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Atheism, Religion

Why Doesn’t Arguing Scientifically Work?

Here’s a truism we’re all familiar with:  The wiser we get, the more we realize how little we know.  It’s especially true of scientific investigation and education.  More importantly, it’s a foundational difference between religion and science.  The hallmark of science is its malleability.  When the data changes, the hypotheses change.  The best scientific thinkers are the ones who are constantly aware of the possibility of error and the dangers of asserting “ultimate truth.”

Unfortunately, this is one of the most troubling aspects of scientific thinking for many religionists.  Some are unsettled by the notion that we can never be certain about anything.  Others misunderstand the nature of uncertainty.  Most, I believe, are suffering from an even more basic — and ultimately more “human” — problem.  The language of science is emotionally unappealing and “wishy-washy.”

Politics, Religion, and Science

We can learn a lot from examining Republican Religionists’ reactions to politicians.  They parse every word of political speeches, searching for any signs of doubt or inconsistency.  They favor politicians like George W. Bush, who “say what they mean and mean what they say.”  They want consistency, depth of passion, and fervor of belief.  When a well educated critical thinker speaks, they deride him for “flip-flopping,” and having no “core values.”  They see open-mindedness as a sign of moral weakness.

Most scientists will readily admit that science doesn’t have all the answers, and that no answer is completely reliable.  Unfortunately, this plays poorly in an argument:

Religionist:  I know for certain that my god is the one true god of the universe, and I am convinced beyond doubt that my mission is to save America for the higher purpose given to me by none other than god himself.  Can you, Mr. Science, say the same thing?

Scientist:  Well, no, not exactly, but you’re framing it in a way that makes it seem wrong to be less than certain…

The scientist is right.  Doubt is essential to gaining knowledge.  But to an observer, the scientist has just showed signs of weakness.  He does not “really believe” his story.  He’s flip-flopping.  Waffling.  Hesitating.  He lacks conviction of belief.

Psychology and Belief

Unfortunately, the problem is bigger.  There is abundant scientific evidence that arguing facts doesn’t work.  We all suffer from confirmation bias to some degree.  When we’ve internalized a belief so completely that it becomes part of our identity, it’s almost unavoidable.  Humans are very, very good at picking out only the parts of an argument that support their position, and rationalizing other elements away.

Worse still, there’s ample evidence that when we are confronted with contradictory evidence, we dig in that much harder!  We mistake rationalizing for reasoning.  This is known as “motivated reasoning,” and it happens because we experience emotion faster than we think rationally.  When faced with contradictory information, we first experience a fight or flight emotional reaction, and then our ability to reason kicks in.  Unfortunately, our emotions often overwhelm both our desire and ability to reason once we’ve gone into defensive mode.

Arguing Science:  The Paradox

Ironically, science has given us hints for arguing science.  We skeptics, free-thinkers, and atheists have been reticent to embrace them.  Perhaps… just perhaps, we’re experiencing a bit of fight-or-flight confirmation bias ourselves.

So how do we do it?  How do we argue science effectively?  I’ve already told you the answer, but I suspect many of you have skipped over it in favor of reinforcing your views on religionists.

I’ve just outlined what does and what does not work on religionists (and atheists, too…) but it’s likely that many readers just heard the negative.  Religionists don’t respond to science.  They dig in deeper when opposed.  They don’t like accurate portrayals of uncertainty.  But also contained in this article is what they do like.  They like emotions.  They like depth of passion.  They like consistency.  They like things that agree with their beliefs.

The answer, then, becomes very simple.  To argue with a religionist, we must use emotion.  We must display passion.  We must be consistent.  And perhaps most importantly, we must begin the discussion by giving them something to agree with.  Once we have them in an agreement frame, we must keep them there as long as possible by appealing to things they do value.  We must show them that what they value and desire is consistent with what we are saying.

It’s basic advertising.  We don’t convince someone that they want our product.  We convince them that our product is what they want.

Please, please do not gloss over the last point.  It’s important enough to say again.  To avoid the fight or flight reaction, we must begin by giving them something they agree with and want.  From then on, we must continually appeal to their emotions and their respect for passion and consistency.

To many non-believers, this may sound like heresy.  The whole point of thinking scientifically is to take emotion out of the equation and think objectively, right?

Right.  But a discussion with a theist is not a science experiment.  It’s a human interaction, and the rules of persuasion are different than the rules of scientific experimentation.  If you want a theist to start thinking scientifically, you must first help them want to think scientifically.  You cannot appeal to scientific thinking to get them to value scientific thinking because… DUH… They don’t value scientific thinking!

The way to a theist’s emotions is right there in front of us, and all we have to do is emulate it.  We have thousands of preachers and politicians and “motivational speakers” to model.  Many of us used to be Christians.  We remember what worked on us.  It seems daft not to embrace those techniques just because our god-belief changed.

Is it manipulative?  Yep.  It is.  Unquestionably.  But it’s also the way humans work, and there’s no moral victory in pretending humans aren’t… human.

Arguing rationally without emotional appeals does not work on laypeople.  It works at science conventions (to a degree) because everyone there is well trained and has already embraced the value of objective critical thinking.  They have an emotional desire to think critically.

We must realize first and foremost that we are not different in kind from religionists.  We are just as emotionally attached to our position as they are to theirs.  That doesn’t make us wrong.  It makes us human.  Science works.  Religion doesn’t.  We can prove that.  But all the proof in the world won’t overcome the desire to believe.  We must begin with desire.  Anything else is just spinning our wheels.

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Discussion

6 thoughts on “Why Doesn’t Arguing Scientifically Work?

  1. I think anybody in any movement for change is doing themselves a huge dis-service by not reading Mistakes were made

    I also think the key is to lead by example, which means that we *gasp* have to take our own views in the spotlight and accept critisisms of them.

    When I was a theist, I thought that I had evidence for my claims of god and that the atheist movement was just as dismissing evidence that that didn’t go with their worldview.

    Another thing I do is to offer an alternative to religion. That is some people cling to religion as you mentioned for emotional reasons [such as myself.] I thought my life was fuller with a belief in god, but apparently it wasn’t.

    So in all, I think you’re right that simply presenting papers isn’t good enough for the atheist movement [or any other movement for that matter]

    Posted by cptpineapple | April 26, 2011, 10:33 pm
  2. Life is too short to deal with people who are unreasonable. For me it takes too much effort to try and fit into their requirements in the way you suggest. I certainly admire anyone who can master your suggested techniques, but I have no desire or patience to guard my speech and stifle myself in this way. I am just not built to follow such a plan.

    Rather that try to sway religious bigots I believe a better use of my time is trying to prevent children being groomed to think in the way you describe. We must take the secular message directly to young children regardless of who they belong to or where we find them. One route is to advertise on buses directly to children. Billboards, radio, and tv can be part of the mix. Organized religion makes every attempt to manufacture consent for their project. We should use all the modern techniques we have available to us to counter them. I can just hear the screams now when we start raising doubt in little Murgatroyde’s mind.

    The meme we want to plant is very simple: god is pretend. The beauty of this meme is that many children suspect this is true to begin with. We can show how similar pagan myths are to Abrahamic religions. Lay the bible story next to the story of Horus.

    We have mostly surmounted the taboo against criticizing religion. Now we have to tear down the taboo that family privacy is sacrosanct. This taboo was erected by religion to prevent interference with their scheme for controlling families. Generations of men were puffed up to believe their word was law. The church wanted male domination of family life so they could pass instructions to the male head of family and have him enforce their ideology for families. It turns men into little martinets. I’m talking about patriarchy, a scheme that has for centuries stood in the way of every attempt to emancipate and fairly treat women and children. This is a legacy of Roman Catholicism. From god to the pope to the priests to the male heads of household. That is the chain of command. The Romans understood military command and the Popes simply aped the Legions.

    My solution will require time, so we need to marshal support and get on with it. Faith is the issue and religion poisons everything. My watchwords.

    Posted by Richard Collins | April 27, 2011, 3:52 am
  3. I certainly admire anyone who can master your suggested techniques, but I have no desire or patience to guard my speech and stifle myself in this way. I am just not built to follow such a plan.

    It certainly takes work and effort.

    Rather that try to sway religious bigots I believe a better use of my time is trying to prevent children being groomed to think in the way you describe.

    Yep. I think that’s one of the most important things we can do. Regardless of whether my method works on an individual level, we need people on the ground fighting actively against forced indoctrination as well as the dozens of other religious impositions into public and private life. If you think about it, this is comparable to churches. They have evangelists for winning souls and lobbyists for passing laws.

    We should use all the modern techniques we have available to us to counter them. I can just hear the screams now when we start raising doubt in little Murgatroyde’s mind.

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Advertising is critical. Blogging is critical. It’s all critical, really.

    We have mostly surmounted the taboo against criticizing religion. Now we have to tear down the taboo that family privacy is sacrosanct. This taboo was erected by religion to prevent interference with their scheme for controlling families.

    The beauty of this is that children will do a lot of the work for us. This generation is the most internet savvy that has ever lived, and there’s damn near nothing their parents can do to stop them from finding what they want on the internet. (As an example, a social worker friend recently reported that most 8-10 year old boys have “pictures of girls” from the internet.) If there’s plenty of information about science, skepticism, and critical thought — in forms appealing to children, they’ll find it.

    My solution will require time, so we need to marshal support and get on with it. Faith is the issue and religion poisons everything. My watchwords.

    I couldn’t have said it better. I don’t have any problem with anything you’ve said. While I don’t encourage people to stop trying to reach out to individual believers, I understand that evangelism (for lack of a better word) isn’t for everybody. But it is something that lots of people do, and it’s kind of daft to keep saying the same things over and over without availing ourselves of the science we claim to support so vehemently. That is, if we don’t use science to figure out the best way to say what we’re saying… doesn’t that make us a bit… oh, what’s that word…. hypocritical?

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | April 27, 2011, 10:30 am
  4. Alison, you’ll be happy to know that in private conversations over the past weekend, my message that “atheists need church” was received better than I expected. I qualified, of course. Essentially I was saying: Church (not faith) offers a lot of things people want. We need the potluck dinners, the basketball leagues, the field trips. But perhaps more importantly, we need things like this weekend’s conference, where motivational speakers do the same kinds of things as pastors — encourage ACTION.

    I was surprised how many people were basically amenable to that idea. So I think there’s evidence that at a local level, nonbelievers are starting to recognize the importance of getting out and organizing real person-to-person interaction.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | April 27, 2011, 10:37 am
  5. Hamby, that’s good that the atheist movement is moving more towards the replacing religion front.

    However, they still have a lot of work to do before they get my support for reasons discussed over the past 4 years.

    Over at the ‘R’RS, there are a couple topics about the role of ‘militancy’ in supporting the views.

    The general concensus that I can see is that we need to make our presence known and put out our material. [which has been happening for centuries] people have critisized religion for as long as religion existed.

    I’m going to repost this on there and see what the reactions are.

    Posted by cptpineapple | April 27, 2011, 1:55 pm
  6. Well… with the obvious caveat that I’m trying to figure out what works, not how to get you to back the atheist movement… I’m glad you’re happy. :-)

    I’ll be interested to see what RRS has to say about it. I do think there’s a place for “in your face” atheism. It’s mostly with the young, I believe. Young people respond better to edgy advertising. They enjoy feeling like rebels. My leaving RRS had more to do with moving to a different goal than disagreeing with anything they were doing. I still consider Brian a good friend.

    My focus right now is more on the psychology of adult religionists, especially the ones in the middle. And I believe what they’re looking for most is community and security. I hope to find new ways to provide that in a non-religious context that’s still compelling and worth doing on a regular basis. Much like church.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | April 27, 2011, 2:50 pm

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