Monday, April 11, 2011

Building your mental immune system

When Mark from Stone Church called again yesterday, he provided a perfect example of something that I've been meaning to blog about for a few months. Namely, it is a tempting but extremely bad habit to only associate with people who agree with you all your life.

One issue that most Atheist Experience hosts feel passionately about, apart from religion, is the spate of anti-scientific attacks which have been leveled against vaccinations. When you vaccinate yourself, you deliberately expose your body to small quantities of a disease or virus, in order to train your immune system to recognize and attack that disease. If you don't get vaccinated, when the disease attacks you in its natural form it will likely be much stronger, and your body still won't know how to deal with it.

The fact that they may be adorable is only slight consolation.

Worse, by putting yourself at risk for this disease, you also become a carrier, which could increase its presence in the population at large. The more people there are in a given population who haven't been vaccinated against a disease, the more risk everyone takes of catching it, and the more common the disease comes.

Critical thinking, of course, is your immune system against bad ideas. Even if you have a general background in skepticism and logic, it can be hard to spot the flaws in a claim that you've never heard before. The first time anyone encounters a concerted efforts to discredit vaccination, or prove that alien abductions occur based on anecdotes, or claim that evolution is a scientific conspiracy with no more proof than Biblical literalism -- it's not as easy as you might think to see through those arguments.

It's really not good enough to say "That's stupid" and ignore them, because if you have a policy of treating ideas you disagree with that way, then you risk becoming so dogmatic that you wind up rejecting things that are actually true. Instead, skepticism is a habit that requires practice. It's good mental exercise to take such claims seriously, to ask yourself "What are the implications if this claim is true? Can I investigate it? Are there arguments against it already out there in the memesphere? If so, are they convincing, or do the debunking efforts rely on fallacies themselves? If there are none, why not? Is it not high enough profile, or is there something else going on?"

A lot of religious traditions -- like those practiced in Austin Stone Church -- reject this approach. Followers of such religions not only don't try to understand competing points of view themselves, they regard any efforts to do so with suspicion and fear. They may actually believe that it's a sin against God, or a trick by Satan, if you are even humoring a bad idea. Apologists will often seriously question the value of sending kids to college, because they might be exposed to "worldly" ideas. Cults sometimes advise their members not to read newspapers or watch TV, lest their minds be poisoned by outsiders rejecting their beliefs.

This is the intellectual equivalent of avoiding diseases by locking yourself in a hermetically sealed bubble for life. It can work, of course. As long as no germs can get inside the bubble, you can't catch anything. On the other hand, once you're committed to this plan, you can never leave the bubble for any reason. If you do, your immune system is likely to be so weak that you are especially vulnerable to any and all diseases you might encounter. Something very much like this is speculated to have happened to the relatively isolated Native American population when they first encountered European settlers who, by virtue of living on a much larger, more diverse, and densely populated continent, were relatively swimming in diseases regularly, and hence had much broader immunities.

Here, take this blanket. No really, I insist. We're not using it anymore.

So when you've been sheltered by fundamentalism your whole life, my feeling is that you have to keep sheltering yourself or become similarly vulnerable to invasion from foreign ideas. Which is essentially what Mark told us he does in our call yesterday.

Many emailers have homed in on the fact that Mark kept telling us what his church believes, as synonymous with what he believes. Tracie and I mentioned that the kind of evidence that we would need for God is not really all that strict, and that you don't need to pray or "have faith" in order to be convinced that your mom exists. When something is real and testable, it can be perceived independently by many different people in the same way.

Mark responded that everyone at his church believes the same thing about God, and he proved it by reading a "statement of faith" that all church members are required agree to. I said, "It sounds like you have to devote a lot of work to making people believe the same thing." And of course, there are 30,000 other Christian denominations in the US, many of which have very different perspectives on who this God person is.

I have long loved this interview that American Atheists spokesman David Silverman once did with Douglas Adams.

Above: A face that David Silverman probably did not have to make while talking to Douglas Adams.

In the interview, Adams elaborated on a great many of his atheist beliefs in a way that he has rarely done explicitly in his other work. One of the most striking and memorable arguments presented by Adams was in comparing religious beliefs to other types of scholarship.

Adams points out that if you wish to be taken seriously in the realms of science, history, or math, you should expect to be challenged constantly. Any claim you make, no matter how trivial the matter may look to those outside the discipline, will be subjected to withering criticism and debate, and the ideas that remain standing after this process, round after round, are the ones that can eventually be regarded as credible.

But religions don't accept that burden of proof. Quite the opposite, in fact; when someone promotes a silly belief as a statement of faith, we're asked to lend that faith some sort of automatic respect. Atheists who argue with the faith-beliefs of others are regularly regarded as being dicks.

Anyway, Douglas Adams concluded:

So, I was already familiar with and (I’m afraid) accepting of, the view that you couldn't apply the logic of physics to religion, that they were dealing with different types of 'truth'. ... What astonished me, however, was the realization that the arguments in favor of religious ideas were so feeble and silly next to the robust arguments of something as interpretative and opinionated as history. In fact they were embarrassingly childish. They were never subject to the kind of outright challenge which was the normal stock in trade of any other area of intellectual endeavor whatsoever. Why not? Because they wouldn’t stand up to it.

And that, in a nutshell, is why it's not a good idea to show politeness and "respect" for people's beliefs. I try as much as I can to show respect for the people themselves, and appreciate the diversity of backgrounds that causes them to think the way they do. Greta Christina wrote a great article a few months back called "No, Atheists Don't Have to Show 'Respect' for Religion," which observes the same behavior. Greta says:

And, of course, it's ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse -- as so many progressive ecumenical believers do -- and then expect religion to get a free pass. It's absurd to accept and even welcome vigorous public debate over politics, science, medicine, economics, gender, sexuality, education, the role of government, etc... and then get appalled and insulted when religion is treated as just another hypothesis about the world, one that can be debated and criticized like any other.

It's not about making fun of religion just for sport. When you tiptoe around someone's beliefs, you're not doing them any favors. All you are doing is allowing them to stay in their little bubble for a bit longer, while enabling them to spread the idea that it's okay to be closed off to competing ideas.


  1. "you deliberately expose your body to small quantities of a disease or virus"

    Nope, it's a weakened strain not small quantities

  2. I'm beggining to like this guy. I hope he calls in again sometime. He makes me lol. Russel and Tracie did a great job not losing patience with mark, because I was sitting at home yelling at the screen.
    *in vaccines the virus is sometimes 'dead' too. Side note, can it be dead if it's not 'alive'?

  3. Nice thoughts, but i rather train my critical thinking on matters that can actually be deceided whether it's fact or fiction.
    Talking with people about their favorite fairy tale i leave up to you guys.

  4. @Sophia by dead it's meant to mean inactive (They remove the genetic material and leave the protein coat, as long as the antigens are available then the immune system can react)

  5. Mark's comment that members of his church don't play well with others seems to run counter to the fact that Mark is calling the show and interacting with (to his way of thinking) the darkest, most evil people he's likely to encounter, who are leading his church's next generation of Christian Soldiers into the abyss. How does he reconcile these two points? Is he simply the sacrificial lamb calling to plead for the souls of the youngsters, or is he trying to understand (apparently without much success) why an alternative viewpoint is proving so attractive, and risking his own soul in the bargain?

  6. I think the fact that this guy keeps calling is a very good thing. By continually saying that "my church" or "our pastor" holds certain positions, he's highlighting the fact that he doesn't think for himself. If something aural could be highlighted in neon, that's what we'd "see" in Mark's calls. I am sure that the kids in that church see it too.

  7. I find myself agreeing with everything in this post, as I so often do when I visit this blog.

    "it is a tempting but extremely bad habit to only associate with people who agree with you all your life."

    Aw crap.

    Just kidding, I actually like the frequent theist viewpoints that get showcased on the show and the blog the most out of all the content. Confronting opposing viewpoints are the strongest point of what the ACA is accomplishing.

    I usually only agree with the hosts though, for the right reasons I hope.

  8. I like this post a lot, and because I just took a nap after playing pokemon, I came up with this amazing piece of wit:

    Treat your beliefs like you treat your pokemon: throw them into battle, again and again, to make them stronger.

    Maybe I'm still tired, though.

  9. please don't give this guy half a show again.

  10. Isn't this particular church worthy of being labelled as a cult? Of course the definition of cult provides certain gray area but this seems to be a little far too extreme even for a fundamentalist church.

    @Pessimist: At first when he called in I thought the same thing. However now I can see that the AE can potentially change minds of many people in that particular church and if the hosts have to suspend some of the entertainment value of the show in order to do that I am willing to accept that. Although I thought you could cut him off a little earlier when he was preaching for 2 minutes...

  11. "And of course, there are 30,000 other Christian denominations in the US"


  12. @Petr, I agree, and I got the impression that he had a really hard time expressing himself in any form of speech outside of memorized sermons. The instant he tried to form a response of his own, he became very insecure, figuratively flailing around in search for some adequate prepared script. I think he even started to understand that whatever he had been taught, or taught himself, about standing tall in the confidence of holding absolute, divine and irrefutable Truth wasn't useful and didn't add anything to a discussion with rational and skeptical people. His personal epistemology was shaking in its foundations, and I believe I heard a few cracks.

  13. @Brandon,
    I'm sure there aren't that many in the US, but there are more than 33,000 worldwide.

  14. I noticed that he appealed a lot to the church's beliefs and to his ("charismatic") pastor. It's fundamentally an authoritarian view of how to find things out. One of the weird things about this is that it edges into relativism as well; he has no better argument for believing his pastor, than a Muslim has for believing a charismatic imam.

    I think that the reason we need skepticism as a discipline and as a movement, is because this kind of thinking is one of the defaults for human beings. If we were a very rational species to begin with, it would be immediately obvious to everyone why "I have a pastor who tells me X." is a meaningless argument to anyone outside your congregation. But as children, we are used to gobbling up knowledge about the world from the people around us (which is mostly correct). We have to be a bit gullible, because we come into the world with no knowledge about how it works, the social structures around us, the language, any of that, and it saves a lot of time for kids to just take certain basic facts for granted from their parents. Not that kids can't be skeptical, but it's usually about the details of things, or the reasons for behaviors, not the most basic background facts about the world that they've been taught.

    The trouble is, even though we gain more critical thinking skills as we grow, this type of learning never quite shuts off, insofar as we tend to buy into people who we like, and who seem smarter or more confident than ourselves. It's very hard to train yourself to look for the inherent value in a message, regardless of how much we like the message and the people promoting it.

    The biggest problem comes from people who don't even realize that they should be trying to do so. Mark obviously thinks that it's good enough to say that he has his religion because it's the one that is connected to his church, and his pastor. They are the people that feel like an extended family to him, who he respects or looks up to, or wants to care for, etc. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that, as valuable as this might be, it has nothing to do with whether or not the beliefs are true. Nor that, if the beliefs are false, they might also be doing a great deal of damage, and that this possibility is serious enough that it's necessary to question whether the pastor is actually right, or just likable and convincing.

    Relatedly, it has been shown that traditional conservatives, in an average, overlapping bell-curve sense, incorporate concepts such as loyalty, obedience, honor, and duty much more strongly in their moral reasoning than liberals (libertarians do not, although they differ from both groups insofar as they do not focus strongly on empathy or social justice either). Those concepts or virtues are pragmatic virtues, based on social status within and between groups, not directly on the consequences of actions themselves. It's no surprise, then, that traditional/social conservatism and religious fundamentalism are so often closely linked. Both seem to be powered, in part, by applying a type of special pleading towards one's own culture or social group, where that group gets a free pass on making any pro-in-group statements.

  15. the trouble with using logical arguments against people who reject logic and evidence is that it leads to an increase in your blood pressure, a decrease in your faith in humanity, and an increase in how much of a tosser they think you are.
    still, it's compelling anyway ;)

    cult vs religion:
    cult : only a small number of leaders that have all met each other.
    religion : a franchised cult

  16. the only thing this guy was trying to accomplish is getting the hosts to listen to his churches sermons.
    I am constantly having Christians invite me to church, I once went with a friend to see William Lane Craig(what a joke that guys is) but when you try and get them to go to an event or speaking engagement with you the answer is no.

  17. "Nope, it's a weakened strain not small quantities"

    Sometimes not even that, sometimes it's a related micro-organism that makes your body produce antibodies that are effective against the desired strain (like with cowpox and smallpox)

  18. the only thing this guy was trying to accomplish is getting the hosts to listen to his churches sermons.

    ...which is backfiring on him and producing lots of shining moments for the show.

    Please, dedicate entire shows to this guy.

  19. Am I the only one that thinks this guy is just a troll? Someone even asked about him on The Austin Stone's facebook page and they said they had no idea who he was. Didn't he claim to be a youth pastor at the church at one point?

  20. I had started typing a transcript of episode 693, with Tracie and Jen, a month ago, because it was one of my favorite episodes. I put it aside to type up the Ray Comfort episode, but have gone back to it and should have it done in a few days, time permitting. That episode happens to be the first time I can recall Mark calling in, and while he does say that I've helped many lost souls find their way and my church a few times, I haven't found any part where he says he is a church official. I think that assumption was made by someone on the blog after the show.

    After I post episode 693, I was planning on episode 696, where Mark calls back in and talks to Matt and Jeff. Now it looks like I will have to include episode 704 as well. Am I missing one? I think Mark called in when Russell was on at one time, too.

    Great show guys, and while some of you may be sick of Mark, I find people like him fascinating. (obviously) I even recall Matt saying at one time that he wouldn't mind if a call lasted the whole show, as long as the conversation keeps moving forward. If you can get Mark, or people like him, to start thinking for themselves, it will be well worth it.

  21. I think Mark should be moved to the top of the list any time he calls. Ditto for other members of his church. It's fascinating to hear his mindset..and you know some good is being done with the youngsters of his church who are being exposed to the weakness of the fundamentalist position.

  22. A related rant I sent to a believer who was hesitant to engage with me:

    "There is only one reality, only one objective truth of how the universe is. In contrast, there is an infinite amount of possible misrepresentations, misconceptions, inaccuracies and lies that can be used to describe the state of our universe.

    A discussion is the exchange of ideas between two open-minded individuals about what is true. Both contribute to the discussion the propositions they hold to be true or false, along with the reasons and justifications they have to support their position.

    During the exchange, the intellectual status quo of both parties is challenged with the new information received from the other party. Both individuals go through the mental process of evaluating the reasonableness of the other party's position, how well the worldview of the other party matches up with what he himself holds to be true or false.

    During the debate, both parties have the chance to learn something new from the other. There might be some propositions that one party has previously held to be true, but that he now has to discard as false because of new evidence learned from the other party. Or vice versa. Neither party is necessarily completely correct in everything they hold to be true or false. Finding the truth is an incremental process where the propositions you hold to be true are constantly revised and reviewed throughout your whole lifetime, as you all the time learn new things through your senses and through discussions with other people.

    If Christianity is true as you claim, you have nothing to fear in debating me. In information exchanges between people who have differing opinions and who both yet highly value intellectual integrity and truth, the truth will eventually prevail. Misrepresentations, misconceptions, inaccuracies and lies will be shown to be false and the truth will be revealed.

    In contrast, if you decline my offer and isolate yourself and your thoughts from outside challenge and never engage in information exchange, you will never know if what you believe is actually true since you will never know if your beliefs hold up to scrutiny.

    I assume that truth is important to you. Like me, you probably don't want to live a lie, accepting falsehoods to be true. So why not engage with me, so we together can try to find out what actually is true? I am interested in what you have to say, and for your own benefit you should be interested in what I have to say."

  23. I love your conversations with Mark. He's not the stupid caller to be mocked on YouTube (though people will probably do it anyway), nor is he arrogant and overly dismissive like Comfort, he's just been sheltered in his beliefs, and you handled that well. He seems more representative of most of the christians I know. Good likable people, but having sloppy logic and lazy thinking due to not having to exercise them often. Even if he doesn't come to the atheistic conclusion, I hope he takes this as an opportunity to start looking outside his community for new questions as well as answers and that he or someone else from his church calls back in to discuss them.

  24. @graingert - No, it's an inert extract from the virus that stimulates the same immune response, not a weak strain.

  25. I think what we aren't addressing is the other obvious conclusion that Mark was more loyal to his church than to his alleged belief system. To a degree I can identify with this as in the past I was more loyal to the church I grew up in in Kuala Lumpur than my actual beliefs.

    To Mark, and presumably many other 'fundamentalists', the church IS the religion. Which is why despite the obvious disintegration of his arguments he still kept on focussing on this pastor and the members of his church.

  26. I thought that the hosts of the last show should have pointed out that a) the show is being broadcast as free speech so that b) anyone who wants to watch it has the right to and that if the parents of these kids have a problem with their kids being seduced by the message they should c) present convincing counter-arguments against these messages, and if they can't d) make some intellectual concession that their beliefs might not be true.

  27. I think I need to clarify my statement; the hosts did make these points, but in a roundabout way as they tried to follow Mark's meandering trail of thought.

    It was my impression that Mark has been calling in to chastise AETV for seducing the children of Stone Church's congregation. My feeling was that he needed to have the law laid down on him in no uncertain terms, that we don't need to feel the slightest guilt that the message of reason is influencing young minds that might otherwise be mired in ignorance, and that if their kids can see the weakness in Christianity's message, what's the parents' excuse?

  28. The next time he calls, I'd like to hosts to line up a very simple "why do you believe this" question: don't clutter it up with "what if JW's or Mormons come to your door" add-ons, since that makes it too easy for him to dismiss them as "cults" or "not really Christian" or whatever convenient statement presents itself. Just point out there are 30,000 + Christian demonominations and hundreds of thousands of individual churches preaching different interpresetation of Christianiry every week - WHY does he believe this one preacher and this one Church?

  29. The problem is that you can't really a treat religious belief as you would treat a scientific belief. When asking for proof you're asking for specific scientific proof which no religion was ever based on, unless you count Scientology but that's a scam of course.

  30. @Enzo. Your post made me think of a few things. I've learned from conservative christian's(catholics) around here(Albuquerque) that they view science as dealing with the physical world and religion as dealing with the spiritual world. In their mind they are both equally viable and important complementary areas in their lives which aren't meant to compete with one another. So if the atheist experience asks for physical proof they are asking for the two beliefs to compete/come in conflict which they aren't meant to far as I understand.

    Conservatives(catholics) believe in a loving god of moderation and forgiveness while fundies(baptist's.,etc) are more fear based(fire and brimstone). Conservatives generally don't seem to believe in wasting time debating their religious beliefs or even stating them but they just secretly hold them dear to their belief system. It's probably very unlikely conservatives will engage with atheist's although I find their points of view's more balanced or interesting than fundies.

  31. Cont. Conservatives don't believe in trying to save your soul from hell like fundies but instead believe it's a personal decision or god's decision. They believe a person should exercise proper restraint, discipline and sternness to earn a rightful pass to heaven.

    If conservatives are challenged that science conflicts with their religious views they will state they don't believe that,ignore it or that they've 'heard it all' and will just make a personal decision anyway based on faith.

  32. Am I the only one who thought Mark sounded like Dane Cook? I was waiting for 'Mark' to say he was just playing and how could anyone actually believe that garbage. Oh wait, people actually do believe this mess, sad.

  33. @Enzo. I am not a great fan of non overlapping magisteria. Where science is science, religion is religion and never the twain shall meet.

    You cannot go roping off a small area and say "logic and evidence" shall not pass beyond this point.

    If a religion makes a real world claim that claim is certainly deserves to be open to rigorous scrutiny.

  34. @Raymond. Religion has logic and evidence but the logic is philosophical and the evidence tends to be on the personal and subjective side. You can't apply mathematical formulas and laboratory testing on something like God as he's not a scientific subject. The burden of proof only applies to something that falls within the realm of science.

  35. This comment has been removed by the author.

  36. Enzo said " You can't apply mathematical formulas and laboratory testing on something like God as he's not a scientific subject."

    I would suggest that a claim such as "god answers prayer" is a real world claim and could be subjected to 'mathematical formulas and laboratory testing'.

    If claimant is correct then the effect should be measurable in some way, otherwise the statement that 'god answers prayer' has no real meaning.

  37. @Enzo. The burden of proof lies with whoever is making a positive claim - especially if they want other people to believe it. The nature of the thing being claimed to exist is irrelevant. You either have a good reason to believe something exists or you don't. If you don't, don't act surprised when you're dismissed by others.

    If I say "I have a unicorn" and you say "show me", it's childish for me to respond with "Sorry, it's invisible to people named Enzo". Religion, and those who accommodate it, play the same games all the time. It's tiresome.

    Don't tar science as being inadequate or inapplicable if religious people are asserting the existence of something that can't be tested. After all, if you can't test or support your claim, why would you believe it in the first place? Faith? Then why expect others to believe it?

    The whole point of evidence is that it should appear the same, whoever looks at it. If religious evidence is, as you say, personal and subjective, it's practically useless in determining the existence or nature of anything. As such, any claims based on that "evidence" are going to be worthless and people are justified in dismissing them.

    And giving religion its own special versions of "logic and evidence" is just special pleading - it's related to that awful religious cliche, "another way of knowing". It doesn't work like that. Logic and evidence must be equally applicable for all fields of inquiry, or they're meaningless.

  38. @pessimist: please don't give this guy half a show again.

    Haven't listened to the latest episode, but I'd rather hear a dozen half-episodes dedicated to Mark than another sentence from Cesar.

  39. I just discovered an easy way to talk to people who hold a different opinion than yours:

    You don’t have to track missionaries down on the street or wait for them to knock on your door to ask them a question any more. Use this feature to speak with a missionary online. They’ll chat with you in real time

    This is new to me - has ths already been around the atheist blogosphere?

  40. Yeah, I find the concept of nonoverlapping magisteria difficult... especially when people insist on developing policy, changing curricula, and making scientific claims based on their religious beliefs.

  41. Tom,
    I personally find Mark to be barely more listenable than Cesar.

  42. Nice hermetically sealed bubble analogy. Also great to see my two favourite hosts on TAA together.

  43. I try to look at believers as victims, and tat's how I can interact with them civilly. I have debated a few of them and cornered them into "Well, it's a matter of faith" (which I consider a victory)

    Religion is part of culture so criticizing people for believing is like criticizing them for liking baseball or apple pie. Even a small cult is a culture of sorts and it's terrifying for members to contemplate leaving the comfort of the group.

    I wonder how many people attend church every week and really don't believe any of the theology of their religion.

    We need to have spaghetti dinners, phone trees for when people are in distress, and a softball league. That would help more people come out of the closet.

  44. Enzo said "You can't apply mathematical formulas and laboratory testing on something like God as he's not a scientific subject."

    I can change this to say:

    "You can't apply mathematical formulas and laboratory testing on something that is imaginary as it's not a scientific subject."

    So how would we tell the difference between god and something that is imaginary if we can't examine either one?

  45. @LadyAtheist

    I wouldn't compare criticisms of religion with criticisms of relatively harmless activities like eating apple pie or watching baseball.

    Personally, I would compare it to criticizing someone for not wearing a seat belt. Believing in things for bad reasons is harmful, and I am doing a disservice if I pretend otherwise.

    I agree with you on the social aspects, and I think there are quite a few atheist groups striving to do exactly what you are suggesting. We are still quite a minority, in the U.S. at least, and it will take quite some time to be as effective as the religious counterpart.

  46. I think Mark is great for the show, it seems to be gaining noteriety. Good job of being patient with Mark and giving him every opportunity to try to defend why he believes what his church teaches him. The fact that he can't is doing great damage to the Christian message, and all the more since the kids are watching!

  47. :\ I find Mark to be just a bit frightening. His emotional responses when asked direct questions, and redundant answers make me think that he might not be completely stable.


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