Sunday, April 8, 2007

Don't try this at home

Andrew Sullivan's latest entry in the blogabate is called "Deus Caritas Est."

I was going to post on the Harris versus Sullivan debate first, but then I read an essay, called "Why Bad Beliefs Don't Die," on the CSICOP site which is linked on Richard Dawkins' site in the comments section of the thread about the Harris versus Sullivan debate by someone calling themselves debaser71 on page 11.

I was going to post a snarky and insulting essay about Andrew's response to Sam, much like my past comments on this debate, about the fact that Andrew Sullivan has, more or less, made a crazy and evasive response to Sam's questions. I'm going to re-write that post and put it up later. You'll see it by tomorrow night if not sooner. I'm re-writing it because it was just too snarky and insulting.

The CSICOP article points to one factor that keeps people from changing their beliefs and even helps us define good mental hygiene that makes the rational processes that leads to atheism so necessary. It also warns people against using snark and insults when debating those you want persuade. So, don't try my snark and cynicism at home in your debates. This blog is not a debate and I'm a professional cynic.

Now, here's a summary of the article with my own thoughts mixed in with some stolen sentences:

It's hard to change people's minds because beliefs and related behaviors are biologically designed to be strongly resistant to change. Consider addiction and how the brain defends drug abuse and cigarette smoking, producing the familiar lying, sneaking, denying, rationalizing, and justifying commonly exhibited by individuals suffering from addiction. There we see a clear example of feelings winning out over rational thought. This seems to happen with Andrew Sullivan too. The addict knows they are doing themselves harm, but feeling better matters more. Believing, like smoking, is in a certain sense a behavior. And we can clearly see why Andrew Sullivan would feel better thinking he will never really die and that there is a God upstairs in Heaven who loves him.

A failure to understand the biological purpose of beliefs and the neurological necessity for them to be resistant to change can lead to counter-productive tactics, like my snark and insults if I were the one debating Andrew instead of Sam. I suspect those tactics would make me come off as threatening and uncaring. The only threat that's really there is that I won't take you seriously. The uncaring part is, in many cases, true on my part; I rarely care about theists who choose to argue with me on the web and I care less about those that won't. I only have a kind of abstract care about the mental health of everyone on this planet and I've never seen a religion that looks like good mental health. It puts me at a disadvantage because the religious proselytes will claim to care very specifically about those they want to convert, and listening to people who seem to care generally aids survival more than listening to people who think you're a contemptuous idiot. Unfortunately, to change beliefs we have to be aware of the brain's "survival" and "comfort" issues and of longer term meanings and implications in addition to discussing the evidence and argument at hand.

"Belief" is the name we give to the survival tool of the brain that augments the reward/threat-identification function of our senses and instincts. Beliefs are like maps into both known and unknown territory. Experience fills out our maps of the known territory while trust in, or faith in, others fills in the unknown territory. Thus our beliefs artificially extend the range of our senses and we get to take advantage of other people's experiences so that we can better detect dangers and benefits. Our beliefs should improve our chances of survival as we move into and out of unfamiliar territory, but that's not always the case. Our beliefs are "maps" of those parts of the world with which we do not have immediate sensory contact, no matter whether that belief is about the exit coming up on the interstate or what comes after we die.

There are also other effective ways of getting attention and getting temporarily believed that are not legitimately accessible to atheists, such as telling people what they want to hear and telling people to either avoid or do a very simple specific act, like mailing off a chain letter to get good luck, not stepping on a crack to prevent breaking your mother's back or not walking under ladders other simple acts which form so many superstitious behaviors. Christians can exploit both options; they can tell you that you can live forever in paradise and then tell you how very simply; you confess your sins, pray to God and ask him to come into your life. There it is, a desire met and a simple act and it can be squeezed it into a 15-second sound-bite. And if you've ever tried performing that simple act because the proposition was made to you then you understand how effective that ploy is. You're not alone. In high school I did it several times but nothing ever happened, though I did wonder for a short time if something had.

You can tell yourself that you're just performing an experiment to see what will happen, but by engaging the act you've already, potentially, planted the seed by taking the proposition seriously enough to act on it. And you have to wonder, when and if it doesn't work for you, why does it work for others? It works because they're not aware of the serious emotional manipulation perpetrated on them and the potential effects it can have.

Earlier on in the Harris/Sullivan debate Andrew told of how his faith came alive when he thought he was going to die. He had already watched one of his closest friends die in front of him. He started to experience religious visions. He heard a voice that seemed divine. He experienced a moment of doubt followed by unsought-for relief. And he knew he wasn't the only person to have experienced such things. Now, auditory hallucinations are usually associated with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, and they hold special significance in diagnosing those conditions. But they are also more common in non-psychotics than most people realize. You don't have to be psychotic or schizophrenic. They usually happen when normal, non-psychotic people, are fatigued or because of extreme anxiety or stress. They also happen with high doses of cocaine, amphetamine or other stimulants.

Andrew certainly described some extreme anxiety and stress. If that was the only time it happened, during a stress situation, Andrew in all probability is of normal sanity, at least normal for those who don't practice good mental hygiene. Christian dogma has its own anxiety inducing elements (will you be damned to hell or go to Heaven?) thus Christian dogma can help create the conditions for auditory hallucinations and born again experiences. Also, extreme religion does attract psychotics. But Andrew is not really extreme in his religiosity. The question is if he hears voices on any kind of regular basis. I don't think he does. His experience is an example of the kind of seemingly spiritual experiences that can be induced by emotional manipulation you are exposed to in our Christian culture.

Sitting here in front of my computer I cannot see the grocery store where I shop. Using only my immediate sensory data I do not know if the store is still there. At this moment my sensory data is of little use to me regarding how I get more food. In order to find food I, like apparently most other animals with significant brains, need an internal map of the location of that food as well as beliefs about how to get at it. By using my belief rather than just sensory data and instinct, my brain can "know" much more about the world.

But I don't really "know" in an absolute sense. I may head to the grocery store and find out that it is now a hardware store. I would be slightly upset if that happened without some warning. Everyone has to believe in many things because we can't afford to be constantly questioning everything. I would be even more upset if instead of the grocery store being there I found a huge boulder standing where the store should be, between the Blockbuster and the car dealership. How could that have gotten there? Why would that happen? That would make me question more things than I can easily deal with questioning. As Andrew might say, that's a mystery that would no doubt strengthen his faith in God. The more mystery, the more he believes, which means, the less he knows the more he believes and that is rather backwards.

Understanding the biological purpose of beliefs should make us more effective in challenging irrational beliefs. Beliefs are designed to be able to disagree, up to a point, with sensory data and good arguments. When data and belief come into conflict, the brain does not automatically give preference to new evidence. This is why beliefs, even irrational beliefs, often don't die in the face of contradictory evidence. This is why scientists, like Francis Collins, can believe in God. It is a feature of beliefs that makes a young police officer substantially safer if he believes that someone stopped for a traffic violation might be an armed psychopath with a desire to kill and run even though it has never happened to the officer before and the violator in question has a seemingly innocuous appearance.

Just like the young police officer who has never met a killer psychopath, Christians fear the possibility of things only reported by trusted others, like damnation, in some cases demonic possession and God's judgment, or, in Andrew's case, apparently death itself. The brain doesn't care whether or not the belief matches past experience. It cares whether the belief feels like it is helpful for survival.

Neither the young police officer nor the Christian has beliefs that were formed individually or in a vacuum. They are related to one another in a tightly interlocking system that creates that person's fundamental world view. It is this system that the brain relies on in order to experience consistency, control, cohesion, and safety in the world. It must maintain this system intact in order to feel that survival is being successfully accomplished. Like those old Japanese soldiers found on islands in the Pacific that didn't quite believe that the war was really over, the brain often refuses to surrender its weapon even though new data says it should. While the scientific, rational part of our brains may think that data, experience and better theories should supersede the contradicted beliefs, the scientifically untrained, or skeptically untrained, brain has no such bias. It is extremely reticent to jettison its beliefs. Scientific thinking conditions people to reexamination and belief change.

We should always appreciate how hard it is for people to have their beliefs challenged. It is, quite literally, a threat to their sense of survival. Becoming sarcastic or demeaning gives their defense mechanism a foothold to engage in combative tit-for-tat exchanges that justify their feelings of being threatened ("Of course we fight the skeptics; look what uncaring, hostile jerks they are!") rather than a continued focus on the truth. Being dignified and tactful is important, and Sam Harris did a fairly good job at that. The way to deal with defensiveness is to de-escalate the fighting rather than inflame it.

You probably should avoid arguing with people whose positions you find too offensive because you probably won't be able to hide the hostility that make you feel. For example, some fundy Christians will tell you, (and every one who doesn't believe in Jesus), that you are damned to Hell for all eternity and they think that makes them special and above the rest of us since God has chosen them. The Heaven and Hell dichotomy is one of the most offensive of Christian beliefs and it's an incredible mindfuck that I've already written about in my essays, Hope is the Bait and Fear is the Trap.

It's hard not to treat with raging contempt someone who tells you that you're damned if you don't believe something that's so impossible to believe. It is such an obvious psychological manipulation you can't help but be offended by the proposition that they would argue for. I think it is the real reason that Christianity and Islam became major world religions. I've already written on how religious ideas about the afterlife evolved in a past comment on the Harris/Sullivan debate in the post called, "Andrew Sullivan talks death." The concept of the extreme reward and punishment in the afterlife evolved over thousands of years and the extreme versions beat out the more egalitarian versions. To an irrational, non-skeptical mind the Heaven and Hell extreme is a meme of exceptional infectiousness. It gives Pascal's Wager more threat and promise, and it also builds a barrier of mutual offensiveness between believers and non-believers.

This, of course, doesn't always mean you shouldn't make arguments or debate, it means you should think differently about them. And that takes us to another essay I didn't write on "Framing." This short article, Framing the debate, will help a little with that concept if you're not familiar with it.

Don't try to "win" the debate. Instead, try to move the "Overton window" into position.

The Overton window is a concept in political theory that describes a "window" in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue. Moving that window may be all you can accomplish, getting people to include previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas is a partial goal. The degrees of acceptance of ideas can be roughly laid out this way:

0 -- Unthinkable / Terrified
1 -- Radical / Uncomfortable
2 -- Acceptable / Not so bad
3 -- Sensible / Rational
4 -- Popular / Credible
5 -- Policy / Believed

If visualizing which attitudes define the range of acceptance of atheism by where they fall in the above spectrum, then atheism world probably terrorize most fundy Christians. They would thus find it "unthinkable." If you've moved them from being terrified to being merely uncomfortable with atheism you haven't done that bad.

And remember how badly you are outnumbered. Look at your television. Check out Fox, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS. How many scientists or atheists do you see? An Anderson Cooper "360" show that discussed religion and science gave me several minutes worth of creationist Ken Ham babbling, home schooling moms explaining how evolution is bunk, and only one token scientist who only got time for two sentences. A lying con man who will promise you eternal life, if only you really believe Jesus created the earth in 4004 BC deserves more time on CNN than a scientist. My cable service has several channels to dedicated non-stop religion, all of them working hard to frame atheism in the most negative way possible.

1 comment:

Logicel said...

Insightful post, and your best so far. Sullivan's last post was like all his others--clearly showing the dizzying contradictions with which he juggles on a routine basis. It gave me the chills.