Changing people’s minds

The post dealing with starting the Year of Reason resulted in a very lively discussion, generating nearly forty comments. I took part in the discussion far more actively than I usually do.

While I often respond to comments, especially if there is a request for specific information or a clarification, I tend not to get into repeated exchanges because I do not think they serve much purpose. It is naïve to think that one can change other people’s minds immediately merely because one thinks one has a superior argument. So a commenter superlucky20 was right when he said that “if you come to message boards hoping to change the minds of other posters, prepare to be disappointed. It almost never happens.”

So why did I get so involved in this particular post? One reason was because the discussion neatly exemplified a point I had made in an earlier post about where the burden of proof lies in any argument.

But another reason is that such discussions can have value in that they can plant the seeds of change that show fruit only much later. What I mean is that when one is confronted with an opposing idea, while one tends to immediately reject it consciously because of the discomfort it causes (especially if you suspect that your opponent is right), it can work subconsciously so that much later one finds one has changed one’s mind and have forgotten where the initial impetus came from. I know that I have changed my own mind on many issues but would be hard pressed to point to a particular person or argument that was responsible for the change, though such an initial starting point for the process must surely exist.

So usually, after I have had my say in the post and perhaps clarified a point or answered a direct question in the comment section, I refrain from making any more comments, although I read every one written by others. Saying pretty much the same thing over and over again is usually a waste of time. This is my policy on web sites and in personal interactions.

Things are rarely so cut and dry, of course. Sometimes, as in that extended exchange, one gets into grey areas about what constitutes a counter example and whether seemingly blanket universal statements contain implicit caveats that limit their generality. For example, consider the universal statement that all human beings have two arms. Most people would confidently assert that this is true, using the same criteria to justify the statement that no dogs exist that can speak out of their rear end. But those who are old enough to remember the tragic cases of babies who were born with missing limbs because their mothers used the supposed pain-killing drug thalidomide during pregnancy (and I have personally seen those babies) will know that the statement that all humans have two arms is not strictly true, and that one has to add caveats. One can try to salvage the statement by saying that, under normal circumstances, human beings have two arms but then one gets into tricky questions of what constitutes ‘normal’.

Sometimes simply making a blanket statement can itself produce a counter-example. In one post, I gave two universal statements whose presumption to truth can be assumed in the absence of counter-examples. One was from John Allen Paulos that there are no dogs that spoke English out of their rear ends and the other was that there does not exist a cow with seven legs. Lo and behold, a commenter pointed to a news item showing that such a cow had indeed been born. This disproved my universal statement about the cow and I would not be justified in making that claim in the future. But the statement about the talking dog is still valid.

One commenter said that using this kind of argument, the universal statement “there is no evidence that god does not exist” would be justified until there was counter-evidence to disprove it. He is right. But atheists don’t challenge the validity of that statement. We all agree that we cannot disprove the existence of god, especially since believers in god reserve the right to ascribe any and all properties to god, including the ability to evade detection. There is no dispute there.

The problem is that religious believers use the agreement on that universal statement to then assert that god exists. But this is an existence statement, and then the burden of proof immediately shifts to them to provide evidence. As long as they refrain from making that inference and stick with the universal statement, then we are in agreement.

That is exactly how things should work and how we should treat arguments.

POST SCRIPT: Making dry data come alive

In this TED talk, Hans Rosling demonstrates two things: the widespread misconceptions about the developing world that many people have and also how to make data come alive.


  1. says

    You can’t disprove that I have a giraffe living in my bedroom. Therefore, I have a giraffe living in my bedroom.

    Why do people think they can get away with the above sort of fundamental fallacies? To me, the logical gap between the two sentences is glaring. What *exactly* makes a person accept an argument from incredulity, wishful thinking, or vague feelings over direct logic? The threat of disapproval from friends and family, or social isolation? Where do we draw that line? Have you ever heard of a psychological study that probes this phenomenon? If not, do you think one could be devised, and if so what would it be like?

    Thanks again for sitting on the Ask an Atheist panel last night! 😀

  2. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    It’s been a while since I have posted here. Thanks to the poster for the link to the NewScience article, which was very interesting.

    I agree entirely that your “three arguments” given to support the existence of god are not particularly compelling evidence. However, as I have mentioned before, from my perspective it is relatively easy for a religious person to avoid the “existence claim” problem by simply not making it. One can adopt a religious perspective where statements about god are seen as
    metaphoric/poetic truths and not statements about whether something physically exists.

    In this case, deciding to participate and/or adopt a particular religious perspective can be based instead more directly on the personal, social and emotional value that is derived. As is discussed in the NewScientist article, this value might be evolutionarily adaptive or it might be a by-product of some other cognitive process.

    Does the fact that a religious person cannot successfully logically argue in favor of the existence of god completely “pull the rug” out from the value of all kinds of religion? I think instead it moves the question of religion from one of arguing truth and evidence to one of making personal choices and finding value. In this sense, religion something like a form of art or music, rather than a system for determining what is and is not physically true about the universe.

    Like art and music, religion can offer something that is personally, culturally, and emotionally rewarding. If existence claims are recognized as unessential, then any given person is free to adopt a religious perspective based not on what is “true”, but what is valuable. And like choices in the arts and music, what is meaningful and valuable to one person might not be valuable to another. Like our choices in music and the arts, our choices in religious perspective and practice can be based on what is personally and/or socially rewarding, not on some existence claim.

  3. says

    I think its a talent, a power that some lucky guys have or train. F.e I dont be listen even for my very own daughter 🙂 and whatever I’ll say it will be waste of time. Why do people listen other peeple? That is the question of questions for me.

  4. says


    What you say is true but I think that what gives religion its power and appeal is the existence claim, that it represents something real, whereas people appreciate art and music knowing that it is purely a subjective experience.

    Why is it that the Greek gods do not provide emotional satisfaction anymore, though they must surely have at some point? Surely it is because people no longer ascribe any reality to them.

    So if people can get some value in religion while jettisoning any idea that god is real, that is fine. But I doubt that that appeals to many people. As Joseph Campbell said, “Religious people think their metaphors are real.”

  5. says

    Corbin: People generally don’t try to pass laws based on their art and music preferences. I’m not aware of anyone insisting we print “in cubism we trust” on our money or petitioning school boards to recognize jazz as the only true American music at the expense of other genres.

    I think the only way to explain things like the “Intelligent Design” movement or strong anti-abortion or anti-gay convictions is that people feel their religions reflect an underlying truth or reality. Why would someone fight so hard over those issues if they really believed it was all just a matter of personal taste?

    I wish I had a dollar for every forum post where someone argues vehemently against “natural materialism”… as if there exists mountains of evidence pointing to something else.

  6. Corbin says

    Brock and Mano,

    I agree that for many people, perhaps even for most people that (a) the attraction of religion is the perception that it has an important existence claim to make and (b) they would feel that making the “existence statement” as a central aspect of what it means to be religious.

    But this would not be all people. There are in fact many people who call themselves religious who do not go around making such claims — at least not making such claims at a level beyond metaphor.

    If I were an artist, I might quibble with your characterization of art as a purely subjective experience. One of the reasons art is so important in the lives of so many people is because it provides a mechanism for “universal connection”. And even when tastes different, within a given discipline, there are “great artists” — people who’s art touches many. Yes, technically, this is a “purely subjective” experience, where every aspect of the communication is comprised of metaphor. But despite these shortcomings, art has a enormous power to make connections between people, to influence lives and change the way we see the world, personally, politically, and morally.
    If art can have this kind of value without relying on any kind of existence claim, why can’t religion?

    It seems to me that Joseph Campbell’s definition is too narrow. To turn it around, I might argue that an atheist is someone who finds no value in the metaphors associated with religion.

    I think Brock’s ideas only apply to people who have a definite and more conservative view about what religion is about. Not all religious people are conservative, and some are dramatically liberal. There are many liberal religious people who are politically motived in directions quite the opposite of all of the things you list. If you treat religion like a “science” that tells you what is true and what is not true, then yes, you will tend to go around trying to bend the world to your view. This is at the heart of fundamentalism. On the other hand, if you treat religion as an “art” then you can rather easily accommodate a liberal perspective that allows for a range of different viewpoints.


  7. says

    “There are in fact many people who call themselves religious who do not go around making such claims.”

    Really? How is someone truly religious without believing in a god? To be honest I’m struggling with this concept. Unless you’re referring to something like in Mano’s “Is the pope an atheist” article.

  8. Corbin says

    A person can “believe in god” where these beliefs have everything to do with what the idea of god means metaphorically, how this metaphor informs a persons life, and so on, at at the same time none of this really requires any need to make any real assertion about for the physical existence of god.

    Do you “believe” in music? Does music “really exist”? Music is just a bunch of vibrations that sometimes happen to result in pleasant neural sensations in he brain of a person who listens. And yet many people find music extremely valuable to their lives. Some people even devote their entire lives to music, (or poetry, or art). Such decisions are obviously “non-rational”, from the point of view that music does not allow us to logically conclude much of anything about what is physically true about the world. Yet few of us would argue that that deciding to be a musician or a poet or an artist is automatically bad thing to do, either for the person involved or for human society at large.

    In my opinion, in the same way that a concert violinist “believes in music” the religious person can “believe in god” — not in making an existence claims, but in making a statement about what is valuable and meaningful.

    In my experience there are two kind of people who tend to accuse the liberal religious person of not “really” being religious: the fundamentalist and the atheist.

  9. Greg says

    Ok. I think I have an idea what you mean. Am I right in thinking that its more the concept or practice of the religion that is appealing? The moral stories, the community, the rituals/tradition, etc rather than the acceptance that the god of the religion is actually real? My father and uncles are jewish but really atheists. They would never label themselves as atheists but they certainly don’t believe in a god.

    However, now I’m not sure what you mean by “believe in music”. Music is physically real. It has notes, chords, sections, compositional techniques. None of this takes away any of the pleasure I gain from listening to music I enjoy.

    If you mean do I believe music exists? Then yes. Just like I believe gravity exists.

    Sorry if I’m not cottoning on to your music analogy, but this is how I’m reading it.

  10. Corbin says


    First, yes, I believe just exactly what you say about your father and uncle is what I am saying here. The issue of whether they “believe that god physically exists” is a secondary question relative to the social/cultural/personal value that participating in a religious community and/or ritual. You might call them “atheists” but I suspect they would simply say that for them all of the discussion about god represents a metaphor.

    As for the music, well I agree the analogy is not perfect but I am not talking about the real physical music, I am talking about what the music means to people. Yes, all of those notes and vibrations are central to the experience, but it’s not just any set of notes that are meaningful and artistic. By analogy you could define a set of activities that correspond to “practicing religion” which might include reading texts, attending worship, singing songs, giving alms, and speaking prayers, etc. — each of these corresponds to doing something “real” in the sense that there is a human activity here, but the important thing is not the activity itself, it is value that the activity provides and what the activity means to the participant.

  11. says

    I think the only way to explain things like the “Intelligent Design” movement or strong anti-abortion or anti-gay convictions is that people feel their religions reflect an underlying truth or reality. Why would someone fight so hard over those issues if they really believed it was all just a matter of personal taste?

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