Monday, May 23, 2011

You can't reason a person out of a position...

...that they weren't reasoned into.


I'm so sick of this little nugget of nonsense. (This nugget of nonsense is, by the way, on par with the sort of arrogance and surrender we see from atheists who claim that, while they no longer need religion, the "little people" are simply incapable of behaving without it. But that's a different post...)

I saw it on a Facebook post this morning and it was mentioned by David Eller at the Rapture RAM in Oakland less than 24 hours after my talk which focused on, among other things, changing the minds of atheists who think that reasoned arguments simply aren't going to convince people. Evidently, I failed to achieve my goal...sort of.

David is an anthropologist and he said a number of things that really challenged the way I'll think about these issues in the future (I'm hoping to write a trip report soon). The talk was enlightening and educational in many areas but he also said a number of things that were, as far as I can tell, flatly wrong or dependent upon very different usages of words like "belief" than I'm used to.

To be fair, when Greta Christina challenged him on the fact that he seemed to be strongly advocating an end to reasoned debate, David immediately noted that this wasn't his intended message and that those who are skilled at doing so should absolutely continue. That was encouraging, but there were so many points in his talk that directly implied the opposite that it left us a little divided at the end. (There were other issues, but for today, I'm focusing on this one.)
[Edit: There's been an apology on that issue and I'm encouraged, because David had a lot of great things to say and I hate to only focus on sloppy sexist comments or fine-points where we disagree. He's someone I'd love to spend more time talking to.]

So, what's wrong with this particular saying?

Well, if we're being very literal, every position someone holds is the product of reasoning. Believing a proposition is the result of being convinced. You can be convinced for good reasons or bad reasons, but as long as the brain is involved (and how could it not be?), reason is involved. In that scope, the statement is wrong because the premise is false. They were, in fact, reasoned into their belief.

Also, in a more colloquial sense, it refers to people whose beliefs were spawned by indoctrination, emotional appeals, socialization/inculturation and other things that aren't normally in the realm of 'pure reason' - and in this scope, the statement becomes a claim that you're just not going to be able to convince them of their error by using strict logical reasoning.

This saying is, at best, a deepity, though I'm convinced it's just false.

As noted during my talk, I'm walking, talking proof that it's false. My religious beliefs were not the result of critical thinking and skepticism, but my freedom from those beliefs most definitely is. (If my data set of 1 is unimpressive, I've got about 6 years worth of e-mails from people with nearly identical stories...and I'm betting there will be several "me too"s in the comments to this post.)

The problem, though, isn't just that this statement is wrong, it's that it's a white flag. It implies that efforts to free people from religious thinking, via reason, are futile.

There may be some people who are forever beyond the reach of reason, but this isn't true of everyone and I haven't seen any data to support the idea that it's even true for most people.

In fact, I think we have evidence to the contrary. People, even if they don't realize it, value reason and evidence. We're thinking creatures and critical thinking represents the "best practices" of human thought.

The trick, if that's a fair word, is to get them to realize how much they value the principles of sound thought and get them to apply that to beliefs that have previously been protected from such scrutiny.

I'm not implying that it's always (or ever) easy to accomplish this, but the statement in question implies that it's simply impossible - and nothing could be farther from the truth.

Skepticism, critical thinking, logical reasoning, science - however you prefer to label the most consistently reliable tools we have for discerning reality - are ubiquitously recognized as valuable though not universally applied. We must continue to try to convince people of the value of applying these principles to every claim.

People often become convinced of things for bad reasons and are remarkably good at protecting those beliefs from critical examination - especially if those beliefs have been long-held, publicly professed and are shared by many others in that person's social network. But that doesn't mean that they are forever incapable of recognizing that they've accepted something for bad reasons. People can, and do, understand the value of having good reasons for their beliefs - it's the reason why there are so many attempts to provide apologetic arguments for those beliefs.

Finally, this statement is often accompanied by claims that the failure of reason implies that we need to use other methods. I'm open to many different approaches, but too often the suggested alternatives really equate to saying, "If we can't convince them with good reasons, let's use bad ones!" (Ironically, this call to religious mimicry is often immediately preceded by a call to stop using religious language when addressing religious claims...)

This is, I think, an absolutely stupid idea.

The very reason we're able to change minds is because religious beliefs have such flawed foundations. Why would you want to build someone's atheistic house on that same unstable sand? This is the very reason I've railed against the bad arguments (Pi=3, astro-theology/zeitgeist) I've seen from atheists: it creates non-believers who, when they encounter a believer who can expose these bad reasons, are left confused, defenseless and prone to falling back into religious thinking.

Garbage in, garbage out.

You can, in fact, reason a person out of almost any belief - it just won't work if the person doesn't see the value of holding reasonable beliefs. The good news is that many, if not most, of the people who don't currently see that value can learn to see it and most already think they do, which is why the Socratic method is so darn useful.

It may sound insightful and it may accurately represent the frustrations of dealing with the most skeptically-challenged, fundamentalists - but it's simply not true in any useful sense and it's time for this sentiment to drift off into Bad Idea land...


  1. The only reason I was a theist as long as I was, was because no one challenged my beliefs. They had to wear off on their own over the course of a decade, until I realized I was an atheist one day.

    I think one important thing to realize is that many of these people we're talking to have a framework that actively counters what we say. Their faith has to be regularly recharged, whether they're going to church every Sunday, or going to revivals, or just talking to their pastors.

    When's the last time you heard of someone having a "crisis of skepticism"?

    I don't even think this Rippster fellow we've been hearing from is beyond hope (Assume he's not a troll). It's more a question of being consistent and honest and slowly eroding away those defense mechanisms.

  2. Forgive me, but this is just a "me too" comment. I agree with everything here, and I too am annoyed with the skeptic movement's attempt to downplay rational argument. You can USE emotional arguments, absolutely, and you can apply them better than the theists can; but it should always be in the service of a broader intellectual point.

  3. I think that statement is rather dismissive. I have two thoughts, based on my own experiences, and experiences of other atheists who were previously believers.

    1. You cannot reason with someone who actively does not wish to be reasoned with for a very concrete reason, for example Ray Comfort. Assuming Ray actually does believe what he claims to believe, he has every reason not to listen to logic regarding his beliefs. His beliefs are his livelihood, to dismiss those beliefs would be to destroy his entire life.

    Or, look at Camping's devotees. They quit their jobs and spent all their money to promote their cause, to listen to reason would be to admit to foolishness of the first order, and most people don't want to do that.

    2. You may never see the results of your attempts, so it may appear to you that reason doesn't work. The first person who told me god didn't exist got an irritated dismissal from me. But it got the ball rolling in my head, and once that ball started rolling, there was no stopping it. You may never know what your efforts create, but that doesn't mean they create nothing.

  4. "You can, in fact, reason a person out of almost any belief - it just won't work if the person doesn't see the value of holding reasonable beliefs."

    To my mind this is the crux of the matter. On the subject of religion, it seems that most believers are interested in finding good reasons to hold on to their beliefs, rather then finding out if they hold their beliefs for good reasons.

    The stubborn believers I encountered (not many, I must admit) are people who have trouble telling a rational argument from an irrational one. Not because they are ignorant or stupid, but because they evaluate data as "useful" or "useless" rather then "true" or "false". Useful data tends to be one that justifies their beliefs. They seem almost uninterested in the validity of information. They recognize contradictions and logical flaws in their beliefs, but don't seem to acknowledge these as important factors.

    These are the people that leave me defeated. What rational argument can appeal to men who seem indifferent to the value of truth?

  5. Nice post. To play devil's advocate, one way to try to salvage this saying would be to take it as:

    *You* can't reason a person out of a position they weren't reasoned into . . . they have to do it themselves.

    (But of course to do this would be to equivocate.)

  6. @john k

    At a certain point it becomes clear a person is not interested in having beliefs that reflect reality or does not understand rational discourse, and at that point what else can be done?

    What we say to them will stick with them, even if they shrug it off at first. It like when someone says something mean to you, for most people they basically shrug it off, but they remember.

    What a theist wouldn't remember is a yes-man agreeing with him/her.

    For many, it's a cumulative effect.

    For that theist who shrugged off that video, in that one instance, had to have confronted the fact he had no real defense, regardless of how he shrugged it off. If that sort of thing happens enough, no matter how deep one's convictions are, it'll eventually start chipping away.

  7. while it is possible to use sustained logical argument to persuade someone their beliefs may not be true, it is a minority.
    if you assume that your arguments are going to change some god-botherer's beliefs then you will be frustrated most of the time. you win some, you lose an awful lot more. as noted here, it's best just to view the debate as a bit of fun with no expectations - any deconversion is bonus. for the record, i did give a pastor a crisis of faith once, and also deconvert a girl who in the process said "i'm not sure if jesus would want me to do this" as she snorted some coke i gave her. oh how i laughed :)

  8. Theists use the sacrificial claim to reject reason. That is when theists assert claim A and B, but totally reject claim C. The rejection of claim C is used to show conservative rationality and a moderate justification for claims A and B. Therefore, the theist doesn't have to listen to counter arguments becuase claim C never applied to them anyway.

    e.g. I believe in the seven day Creation and Jesus's resurrection, but the zombie invasion is just ridicolous!


    Everyone will die in the rapture except true Christians and Jews that convert. But I don't set a date for this to happen, that would be stupid!

  9. I think I'll call it the "burning a card" fallacy, for lack finding another term.

  10. I had a conversation a few days back, where I said something to the effect of "If religion is false, and the world would be better without it, shouldn't we fight it?"

    Now, I'd already made clear that by "fight", I meant persuasion and discrediting of religion in a broad political sense, rather than violence. But the guy I was talking to insisted that, in the end, what I was talking about implied violence. And the reason he gave was: "If you do decide that the world would be better off without religion, what can you do about it? People will never give up their religion willingly."

    I was really taken aback by that. I mean, he's speaking to me, a person who gave up religion willingly (though admittedly, bit by bit). Something like half the atheist community appears to be made up of former believers. I mean, it's completely obvious that people can be persuaded and argued out of religion, and if that wasn't the case there wouldn't be a sizable atheist community in the first place. More than that, the sizable number of people on the fence about any given question, can be partially inoculated against bad arguments if we promote critical thinking on these topics.

    So, I mean, it's not just idealism to make rationality a central part of your strategy. That's sort of the whole thrust of the atheist and skeptical movements...

  11. @JT

    I'm willing to believe Rippster's not a troll at this point. If you go to his blog and read the "about me" blurb at the bottom, he says he converted to his current beliefs while he was in prison (in 2005) on a vehicular manslaughter charge. A google search turns up the news stories that the death and prison sentence did occur.

    I suppose it's possible that someone's gone to the trouble of pretending to be the guy in the news articles, but that's an amount of effort beyond the scope of all but very dedicated trolls.

  12. The final step in my deconversion was after reading Martin Gardner's Not Necessarily the New Age and Randi's Flim-Flam. Those two books led me to the Skeptical Inquirer and eventually to sitting in a church pew hearing my internal voice saying "You can't expect me to believe *that* can you?" After re-winding the Bible reading in my head I realized it was about the existence of a supernatural being. I realized it was the fabulous music of that particular church that had helped me overlook the ridiculousness of the theology.

    Now I sleep late on Sundays and listen to good music in other ways.

    As for the people who got to where they are through feel-good community bonding/indoctrinations, there's no way atheists could compete with that. We don't take teenagers on weekend "chrysalis" retreats. We don't have sing-alongs or phone trees or spaghetti dinners. We don't even have a catechism so we can't present a unified opinion on anything, which people of authoritarian persuasion seem to need.

    One non-rational tool that they can relate to is disapproval. Cannibalism is disgusting. Scapegoating is reprehensible. Genocide is evil. Eternal punishment for finite crimes is unfair. Hypocrisy is confusing (they like clear-cut answers).

    The followers will follow along with whichever ones atheists can reach. They don't use their brains now, they won't in the future.

  13. Thank you Matt. I've changed my position on this as a result of this post. That is, before, if someone said "you can't reason someone out of something they weren't reasoned into", I would have agreed.

    But now I see that is far too dismissive, and, being one of those 'me too's, a pretty silly position for me to hold. I think a lot of it was, as you noted, a way of expressing frustration.

  14. I would say that Reason is the best weapon in the atheist arsenal.But i'm sure we all agree it's not the only one.
    Imaginary Gods can be killed by imaginary weapons.
    Cannibalism was wiped out by missionary's who convinced the cannibals to swap their stupid beliefs for the missionary's stupid beliefs.
    Human sacrifice to the Indian death God kali was wiped out by the East India company Killing enough followers until they had got over their point that murder was wrong.(although animal sacrifice to Kali continues)
    I'm not advocating mind controlling drugs or putting electrodes on the genitals of believers (too many of them would probably enjoy it).
    But ultimately it is the massive weight of overwhelming public consensus that will free the masses from the vile doctrines of religion.So shouldn't we use what ever works to achieve that critical mass.

  15. PS I notice, Matt you used the word, deepity, in your post. What is Dennett thinking, running around inventing new words some of us haven't learnt all the old ones yet.I for one am not impressed if English was good enough for Jesus it should be good enough for Dennett.

  16. Just a quick note: I also complain that no one challenged me and my beliefs, and it took a long time for them to wear off.

    How many non believers have the knowledge and confidence to take on even the weakest of believers. I had to find this reasoned argument in books and on You Tube.

    Matt, from the moment you lost your beliefs you most likely had the confidence and knowledge to make a good argument, most of us are just glad we worked it out for ourselves.

    I think that the number of Atheists suitably qualified to taken on theists is very low, simply being an Atheist is not enough. You have to have well developed critical thinking skills. Even Richard Dawkins fumbled in the early years when confronted.

    I totally agree with what you say, just the numbers of confident Atheists are not there. Which is why books,You Tube and the Podcasts the ACA do are so important.

  17. @matt
    I've read the post through once, and then skimmed back over it again, and am still not 100% sure of what you're trying to say. If you simply mean we atheists should avoid the approach that "If we can't convince them with good reasons, let's use bad ones!”, then sure, but if you mean something more like a literal “don't resort to non logical arguments”, i simply can't agree.

    There is never a one size fits all solution, and logical arguments might work with some people, but as much as believers spout apologetics, I've never met anyone that actually became a christian because of Fred Hoyles 747 argument, so I see how logically refuting that argument will have much (if any) effect on their beliefs.

    In my experience I’ve found it far more effective to play the emotional or moral card, such as the problem of evil, or pointing out the fact that their own bible endorses slavery... at least to get the ball of doubt rolling. And especially when dealing with believers like creationists who have already essentially rejected the scientific method, and are happy to ignore any real world evidence that doesn't already fit their world view.

    You said that :

    Well, if we're being very literal, every position someone holds is the product of reasoning. Believing a proposition is the result of being convinced. You can be convinced for good reasons or bad reasons, but as long as the brain is involved (and how could it not be?), reason is involved. In that scope, the statement is wrong because the premise is false. They were, in fact, reasoned into their belief.

    I don't think this is the case at all, but as long as you do, I guess you could say that arguments centred on emotional and moral stances like the fact that the bible endorses slavery is bad, is still a reasoned argument, so I guess its entirely possible that us not seeing eye to eye on the idea that “You can't [always] reason a person out of a position that they weren't reasoned into.” could be an entirely semantic difference rather than a practical one.

    That being the case, I don't see how its helpful to make a big song and dance about this stance when you probably know full well that the colloquial use of the phrase in question is almost always referring to these emotion and moral arguments rather than pure logic arguments. I don't know a single atheist who operates on the basis that "If we can't convince them with good reasons, let's use bad ones!” and if this is your only problem I think its a bit of a strawman.

  18. Darn it, Google ate my comment! Briefly...

    I believe there are huge numbers of theists who are either not in a place to yield to reasonable arguments, or just not capable of understanding them.

    A theist who comes up to you with an open, inquiring mind saying "persuade me I'm wrong" and does their research and comes back for more is a gift and we shouldn't look that gift horse in the mouth. However such gifts are rarer than hens teeth IMHO. From the personal stores of ex-theists I've heard it sounds much more likely that a confirmed theists had a personal experience, revelation or epiphany that lead them to start down the road of rational inquiry, questioning and eventually rejection of theism. Before then any amount of banging on their skull effectively saying "you're wrong McFly!" wouldn't have done an ounce of good.

    I heard David's talk as an appeal to help establish a secular humanist culture as an alternative to religion, one that is defined not by "the other guys" and their spin doctors, but one defined by us. It may be seen as adopting "their tactics" but that doesn't necessarily make them bad tactics for us to use. I'm personally sick and tired of the GOP walking all over the language used to describe important issues of the day - not because they get their first but because they do it wrong, to wit "The Clean Skies Act" shouldn't be a name allowed for a law that seeks to allow more and "self regulated" pollution, not less. We can adopt the tactic of owning the language, and the culture - but do it right.

    Preemptively establishing a positive atheist/secular humanist culture with terms and ideals defined by us and not simply as a reaction to attacks, smears and slander by theist just seems to make sense to me. The existence of such a culture can only help to make us more visible and provide so much more surface area for our cultures to rub shoulders with the alternatives and perhaps help to sow some seeds of doubt or inquiry in the minds of believers out there.

    And then comes the reason...

    For those that just can't follow a reasonable argument. Well we have to work on education - as Matt says, show them the value of rational thought and skepticism. You could call that reasoning or meta-reasoning but you'll probably have to go about it in a whole different and perhaps more subtle way than the typical "I'm angry" or logical tautology (thoughtology?) brute force reasoning we are so used to bringing to bear.

  19. Matt, I've heard you bring up an objection to the pi=3 point a number of times but I've never actually heard you explain what the basis for the objection is, and I'm intrigued. Could you please expand on that, either here or the next time it comes up on the show? The only explanation I've been able to come up with on my own is that the statements of diameter and circumference are two unrelated measurements that ignore the thickness of the wall of the bath, but even this opens God up to a charge of being deliberately obtuse (as in how could a "perfect" being not realize that the logical creatures he designed would naturally draw a conclusion about apparently related remarks on the circumference and diameter of a single object?). If there's something I'm overlooking, I'm genuinely intrigued to find out what. :)

  20. Never liked that saying. I was reasoned out of my religion.

  21. @James, see

  22. I've spent some time with Mr. Eller on the phone years ago, and while he is definitely someone you want to learn from, we could not get over the bump in the road that was cultural relativism. (I'm agin' it.) In fact, the disagreement was pretty heated. Other than that, he is an important resource.

  23. I was in a cult for 15 years (out for 20 now) and the "You can't reason people out of..." saying has a lot of truth in it that shouldn't be dismissed.

    No, not every belief is a result of reasoning, and believing a proposition is not necessarily the result of having been convinced. Believing is often a result of **induced experience**. People are often induced into having a religious experience first, only *after* which they accept explanations for the experience. Here ( demonstration of this by Derren Brown ( a mentalist ( who is also a debunker of spiritual fraud ( In the clip you'll see him induce spiritual experiences in people with zero intellectual argumentation. This happens in many cult recruitment procedures. People don’t actually learn *real* Scientology doctrine, for example, until *after* they’ve had powerful experiences induced by the Training Routines in the initial Communications Course.

    If Derren were a sociopath, like most cult leaders, he could easily have bolted on some intellectual justification for their experiences and would have had a nice little cult started. But these peoples' *experiences* came first and the intellectual justifications would have come afterwards. And it would have been very difficult to reason them out of their beliefs because they would have **refused to reason** ( Yes, people eventually get out of belief systems (if they ever do) via reason, but it is extraordinarily difficult to break through their cognitive dissonance defenses and get them to start that reasoning process, and I think that's what the "You can't..." saying is trying to express.

    Even when explanations come *before* the experience the conversion is not necessarily an intellectual process. A person can listen to Christian evangelist to no effect until the Christian guides them in prayer and an *experience* of divine grace happens. The person converts not because of intellectual doctrinal reasoning, but because of the *experience*, although they then do justify the conversion intellectually afterwards with doctrine.

    The people whom you have reasoned out of Christianity (which is wonderful and I'm starting to go through your videos which are a great education for me) are people who have **already started reasoning**. You'd have no luck with a Christian who hadn't started doing that already or who wasn't at least finally open to starting. That's what that saying is trying to express, I think.

  24. BTW I really enjoyed your presentation at the Oakland rapture conference.

  25. Just want to add one more "me too." Thanks Matt.

  26. The argument of reason is subjective, you can reason an ignorant Christian using ignorant theology which is most of what I've seen out of 99.999% of atheists, but you cannot reason a wise Christian using ignorant theology.

    However in saying that, the Bible clearly teaches that those who leave the faith, were never actually part of the faith to start off with. So in short all you have done is convince an atheist to stop being religious.

  27. "...the Bible clearly teaches that those who leave the faith, were never actually part of the faith to start off with."

    Nice how the Bible conveniently gives its followers a ready-made excuse for those that leave the fold: They were never really believers in the first place. Sure, those decades of fervent belief, thousands upon thousands of dollars in tithe paid, youth groups earnestly taught... i suppose they were all an elaborate ruse? Please.

    Then again, i suppose it wouldn't be helpful for the Bible to tell the truth: "If they start actually thinking for themselves, they'll probably figure out this is all a crock and leave."

  28. What a relief! I was beginning to feel I was alone in thinking the expression is "bull", as you politely put it. Funny how quick alleged skeptics can be to latch onto soundbites of their heroes, almost as if even "big people" need gods and their gospel. Is Carl Sagan's famous quote: "The only sacred truth is there are no sacred truths" part of the same set of idiocisms?


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