Defensive reactions

While reading an excerpt of David McAfee’s Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer over at Friendly Atheist (a loooong time ago), I came across this bit that reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about:

When you tell someone — even if it is a family member or close friend — that you don’t believe in their God, a defensive reaction isn’t surprising. Oftentimes, you’re telling them that everything they’ve ever known, everything their parents and their childhood idols ever told them, is wrong.

McAfee goes on to give realistic, insightful advice about how to deal with this sort of situation, and it’s not in any way my intention to take issue with that. But I do think the fact that a defensive reaction is so expected does itself say something interesting about this whole religion issue.

Let’s consider, as we so often do, an analogy. Everyone I’ve ever known my whole life has always told me that when I drop something, it will fall down. I have always believed that gravity is real, and while my understanding of gravity has grown slightly more refined as I’ve gotten older (to incorporate special circumstances such as one’s apparent weightlessness while in orbit or in a zero-g aircraft, which I have been taught to interpret as the subject falling at the same rate as their environment), it has always been a fundamental part of my understanding of the world around me. I honestly don’t know how I would conceive of the physical world and its phenomena without gravity existing. Now let’s suppose someone comes to me and says, “NFQ, I have to tell you something: I don’t believe in gravity. I just don’t think it’s real.” How am I likely to react?

I might laugh, or if I were able to keep it together, stifle some laughter. I would certainly be surprised. I would also be sad that this person’s scientific literacy is so poor. But would I get defensive about it? I highly doubt that. What would I even be defensive about? Someone else’s ignorance, which doesn’t impugn me in the slightest? The idea hardly makes sense. Even if someone wanted to argue with me, to try to convince me to stop “believing in gravity,” I wouldn’t be offended — mostly just amused, and eventually bored.

When I think about religious beliefs, I tend to think of them as statements of fact about how reality works. Like gravity — you do this, then this will happen; or, this is a driving force underlying the shape of the universe as we experience it. If a religious person truly believes their own doctrines in that way, I don’t think they would be defensive about them. Someone else’s disbelief would simply seem bizarre and/or sad. Yet most people do become defensive when you challenge their religious beliefs, or even just state that you don’t happen to share those beliefs. It seems to me, then, that most people don’t think of their religions as fact.

I’m going to say that again, because it’s really strange: Most people don’t think of their religions as fact.

But … if a religious person doesn’t think their own religious doctrines are true statements, what on earth does it mean to be a believer?

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  1. Doh! Pressed the wrong thing and lost my comment. [sigh] Let’s try this again, shall we? [smile]

    Two thoughts pinging through my mind:

    1. “Most people” means very little. “Most people” can’t explain the Affordable Care Act–largely because it’s still being figured out–but that doesn’t mean much as to its reality, right? Even I need reminders that I believe in Christianity because it’s true, not because it does good in society or whatever. C.S. Lewis hits this point again and again in “God in the Dock.” And if I need to be reminded that Christianity is true, I’m guessing others do too.

    2. “Ha! You just admitted you don’t regularly think Christianity is true!” Uh… that’s not what I said. But I’ll try to explain what’s going on in a broader context. I’m afraid this isn’t going to be very clear (sorry). There is a huge difference between things we define and things we interpret.

    We define the phenomenon of what pulls things downward as gravity. If you use a different word, it doesn’t change the physiological response: Things fall down. So, yes, you’d be amused if someone said they don’t believe stuff falls down when you drop it because, well, it happens.

    But explain gravity. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

    Why do kids go crazy after consuming their Halloween loot? “Most people” say it’s the sugar that makes them hyper. The studies I’m seen suggest it’s actually the food coloring. And people who want food coloring removed get pretty “defensive” when you try to argue with them. Why? Because now we’ve moved away from defining something to interpreting it. And interpretations are up for debate, or whatever. So you have to defend your position. But a position is not a “fact” in the same way a definition is. You’d be amused if I told you I didn’t think the brown door was brown–by definition, it is brown. But trying to convince someone who is apathetic or frustrated with certain areas of the health-food movement that food coloring is bad for them isn’t bemusing. It’s distressing.

    Explanations of the world and how it works–our interpretations of what we experience and define–are going to evoke a more emotional response from us. It’s more human, in a way. It’s not the “cold, hard facts” of defined reality. But it’s no less real. And I think this is echoed even in gravity. When we ask someone to explain how gravity works–I just asked Google to do so–the answers come back fairly uniform from people well-versed in these things: Gravity exists because space-time is warped by matter. But ask an average person to explain how that works, and they’ll likely get defensive. Because we’ve moved beyond description into the wonky world of interpretation/explanation. And things are a little less firm out here.

    Similarly, ask someone well-versed in why people “fall down”/screw up, and you’ll get fairly consistent answers: sin/the “human condition.” But ask the average person to explain how that works, and I’m likely to exhibit defensive characteristics.


  2. Luke: Hmm. When I talk about being defensive, I don’t just mean defending your viewpoint in a logical debate — I’m talking more about stuff like this (PDF I found when I searched “defensive reaction”). I don’t get defensive (in this sense) about my interpretations even if someone tells me I’m wrong, unless they also tell me that I’m an idiot for ever having thought that, or something that’s really a personal attack along those lines.

    The interpretation vs. fact distinction is interesting, though. Personally, if my interpretation is wrong, I want to know so I can correct my understanding of reality. When people get defensive, it signals to me that they’re not interested in reality / not confident that their interpretations can stand up to reasonable scrutiny, they’re more interested in their own agenda.

    And I do think that the “defensive reaction” we’re talking about here isn’t in debates about theology, or other “interpretation” issues. If it happens, it happens when an atheist confides in a family member or a friend that they do not in fact share this (factual) belief about whether or not a deity exists.

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