Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Communication Interference

In the most simple communication models, you have a single sender, a message (usually represented as an arrow pointing to the receiver from the sender), and a single receiver represented. As communication becomes more complicated, so do the models. One component that can be added to the model is something called "interference."

Interference can be anything, including more obvious things like loud noise in the environment, or less obvious things like poor communication skills on the part of the sender, or an unconscious personal bias in the mind of the receiver. If the message received is not the message sent, as intended by the sender, there has been some kind of interference--also sometimes called distortion--that you should be able to identify.

Part of religious indoctrination includes inputting interference into a person's mind by instilling bias. For example, a child who grows up in an area and family where racial hatred is pervasive has a much greater possibility of being, himself, a racist, than someone who is not raised in that environment. He's unlikely to want to be friends with people in the despised races and to have an unfriendly attitude toward them. He probably will be a bit more dismissive of any research that indicates his reasons for hating are unfounded--he may not even bother to consider it. Additionally, he may fight against any legislation that would result in greater equality and social acceptance of those he hates.

If you're going to have a dialog about racial equality, having it with this particular person comes with a load of baggage you'll have to first get past that is "interference." Your message will not tend to be heard clearly, but rather through a filter of misconceptions and prejudice about what you're saying--even before you speak a word. This means that communicating rationally with this person will be an uphill climb, with no guarantee of successfully communicating your message at the summit. It means the person who wants to dispel the racial hatred has a hard row to hoe, a great cost of time and effort, with a real possibility of failure at the end. And this assists indoctrination efforts as well, because who is going to want to invest a lot of time and energy with a good probability of failure at the end? Better, in an individually selfish way, to leave this person in his racist delusion. And yet, would any advances against racism have been made if nobody had decided to carry the gauntlet, inch by painful inch, up that hill?

Still it is a demonstration of the walls that indoctrination can throw up against reason and good judgment. This is how indoctrination makes use of interference to help maintain its hold on the adherent.

I explain this because I recently watched a dialog between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins, where I noticed a very frustrating level of interference. There was one question that Dawkins presented three separate times, that was never resolved by way of any relevant answer from McGrath. McGrath even stops and enlists the sympathies of the film crew to ask if they can move on to the next question, since he has already answered this one. However, the crew's consensus is that they're unclear on his answer as well. And McGrath seems, in all fairness, genuinely confused. McGrath certainly answered "a" question; however, he failed to answer the question Dawkins asked. And he really could not tell the difference in his head between what he was "hearing" and what Dawkins was "saying"--although, to me, and seemingly to the crew as well, the question was simple enough to understand.

In Christian fundamentalist indoctrination, there are a lot of presumptions systematically taught that are intended to head off questions the young Christian might receive by people who aren't Christians. I recall when I finally learned about other religions, for example, the doctrines were so vastly different than what I'd been taught in Sunday School that I remember alerting our preacher that I'd read some Buddhist literature--written by Buddhists--and it was not true that Buddhists "worship Buddha," as had been stated repeatedly from the pulpit. I thought I was doing a good thing, enlightening him about a truth. But rather than showing any interest in what I had discovered, he admonished me for having read these things without proper oversight. And even in my late teens or so, I recall thinking there was something very wrong with his response.

What if, rather than read a book, I'd have talked to a Buddhist? During the entire dialog, I would be thinking, "This person worships Buddha"--even though I'd never spoken to a Buddhist in my life or read a scrap of Buddhist literature. I'd simply been told. And that's what the people who indoctrinated me into Christianity hoped I would believe. They, in turn, probably had never read any Buddhist literature or talked to a Buddhist, either, and had read only Christian literature describing Buddhism. I assume this because even the most cursory reading of just about any Buddhist foundational text demonstrates the assertion is false--or at best an exaggeration of what a Buddhist would describe as his belief.

Often we get this question on our e-mail list: "Why don't you ever talk to any really intelligent or educated apologists?"

When we get these letters from theists, the obvious shock is that the person asking us to do this is unavoidably asserting that the average Christian person is not intelligent--since we nearly always talk to and about average Christians who engage us on the program.

Beyond that, I've been spending a lot of time these days watching theological debates that involve theists of some clout, on many levels of the spectrum--church leaders, mega-church preachers, and most recently this civilized Q&A between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins.

Let me just note that I had argued myself out of theism long before I knew who Richard Dawkins--or any other atheist author--was. I deconverted on the weakness of theism's merits, not on the strength of any atheist's arguments against the existence of god. And for a few years, after I first heard about Dawkins, the descriptions of him as an arrogant, condescending, anti-theist, ass prejudiced me against even wanting to read his literature or hear him speak. My first encounter was when I finally broke down and read God Delusion--where I dispelled my own "Dawkins Delusion." I couldn't have wished for a more patient, well reasoned and fair address of theism than what Dawkins offered. And the first time I finally heard him speak, I was actually shocked by the mild and disarming tone of his voice and the relaxed collectedness with which he expressed even the points on religion he described as most objectionable. He often pauses to think about his phrasing before speaking--even in mid-sentence--a habit I should surely cultivate and employ more often. In this discussion with McGrath, you can almost see the gears shifting in his brain as he considers "How do I put this in an inoffensive way?" What comes out is, more often than not, very gentle compared to how many atheists might well have phrased it.

McGrath, for his part, is every bit as genial, and even more enthusiastic, in his expressions. On several occasions when McGrath spoke, I shut my eyes and thought, "Listen. Really listen and try and hear what he means." I wanted to see if McGrath would offer some clue to his beliefs--as an educated and respected theologian. I sincerely wanted to understand what he believes and why. But after finishing "Part 15 of 15," posted on Youtube, I had failed. After listening to McGrath explain his position, uninterrupted, in a conversational style, for his part of approximately an hour and a half, I still can't tell you what he believes or why he believes it. And if this eloquent, well mannered, educated and willing theist can't offer an explanation that makes sense, what hope does that average theist have?

Initially, my desire was to do an analysis of the entire debate, detailing where the communication interference was happening every step of the way. But, the length of my input regarding the first question alone was so long that I understood immediately I was too ambitious. I may do a full breakdown in sections at some point, but for now, I'm going to deal only with the central question of the dialog that would matter most to atheists: the reasons for belief.

There were many points in the footage where I thought, "OK, I understand what you're saying, but wouldn't that raise this other question or problem?" And as I thought these questions, McGrath would finish, and Dawkins would ask them for me. And I would be glad, because I wanted to know how McGrath resolved these issues. I wasn't hoping for a fail. I was hoping for a resolution from McGrath to something for which I was unable to imagine a resolution.

Oddly, when McGrath would be asked to further explain some point of his stated position, it often sounded as though he was negating, or at the very least mitigating, everything he had previously asserted. I was left with a feeling that whatever I had learned from him in his prior explanations was now being described, by him, as either "wrong" or "unimportant." In the end, I was left confused about which parts I was supposed to carry away as consequential or correct about his position on faith and god. Did I misunderstand his meaning? Did he not say what I thought he had just said?

McGrath begins by explaining his background growing up in Ireland as an atheist. He sees religious violence and equates it, understandably, with religious differences. He also says he studied Marxism and natural sciences. In response to Dawkins' request for an explanation of how he moved from atheism to theism McGrath responds, "I began to rethink things. I began to realize they weren't, perhaps, as straightforward as I thought. And certainly it was at that point that I really began to feel that Christianity offered a better way of seeing things and making sense of things than I'd imagined in the past."

When Dawkins asked, "What kind of reason, what kind of evidence do you use to support your faith?" He was asking the same question we ask time and again on the show: Explain what you believe and why you believe it. I would assume that whatever McGrath offered next would be the underpinning of his belief. Here was his chance to give the evidence and reason behind why he decided to become a theist. This was an edge-of-my-seat moment, to be sure.

McGrath started out rationally enough. He noted that not all of our beliefs are based upon what we might consider hard evidence. When I measure the distance from one wall to another, my belief that the room is 10-feet wide is based on solid facts. However, someone's belief that their spouse is stopping to put gas in the car on the way home, may be just as strong, and even perhaps just as right, but not as fact-based. Our brains are constantly testing the consistency of the reality in which we live. And it certainly makes determinations based on many different levels of evidence about what it will accept as true, and what it will not.

In order to function, depth perception, the length of the room, is important. Having some concept of how far things are from one's self and where they are in relation to one's self is fairly integral to the existence of any sighted person. But whether a spouse is gassing up the car may be something one cares not at all about. By and large, in most day-to-day scenarios, the main thrust of pressure put upon a person to care about their spouse's fuel situation, would be pressure only from within. We really can ask, "Does this matter to me? Do I need an opinion on it?" We aren't called upon in life to consider all questions equally--or at all--or to make conscious decisions about truth values on all propositions.

This means that if my spouse tells me he is stopping by the gas station on the way home to fill up his car, I don't have to believe it, or even consider if I believe it. I can merely accept it's what I've been told, and go about my life. If he forgets to fill up the car, if he changes his mind during his commute--nothing is lost. And if someone asks "Where is your spouse?" I can say, "He said he was stopping off to get gas on the way home." I don't have to assert "He's at the gas station," although it's unlikely anyone would fault me for asserting it and even believing it was true, based only on my spouse's word.

So, with any proposition we are presented, we can believe, not believe, or believe the opposite. I can accept my husband is at the station (believe it), not have an opinion on it (not bother to believe it), or believe he's not at the station (he forgot, changed his mind, was waylaid, or lied). And McGrath understands this, when later in the discussion he explains the following (emphasis mine):

"I think that one of the big questions one has when one tries to make sense of anything that is big, for example, 'what is the meaning of life?,' 'Why we're here?' things like that, is that there are many explanations. And inevitably this means we have to try to do what Gilbert Harmon described as being fair to the best explanation...We have to make a very difficult judgment: 'Which is actually the best of these?' And the real that evidence takes us thus far, but when it comes to a number of competing explanations, it is extremely difficult to have an evidence-driven argument for those final stages...I believe faith is rational...It tries to make the best possible sense of things. But in the end it has to move beyond that, saying 'even though we believe this is the best way of making sense of things, we can't actually prove this is the case.' And therefore, although I believe faith is rational, in that it can give us the best possible case it can give, there is a point at which it goes beyond the evidence. And it's at that point...that your concern that it might be irrational...comes into play."

Yes, in fact, that is the point at which the concern it becomes irrational comes into play. To be fair, Dawkins prefaced his question, with a statement saying that he perhaps has not given sufficient attention to how religious people might use the term "faith" differently than he does. However, his question was, again, "What kind of reason, what kind of evidence do you use to support your faith?"

McGrath offered an explanation, I suppose in one way, of how he uses the word "faith," and how it relates to reason and evidence; but I have to admit his answer seems to demonstrate an interpretation of the question I would never have arrived at. At the end of his answer, he hasn't really told me anything I don't already know, and, really, anything anyone else doesn't already know, either. Surely he didn't assume Dawkins was asserting people never draw conclusions without iron-clad evidence? Any nation that has courts understands there are times you could be forced to make decisions without benefit of conclusive evidence. Surely, McGrath knows someone as intelligent as Dawkins is not asserting it is impossible for a human to draw a conclusion without conclusive evidence? That would be a idiotic assertion, indeed, from anyone--but most especially so from a literate and educated person.

The question, I assumed, was a request for McGrath to explain specific evidence and specific reasoning that has led him to draw his conclusion--to become convinced where he was once skeptical--"a god exists." And no matter how many times you read his answer above, you will not find that offered or explained.

Carl Sagan once shared a story about a question he was asked regarding whether he believed in the existence of extra-terrestrial life. He replied that there was currently no evidence to support that conclusion. The reporter pressed and asked something to the effect of "What do you think in your gut?" Sagan responded that he didn't think with his gut, and that it is fine to hold off drawing conclusions until there is sufficient evidence available to support a conclusion. Sagan, who strongly supported efforts to seek extra-terrestrial life, here admitted that while he held it was true such life was possible--perhaps even probable--he would not extend belief to "it exists," until he saw that conclusion was demonstrated by evidence--presumably when such life was actually discovered.

I absolutely concede that I could hardly live my life without some attempt to draw conclusions without conclusive evidence, on occasion; but compared to the comparatively limitless conclusions I draw based upon solid evidence every millisecond of every day, conclusions based upon insufficient evidence are actually relatively rarely required to be drawn. I hardly have to know "what is the meaning of life?" or "Why am I here?," in order to live my life, or even enjoy the life I live. I can safely say many people live and die and never find any answer to those questions--perhaps never even consciously ask them--and lose never a night's sleep over it. Try and kill such a person, however, and you'll see firsthand how much they value their own life--even if they can't explain to you what their life "means." Truth be told, if there is some cosmically imposed meaning, the fact people have been arguing over the answer for millennia is near enough an indicator that there is no clear answer--and yet we all continue, somehow, to go on living our lives--many of us enjoying them--in spite of that.

Interesting as these questions are, are they "necessary" to answer, as McGrath asserts? If I know I prefer to live rather than die in most situations, and I extend that assumption to others in order to do what I can to mold a generally pleasant society, but I then miss out on the cosmic meaning--does it matter? If there is a cosmic meaning, and we don't know what it is--how can we answer the question of whether it's beneficial to know it? In fact, I can just as well consider that such questions are as near unanswerable as any questions can be, and go on using my reasoning skills--god given or not--to figure out what sort of life I would like to live and try to live it.

If I'm a generally good and kind person--would finding out there is a cosmic mind that has a plan, which is that people should be good and kind--make a speck of difference? Alternately, as a generally good and kind person, if I stumbled upon a cosmic plan that included I should blow up a building filled with people, I would be highly unlikely to comply--so that would make not a speck of difference in my life, either. There could, I suppose, be a god who would wish to punish me for not completing the proper sacrifices, or praying in the wrong direction, or for thinking the wrong things; but unless I have some really compelling reason to think such a thing exists--the details of what it expects of me never become any more important than what alleged alien abductees describe as their experiences--both wonderful and horrific--aboard spacecrafts.

But read McGrath's answer again, and note the areas I have highlighted. He presses that these questions are necessary to answer--and he equates the question "does god exist?" with those questions that demand a conclusion be drawn. But, it isn't one of those questions that requires a response. We aren't in a jury box being told a man's life and society's safety are in our hands, and our decision on insufficient evidence must be determined. "Does god exist?" may have implications for the believer--once the mantle of belief is taken up. But until belief is merited, questions related to what happens after that belief are unimportant. The question "does god exist?" has no greater significance before you believe it than the question "do aliens exist?"

Certainly if either proposition is true, it could be life altering. I don't wish to be kidnapped and violated by aliens any more than I would wish an eternity of hell upon myself. I don't wish my children or friends to be maltreated by gods or aliens, either. And if I believed aliens were abducting humans for experimentation, I'd be up in arms demanding some sort of protections from my society or government. But until I believe, it matters not at all in my life. The believer may assert it matters in that I'm not wearing a tinfoil hat in order to avoid mind control by the aliens--but really, that's him overlaying his perspective as a believer onto me. I don't do anything in my life where I first consider, "Now, since I don't accept aliens are abducting people, how do I wish to handle this situation?" The question of abductions is not a question that demands I deeply consider whether or not I believe it's true. And the question "does god exist?"--whether believers assume horrific consequences or not--is no different than that to someone who does not yet believe.

What this means is that the end leap of faith McGrath describes is not required. And what that means, is that it is not a reasonable leap of faith. It is not, as Josh McDowell also asserts, "evidence that demands a verdict." If I were in a jury box and forced to decide, then yes, I must do my fair and level best to make the most rational decision with whatever evidence is presented. But there is no such pressure applied to the question "does god exist?"--outside of whatever pressure indoctrination has pre-inserted into the adherent's brain.

Not only did McGrath fail to provide any specific reason or evidence for his particular faith, he failed on a general level to explain what sort of reason he applies, because the sort of reason he describes is not reasonably applied to this particular type of question. The final "required" leap of faith, in the area of religion, he has not justified, only asserted.

Thankfully, but not surprisingly, this doesn't escape Dawkins' notice when he explains it is this final leap--not supported by rationality or evidence, and not required--that he would describe as the employment of "faith." I would assert not only faith in a conclusion, but faith in a pre-existing prejudice that the conclusion was already very likely true in the first place; otherwise, why would the question even have mattered to McGrath any more than the question of alien abductions?

I'd finally like to hit on McGrath's statement that "faith is rational in that it can give us the best possible case it can give." This is nonsense. Anyone who holds any belief, no matter how ridiculous, can give us "the best possible case" they can give. That in no way makes their belief "rational." As a joke, I sometimes invent conspiracy theories on the fly--putting unrelated groups and events together to assert one is privately colluding to produce the other. It's amazing how many reasonable-sounding arguments you can create for absolutely fabricated assertions. Often, others will join in to add their "evidence" for the conspiracy--laughing as we build upon it. We actually can put together explanations for these fantasy conspiracies that sound reasonable. But we're just making it all up. And our "rational" explanations are not at all likely to be true. But, if rational can be defined as "making the best case possible," we're absolutely being "rational"--but also, no doubt, ridiculous.

Again, I really only addressed one small segment of the dialog here. If I have time in my future, I'll address more. But clearly there is, throughout these videos, a huge communication divide--a gargantuan level of interference. McGrath seems unable to hear and understand what Dawkins is even asking. And I'm left wondering, is an intelligent theologian merely a person who makes nonsense sound better than most theists can? Is he merely someone who puts forward inarguable realities we might all agree with, sprinkled with unsupported assertions, and who fails to address the questions being asked?

Is that what it means to debate an educated and intelligent apologist?


  1. "And I'm left wondering, is an intelligent theologian merely a person who makes nonsense sound better than most theists can?"

    I feel like there is a spectrum - on one end you've got the creationist who very bluntly tells you he believes Adam rode a vegetarian carnotaurus because he has "faith".

    And on the other end you've got the theologian who surrounds all his belief claims in philosophical esotericism that, when unpacked, gives you the answer that "I believe it because I believe it".

    Everyone from one end of the spectrum to the other believes what they believe on faith... but some of them try to make it sound "sexier". That's why the "good" apologists like Josh McDowell sound so good to believers - because they wish they had his BSing skills.

  2. Holy cow! That post was huge and I just posted it, and you read it and commented already? That's amazing!

  3. I concur, I don't think I have ever heard anyone else speak so much, yet convey so little information. Even when explicitly asked why he was a Christian and not a deist, all he could say was that it made sense to him when looking at the world.

    [i]"Is that what it means to debate an educated and intelligent apologist?[/i]
    I would say so, if you never commit to a position, then you can never be shown to be wrong. That’s about the best thing an intelligent apologist can do other than trying to fly under the radar of reason.

  4. One stereotype that has served me well is looking at theologians as defense attorneys in the case for God's existence, in that they don't have to be true, they just have to win.

  5. That was a huge post, but as always, well worth reading. Thanks Tracie!

    There's a really funny YouTube video by NonStampCollector that deals with communication breakdowns like ths (sort of), you can watch it at


  6. in order to actually understand the substance of mcgrath's arguments in this video means getting past tedious language such as... the point i'm trying to make is that i really seem to be wanting to say that i'm suggesting that i really.... etc. etc. etc..

    i'm surprised you succeeded to the point of actually being able to analyze his thoughts.

    i'll be interested to read more.

  7. rvkevin:

    Yes, he kept saying how it made sense, or made sense of the world. And Dawkins criticized that ask for specifics--and again, they never came. HOW does it make sense of the world? I'd have to go back, but it was either this conversation or another similar one where Dawkins asked "Do you believe in miracles?" Obviously "miracles" actually defy "sense of the world." So, I thought it was an excellent question. But later McGrath said that offering a logical framework really wasn't what it was all about. And I kept thinking--then why are you stressing that so much? Why keep saying it if it's not actually relevant? That's what I meant about him constantly pulling the rug out when I thought I'd captured something meangingful from him: "Ah, so it helps him grasp the world in a framework!" But then he'd turn around and say that wasn't the core of why he believes what he does, and so I'd have to take it back off the table and wait for more--which never came.


    It's hard for me to say if they believe it or not. Definitely McGrath seems sincere. And he seems to think he's providing coherent information. I just don't have a clue what he believes or why. And he talked on this for a good 30-45 minutes--uninterrupted.


    Someone posted me the nonSC cartoons online one day. I cracked up. They're very good.


    While I was pretty forgiving about the extraneous language myself, I did cut it out of his quote, and you're right, there was a lot of it. I only hoped that nobody would believe I'd cut out relevant material. I'm sort of glad you noted this so I could clarify that. My ellipses in McGrath's quote are to help weed those phrases out--not to misrepresent anything he's said.

    Also, I succeeded because I felt he offered a rare opportunity to listen to the type of someone AETV keeps being asked "why" we don't dialog more with. I had a real interest in what he was going to say. That's a huge part of my disappointment. He was likable, sincere, educated, enthusiastic--and I came away with no message from it. I'm hoping to post the full analysis to show that (1) I did take time to really consider his input and (2) try as I might, I can't see how there is any content in that message. My college studies included Communication, Anthropology, Studio Art, and Western Lit. People make a lot of jokes about Liberal Arts degrees--but there was a time that made you a "Renaissance Man," which was a bit more respectable view. But in communication theory and comm psychology--it's all about the message and getting that message to relay. I know what I'm saying when I say this man relayed no clear message. And I know what it means to actually listen for that message. I was unable to find the message in McGrath's statements. And even while both Dawkins and the film crew, at least in one tedious instance, concurred; I don't really feel a need for too much external support when I say "I heard this person talk, and he said absolutely nothing."

    I can hear past "ums" and "uhs" and other distractions. But there's still just nothing there of substance.

  8. One of the interesting things about this interview is that McGrath,as professional religionist, can't even deal with some fairly basic questions without dancing around the topic and almost but not quite addressing the them.

    Its seems that this is in stark contrast to the amateurs of the ACA.

    You guys are able to present competent and often compelling answers to the questions that most theists ask.

    I must admit that I have watched a lot of debates with professional religionists v. non-theist. I am usually left with a sense of disappointment with the religionists side.
    (maybe my own bias kicking in)

    They seem to want to stradle two worlds. The world of rational debate and the world of faith. Its often ends up with "faith" being redefined as rational by jumping through hoops and bit of clumsy slight of hand.

  9. I think an interesting part of McGrath's faith is how it's based on it's good to have a god that went through our suffering so he knows what we're going through. It almost makes sense. I got divorced and i wanted to talk to those who went through my plight. However, i didn't discuss it with my ex. Which is kind of what xians do when they revere god for suffering while he's the one who created suffering. plus, his assertion that christ went through the worst the world could dish out at the darkest time is so absurd i just want to punch him.

  10. Very nice analysis that, great work. I wouldn't have had the patience for it. There is one question, that admittedly is a bit of a sideline, but something I found myself wondering whilst reading it. I am from the netherlands, and I do know we have a very small group of Atheist theologians. These people try to give a good overview of christian history and theology. is there any sign of similar people in the US?

  11. Great post as usual Tracie. I watched the first part of the interview before reading this, I found it quite frustrating. Is it the best a believer can come up with? I am starting to suspect that intelligent believers are intelligent in spite of their faith, not because of it. And that they switch their brain off when they believe, in order to feel better about their existence and the meaninglessness of it. As far as I could see McGrath was just using circular argument to hide the poverty of his reasoning when it comes to belief. I also wondering how much of an atheist he was in the first place, i.e. if he had been for the right reasons and if if had pondered the arguments then. It seems to me that his atheism was based on shallow reasons (because it was fashionable to be atheist, especially among Marxist circles, because of the religious violence in North Ireland, etc).

  12. Frits: We do have theologians who are atheists, but they don't actually come out and say that. There is an example of one in the movie Religulous--where a priest with an American accent in Rome is laughing at the literalist view of the Bible--saying nobody believes it really and it's just stories for the masses. Dawkins mentions these people in Britain as well, and notes they will tell you privately it's just stories, but they seem to preach it to people without that caveat from the pulpit.

    There are also atheists who make apologies for religion--basically saying it's a good thing even if it's not true. These people aren't directly involved in religion, however.

  13. Thank you for the great post Tracie.

    It is nice to know it's not just me and there are others struggling to make sense of this man's pontifications. Having sat through Dawkins/McGrath and Hitchens/McGrath I'm pretty darn close to giving up.

    The bit about Buddha hit home too. Recent conversations with a theist friend have revealed how much "communication interference" is served up from the pulpit with respect to other religions. Unsurprising though this may be, it still bugs me when Xians preach ignorance while claiming to have a monopoly on the truth.

  14. "And I'm left wondering, is an intelligent theologian merely a person who makes nonsense sound better than most theists can?"

    I think you're exactly right. The mark of a "good" theologian is that he is able to obfuscate the lack of real justification for his beliefs using language.

    Great article Tracie :3


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