May 13, 2008
The end of god-10: When vinegar is better than honey
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
The previous post in this series raised the question of, given a conviction that religion is a negative influence in almost every area of life, what is the best strategy to persuade people to abandon their religious beliefs? Should we suggest that their religious beliefs are reasonable but that atheism is better (the honey approach)? Or should we come right out and say that religious beliefs are irrational and even pernicious and should be abandoned by any thinking person (the vinegar approach of the new atheists)? Or should we just do nothing at all and let events take their natural course?
The last option (doing nothing at all) is probably the most appealing to atheists on an intellectual level and has been suggested by some commenters to the previous post. After all, if you think that belief in god is silly and without any foundation, then why be concerned if others believe it? But doing nothing has resulted in religion continuing to be pervasive and if, as I have argued before, religion leads to bad results, then surely we should try and change things, just as we would for any other belief structure that has negative social consequences, such as racism or sexism or homophobia.
I think that in the private sphere, in a face-to-face encounter with a religious believer, directly telling them that their beliefs are silly is not a good thing to do. People tend to respond to direct challenges to their beliefs by finding reasons, however irrational, to support those beliefs. In other words, they dig themselves in even deeper, commit themselves even more strongly, merely in order to save face in an argument. So a honey approach is called for here. One should try to gently point out why atheism provides a far more satisfying approach to life than belief in a god.
But the situation is quite different in the public sphere. Then most people are merely third-party observers, watching other people argue, and thus they themselves are not being personally confronted, although their views are.
When the new atheists in public discourse, in a debate or in the media, demonstrate that the views of their religious opponents are silly and irrational, this will likely not cause their immediate opponent to back down for all the reasons given above. But the debate opponent is not the real audience for their remarks. It is the viewing or listening or reading audience that is the target. Religious believers who watch the debate, when they see that the views of the person representing their own religious views being subject to withering criticism and unable to respond adequately, may come to realize that such beliefs are truly irrational. But since they are not being directly challenged, they do not have to immediately and publicly acknowledge this and can quietly think it over and slowly change their minds on their own without suffering a loss of face.
In some cases, ridicule may be the most effective weapon in countering preposterous claims, since it may persuade the observer that holding such views is embarrassing. In fact, some religious propositions cannot be countered without appearing to ridicule them, and this may not be an altogether bad thing. Take for example the widely held belief in the US that the world is just 6,000 years old. If someone asserts this, the honey approach would be to give them all the evidence from physics, geology, astronomy, chemistry, and biology that are all inextricably linked and point towards the conclusion that the world is billions of years old. This is hardly feasible in a limited time.
The vinegar approach is to say that to believe such a thing is to reject all of modern science and to regress to the Middle Ages. Richard Dawkins says in public that believing that the Earth is 6,000 years old and not 4.5 billion years old is not a minor disagreement about a factual detail. It is an error on the scale of asserting that the distance from New York to California is about 20 feet. That kind of argument can be seen as dismissive and ridiculing the beliefs of young Earth creationists, but I think it is more effective in cases like this. As Thomas Jefferson said, "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions."
Just as no thinking person today will publicly acknowledge a belief in astrology or witchcraft because it reveals one to be positively medieval in one's thinking and puts one so beyond the pale of science and rationality that it is positively embarrassing, so the new atheists are making the case that to believe in god and religion is no better than holding on to those other beliefs that we now view as pure superstitions.
Even if people realize that it embarrassing to hold on their beliefs in god and religion because of the strong criticisms made in the public sphere by the new atheists, and decide to abandon them, there is still some difficulty in having to explain to the people they know personally why they switched. For some time, these people will likely still pay lip service to their prior religious beliefs while slowly distancing themselves from them. But at some point, they will feel confident in repudiating their former beliefs and this is made easier because they worked it out for themselves on their own, in their own minds.
I suspect that this process is happening right now in the minds of many people. As a result of the strong arguments put out by the new atheists, many people are probably coming to the private realization that the religious beliefs they have been subscribing to for so long are really rather ridiculous and embarrassing for any rational, scientifically-minded person to hold on to. They may stay silent now, or try to find some intermediate position that is not a total renunciation, but at some point they will repudiate religion altogether and do so publicly.
Their path will be made easier the more people adopt the new atheists' approach.
Next: But enough about the new atheism, what's new on the pro-religion side?
POST SCRIPT: Batman and the Penguin discuss the American electorate
(Thanks to This Modern World)