Please, try to convert me!

This is in response to something that a friend of mine said to me in an interesting conversation we were having about religion last week, and something which kind of Gil wrote yesterday in a comment on this blog. Both said something very close to: “I hope you don’t think I’m trying to convert you, because I’m not!” This sort of assertion baffles me.

Now, I understand and agree that it’s rude among casual encounters with strangers, or in most situations where religion is not specifically approved by all parties as a topic of discussion, to bring up your religion and assert its correctness over the beliefs of everyone else around. I am not recommending that you get all up in random people’s faces about what you believe to be the fates of their eternal souls. I know that these disclaimers are intended with a spirit of politeness, and I appreciate that.

At the same time, though, I’m pretty sure that whenever you are explaining your opinion to another person, you are on some level trying to convince that person that your opinion’s a reasonable one to hold. And when you’re talking about the very nature of reality, rather than a mere opinion or preference — it seems downright important to convince others of the truth. Truth has consequences! Making decisions based on false information is bad! I don’t know … does this need more explaining? It seems really obvious to me.

When I’m sitting down with a Christian friend, talking about how I came to be an atheist and how she came to be a Christian — when I’m outright asking her, “Why do you believe what you do?” — I expect that we will each be essentially trying to convince each other that we are right. When I make a blog with open comments on all my posts, in which I write about my atheism and my befuddlement at every religion I’ve heard of, I expect that people who think that one or more of those religions are correct will try to help me see why and how. And meanwhile, I know that (in addition to writing material I think other atheists will find interesting) I’m trying to help religious people see why their beliefs befuddle me. That’s how this whole “dialog” thing works. We tell each other what we think, we go back and forth on it, and hopefully in the end we get ourselves closer to the truth. That’s my goal, anyway. I want my beliefs to be as close to the truth as possible. Maybe it’s naive of me, but I assume that most other people want that, as well.

That’s why I think it’s so strange when people tell me they don’t want to convert me. What does that mean? They don’t think their religion is true? (Or, maybe, they don’t think their religion matters?) If you’re right and I’m wrong, by all means convert me! I have no problem with that whatsoever. In fact, if you have some great argument for your religion and you’re withholding it from me because you’re worried about offending me with your evidence and logic, I’d be awfully sad.

One final observation, tied in with that post from a few days ago about our borderline-illiterate Christian friend … I find it a bit strange that the thoughtful, moderate religious people are always the ones that don’t want to convert me (according to their protests), but the judgmental, hateful nutjobs show no reservations about doing so. Anyone else experience this trend, or is it just me?

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24 Comments

  1. Ubi Dubium

     /  September 6, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    I’ve seen it, and I can think of a couple of things they are trying to do, apart from converting you.

    First, they might be trying to make themselves feel better about the justifications for the beliefs they hold. If they can get a non-believer to say “You’ve got a point there” they can pat themselves on the back for how rational they are. Greta Christina calls this the “Atheist Seal of Approval”, and runs into lots of believers, particularly the non-fungidelicals, that would love to get that kind of affirmation.

    OR, they might be trying to convert not you, but your readers. They assume that there are some fence-sitters out there who might be on the verge of deconverting, but might be pulled back if they hear that ol’ god-message just one more time.

    (And there are a few blogs where direct preaching is not allowed and is cause for bannination. Perhaps they are “Not trying to convert you” out of a desire not to have comments deleted, if they have prior experience with one of these blogs.)

    I know when I’m commenting on blogs that might have xian readers, that I’m not expecting to de-convert them. (Because you can’t really de-covert anybody, they have to de-convert themselves.) But there are quite a few people that I have read ex-timonies from that said that their decision to examine their beliefs was not prompted by any one major thing, but from a series of small things. Their dam of faith broke because enough small cracks built up in it that it could no longer hold. I’m just happy if a comment I make or a conversation I have can contribute to one of those small cracks.

  2. Hi. I’m none of your regulars, just some random Catholic who clicked through to here from Unequally Yoked because of the Christian-baity title.

    So as to your point, convert is not properly a transitive verb. I can maybe, sometimes assist someone in converting but I can’t strictly speaking speaking convert them. When you sit down with the friend you mention you are of course both trying to influence the others views. But you are probably not expecting either one of you suddenly realizing the other one is right and changing her religious opinion right that moment. Because as a matter of fact people don’t work that way.

    We Christians tend to like conversion stories with a defined high point where the non-Christian suddenly overcomes their last intellectual obstacle, prays and receives Christ into their hart. I don’t mean to belittle such moments. Those who experience them properly regard them as central points of their life. But even for those Christians who have such a well-defined moment at which they started to believe that moment is the end of a long story. It’s not an isolated thing that might right now happen to any atheist on the street. Basically the visible and conscious conversion happens after the convert gradually becomes open to changing so radically. By the way, the same is probably true for apostasies. It’s not even limited to religion, the same would be true for radically changing ones politics or favorite sports team. It’s just how people work.

    Now if I told you I wanted to convert you that would be true in one sense. I wish you (and every atheist) to eventually convert. And in so far as that becomes more likely if I do something and that something is not otherwise a bad thing to do I want to do it. On the other hand it would give a totally wrong impression. Because it would sound like a challenge to some kind of death-match of beliefs. And I don’t think such no-holds-barred debates work to produce anything but mutual resentment. Plus it would be totally disrespectful, basically modeling me as the Übermensch here to remodel silly you in my image, rather then someone who is trying to provide some little help to your own agency (and God’s, which also won’t overwrite yours).

    What I actually can do (not necessarily with you, but it has worked in real life) is show people that I haven’t abdicated my reason and it is actually possible to believe and do that sort of thing short of smoking crack.

    That is fairly easy in the country I live in (Germany), where indifferent and thus fairly ignorant agnosticism is pretty much the default position. In that situation it is already helpful to just explain what we actually believe. For example, loads of people seem to think non-consumption is the only reason for which the Catholic Church annuls marriages. That, of course, makes the practice seem a lot more hypocritical then it actually is. When I tell someone that isn’t so it doesn’t suddenly make them Catholic. But it does show them a Catholic doesn’t need to be self-deluded on that particular point, even if that self-delusion is never explicitly alleged. Also, an explanation of the most common reasons requires an explanation of how our concept of marriage differs from the one now most popular and that can be connected to our other weird sex-teachings. That, too, won’t make the atheist suddenly convert or even investigate the system, but maybe realize there is a system there they potentially could investigate if they cared for it, rather then some disconnected stuff you can’t actually reason about.

    It’s probably more difficult for American atheists, many of which actually have lived with a local Christian majority and therefore actually know what doctrines they reject.

    Still, I could e.g. mention that I had to significantly deliberalize my theology in my teen-age years, because what Americans call Cafeteria Catholicism actually is logically inconsistent. At least over here that surprises even many well-informed agnostics, because they imagine we keep our faith in a separate department totally isolated from reason. They will still think me wrong, but at least a more interesting kind of wrong then they had previously imagined.

    I’m not sure of the best examples in your cultural context (or else I would have used them already) but you surely get the general point that someone explaining their beliefs in a non-confrontational way tends to make them seem more sympathetic even if you are not convinced.

    None of that will convert anyone in itself. But perhaps many such experiences can very gradually turn Christianity into a life option. Whereupon they have a chance to convert themselves.

    So the “I’m not trying to convert you” basically means “I’m not challenging you to an existential fight on your most central beliefs. Rather I’m trying to make you understand how I work, so that if you ever struggle with your basic beliefs mine will be a more sympathetic option. Also I’m trying to be non-confrontational here. And I totally respect you as a person rather then a mere missionary target.”

    Now frankly while I won’t tell someone I want to convert them, I also won’t tell them I don’t. Because that too easily gets understood as “I don’t want you to convert”, which would be dishonest. So the phrase is indeed unfortunate, but it does have a legitimate meaning. Which I’m explaining not to convert you but just to give you a view of the mindset :-).

    Also, it answers your second question. The “thoughtful, moderate religious people” (not so moderate in my case, but I’m gate-crashing that party) see and respect some of the complexity of other people and will therefore take the gentle approach. While “judgmental, hateful nutjobs” on both sides try to actually convert people in the strict sense, which is part of what makes them so obnoxious.

  3. @Ubi: I think your first suggested non-converting activity is often the case. I guess I don’t see that big a difference, though, between “trying to get you to acknowledge that I’m making good points” and “trying to get you to agree with me” — a matter of degree, sure, but the same general sort of goal. As for your second suggestion … “I’m not trying to convert you[, I'm trying to convert the people next to you and behind you]” is a pretty shady tactic. (Not that that means it isn’t being used.) I often have this sort of mindset when I write blog posts or comments online, to convince bystanders even if I can’t hope to convince the person I’m directly answering, but I don’t start out by weaselly insisting that it’s not my mindset.

    Sigh. I don’t know. Really, this all underscores my overall frustration with the whole belief vs. truth issue (“I’m not trying to convince you, but let me explain why I think I’m right” — buh?!?) so I guess it just pushes my buttons.

    @Gilbert: Thanks for dropping by. I understand the semantic distinction you’re making — you might note that Ubi Dubium made a similar one, in the comment above yours, in the opposite direction — but I don’t think it makes a substantive difference to the point I’m making. Let’s pretend that I said, “Please, try to assist me in converting!” What I’m trying to say is, if you (as you say you do) want to see me and other atheists convert to your religion, it really isn’t an “existential fight” or a “death-match of beliefs.”

    Other atheists can chime in on this and correct me if I’m wrong (or agree with me if I’m right), but it’s my understanding that most of us would gladly change our beliefs if you actually presented compelling evidence and reasonable logical arguments. Maybe the people you hang out with “don’t work that way,” but we do. (Dare I add … and that’s probably why we’re atheists.)

    I certainly don’t go into these conversations expecting everyone to change their minds in the presence of compelling arguments against their current opinions. But just as I would try to convince an anti-vaccination parent to get their child immunized against preventable diseases, or try to convince someone with extreme political views that their candidate didn’t deserve their vote — even if I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on my success, I think the attempt to help them change their mind is worthwhile. And if I were in their shoes, about to make a similarly bad decision based on faulty evidence or bad logic, I would want someone to do the same for me.

  4. We all know, in our heart of hearts, that no Christian, moderate or fundamentalist, is “going to present compelling evidence and reasonable logical arguments,” for the existence of God.

    The most we can do, and, likewise, the most any moderate Christian can do, is to extend the common courtesy one would normally expect in a conversation. If I disagree with someone on any other matter of opinion, such as whether white roses are prettier than red roses, we’re not going to stand there and try to change each other’s mind. If we’re friends, that might lead to some heated exchange that best be avoided.

    Granted, religion is not the same as a bouquet of roses. But in the same way, a moderate Christian, who doesn’t feel the need they have to save your soul from eternal damnation, isn’t being derelict in not forcing you into agreeing with them. In the same way that you don’t “go into these conversations expecting everyone to change their minds in the presence of compelling arguments against their current opinions,” they don’t either. In my opinion, they’re just being nice, and nice is good.

    Sometimes it’s just better (and easier) to live and let live, you know?

  5. @girlcartridge:

    We all know, in our heart of hearts, that no Christian, moderate or fundamentalist, is “going to present compelling evidence and reasonable logical arguments,” for the existence of God.

    Fair enough. But it’s my understanding that most Christians think that they have “compelling evidence” and “reasonable logical arguments.” I don’t understand why anyone would announce what amounts to, “I’m not going to present you with evidence or make logical arguments because that might cause you to change your mind.” I want to change my mind, if changing my mind would bring my beliefs closer to the truth! I don’t think it’s “nice” to let me wallow in my atheistic delusions (if that’s what they actually are).

    There are definitely circumstances where the right thing to do is “live and let live,” as you say. But sometimes we have conversations where debate (in the sense of, back-and-forth dialog) is specifically invited. I don’t see any reason to beg one’s way out of that dialog, except for if you actually don’t have anything to contribute to the back-and-forth. (That is, you know you’ll “lose.”)

  6. kind of Gil

     /  September 6, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    Looks like I’m a little late to the party! Thanks for the feature today – I love the post AND the comments!

    Ubi Dubium, you’re on to me.. This will need to be my last comment here because you’ve uncovered the Moderate Christian Master Plan for Total Blogosphere Conversion.. I’ve already said too much….

    First, let me say that I’m not some fundamentalist double-agent out to bag some manipulative conversions. Are those people out there? Probably. The ideas I share in this blog are the same as I share on the only other blog I visit (www.fuquestions.com), as they are the same with my family, co-workers, and my wife. 

    NFQ, to your question about why I say I’m not trying to convert you. That made me think all day – thanks a lot. Maybe I’ve lost some of my youthful zeal? I’m going to be 30 soon and that’s just a part of human development – moving away from autonomy and moving more toward cooperation and integration. The fact that I take so much time engaging in conversations like these should show that I really care about what I’m saying.

    I think @girlcartridge raised a good point about civil discourse. Who the hell wants to have a conversation with someone who they know is trying to convert them? Even when it comes to politics. I fit squarely into the Dem camp. I can have conversations with my republican friends because we’re not TRYING to change each other, but through the course of animated yet respectful conversation we can appreciate where the other guy is coming from and even tweak our own thoughts a little. We certainly all end up understanding more as a result.

    The biggest point though is that I don’t have the smoking gun that you’re looking for. It’s not that I don’t have evidence. I do. I wouldn’t believe so strongly about something if not for evidence, but my evidence is incredibly personal. It doesn’t translate well, especially to someone who doesn’t know me. I could tell you about miracles and supernatural things I’ve experienced first hand, but would you even believe it? Probably most atheists would write me off as a nut job secret fundamentalist who imagines things.

    I respect you and what you have to say – really – and I genuinely enjoy these conversations and challenges. Am I trying to convert you? That sounds so compulsory and one-sided. I DO feel strongly about what I believe, but I will give you the same respect that I hope you give me. Now tell me how I did on my Atheist approval test. I have to take that back to my compound so I can eat chocolate this week.

  7. Aristarchus

     /  September 7, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    @kind of Gil:

    I think the politics analogy is actually pretty reasonable. You have those conversations with Republicans not because you expect their mind to change, but because you think you’re exchanging interesting points about the issue in question, which makes for an interesting conversation. But you do “tweak our own thoughts a little”. Definitely you would like it if the other person changed their mind. When you’re giving good arguments for your side, you are essentially trying to change their mind. It’s just that there is a lot more room for small, marginal gains in politics than in religion. (Someone can become a little less sure, maybe deprioritize an issue, etc.)

    I actually have some friends whose minds I have seen changed in the course of political discussions, and I think it’s a good test of your own open-mindedness to try to remember such a time. Is there a point where you heard someone make a good argument and said “You know, I think I should change mind about that”? If you’re average, you won’t be able to think of one that’s not about something pretty trivial. If you’re unusually open-minded, you probably will be able to think of one. And the more open-minded you are, the faster it’ll happen. (Lots of people have their minds slowly changed over a year or two. Few do an about-face in a couple minutes.)

    Really, though, I’m commenting because of this part:

    It’s not that I don’t have evidence. I do. I wouldn’t believe so strongly about something if not for evidence, but my evidence is incredibly personal. It doesn’t translate well, especially to someone who doesn’t know me. I could tell you about miracles and supernatural things I’ve experienced first hand, but would you even believe it? Probably most atheists would write me off as a nut job secret fundamentalist who imagines things.

    If you have no corroborating evidence then yeah, most atheists will write you off, but not because they think you’re some sort of insane nut job, but because people who aren’t insane nut jobs imagine things all the time. Sure, if you hear God’s voice in your head all the time, you’re probably mentally ill. But people get premonitions of things that then happen, or an overwhelming feeling they should take some action that then turns out well, or numerous other experiences of that sort all the time. We just don’t believe they’re very good evidence, for a variety of reasons.

    And I don’t think that’s unique to atheists. Whatever your personal evidence is, I guarantee that someone has a very similar sort of reason for believing in Islam or Shintoism or Wicca. And if you heard them give that reason, you’d write it off as unreliable evidence.

    Now, here’s the real question. Would you write them off because you think they have some rare mental illness? Because you think they’re deliberately lying because for some reason they want to trick you into being Wiccan even though you know it’s wrong? Or is it because you just think they’re well-intentioned but misunderstanding something? I’m willing to be it’s the latter. And if it is, then the next question is why you don’t apply the same reasonable skepticism to yourself? You know personal experiences are extremely fallible. You know people have honestly-remembered experiences all the time about this sort of thing, and without doubt most of them are false. So why doubt your own personal experience so much less?

    (Obviously I know the real reason. It’s purely psychological. Even if you know memories are fallible enough that this particular memory you have is probably wrong, getting that intellectual part of your brain to overcome the strong feeling that it happened is very hard. My point is just that there’s no rational reason to treat your first-hand experiences as somehow more reliable than anyone else’s, other than the fact that you can rule out intentional lies.)

  8. @kind of Gil: Enjoy your chocolate. :) I very much enjoy your contributions to our discussions here, and I respect you and appreciate your respect. I make a distinction between respecting people and respecting ideas (link to video), but I think we can disagree about ideas in a productive and polite way.

    Am I trying to convert you? That sounds so compulsory and one-sided. I DO feel strongly about what I believe, but I will give you the same respect that I hope you give me.

    What if I said “convince me”? Are you trying to convince me? I think you’re right that the word “convert” can sound one-sided, especially when used in this transitive sense (which Gilbert objects to above for this reason). It implies a transformation of self … which, I think, is not unlike what many religious people think is happening in the process (e.g. being “born again”).

    So maybe all of this confusion is happening because (as usual) theists and atheists are using the same word in different ways. When I say “convert me,” I just mean “change my mind about religion.” But there definitely is this connotation of compulsion to it that I didn’t even think of until you mentioned it (so thanks).

  9. kind of Gil

     /  September 7, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    Aristarchus, well put. All of it, well put. I should start by saying I probably buried some of my context with sarcasm that was used in response to an earlier comment. I can tell you that I’m a long way on many issues in Christianity from where I was in high school and college. I held the line on almost all Christian ideas. Not that it was good or bad that I was that way, it just “was”. I’m a long way BECAUSE I questioned myself, my beliefs, history, biblical context, etc. Actually, some very brilliant professors got that ball rolling. My wife and I had some pretty challenging times in life that left us questioning God and just about everything else we’ve ever known.

    So yes, I’m always up for a good look at my beliefs, and have definitely changed some of them, or at least moved them to the “unknown” column (eternal hell is one of those, as well as virtually every hot button social issue that social conservatives get worked up about – and others that I don’t want to get into just yet). Do you know what brings me back from giving up on my beliefs? Several things. One, to be purely clinical, probably safety and familiarity – I won’t leave that out just because it strengthens your argument :) . Major events that I can’t ignore is another. Here’s an example, and here’s where I bare myself and might lose you. During a humanitarian aid trip to the Central Region in Ghana, one of my teammates got sick – really sick. Her temp was 104+ and she was hallucinating – to the point where the entire team would have to go back to Accra for a hospital immediately. The team got around her and prayed. My hand was on her head, as I asked God to heal her, I could actually feel her body cool – it was amazing. She recovered within minutes and we were back to it. I can’t prove that to you, so make of it what you will, but that is a physical event that is pretty damn hard explain. The third reason is the one that I don’t even want to try to explain – that’s the one about the intuitive sense of God.

    Am I right about all of my beliefs? Nope, I’m sure I’m not. Am I going to abandon what I believe because I see that billions of reasonable and well-meaning people think very differently than me? No, that’s not a good enough reason. Do I think it’s obnoxious to repeatedly ask and answer my own questions? Yeah – I’m actually annoying myself here.

    Now that I’ve thoroughly exposed myself, I’ll move onto NFQ’s comment..

  10. kind of Gil

     /  September 7, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    NFQ, I appreciate the kind words, and I do get what you mean by the difference between respecting someone and respecting their ideas. Also, good point about the semantics surrounding the word “convert” – you’re right on with where the breakdown was.

    Asking me to “convince you” that religion is something you should ascribe to is a bit of a loaded question. If I tell you no, it’s too challenging to put into a post so I won’t convince you – that leaves an atheist satisfied that there is no argument for faith. If I do try to convince you (similar to the mess of a comment that I left above to Aristarchus), you can pick it apart and be satisfied that I’m half-way intelligent rube who has been duped by the machine. I would consider our ongoing discussion my attempt to convince you. There are lots of issues, and like Aristarchus noted, you don’t turn someone’s beliefs around in one conversation.

    What if I ask you the same question? Is it possible for you to convince me that there is no God (recognizing that it’s not possible to prove a negative – maybe you can rearrange the question a little)?

  11. Ubi Dubium

     /  September 8, 2011 at 7:54 am

    Kind of Gil – if I may jump in here. You’re right that it’s not possible to prove a negative. You can’t prove that there is no invisible space pickle watching over us. So it’s often more useful to talk in terms of probabilities. The probability that there exists an invisible space pickle is so small that we can, for all practical purposes, round off to zero probability and say there isn’t one.

    So, we can rearrange the question into discussing the probability that your god (or any god) exists, and you would have to decide for yourself how small that probability would need to be for you to consider it effectively zero.

  12. Kind of Gil,

    You obviously had a powerful emotional experience, which you find as a strong piece of evidence in favor of your beliefs. I’d like to take a look at the story you told us about your friend with the fever, from an outsider’s point of view.

    First, the way we perceive events is primed by our expectations and beliefs. If you spend a lot of time thinking about the christian god, you are more likely to perceive events as divine intervention, even random events. A Hindu might see an event like this as intervention from Krishna, and a new age believer might think that you had realigned her energy fields or balanced her chakras or something. We see what we expect to see; it’s just the way our brains are built.

    And – we always need to take confirmation bias into account when we are evaluating something like your story. People notice and remember things that support what they already think, and disregard and ignore things that don’t. And we remember unusual happenings, and forget the ordinary ones.

    So, you prayed around someone with a fever, and her temperature went down suddenly. We need to ask ourselves, “What’s the probability of this happening normally?” When someone is running a high fever (unless they die from it), usually the fever will eventually “break” and drop sharply. Your friend’s fever broke while you were praying over her. What’s the probability of that? Well, that would depend on how long she had already had the fever for, and how long you were praying over her. If she had already been sick for several days, her fever may have been near breaking before you started. If you were holding a long enough prayer vigil, it’s almost a certainty that her fever would break during the prayer. So consider what the probability is that this event would have happened at that time if you were not praying for it.

    And – we also need to consider “How often does this not work?”. How often did your group pray for things that then didn’t happen? Probably a lot, but because of confirmation bias, you probably don’t remember those times much. You probably never kept track of all the things you asked god to do that didn’t happen.

    If there were some consistency in prayer working, you’d have a much stronger case. If every time your group prayed over somebody sick or injured, including amputees, they recovered right away you’d have a really strong piece of evidence that might convince people outside your group. But when scientists have done studies, and compared recovery rates of people who were prayed for against those who weren’t, they did not find any difference. And prayer has never been shown to fix conditions that don’t improve on their own, like missing limbs.

    So the experience you had, which to you was overwhelmingly emotional and convincing, to this outsider looks like priming plus confirmation bias.

    I’m glad you are questioning and challenging dogmas. Keep at it!

  13. +1 (or more) to everything Ubi Dubium has said. kind of Gil, I think that when you wrote, “I would consider our ongoing discussion my attempt to convince you,” that is exactly what I am talking about. And it’s fine, even a good thing! That is what I expected was the case all along, and what confused me about your assurance that you “weren’t trying to convert me” or however you said it exactly.

    My blog is an ongoing conversation with anyone who will listen, and is my attempt to make the case for atheism. As Ubi Dubium explained, it’s more about showing that any specific postulated god I’ve ever been told about is very unlikely to exist, and demonstrating that most likely no god exists would take a very long time, to say the least. :) I don’t know exactly which version of the Christian god you personally believe in, so a number of my posts won’t be directly applicable to your specific beliefs, but I do write about why I don’t find specific gods’ existences to be likely. As an American I spend the most time on Christianity, so there’s a good chance of finding things related to your understanding of God. You might be interested in my six-part series about my biggest problems with the Bible, beginning here, and perhaps also this post about whether God is good and this related one about the so-called “problem of evil.”

  14. It looks like I totally failed to communicate my point in the last comment, so I’ll try to make it more explicit.

    1. Even if I presume someone will change their mind given enough evidence, I do not presume they will do it instantly. Aristarchus notes above, that as an empirical matter very few people do it. I agree, but I will go much further: That is a good thing. If someone believed something with significant confidence, had given it significant thought before, and then suddenly changed their mind upon hearing a new argument I wouldn’t take that as evidence of open-mindedness. Rather my candidate explanations would be dishonesty, intellectual laziness, insanity &c.

    Since this probably seems borderline insane to you I’ll give a long-winded explanation of some of the problems that would hinder a hones, thoughtful, sane &c. person from updating so rapidly.

    First problem. Most questions aren’t decidable by a single argument. Rather there will be a picture formed by many arguments none of which is individually decisive. If some argument looks like it may be the straw to break the camels back a lot of other arguments will need to be reexamined. There might be seeming contradictions without errors at first being obvious in any of the contradictory arguments. Problems previously thought moot may turn relevant and therefore need to be examined as potential arguments. More generally, arguments previously thought irrelevant may need deeper examination. And so on. Now at a humans processing speed that kind of reexamination simply takes a lot of time. If someone can change their belief instantly they either didn’t have much of arguments to recheck (in which case they probably haven’t thought much about the question before) or they skipped this work, in which case they are less rational than the slow updater.

    Second problem. The mind makes so many mistakes that surprising conclusions are also evidence for such mistakes. For example I work in a fairly math-heavy field and I think I’m not bad at it. Still it is my experience that a surprising result I arrive at is usually not true. Probably it stems from an odd number of sign errors or embarrassingly often in my case from a mistake of the every function is linear variety. If I can rule those out it’s time to look for the interesting mistakes. And then maybe I can give consideration to the result actually being surprising, but very few surprising results get that far. It’s particularly easy to see in maths, but the problem generalizes to all thinking. So basically any new idea must be shown more probable than a brainfart and that is very probable indeed. Luckily I can lower that threshold by checking and re-checking. But that takes time and anyone changing their mind in less time then that takes is arrogant rather than open-minded.

    Third problem. Ideas connect to the identity. They have consequences in morality. Changing them can necessitate changes in life-style. They relate to authority and therefore to trust. They shape expectations and expectations shape the sense of humor. In other words, what people think is intensely connected to who people are. That doesn’t make it impossible to change them. After all the body is also a large part of the identity. Still almost anyone’s body is significantly different from itself 10 years earlier and that doesn’t disrupt identity. But if it changed that massively in 10 minutes it would feel foreign. So basically there is a maximum speed of identity change at which identity still feels continuous and that includes identitarian beliefs. Now you might say that atheism is not a identitarian belief for atheist. But neither is theism for theists. On the other hand when you complete these abstractions into the kind of concrete beliefs people can actually hold, like physicalism or Christianity those beliefs are identitarian.

    Of course if the evidence turns out unconvincing it still will have spent a lot of time in examination. So in the natural course of things important beliefs change very slowly and should change very slowly. If someone was somehow forced to change them instantly, that would be like violence. Therefore the idea of rationally settling the God question in a single debate is just absurd.

    2. Given point 1, a single debate on the God question is actually a game. That game can sometimes be fun but the winner’s bragging rights basically relate to rethorical skill rather than posession of truth.

    3. “Trying to convert someone” in the meaning I used above is based in ignoring point one. That is it basically playing the game, but tying the outcome to a quasi-violent belief change inherently unjustifyable by that outcome. Sort of like an invitation to throw a coin with the result being either getting a million dollars or being shot. I think that basically is a challenge to an existential death-match of beliefs.

  15. kind of Gil

     /  September 10, 2011 at 11:41 am

    Right on, Ubi Dubium and NFQ. I’m sure emotional priming and bias have to do with my interpretation of that situation, as with every other situation I encounter in life. That’s the lens through which we view the world. That lens also determines your interpretation of the event that I mentioned.

    I should clarify my story a little. The fever was extremely high and she was experiencing symptoms for only about 30 minutes. As soon as she started seeing fish flying out of the walls we realized she needed medical attention immediately – which meant a couple hours driving out of the jungle and to the closest medical center. It was when the driver was getting the van that we prayed and saw instantaneous results. I’m not a physician, but this seems medically implausible to me. So implausible that it would almost require more “faith” to believe that it was a matter of phisiological chance than to associate it with something supernatural. Sure, a Hindu would attribute that to one of their gods. A mystic Muslim, Jew, Bahai, whatever would attribute that to their own spiritual power. That doesn’t make it any less real. And it certainly at MINiMUM tells me there’s some supernatural power out there that interacts with our lives.

    Also, if that was my only experience of that kind I would be quicker to discount it, but it’s not. Are there times when I pray and the miraculous doesn’t happen? Yeah, a lot. But that doesn’t make the times when something does happen any less real.

    NFQ, thanks for linking me to the other posts you have. I’ve enjoyed these discussions immensely!

  16. (sigh)

    So, because I’m here I guess you know the truth about me; I’m trying to convert you. And it’s because I’m not a moderate Christian – I love Jesus, and I know he loves me and you. You mentioned in the comments of your guest post yesterday something about extreme Christians being hateful; to me, that’s something of an oxymoron. Or should be anyway…As it is, it’s more like, “Sorry for the morons…”

    Here are some other things you should know about me: I think if you continue to ask serious questions about truth, you will come to it – or, him, I should say. That’s the next thing, I believe Jesus is the Truth, as he said. Keep seeking.

    However, I don’t expect you to think much more of Jesus than you do of say, any other man who’s been dead a couple thousand years. The hurdle is the revelation of God – whether it’s Christianity or not, it doesn’t matter at this point.

    How could someone who doesn’t exist reveal anything?

    So, I won’t use Scripture, and I won’t quote any theologians; I’ll just ask a question that I really am curious about. What is the case against God? What facts are there that prove he doesn’t exist? (Okay, two.)

  17. Hi, Man O’ Clay. Glad to see you stop by. You asked, “How could someone who doesn’t exist reveal anything?” which, on face, seems like a poignant question. But while Christians will ask this question to try to argue that God must exist, atheists will ask it to try to argue that there hasn’t in fact been a revelation. ;)

    In order to answer your final question(s), I think we need some clarification first. What god are you referring to? I don’t claim to have proof that, across the board, no supernatural being exists. That would be impossible. Even if we searched every nook and cranny of the known universe and came up empty-handed, one could say, “Maybe some supernatural creature appeared in one of those first places you checked, while you were checking all the later ones!” Add on top of that the fact that many religious folks add caveats that would make it impossible to observe their god in our physical world — their god exists in “another plane,” their god is incorporeal and invisible, their god manifests in a feeling you get and if your “mind is closed” to that god’s existence you won’t feel it, and on and on like this. It’s a lot like Carl Sagan’s dragon in his garage, or Penn Jillette’s elephant in the trunk of his car.

    It might be that there are mermaids, and we just haven’t found one yet. I can’t prove to you that there aren’t any mermaids, categorically. I can show you more likely explanations for the mermaid claims that are recorded in literature, and make arguments for why mermaids are unlikely to exist. My guess is that you, like me, are an a-mermaid-ist; you conclude that the most likely description of reality is one that does not include the existence of mermaids for exactly these sorts of reasons.

    Now, if you want to put forward some specific claim about a particular god — “my god grants all the prayers of people who believe in him,” or, “my holy scripture is 100% true as revealed by my god,” etc. — I can certainly offer arguments against the correctness of those beliefs. I wrote a series a little while back that I called “Bible dealbreakers,” on reasons why I don’t believe the Bible is true — it begins here. (There are “next post” links at the bottom of each article.)

  18. “You asked, “How could someone who doesn’t exist reveal anything?” which, on face, seems like a poignant question. But while Christians will ask this question to try to argue that God must exist, atheists will ask it to try to argue that there hasn’t in fact been a revelation. ;)”

    Well, that was my point, really. I was making the point that, from your point of view, before you can accept any revelation, from any god, you must first accept there is a Creator; then there just might be a bit of room for an argument for revelation. But until then, I don’t think I’ll try and convince you of the truth of the Bible.

    That’s why I asked the questions I asked. And if there is no way to prove God doesn’t exist, why not be an agnostic? To be honest, I can see that point of view much more clearly than one that denies intelligent design.

    Anthony Flew, you may know who that is, became a theist – maybe you should too!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1e4FUhfHiU

    Incidentally, this video mentions C.S. Lewis, one who has largely informed my faith. He was an atheist, turned theist, turned Christian.

  19. I don’t think it’s reasonable to believe in literally everything anyone suggests just because those suggestions are technically impossible to disprove. I don’t just think “there’s no way to form any sort of opinion on the issue” (what I think would be best described by the term “agnostic” as you use it), I actually think that the most likely right answer is that there are no gods.

    If I asked you whether mermaids exist, what would you say? “No, mermaids are imaginary” or “There’s no way to tell! I’m agnostic” ?

  20. I suppose the comparison between belief in mermaids and belief in God is a bit unfair, but not to you as much as to me…And you have a point, just because I can’t prove mermaids exist or don’t exist is not a good reason to be “undecided.” However, don’t you find the evidence for a creator at all compelling? As Flew puts it, “…the extreme complexity of things”?

    I guess I’m not willing to believe all we see around us is an accident. That’s quite a leap of faith from where I stand.

  21. Aristarchus

     /  December 19, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    I want to say, first of all, that this,

    And you have a point, just because I can’t prove mermaids exist or don’t exist is not a good reason to be “undecided.”

    demonstrates a much better understanding of the atheist perspective than most of the Christians who comment here.

    But (at the risk of stepping on NFQ’s toes) I wanted to deal with this:

    However, don’t you find the evidence for a creator at all compelling? As Flew puts it, “…the extreme complexity of things”?

    I like that the “evidence” you’re going for is on a broader, philosophical level, instead of cited insanely bad history research, but I still don’t think this makes much sense.

    I agree the world is really awesome, but I’m not sure it’s extremely “complex” at the root. We don’t really understand fundamental physics yet, but it seems like it’s built on some pretty simple (though hard to understand) rules. What results from it is complexity, in that there are galaxies and stars and solar systems and animals and geology and so forth, but why is that surprising? There are lots of cases we encounter all the time of systems where a couple basic rules (say, the legal moves of chess pieces) result in extremely complex worlds. It doesn’t show anything unusual about the basic rules.

    And there’s nothing to say the alternative to God is randomness. Maybe there is some sort of deterministic process that creates universes, and does it in a very predictable way. You can’t just posit God as opposed to any one of the thousands of other possible explanations one could come up with.

    Really, though, I think the biggest thing here is seeing the world around us, realizing that that world is improbable, and being amazed that it happened. Let me give you an analogy. Say I set up a random number generator to give me any number between 1 and 1 million. And it gives me 322,448. You might say “Wow! It gave 322,448. The chance of getting 322,448 was one in a million. That can’t possibly just be random.”

    But of course, that doesn’t actually make sense. 322,448 wasn’t a special number in any way. Just because the particular outcome is unlikely doesn’t mean the process wasn’t random. Of course, if before the drawing you had written 322,448 on a piece of paper as your predicted number, it would be more surprising. That would make that number really special.

    We, as humans, are used to the world in which we live. It has life of the type we expect, a familiar planet, our families, etc. So to use it feels special. It feels like the world we got was somehow unique and surprising. But there are an uncountable number of potential worlds that, once we got used to them, would seem just as special. By living in the world and getting used to it as a particular important one, we’re doing the equivalent of writing 322,448 on a piece of paper *after* the number has been drawn, and then arguing that it’s a very surprising coincidence that that number was drawn.

    Our world is awesome, but there’s no reason to believe a world that just runs by natural principles wouldn’t be awesome. There’s no need to use God as an explanation.

  22. Ubi Dubium

     /  December 19, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    I suppose I’ll have to pile on in this argument.

    “And if there is no way to prove God doesn’t exist, why not be an agnostic?”

    Because there are many things that we can’t “prove don’t exist” but that does not mean that they all have equal probability of existing.

    When looking at a claim like “I own two parakeets”, or “There is an Invisible Pink Unicorn in my laundry room” we need to consider whether the claim being made is an ordinary claim or an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I can show you a photo and a couple of feathers, and you could be reasonably confident that I do own parakeets, since there’s nothing particularly unusual about keeping them as pets. But the amount of evidence you would need to see before believing my claim about the Unicorn ought to be much greater. A photo of my laundry room not showing her (because she is invisible) and my production of some socks with holes she poked in them should not be enough. Unless I could show you lots and lots of really amazing evidence, you would be right in concluding that there almost certainly is no unicorn in my laundry room. Even though you could not prove that there isn’t.

    I consider the claim that there is an all-powerful god who loves us, but remains hidden, to be a very extraordinary claim. And I don’t consider arguments like “we don’t know everything, therefore god” or “isn’t nature amazing?” as adequate evidence. Every time we have figured out how part of nature works, it has turned out to be “not magic”. And for every wonderful example of beauty and order in nature, I see equally many examples of brutality and chaos.

    I think that the enormous lack of concrete evidence in favor of a god points to the existence of a god being very unlikely, so I don’t spend any time believing in one, “just in case.”

  23. Jojo the hun

     /  December 24, 2011 at 2:01 am

    “I consider the claim that there is an all-powerful god who loves us, but remains hidden, to be a very extraordinary claim.”

    Well as you add more attributes to God the claim becomes more extraordinary. The basic claim that our universe was created by some sort of being with some sort of intention doesn’t seem very extraordinary to me.

  24. Personally, I think that the jump from “there must be a cause for the universe” to “that cause is a conscious intentional being” to be a pretty big jump. I think humans, as intelligent self-aware beings, are biased in favor of interpreting things as being caused by intelligent self-aware beings. For instance, back when lightning was a total mystery, the ancients attributed the cause of it to a storm god – Zeus or Thor or Baal. Now that we understand it, the cause turns out to be just natural forces, not Thor.

    However, the notion that the “first cause” of the universe was some kind of intelligence who did not then meddle any further with it (Deism) is probably the most reasonable religious view I have run into. Many of the Founding Fathers were deists, as well as a few modern skeptics.

    The leap from “some kind of intelligence” to “a god who then became the personal war totem for one small bronze-age mideastern tribe of goatherders” is definitely an extraordinary one, though.

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