In our CVAAS skype discussion last night one of our topics concerned how many atheists often focus on the religious idiot of the day.
There is a small-time preacher who is advocating making a list of all atheists for the purpose of discriminating against them. There is a small-time rabbi who claims that atheism leads to bestiality. There is a religious street preacher who is famous for baiting atheists and belittling anyone who explains evolution.
And atheist blogs tear into these people. They search out these people. They dig through the Internet and find posts that were made months ago and bring them out.
The comment that struck me during the skype discussion was to the effect that too many atheists are so focused on highlighting the problems with religious people that they are neglecting the mention of the benefits of living a rational life.
As the saying goes, "You catch more flies with honey...." (Well, it works in the saying...)
I am interested in increasing the number of rational thinkers in our society. Which leads to the question of "How"?
It has become painfully obvious that rational explanations, the scientific method, and evidence are often not enough to get a person to exchange a belief in pseudoscience and the supernatural for reality.
Sometimes ridicule of belief is enough to start a person toward change. As Christopher Hitchens has said, religion “should be treated with ridicule, hatred, and contempt". Sometimes this level of contempt is what it takes to get someone to realize that their beliefs are silly. When I was starting down the road toward atheism, a well placed jibe toward one of my beliefs made me angry enough that I examined that belief closely and was forced to the conclusion that the critical person was right.
But from what I can see, this seldom works, and it is too easy to mix up hatred of a belief with hatred of the person holding the belief. The criticism too easily becomes an "ad hominem" attack
"Love the sinner, hate the sin" is a phrase that comes to mind here.
Consider a person who has heard about a scientific discovery that deeply challenges her belief in divine creation—a new hominid, say, that confirms our evolutionary origins. What happens next, explains political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University, is a subconscious negative response to the new information—and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind. "They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs," says Taber, "and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they're hearing."
In other words, when we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers. Our "reasoning" is a means to a predetermined end—winning our "case"—and is shot through with biases.
Mooney writes that people become emotionally invested in a belief, and will defend that belief using something like fight-or-flight reflexes.
We're not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.
In other words, we are more likely to change our minds for emotional reasons, not for rational ones. We are said to "have a change of heart", not a change of mind.
So how do we apply this toward increasing the number of rational thinkers in our society?
It would seem that we need to get people to "have a change of heart" first, then teach them how to think more rationally.
But how do we do this?
The suggestion from last night was to focus on the positive aspects of a life lived rationally. Secular morality, and secular philosophy were mentioned. A life well lived.
We also discussed atheist celebrities. Many of these are much like Paris Hilton - they are famous for being famous (in atheist circles). Do they elevate atheism to a more visible position? Is higher visibility useful? These very atheist celebrities are often the same ones that tear into religious nobodies and who confuse ridicule of ridiculous beliefs with ridicule of religious believers. Pure vinegar.
Perhaps it is time that atheists start talking about the benefits of a rational life.