Wednesday, January 24, 2007

What Would It Really Take?

Following up on my post "Are atheists asking too much?" I wanted to talk a bit more about what it would really mean for people to let go of religion and God.

If you've been reading my blog, you can see what turmoil challenging one's long-held beliefs can create. If you were to hop on to any ex-fundamental religionist forum you'd see many more examples of the angst this causes. The more I think about this, the more I wonder whether humanity is capable of letting go of god; letting go of wishful thinking. Is it even logical or reasonable to think that such a massive shift of beliefs could happen? And if it were to happen, could it really take place as easily as some atheists believe it could?

Of the people I've met from the ex-jw community, many have went from believing in one version of god to another. While they've given up the Bible according to the Watchtower, they've gone on to adopt some other religion's explanation of God and the universe. Some have left Christianity for Islam or Judaism or other God-based systems of belief. Then there are those who have given up the traditional ideas of God for a more New Age approach. Few have given up the idea of God entirely. It seems that the penchant for wishful thinking is all too human at this point in our evolution.

When I read Dawkins and Harris, I wonder sometimes how they think this great shift in consciousness can take place, practically speaking. Having been raised with a fundamentalist world-view I know first-hand the mental acrobats required to learn how to think rationally. Do we need to develop some kind of global therapy program? Because the reality is, fundamentalist and wishful thinking are tied up with so many very emotionally-charged issues and memories. Memories of family, culture, abuse, pain, betrayal---a plethora of the good, bad and the ugly. I find it difficult to see how the majority of believers could give up their illusions and delusions without a great deal of help, both societal and professional. Are we prepared for such a need?

I realize it's not up to Dawkins or Harris or myself to bridge this gap for humanity. I just wonder if perhaps a little more empathy could be shown for the tremendous leap being asked of people when we speak of giving up "the God delusion". Or is it too late for empathy? Is it now a case of ripping off the band-aid really fast and just letting the chips fall where they may? Yet, is it ever too late for empathy?

Perhaps it is the next generation that should receive our focus---the children. But where do we begin?

tall penguin


Austin Cline said...

1. How did we make progress in trying to overcome things like widespread racism? It's not that people were all convinced and changed their minds, though some did. It's simply that the most ardent racists died off; their children and grandchildren have been less and less racist over time. Some things can't be changed in one generation, but that doesn't invalidate making arguments to that generation — it's the only way to make any progress.

2. A big problem is the almost total absence of explicit education in logic and critical thinking in schools. There isn't even much implicit education in such matters. This isn't just a problem in that people don't learn it, but also in the fact that logic and critical thinking is an area where an absence of knowledge means that one doesn't even realize how bad they are at it. It's not like math where ignorance is clear when you try to do it — those who know the least often think they are quite skilled, so they have no inclination to learn more.

3. We all have irrational beliefs and we can't all be expected to think completely rationally all the time. The fact of the matter is, people are able to get by with a great deal of irrational thinking on a daily basis — it doesn't negatively impact their survival and they get by just fine. Convincing people to change in such a case isn't easy. Ultimately, it's easier to get people to become more apathetic about religion and theism, showing them that they don't need it. This may be why apologists try so hard to associate atheism with things like immorality: they recognize a need to show that theism and religion are needed.

4. Different people will react differently to various strategies. In some cases, a hard shock with strong language works better than a kind word; in other cases, the reverse is true. There's no one magic bullet in terms of arguments, language, attitude, etc.

Magellan said...

While I certainly agree with austin cline's summation, I'm compelled to add that we can't possibly win.

You see, the wishful thinkers have covered all their bases. No matter how we confront them, via subversion, open and public debate, or education of their offspring, we fulfill some prophecy or other definitively predicting that Satan's henchmen will attack the very foundations of righteousness.

And we all know that prophecy fulfilled is the greatest proof that one's faith is true and unassailable.

tall penguin said...

Hi Austin,

Nice comments.

I think your comparison with racism is a valid one. Change takes time but it can happen faster than we think. Perhaps an atheist equivalent of the Rosa Parks incident will move things along.

Regarding education, it is a difficult thing when the teachers themselves are lacking in logic skills.

I think there is hope here though. In my work with children I see minds waiting for information, waiting to learn. The issue is what it is we choose to teach them and whether that is grounded in logic or not.

I'd really like to hear from those atheists who were raised with critical thinking at home. How did your parents introduce these concepts without crushing the creativity and wishful thinking that is a natural part of child development?

I do agree that there is no one "magic bullet" for how to approach this issue. If I learned anything as a jw knocking on people's doors, it's that different people can respond to the same information if presented in a way that is palatable to them. In other words, there are those that need it right between the eyes and others who need the blow softened. And still others somewhere in between. I guess that's where we come in, with such varying personalities. Same message. Different delivery.

tall penguin

tall penguin said...

Hey magellan,

I can see your point, having been there, done that. It's true that with many fundamentalists there is a deep degree of paranoia and a persecution complex. And questioning their beliefs often just makes them stronger. I see this with my own parents.

That's why I think that it will take a few generations for such a shift to happen. I'm still hopeful though.

tall penguin

Austin Cline said...

"we can't possibly win."

What would it mean to "win"? To make everyone an atheist? That won't happen and it isn't really desirable. To increase critical thinking? That's possible. To increase secularism while decreasing the power of religious institutions? That's also possible - look at some parts of Europe.