer your request for empirical studies on how people’s minds are changed, but the discipline of rhetoric has essentially addressed these questions for 2700 years. One book in particular I think you might find provocative with respect to the god question is Wayne Booth’s Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent.

  3. mikespeir says

    “Suggest that those beliefs are reasonable but that the atheist approach is better (the honey approach)? Or to argue that religious beliefs are irrational and even pernicious and that any thinking person should be embarrassed to hold on to them (the vinegar approach of the new atheists)?”

    Does it have to be all one or the other? Isn’t it possible to be firm in one’s conviction that religion is delusion without going out of one’s way to slap down religionists?

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