May 29, 2007

How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-3

In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer and the devout offended believer when you tell people you are an atheist.

Today, I will address the religious fundamentalist intellectual: These people are the most fun to deal with because there is usually no rancor or personal element involved in the disagreements. These are people who have essentially constructed an alternate reality. They believe that the Bible is literally true, that Noah's flood and ark are historical events, that humans lived alongside dinosaurs, that the Earth and the universe is less than 10,000 years old, and so on. They have satisfied themselves that what they believe can be substantiated and will try to convince you of it. They are usually not offended by you being an atheist but are convinced that you are mistaken. If you are lucky enough to engage such people in conversation and have the time, you should probe their beliefs and why they believe them and you will witness the unfolding of a fascinating and complex set of hypotheses that are invoked to explain why their beliefs are so out of step with the results of mainstream science.

I met a lot of these people when I was in Kansas is 2002 to debate the intelligent design creationists. People who attended the debate would take me aside and read passages from the Bible to try and convince me why it was true and I was wrong. They were mostly very nice people. Even though they were convinced I was going to hell, they were nice about it and did not gloat, and only a few fell into the angry offended devout believers category I described earlier. But they were living in an alternate world from me. A professor of constitutional law who was on the same debate panel with me captured the situation very well when he said that he felt like he was at a Star Trek convention. Those who are on the outside cannot comprehend the devotion of such people to a fictional world, but can only marvel at it.

Suggested response: There is no point in trying to win such people over by arguments, especially standard scientific ones. They have heard most of them before and their responses take a standard pattern. They will start from a fairly mainstream scientific and historical position and at a crucial moment insert some piece of esoteric information that they claim throws doubt on the entire theories of evolution or geology or physics or any science that contradicts their worldview. This is then used to make a leap to justify their alternate reality. This leap will seeming totally lacking in logic to you but they are convinced it makes perfect sense.

A good example of this can be seen in the set of videos called Chatting with Charley. Charley is typical of this attitude. For example, he accepts the fact of continental drift but argues that it separated America from Africa in a couple of months, and a great flood caused the Grand Canyon to be formed in days rather than millions of years! I think that I would enjoy talking with Charley because it is just fun to listen to his 'arguments' because they are so weirdly fascinating.

I would similarly enjoy talking with Kent Ham, the force behind the new creationist museum that opened in Kentucky yesterday. An article in the May 18, 2007 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (page B10) has the author asking Ham how many sheep Noah's Ark would have to contain in order feed all the dinosaurs. This question was based on an article published by Bishop John Wilkins in 1668 claiming that the Ark contained 1600 sheep, sufficient to feed the carnivores. But the existence dinosaurs weren't known then, and their presence would increase the numbers of sheep required beyond the capacity of the Ark, prompting the question.

The author (who felt that the whole idea of the Ark being historical was preposterous) feared that Ham might feel that this question was a mocking one, but Ham answered in all seriousness. He suggested that the dinosaurs that Noah saved might be young ones, before they were full grown and thus needed less food. Ham also suggested that more animals might have been vegetarian then, becoming carnivores only later.

Ham also suggested that the Biblical 'kinds' of animals that were saved in pairs were not meant to be species but the higher category (the genus) thus requiring fewer. In other words, Noah did not save a pair of every breed of (say) dog, but only a single pair of dogs. Of course, this means that the present number of species had to evolve and differentiate into their separate species types in a few thousand years, but this can probably be explained with another ad hoc hypothesis.

People like Charley and Ham tend to not understand in a very deep way the nature of science and how science acquires and creates knowledge, and the basic interconnectedness of scientific knowledge. You cannot invoke ad hoc hypotheses to take care of one problem without exploring the consequences for other related situations where that hypothesis has applications.

They also skip over the basic problem of Cartesian dualism of how a non-material mind could interact with the material body. They cannot be convinced by arguments. After all, Ham has convinced religious people to spend $27 million dollars to build a museum enshrining this weird belief structure and that bespeaks a serious devotion. Because they are determined to believe at any cost, at any tricky point they invoke the Mysterious Ways Clause (Shorter version of the MWC: God has a reason for doing this and for keeping the reasons hidden from us and anyway our minds are too puny to understand god's plan.)

What is best in such conversations is to take an anthropological attitude and try and understand how these alternative realities are created. Simply posing questions about their beliefs, asking for evidence, posing counter-evidence and seeing how they respond, are the best ways to deal with them. Since you are not trying to convince them of anything but simply trying to understand why they believe what they do, this enables you to be detached and thus subject their beliefs to a clinical examination.

When you do so, you will find yourself gazing through a window into a world that is truly bizarre, in a fascinating kind of way, as if you had entered a looking glass world.


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