Monday, July 14, 2014

Feel free to attack my beliefs

One of my greatest failings at communicating with others is that I often forget how much of a sense of identity comes with a person's beliefs. I personally feel like all of my beliefs are in a "this is what I think is right until new evidence changes my mind" holding pattern, but not everybody else is like that. Sometimes even implying that somebody might believe the wrong thing is enough for them to get really defensive. Shoot, sometimes even implying that somebody else might be wrong about their beliefs is enough to get people upset.

To be clear, I'm not talking about attacking an individual by insulting them. I don't think that a person is stupid when they believe things that I don't believe - in fact, I often think that some of them are smarter than me. That's why I'd never call a person stupid for being a Christian, Muslim, tarot card reader, alleged alien abductee, etc. I'm not so dense that I don't empathize with why that would upset people. I don't like being called stupid (or any other names) either, and I know that as an atheist, it can be annoying when believers will resort to calling me things like "sad", "lost" or "demon possessed".  (Okay, the last one is too silly to actually upset me.) There really isn't any place for personal attacks in civilized conversation.

I'm also not talking about misrepresenting a particular group of people or making hasty generalizations about them. I'm aware that not all Christians, for instance, are homophobic bigots, and I don't assume that one is when I meet him or her. I obviously don't like that either. The closest thing to this which I relate to is the notion that comic book fans are all socially awkward or dimwitted. (These being stereotypes that the media has perpetuated, although that seems to be changing.) I'm neither, and I find that to be the opposite of most comic fans I know. (Especially the notion that people read comics because they're not smart enough to read "regular" books - if anything, the comic book fans that I know tend to be more well-read than your average person.)

Related to this, I think that I'm pretty good at avoiding strawmen. I really don't care if anybody disagrees with one of my positions, but I get incredibly upset when somebody mischaracterizes what my position is. If I had a dime for every time I've had to listen to some nonsense about how atheists believe that "nothing created nothing" or "everything's a coincidence" I'd have enough dimes to stuff into a sock so I can hit those people over the head and knock them out.

Aside from that, I don't really give a crap about my "beliefs". I got into a conversation about somebody regarding evolution recently, and he told me that one's stance and interpretation of it depended on what one's beliefs were. Maybe that's true for him, but it's not true for me. Who cares what I "believe" about evolution? What do the facts say? I can believe that I descended directly from my dog, and even if that provided me with a ton of comfort and filled me with joy, it wouldn't have any bearing on reality.

I also had a conversation with somebody regarding "psychics" who supposedly talk to the dead (using the same method that cold readers, who admittedly have no supernatural powers, use). Basically, one particularly famous one has been pretty thoroughly debunked, and the other person just didn't want to hear it because she believed in the afterlife. I tried to point out that the afterlife being real and that psychic being a fraud could both very well be true, which seemed to make a bit of a difference. Still, she said that her problem was that the article that debunked the psychic was "attacking her beliefs" which is what upset her.

I didn't say it, but I felt like asking: "Don't you want to know if this is all bullcrap?"

And that's what seems to be the issue here, which I have a hard time understanding. I'm not so sure that people WANT to know if what they believe is true or not. What they want is to believe what they believe. In the case of religion, I can understand this because it often comes with an entire identity and abandoning the belief potentially means leaving behind your entire social circle and maybe even your family. But stuff like psychics? 9/11 conspiracies? Chemtrails? Why hold so desperately on to those? I just don't get it.

I remember having a Facebook conversation with some believers not too long ago where I shared a link about the God helmet. Essentially, the device was able to create experiences in people that were indistinguishable from supernatural experiences. In other words, it was evidence that interactions with God, ghosts, aliens, etc. were something that the brain can create and make them seem very real. What an amazing discovery this device could be! But how did the believers react? More than one of them said that they "didn't want to know" if this stuff was all in their heads. Facts be damned, they were gonna believe what they want to believe.

But check this out! Here's an example of me revising my beliefs right as I'm writing this blog! I couldn't recall the precise details (or the name) of the God helmet experiment, even though I've brought it up in conversations with religious people since originally reading about it. From what I understood, it was another piece of evidence against religious/supernatural belief. However, when I looked it up again to provide a link for this blog post, I learned that the results were unable to be replicated by other scientists.

I'm still going to refer to the God helmet in discussions with believers in order to have one more point to help me win the debate. Wait...what? NO! NO! NO! NO! I'm never going to use that example again because it turned out to be WRONG! Yes, I believe something and now I'm admitting that it was wrong. I don't feel dumb. If anything, I feel slightly smarter. Am I the only one who feels slightly euphoric when I learn that I was mistaken about something? Seriously, I do. I now know something I didn't know before.

I've written before how I don't care when religious believers try to convert me. If they're right, then I want to know it, but I'm kinda getting to the point where I'm tired of arguments and just want some evidence already (or a good reason why I shouldn't care about evidence). I don't feel threatened when somebody tells me that my beliefs are wrong. Instead, I want to challenge them to convince me of it, and if their arguments suck, I won't be shy about letting them know.

It was Matt Dillahunty who put this all so succinctly: "I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible." I think that's a good motivation, as I don't know what's to gain by believing in things that aren't true, yet I can think of plenty of reasons that it can harm people. I could be wrong, but it strikes me that too many people would rather say: "I want to believe the things that I believe."

I don't understand that, but I'm trying to be sensitive to it. I predict that I will encounter much failure in these efforts in the future, but maybe I'll finally find the right approach.

No comments: