Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On changing minds

In a previous thread, someone wrote: "While debating with a theist can be as invigorating as playing chess, one should bear in mind that it's doing them harm. It's driving them deeper into their psychosis."

This is simply not true, and yet it's unfortunately a very common meme among the "Don't be a dick" crowd. As a counterpoint, I'd like to share a letter we received a few months ago. I don't post stuff like this often, as it would come across as too self-congratulatory, but I do want to remind everyone that people sometimes change their minds.

For context: This guy originally wrote to us in January. He wrote that seeing the show was causing serious doubts in his own Christian beliefs. He then went on to say:

I was wondering, if there is no higher power, how you would justify morality in an atheist at all? Please don't misunderstand, as a young person on the verge of apostasy, I'm not saying that atheists have no morals, although I have met 'christians' who have claimed as much. After all, if there is no higher power, then there is no objective truth, ergo no objective morality, meaning all morality is subjective. If that is the case, then to say that a murderer is immoral is surely a fallacy, as he no doubt acted as his morals saw fit. If morality is subjective, then he is as moral for acting out the murder he saw as moral as you are for not acting out a murder you saw as immoral.

I wrote back and we discussed the morality issue for a while. The angle I took on this was the Euthyphro Dilemma, though I usually don't refer to it by name. I like to explore the concept that a God-given morality is somehow objective in a way that human consensus-derived morality is not. In the course of three more exchanges between us, and some messages from Tracie thrown in, we discussed slavery; we discussed the story of Jephthah; we talked about what kind of commands God could issue that would be considered by this person to be immoral.

After a while he said that they were hard questions but he still felt like there must be a god. The conversation petered out.

In September I received this:

Hi, Mr. Glasser,

I doubt you remember me, but we had a discussion about religion and so on just under a year ago. I have since become an atheist and I thought I'd drop you an e-mail to thank you. The video I e-mailed about in the first place was the first real faith-shaking material I had come into contact with, and from there I kept investigating my religion scientifically, historically and morally. Obviously, I found it wanting and, as I said earlier, have since renounced it. I thought I'd let you know a few of the final arguments in convincing me that the bible, at least, is wrong, not really in case you hadn't heard them (I'm sure you have), but rather because, since our discussion must have been frustrating for you, I'd like you to know. One is that the God of the bible forced us into sin, and therefore knowingly and willingly condemned literally billions of people to hell by creating the Eden situation in the first place, for he knew what would happen but did nothing to change it. This is an act of incredible cruelty, and is unjustifiable, giving trouble even to my own father (a minister). That's a moral argument, I suppose, but also shows a biblical contradiction (if God is all loving and unchanging then this act (among dozens of notable others) should be impossible). The second is the fallibility of the bible. I wonder if you knew that Luke, in his gospel, lists 28 generations between Joseph, Jesus' father, and David, whereas Matthew gives 41. On top of that, the census Luke wrote about never happened, and the local census upon which it may have been based happened long after Herod's death.

Those are just a few, but anyway, thanks again for showing me another way of thinking, and it's thanks in part to you guys and what you're doing that I am being fascinated and amazed every day by the way that the world works without resorting to the 'Don't ask questions, God did it' train of thought.

So. I have been asked, on a few occasions, whether arguing with people about atheism ever changes people's minds. My answer is always "Very rarely, and the changes are usually minor but positive." This is what I would consider a happy exception.


  1. Man getting an email like that must be really rewarding. It always surprises me how hard it is for them to get past the "atheists have no basis for morality" mindblock. That position is so vacuous yet I still see it trotted out *all* the time.

  2. If there is no higher power, then there is no objective truth, ergo no objective morality, meaning all morality is subjective

    This is your standard theistic "logic". I can't even parse the first part.

    I'm glad to hear the pesron "woke up". The majority of theists are never even challenged on why they believe, and thus, rarely think about it. Sometimes, that's all it takes to get that ball rolling.

  3. Perhaps, if you really were causing more people to become stronger believers in their faith than not, you would not be becoming increasingly popular. Of course, I could be wrong about that. However, your approach is not always from the "dick" side of things either.

  4. It seems to me that the discrepancy in the genealogies is one of the smaller failings of the Bible, I would have gone with J-dog telling the masses that the end will be within the current generation... but whatever gets you there I suppose.

  5. @ ChaosSong

    Yes, you're right, there are far worse contradictions in the Bible. However, I think that some are easier to justify than others. The geneology is certainly one that's very simple, and therefore very hard to get around.

    The reality is this: if you are a Biblical literalist, it doesn't matter how small or inconsequential the contradiction is. If you TRULY believe that the bible is the perfect word of God, then the smallest contradiction destroys it - or, it should at least. Even a minor contradiction means that it's possible that this isn't the perfect word of God.

  6. "While debating with a theist can be as invigorating as playing chess, one should bear in mind that it's doing them harm. It's driving them deeper into their psychosis."

    When I read this, I really wonder "how?".

    I think it can appear as if the theist is driven deeper into his delusions, but I think that is just because the longer a debate goes, the more the theist reveals about his beliefs and the more he is driven into a corner. So if a theist goes nutty in a debate, it's not because the debate has made him more crazy, but because it has made him reveal his core beliefs and pushed him into a defensive position with logic, rational thinking and other icky stuff.

    That's what I think where this meme comes from.

    PS: How do I make text italic? I tried [i]-tags, but it didn't work in the preview.

  7. How do I make text italic?

    Regular html tags (only the basics) are allowed. So, <i>

  8. Thank you. Looks like I just used the wrong brackets.

  9. Correct me if I'm using the term incorrectly, but if I'd said that 99% of debate with a theist drives them deeper and you say that it's not 100%, that's a straw man.

    Having lived half my life in the Northeast and half in the Northwest, I don't much care how an argument is delivered and the "don't be a dick" thing isn't one of my cultural affectations. I was trying to suggest, rather, that discussing cosmology with a theist is like trying to rationalize with a drunk. How much more useful might it be to get them sober first and explore the genuinely life-enhancing needs they're satisfying so inefficiently?

    (I hope I can be forgiven if, every time Matt hangs up on a caller, I close my eyes and shake my head. The top of the hill is not a great place for growth.)

    Given that no one becomes a theist using any argument, then deconstructing those arguments is pointless. No one has ever gone from atheist to theist--ever--because the only way to become theist is through childhood indoctrination.

    Providing missing pieces, therefore, can be extremely productive. When a teen calls for advice about his new atheism, may I suggest helping him reassure his parents about secular morality. They're terrified that he's casting himself adrift. I say this as a parent myself. Compassion is hiding under there somewhere.

    I overheard my 16-year-old son summarize atheism for a friend recently as "being comfortable saying 'I don't know' when you don't." That option, which we atheists take for granted, is systematically made taboo to a young theist. In what other ways is faith a reversible social disease? How do you get a drunk sober?

  10. Given that no one becomes a theist using any argument, then deconstructing those arguments is pointless. No one has ever gone from atheist to theist--ever--because the only way to become theist is through childhood indoctrination.

    Matt Dilahunty did. I did. The letter writer did. It happens a lot. Have you watched the show? It's fairly frequent that people call the show and talk about their "deconversion".

    What planet have you been living on?

    Ultimately, people can be reasoned with, even if you seem to be hitting a defense shield initially.

  11. Correct me if I'm using the term incorrectly, but if I'd said that 99% of debate with a theist drives them deeper and you say that it's not 100%, that's a straw man.

    We're not saying "it's not 100%", we're saying "It's probably very close to 0%". So it wasn't us who used a strawman, it was you right now.

    (I hope I can be forgiven if, every time Matt hangs up on a caller, I close my eyes and shake my head. The top of the hill is not a great place for growth.)

    The show is different from a private debate. The hosts only have a very limited time for the show, and it wouldn't be good to waste 30min on a debate that doesn't go anywhere. As they have often said, they're not expecting the theistic callers to be converted - but maybe some of those watching the show. And for them, it's definitly better if a fruitless discussion is cut short.

    Given that no one becomes a theist using any argument, then deconstructing those arguments is pointless. No one has ever gone from atheist to theist--ever--because the only way to become theist is through childhood indoctrination.

    I have to admit, I don't understand the first sentence. But the second is just wrong. Many people have gone from being an atheist to being a theist, mainly because they weren't really atheists for rational reasons, so it didn't take rational reasons to turn them into theists.

  12. The claim you're quoting is about conversion, not deconversion. Maybe you're tripping over the juxtaposition of "a" and "theist" in the first line?

  13. @unphilosopher

    That would appear to be the case. Apologies.

  14. @James. The Catholic bible states the word of god is perfect and can never be found in contradiction. So if something from the bible seems to be of contradiction or imperfect then it's the fault of the interpreter and limitations of the lesser human mind to understand the word or methods of god.

    Only with a non-christian mindset does one small contradiction in the bible seem to unravel the entire god proposition stated forth in the bible.

  15. What a fascinating article. I've always been of the opinion that 'winning' a debate about the existence of a deity with a theist is easy. We've got empiricism, logic, reason etc to back us up - they've got a finite amount of scripture to quote! But 'winning' the debate and affecting change against someone trapped in circular reasoning are two entirely different things. It's encouraging to hear that there are some theists whose minds are still open enough to be reasoned with.

    On a separate note, I recently wrote a piece about the dangers of militant atheism, pointing out that as atheists we have to scrutinise our own behaviour as closely as we do the theists if we are to maintain any kind of integrity. No doubt some people will ind it objectionable and I welcome your views either way. The article can be found here:

  16. Odd, I don't recall any atheists running around shooting people, or with bombs strapped to their chests lately. That is what 'militant' people do, after all.

  17. I wouldn't count on changing the minds of many individuals because we live in a vast 'death denying society' based on christianity. I watched an interesting show on Netflix called, Flight from Death:Question for Immortality in which it discusses aspects of how manifestations of religion produce illusions that give individuals strength and courage to live life. It stated the life sustaining illusion could justify itself. Atheism isn't a viable solution to calming the death anxiety people feel.

  18. You know, I have to tell you, I truly savor this website and the useful insight. I find it to be refreshing and quite clarifying. I wish there were more blogs like it.
    Sherman Unkefer

  19. @unphilosopher

    There's certainly a point here; if a person fundamentally rejects rational thought, then rational arguments aren't going to convince them.

    This is the reason why I've increasingly changed my approach to instead start out with questions like "how can we know things?", "why is falsifiability a good idea?" and "what qualifies as evidence?"

    Only when you've established some basis there can you productively move on to the more nitty-gritty stuff.

    However, there's also a reason why discussing, e.g. the evidence for evolution is important. Even if you can't convince the person you're talking to, others might hear or read your arguments. People who might otherwise have been convinced by theistic arguments.

    It's important that counters to theistic bullshit are widely available, since it makes it easier for people to educate themselves and avoid falling for their tricks.

  20. Philosophukka

    Although according to you a debate about the existence of a deity with a theist is so easy, atheists nevertheless often lose debates with theists (

  21. The fact is, argumentation sometimes works. While I was raised Catholic, it only took a month for me to deconvert after debating my first atheist. I've help deconvert several others since. Kazim is right in that the often frustrating defenses theists often have are more out of cognitive dissonance and panic than being reasons to think the argument is futile.

    Faith is often wrapped up in all kinds of emotion, family, tradition and extricating one's mind from it is not easy. Some theists never get it, but for those tha do these debates can be life-changing.

  22. To the original letter writer, It is good to see someone that now appreciates the wonders of the world for what they are. Why take all the beauty and intricacies of the mechanics away by saying, "God did it."

    @Dan Burke
    You are getting back to the central topics of this and the previous post here, the theist has faith in their beliefs. Their beliefs have become an emotional part of their psyche. A theist from the last post was making the comparison of the faith of a young child in a parent. You believe without question what the parent is telling you to do, there is an implicit trust built upon prior actions and experiences.

    The difference is that with a parent there are actual experiences, actual conversations, and actual actions that lead to that trust.

    @unphilosopher - If you are implying that arguing with a theist can cause them some emotional harm because it is attacking their bond of trust with god, I do partially see your point. But, I would equate it more with trying to get a person out of an abusive relationship. They have an emotional bond of love or trust that very well may be hurt in the process, but even this bond was based on something tangible.

    @Honest_guy - I think I have that title in my Netflix queue, I will now try harder to make time for it, thanks.

  23. Well, some pro and con. There was a study that got some publicity not long ago about how debate causes most people to simply dig into their positions even more steadfastly. It was primarily in regards to politics but I could see how it could apply to religions as well especially given that a persons identity is often heavily tied to their religion. However that said, even if you only get through to say 10% and 90% just harden themselvers (obligatory stats pulled from the ass) then it is still worthwhile to engage in the debates in order to sway that 10% and I would suspect the percentages are actually a bit more optimistic as deconversion stories to the show might attest.

    No one has ever gone from atheist to theist--ever--because the only way to become theist is through childhood indoctrination.

    While this is probably true as a general rule I have to nitpick the words "no one" because some do adopt religion later in life for various reasons like fear of death, solidarity to groups etc.

  24. Let me share another success story.
    While I was growing up, my mother was almost Hollywood cliche in her acceptance of every spiritualist you-are-really-an-angel type movement that came along. Each time she told me about the new Atlantis type group she had joined, I would be like a little wood pecker on her tree of blind faith - always putting to her questions that she hadn't thought to ask herself. Twenty years later, and this little woodpecker has cut down the whole tree - she is now an atheist after spending almost her whole life blindly accepting nearly anything. If she can change, so can anyone.

  25. I know these conversations are beneficial because this is how I became an atheist, through philosophical debates. Honestly, I STILL do that with people as a way for those with a different angle on things to point out the flaws in my philosophy that I may not be able to see myself.
    While my own research into the issues ultimately was what led to my decision, it was conversation with people that got me started on the road.

  26. Lukas, thanks for putting my obtuse suggestion in plain English.

  27. People DO change their minds. But you have to be extra-patient and kind with the religious ones. Having changed some of my friends' minds(and mine of course) about religion (and since I live in Turkey, I am talking about Islam here, not Christianity) I must say: it's not easy, but it's not as hard as you might think.

    I guess, all non-believers get to discuss with religious people (about religion, evolution etc.) at some point. And I don't think anyone gets into a discussion just to "exchange opinions". If we are in a discussion we basically want to make the other person change his/her mind. So, I think we should share our different approaches to it, focus on what works and how we can improve it, instead of talking about how it's "almost impossible" to change people's mind.

    I start by what I've learned from countless discussions I've got into.

    So here are my golden rules about convincing people to change their minds and below that their explanations:
    1) Do not start or join a discussion unless it is (and it is gonna be) one on one.
    2) Do not use ridicule or sarcasm.
    3) Be kind.
    4) Do not use direct statements. Indirect statements are better.
    5) Ask more questions.
    6) Don't expect someone to change all their beliefs after one conversation.

    1) If you discuss with more than one person, you can get more questions and arguments than you can respond to, in a limited time. Not because you do not have the right answers, but because it would get extremely hard as more people joins the conversation. I don't even wanna mention crowd psychology.

    If there is more than one non-believer in the discussion, it can make the believer uncomfortable and easily get offended.

    People, even if they call it the same names(Christianity, Islam, Judaism etc.), don't believe the same things. Their core beliefs are different, where they will crack and start to think is different. So if you want to convince them to change (or abandon) their beliefs you must do it in a more private setting, where you could both be more sincere, more interested and more accurate when addressing in each others thoughts and not distracted with the others. So it should be one on one and face to face(not online, not on the phone, definitely not by texting).

    2) Do not use them. They may (rarely) work on people who are well educated and willing to think more philosophically, but don't risk it.

    3) It's obvious, I think.

    4) Direct statements might sound offensive.

    5) I give you two reasons for that: Doing that you will give them more questions to think about, and secondly you will easily to pinpoint where they are going to question their beliefs, where the logical flaw occurs in their minds with more questions about their beliefs.

    You should ask more questions, genuinely be interested in what they say, think and believe. Then they will open up to you and easily give you the coordinates of their blind spot.

    6) Religion is full of bullshit. You cannot just make a person give up all of the bullshit overnight. Most people need at least a couple of months to give up their beliefs. So you should start discussing some minor bullshit and then proceed to bigger bullshit. When they finally pass the critical point they will complete the process of losing their religion.

    I'm not a native speaker of English, sorry about the mistakes.

  28. People DO change their minds. But you have to be extra patient and kind with the religious. Having changed some of my friends' minds(and mine) about religion(and I am talking about Islam here, not Christianity), I must say it is not easy but it's not as hard as you might think after a few attempts.

    I think everyone(especially the ones that succeeded) should share their approach here, so we can develop a better understanding of the matter.

    My golden rules about convincing people to change their minds are:
    1) Do not discuss religion with more than one person at a time. The discussion shuld be one on one, face to face(not online or on the phone). Otherwise you might fail to address their questions, fail to respond to their claims more easily; if you are with another non-believer, you might scare the believer to be easily offended and so on...
    2) Show genuine interest in what they say, think, believe. Ask questions about it. That will make them open up and ease the way you pinpoint the logical flaw(s) in their minds, and also give them more questions to think about.
    3) Unless the person is highly educated and willing to think philosophically, do not use ridicule or sarcasm. Be as polite as you can.
    4) Don't forget that even if they believe in the "same religion" they don't really believe the same things. You should understand their questions and claims well and give more accurate answers to them. Choose people who are more close to you. This also supports the first rule.
    5) You cannot change a person's mind. It will not work. You just can encourage him/her to do so. And a person doesn't give up all their nonsensical beliefs overnight. It takes time, at least several months for most people.

    (Sorry for the language mistakes, I'm not a native speaker.)

  29. I agree. I think it's important to discuss these matters with theists. Many of them really do persist under the misapprehension that there are no counters to their dogma, no contradictions in it, and that atheists are simply mad at their god and stomping out of the room yelling "you're not my father!" or the like.

    It can take a long time, but hashing matters out can change minds. Over the years, debate with others has caused me to soften and finally reverse my views on two dearly-held opinions; my opposition to abortion and my support for the monarchy here in Canada. If no one had ever gone to the mat with me on those matters, I might never have worked them through in my mind. So I really do believe it's important to engage with theists and step up to the plate whenever they're clearly winding up on the mound.

  30. "No one has ever gone from atheist to theist--ever--because the only way to become theist is through childhood indoctrination."

    This appears to be true, but I believe it to be actually an illusion since no one is appears to be born an atheist.


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