What on Earth is free will?

Almost every philosopher and belief-pundit has had a crack at the question of whether humans have free will. It is a pretty wide-spread belief, among both theists and atheists alike. There’s a huge quantity of dense text on the subject spanning several centuries. This post however, will be accessible and fun. Simply picture your most groovy, over-enthusiastic schoolteacher and you’ll get the idea.

For any religion with a judgement theme free will is a particularly thorny issue. It’s hardly fair to judge non-free beings according to some rules they were unable to obey. However, with an omnipotent, omniscient being in the frame, how can free will be preserved? If a god made you and everything around you and knows exactly what you’re going to do – how can you do anything else without making him wrong? As far as I can tell, The Bible is strangely lacking a direct discussion of free will; some would say it even denies free will entirely. However, later theologians realised the problems and tried to patch up the holes. The Catholic Encyclopaedia acknowledges the issues in its article on free will.

But God possesses an infallible knowledge of man’s future actions. How is this prevision possible, if man’s acts are not necessary? […] Further, God’s omnipotent providence exercises a complete and perfect control over all events that happen, or will happen, in the universe. How is this secured without infringement of man’s freedom?

The article goes into some history, but their case for free will finishes up with an “Ethical argument” and a “Psychological argument”. The ethical argument states that since moral ideas about justice and responsibility are near-universally accepted, free will must be real. I think this merely argues for the near-universal belief in free will, not free will itself.

Similarly, the psychological argument does not prove what it claims:

Consciousness testifies to our moral freedom. We feel ourselves to be free when exercising certain acts. We judge afterwards that we acted freely in those acts.

This only demonstrates the perception or illusion of free will. We’re no closer to showing whether humans truly have free will.

Meanwhile, Buddhism is pretty vague on free-will, citing the interconnectedness of all things and giving the implication that humans are partly free.

More secular philosophers have argued in terms of determinism – the idea that events in the universe are in theory predictable, given enough information – and whether this scuppers free will. Hard determinists, such as Baron d’Holbach took the view that since the universe was deterministic, no one could be free from that determinism. Determinism is far from certain, but I don’t think it is the real issue. Surely random events beyond a person’s control would be no more helpful to free will than deterministic ones?

I think Arthur Schopenhauer (He of the surprised hair, right) got a little warmer when he said,

“A man can surely do what he wants to do. But he cannot determine what he wants.”

But this week’s Bridging Schisms “I wish I’d written that” prize* goes to Galen Strawson, who explains in simple terms why the idea of free will is nonsensical. It is best summarised with the title of his interview in The Believer (which I highly recommend) – “You cannot make yourself the way you are”.

Galen Strawson argues that to be responsible for one’s actions, one must also be responsible for one’s mental state. You might think in some cases it’s possible to get yourself into a particular frame of mind, to beat an addiction or get some work done, but this must be the result of some previous mental state, which in turn was brought about by yet another previous state and so on. As you can’t will yourself out of nothing, Strawson argues, free will does not exist.

This is a somewhat unusual viewpoint – the majority of people seem to believe in some kind of free will, both religious and non-religious writers have said as much – but I think it makes sense.

Professor Strawson is the first to admit that the lack of free will has some unsettling consequences for “ultimate responsibility”, which he carefully differentiates from everyday moral responsibility. We cannot be ultimately responsible for the way we are nor therefore, for the choices we make as a result of the way we are. That might sound worrying – how can we hold people responsible for their actions if they have no ultimate responsibility? Isn’t it necessary that a civilised society holds people responsible for their actions? I don’t think we should abandon an idea because we do not like the apparent consequences of it. We should abandon ideas only if they are incorrect.

In practice however, I don’t think the lack of free will or ultimate responsibility has huge implications for society and justice. There are still good reasons for laws and punishments. For a start, laws can influence the choices people make because of the penalties they would incur. Whether or not people are truly free, discouraging them from committing violent acts is a good thing. If there’s any change in attitude that the lack of free will might bring about, it could be in shifting our focus from punishment of offenders to protection of would-be victims. Throwing a serial-killer in prison still looks like a good option because it could prevent further murders.

So it is reasonable to hold individuals morally responsible as a good way to influence behaviour and to improve society. The lack of free will or ultimate responsibility doesn’t mean you have an excuse for neglecting your homework – no matter how groovy your teacher!

* – the prize is a link to his website.

Choosing the right belief for the wrong reasons?

Religious conversion stories often seem to be emotional affairs. I think many religious groups exploit this (whether deliberately or not), using stirring music, intense group attention and other techniques to provoke an emotional reaction. This probably helps to convert people, causing them to cry, faint or be otherwise emotionally overwhelmed with the feeling that something really special has happened.

There are sometimes also emotional reasons why people people de-convert as well as convert, although they are not generally cunningly choreographed*. Certainly many of us who end up as atheists also go on to read up on theology and the many atheistic arguments against religion – particularly those who are online reading and writing blogs. However, I think in many cases, the thing which triggers the journey into critical thinking is emotional, or at least, not a rational argument in itself.

When I was a Christian, the main argument that had always bothered me was the injustice of divine judgement – Someone makes the world and everything in it, then gets His knickers in a twist when some of it (specifically the human bit) doesn’t turn out as He wanted. I managed to mostly ignore this problem while attending church as a teenager, until I went on a youth group holiday. The sheer quantity of preaching I was subjected to during this time bored, puzzled and frustrated me. I didn’t get any satisfactory answers, but I could no longer ignore the problem, so I drifted out of the church group in frustration.

I don’t think my reasons were especially carefully considered or rational – I only discovered proper atheist arguments later – it was frustration and boredom that made me leave. I wonder if the first step believers make is often something which in itself isn’t a damning logical argument against theism? Perhaps some fellow believers being unfriendly or cruel? An obvious lie told by their religious leader? Wanting to lie in bed on Sunday mornings? A personal disagreement with another believer on a non-religious matter? A close friend who believes something different? Or, as in my case, resenting boring lectures.

There are some great arguments against theism, but these are not amongst them. If a fellow Christian you know well deliberately ignores you when you happen to pass in the street that doesn’t make the existence of a god any less likely – they might just be having a bad day. Even if a religious leader is dishonest, he could still put this down to man’s inherent sinfulness. Sure, church hypocrisy doesn’t look good, and it even features at number 5 on Kieran Bennett’s list of reasons why people de-convert. The Church ought to practice what they preach, but if they fail to do so, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are completely wrong about God.

While none of these reasons are very rational, I think they might give people the nudge they need to reconsider their beliefs, hopefully with a view to what is rational. There are some examples of this in the comments by former believers on Greta Christina’s post asking what changed people’s minds about religion. For example, kc said:

Slowly I became more frustrated by my own questions, and more angry about hypocrisy and intolerance in my own church. That led me away from Catholicism.

A slightly different example is when events in a person’s life force particular atheist arguments into the foreground. Heather replied:

It wasn’t an argument that persuaded me away from my faith, it was a series of emotional experiences. One of the primary benefits of religion espoused by believers and non-believers is comfort.[…] But I hit a time of extreme distress, and I prayed and turned searchingly to my faith and found… nothing. No comfort, no warm fuzzies. I felt my pain exactly as it would feel were there no caring deity there to help me with my suffering. That was the crack in the ice that led to me to look at the situation through the lens of reason.

In a guest-post on de-Conversion explaining why she de-converted, DeeVee writes:

Watching my religious mother and both aunts die of cancer, while begging Jesus/god to save them, and he did not.  Not only that but I also worked in the pediatric ward of a cancer hospital in Houston and watched entire churches praying for god to save babies from cancer, and he did not.

The “Problem of Evil” was always there and a lot of religious people have probably heard it or even pondered it themselves. But when things are going well such worries can be put to the back of a believer’s mind. When personal tragedy affects a person, the problem of evil becomes large and unavoidable.

It seems anything from a subtle change in attitude to fellow believers to a major emotional upheaval can create a crack of doubt into which critical thinking and reasoned arguments can be inserted. This seems more likely if the believer is already aware of these arguments.

Well reasoned arguments against the veracity of religious belief are great for making a point or explaining atheist beliefs. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the part that non-rational factors play in changing people’s beliefs – in either direction.

(* Given the examples above, to choreograph the kind of emotional reaction that might lead someone to reject their religious belief would be an extremely vicious act.)

Us and them

Social group of elephantsIt seems that for many believers part of the appeal of their religion is the community and sense of belonging that it offers. Although this is rarely cited as a reason for sticking with their beliefs, I suspect it has a strong subconscious effect. The desire to belong is natural for humans as it is for all social mammals. Communal living may even have affected the way our brains evolved. When the group offers sharing of food, protection from predators and the opportunity to mate, survival may depend on staying in the group and avoiding social rejection.

The problem is that this kind of thinking leads people to consider some people to be insiders and others outsiders. That makes sense in a tribal society, but in the modern world we have a responsibility to treat everyone with respect. In the view of ethics advanced by Peter Singer, people decide who to treat morally based on whether that person falls within their moral circle. In a modern world we should be looking to expand that circle to include all of humanity (Singer also argues persuasively that we should also include animals in our moral circle).

I think religion can often get in the way of this. I’m not trying to characterise religious people as misanthropes when it comes to outsiders, many are very friendly. I’m sure many believers would also tell you that their religion itself encourages them to be friendly to all people. However, there’s plenty of behaviour common to religious groups which is anything but friendly to outsiders.

Diane Wilson made it clear in her book that the Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly separate people into those within the society and those outside it. This usually involves certain tactics. Although these things are more common in cult-like religions, they can be found in watered-down versions in almost any faith.

Firstly, the stigmatisation of outsiders. This, along with a strong discouragement to associate with them, allows unfair stereotypes to go unchallenged. Those outside the religious group are often said to be unfortunates or that they will suffer some terrible fate, such as a literal hell.

Secondly, conformity. Certain patterns of speech and behaviour are encouraged, through shared rituals or varying degrees of social pressure. Unusual and unnecessary rules also help to define correct behaviour and separate the “ins” from the “outs”. In some cases membership of the religious organisation is considered more important than any aspect of the individual. This was a popular theme amongst the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ , as Diane Wilson reports from a JW sermon:

Bucket of waterThrust your fist into a bucket of water, then pull your fist out. Look into the bucket. The size of the hole that is left in the water is what you’re worth.

To moderate believers this sounds extreme, but there are few religions which celebrate individuality and all have rules of behaviour that define those who are members and those who are not.

I suspect in the case of cults and some newer religions, this is a conscious effort to keep members under the influence of the religion and its leaders. Perhaps in smaller religious groups which differ from the surrounding culture, this is necessary to maintain group cohesion.

Going off on a bit of a tangent, it struck me today that a similar thing can occur with fans of football (soccer) teams, or indeed any sports team fans. Certainly they seem to treat fans of rival teams differently to those of their own team. Similarities have already been drawn between football and religion.

Polish football fans

So what else do religions and football teams have in common? My pet theory concerns the way people choose them. By which I mean they don’t. Well, not consciously. Not like you might choose a new car or house. There’s no weighing up of a team’s odds at being promoted to the next division, no examination of their track record, or the scruples (or not) of the manager.

So in an argument with another fan over which team is more deserving of support, there’s no objective basis on which to justify their decision. No team has a perfect track record, the vast majority are not at the top of division one and in any case, such arguments are after-the-fact justifications – that wasn’t how they chose the team in the first place.

Fans are most likely to choose a team based on which team is supported by those around them – their family, friends, community. Or perhaps the team belonging to the town in which they grew up, which may amount to the same thing in many cases.

Sound familiar?

I think it’s very similar with religion. It seems the reason religious debates ultimately boil down to “Faith”, “Personal experience” or “Agreeing to disagree” is because there is no rational objective basis on which to chose one over another. Interestingly, Swiss theologian Karl Barth said something similar:

“Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.”

I’d go further and suggest that a religious belief cannot even argue with another religious belief. At least no more than one football fan can tell another they’ve chosen to support the wrong team.

Wild honey

Recently I caught a BBC documentary about pig farmer Jimmy Doherty’s visit to Nepal to gather honey with the local people using traditional methods in a highly risky situation.

As a ‘honey hunter’ Jimmy must scale a massive cliff to reach the home of more than two million bees and dangle 200 feet up to get their honey. If successful, the reward is not only to learn more about these amazing bees, but also to taste one of nature’s finest bounties, beautiful wild honey.

To make matters trickier, Jimmy doesn’t speak Nepali, and his hosts controlling the rope ladder from which he dangled didn’t speak any English. What’s more, these aren’t your friendly, common or garden honey bees. Due to the high altitudes in which they live, these bees are much larger. Jimmy’s medical advisers estimated that while he could get away with being stung a couple of times, more than seven stings would probably be fatal. The Nepalese protect themselves with simple smocks which leave the hands and feet exposed; Jimmy covered everything. Nevertheless, he somehow got stung three times.

The people who’ve gathered honey in this way for generations have built up a number of customs and superstitions around the practice. Some of these are quite sensible, like the rule that they always leave at least half the hives untouched, which ensures that plenty of colonies survive for the next year. Other pre-gathering rituals make less sense. They apparently take some time deciding when to make the climb and the decision hinges on such factors as the phase of the moon, the types of clouds observed and the condition of a newly-slaughtered sheep’s entrails.

Superstitions seem to arise most readily when there are many factors at least partly out of human control – although this video-clip shows at least one peril that could easily have been avoided. It’s not just the Nepalese honey hunters – most hunting cultures have pre-hunt good luck rituals. Historically sailors have also been quite superstitious, again perhaps due to the many risks of extended periods at sea and the capricious nature of the weather.

HMS BeagleIf you’re just rounding Cape Horn and the mother of all storms blows up, then even if you are incredibly rational and do everything right, it still might not save you. Hunting for food is vital to the survival of the group, but also a risky and unpredictable business. The prey might have moved on to more remote pastures or be in a particularly aggressive mood and injure members of the hunting party. Back in Nepal, I imagine that even today’s experts would still have trouble divining the moods of the bees or the stability the of the cliffs on which they nest. In all cases, there’s a factor that is out of human control.

To confuse things further, many superstitious beliefs mix readily with more useful ones. There are some pretty good reasons for not walking under a ladder that have nothing to do with the Holy Trinity or triangles and pyramids. In another example, there is a mariners’ rhyme which reads:

Trace in the sky a painters brush,
Then winds around you soon will rush

Long wispy cirrus clouds which can resemble a brush are indicative of a warm front approaching, bringing rain and wind. So there can be some truth to such folklore. Maybe the Nepalese honey hunters’ superstitions relating to clouds were also somewhat informative. However, it’s hard to imagine what genuine insights they could glean from a sheep’s intestine.

So in the face of situations beyond their control why do people resort to superstition?

It seems to me, with my armchair psychologist hat on, that us humans are especially uncomfortable when we don’t feel in control of our destiny. When in risky situations, with large elements of luck involved, we seem more likely to come up with superstitious rituals intended to protect us or predict the outcome. It might not help, but it makes us feel like we’re doing something when really nothing can be done. Put like that, it seems like a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder and I guess it’s somewhat understandable that people in risky situations would get anxious.

So the answer seems to be “comfort”. Superstitious rituals that provide comfort are often harmless, unless they distract people from genuinely useful actions or make it harder for them to make the right decisions about the risks they’re taking.

Going bonkers over a bangle

Readers from the UK may have heard about a recent discrimination case in which 14 year old Sarika Watkins-Singh won the right to wear her plain steel kara to school.

The school she attends had excluded her due to her insistence on wearing the kara which contravened its rule disallowing all jewellery. There have been quite a few similar cases over the years. Predictably, any concession to non-Christian religions in these matters yields cries of “Political correctness gone mad!” as can be seen from about half the comments on the BBC News Have your say page.

My first thoughts were in support of Sarika. I don’t see the harm in her wearing her kara, except perhaps for sport or metalwork classes for which she is apparently happy to take it off. In fact I’m all for freedom of belief, up until the point it infringes on other people’s rights. For example if people were carrying real daggers, I think this presents a danger (as much to the wearer as anyone else) and directly contravenes the law regarding offensive weapons. I don’t think bangles like this are hurting anyone. In fact I don’t see the problem with any kind of jewellery in schools.

That is, in fact, my point. It’s certainly not fair if only religious jewellery is allowed. I don’t see anything special about a religious belief over any other kind of belief. If someone wanted to wear their grandmother’s necklace simply because of the sentimental value it had for them, that should be considered equally important as religious jewellery and treated with the same respect. Not to do so is in itself a form of discrimination on the grounds of belief (or lack of belief).

I understand that the school wishes to “create a community ethos” (according to a quote in the Guardian) by enforcing uniform rules. Perhaps the worry is that if jewellery is allowed in schools it will encourage expensive bling and a separation of the haves from the have-nots. I don’t work in a school, so I’m not sure how much of a problem this might be, but I don’t see the harm in letting pupils express their individuality. There are plenty of other things they can do to foster a sense of community, such as inter-school competition, sports, debating, etc. Expressing their individuality is a good thing. It’s what people in real communities do. I don’t see how pretending or insisting that everyone is the same is at all helpful. Children should leave school with at least the inkling that different people believe different things.

So I support Sarika in wearing her kara, just as long as the same rules are applied to everyone regardless of whether their symbols and beliefs are religious or not.

Debating online or face to face

Greta Christina wrote recently about online anonymity and its pros and cons in discussion. I find when reading her posts I often feel compelled to comment at length and in this case the length was sufficient to justify an entire blog post.

The thrust of her argument is that although online anonymity is a mixed blessing, it is still a blessing.

The fact that people feel less bound by social convention online than they do in person doesn’t just give them license to be rude where they would otherwise feel pressured to be polite. It also gives them license to tell the truth as they see it, where they would otherwise feel pressured to go along with socially acceptable lies — or stay silent in the face of them.

I agree with her on this. So why am I writing? “Greta Christina thinks anonymous onliDebating Chamber of the former House of Deputies of Austria, in Vienna.ne discussion is a good thing” is hardly news. However, I do have a few things to add.

There are more benefits to online discussions. I think the quality of my debate is far higher online than face to face. Debating in person is not something I feel particularly good at, although I am trying to improve through practice. Usually, I find my memory lacking, my temperature rising and I often get nervous in the face of confrontation. Even if the topic isn’t inherently emotive I have an emotional reaction, which doesn’t help me get my point across. Plus it’s embarrassing and frustrating!

However, online both parties have more time to cool off and digest what the other person has said and make their own points as precisely as possible. There’s less temptation to blurt out the first thing which comes into your head, which may not be what you’d really like to say. That’s in an ideal world. On the flip side it can turn into a cut-and-paste war of quotes and links where no one really thinks for themselves. Debating online also doeAngry and frustrated personsn’t stop people from typing in the first thing which comes into their heads or from responding emotionally or ignoring their opponent’s points – but I do think it makes it easier to be a good debater – if you’re willing to take the time and effort.

On numerous occasions I’ve found myself feeling like I’m losing a face-to-face debate despite the poor quality of my opponent’s arguments. Only hours later do I realise what I should’ve said. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this. It’s extremely frustrating. Anyone who’s got into a conversation with a barrister (courtroom lawyer) will know what I mean. They’re quick-witted, persuasive and good at talking. Some of them however, seem unable to get out of the competitive mindset. There’s definitely something fishy about their arguments, but you can’t quite marshal your own arguments fast enough to catch them out. Their aim is not to find out what’s true, but to convince a jury (whether real or imagined) of what’s true. It’s not investigation, it’s marketing.Debating in person

Part of what I do for this blog is face to face debates with people, so I’d like to improve the way I debate in person. I sometimes wish I could take some of those wit-powered debates online – asking them to “step online” (rather than “step outside”!). Obviously this isn’t always practical.

So failing that I try to research the topics which interest me online beforehand then avoid getting into any debates for which I haven’t already considered the arguments and counter-arguments. That might sound like cheating, but for now I think it’s better than getting angry, upset and frustrated.

Divine injustice

Confusing signsA common atheistic argument is that any kind of divine judgement which requires people to have heard and believe a particular religion is unfair. This was in fact the first argument against religion that occurred to me as a teenager and set me on the road away from Christianity.

In response to this, in the plethora of comments which followed an article on de-conversion.com, a Christian called Joe advanced the following argument by analogy.

…if you won free tickets to Hawaii, but were told some others will not be going there because they refused the free tickets, would you give up your free ticket? Would you reject the free trip to Hawaii, even though you knew that the other people had been “offered” the same thing but rejected it? How lame and stupid would that be?

His analogy differs slightly from the commonly accepted ideas of the Bible. The tickets are offered but not accepted. This is different from Christianity, and most religions, which are not offered to everyone, because not everyone gets to hear about them.

During a discussion in a pub a Christian friend of mine recently made a similar argument. His version imagined the protagonist bobbing around in the water as the Titanic sunk. As a helicopter approaches and offers to pull them from the water, they wouldn’t say, “Hey, why aren’t you saving that guy too?”.

As is often the case in face to face debates, that sounded wrong to me, but I didn’t have an answer ready off the top of my head. However, on later consideration, the analogy of the helicopter rescue is flawed for a different reason. It would be unreasonable to complain that the helicopterHelicopter rescue is not rescuing everyone because the helicopter:

  1. Does not have the ability to do so.
  2. Does not claim to provide perfect justice.

Now it seems obvious that neither of those apply to any judgemental deity. Most monotheistic deities are generally considered omnipotent and at least in the case of the Christian God, having perfect judgement is reputedly one of his qualities. So when people question a doctrine that requires belief in a particular god for salvation, they’re asking “What kind of justice is that?”. They’re not just saying it’s unfair, they’re saying it’s unfair and yet it claims to be fair.

Responses to this usually invoke the ineffability of God – “God’s ways are not out ways” or “We cannot know the mind of God”. The trouble with those answers is if you go down that route then all bets are off. You might as well give up trying to understand anything about what God thinks or wants from us. Your guess would be as good as mine.

Neither of these contemporary examples are the first to use this line of reasoning. In Mere Christianity, C.S.Lewis says:

Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him. But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself.

C.S. Lewis statueThere are several problems with this. I’m going to gloss over the “We knows” which assume the Bible’s accuracy. For the sake of brevity I’ll even ignore the Bible verses which do explain what the arrangements for the ominously-named “other people” are. In my opinion, the important issue here is this: A being claimed to dispense perfect justice appears to be monstrously unjust. It’s not justice to require that people chose the one true religion out of the many that exist and have existed, some of which many people will never hear about. Worse still the choice is made on pain of death or eternal damnation (depending on how you interpret the scriptures). Yet this being is supposed to be loving, just and omniscient. It casts doubt on the whole idea.

By saying it is unreasonable for us to worry about the people outside, Lewis seems to be trying to appeal to our selfish side. You don’t want to be on the outside, do you? It’s dark out there and well, we just don’t know what happens to people who get left out there. Stop fussing and come inside.

If this used to puzzle Lewis did he resolve it merely by ceasing to think about it? This doesn’t strike me as very intellectually honest. Simply suggesting that people should stop worrying about this issue is not addressing the argument.

Tolerate the believer not the belief

Ask any blogging atheist or freethinker and you’ll probably find they’ve done a post or two on tolerance. Well here’s mine.

It’s not uncommon for atheists to be told they shouldn’t criticize others people’s beliefs, because it’s rude or intolerant. Other bloggers have explained in detail why it’s important to do so and why it’s not rude to disagree. The consensus seems to be that being universally tolerant of other people’s beliefs allows a free-pass for bad ideas which can lead to some crazy or dangerous behaviour.

But what constitutes tolerance? Lynet at Elliptica describes what seems to me like a reasonable idea of tolerance:

Tolerance does not imply the lack of an opinion, it merely implies allowing others to disagree. I will, however, continue to argue for my own position. And I still think you’re wrong.

When I do get into debates on beliefs, I try to avoid being insulting or antagonistic. This isn’t something I always get right; it’s something I aspire to.  I know from experience that it’s all too easy to mock or humorously misrepresent someone’s beliefs in the heat of the moment, especially when the debate is face to face.

However, I genuinely don’t want to cause offence. The people I chat with about religion are generally nice decent people and I wouldn’t like to see them upset if I can help it.

I know some atheists say we shouldn’t worry about upsetting people. In some situations I can understand that attitude. For example, when “You’re so intolerant” is being used to shut down an important political issue rather than accept the more rational argument. Even more so if you’re being asked to tolerate a belief that is itself hateful or intolerant.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to get people to listen to your point of view, maybe change their mind, then I think causing offence will hinder your efforts. If you say or even imply that someone is stupid or crazy for believing what they do, you can expect anger and resentment, not carefully considered responses. It turns from a conversation into a confrontation – one in which backing down is seen as weak and shameful rather than open-minded.

So there’s a fine line to tread. We shouldn’t play the sycophant and pretend to agree so as not to hurt people’s feelings; but we’d be ill-advised to resort to condescending mockery or insults simply because we disagree.

The trouble is that many believers feel their beliefs are an intrinsic part of their identity. However politely it is phrased, the disagreement may still be interpreted as an insult. This is mostly the believer’s problem, but we should nevertheless bear it in mind when debating with them.

I commented recently on Kelly Gorski’s post ‘And They Call It “Tolerance”‘ to suggest that separating the belief from the believer is important. (Excuse the gratuitous self-quote).

Maybe we should tolerate/respect the believer, but not their beliefs. This distinction may be obvious to us; I think we should make it obvious to those whose beliefs we criticise.

After some searching I discovered that a similar idea was suggested by Mahatma Ghandi, and not Jesus as some Christians have apparently claimed:

Hate the sin, love the sinner.

My version is, “Tolerate the believer, not the belief”. I think that’s a good lesson for me both in the way I think about and treat believers.

As much as possible we should separate the believer from the belief. Smart people often believe stupid things. Most of us probably have some false beliefs, but that doesn’t make us idiots. It just means we’re mistaken in that case.

Now I need to work out how to make the difference clear to people without upsetting them…

An offer of prayer

I have a colleague who is a big fan of prayer. He’s an Evangelical Christian and regularly makes friendly offers to pray for people’s family and friends who might be sick. He seems completely sincere and I believe the gesture is well-intentioned.

However, many who receive his offers find them… not exactly offensive, but certainly irritating. Perhaps they’ve heard this kind of thing before and are anticipating the little sermon that so often forms part of the package of such offers. One person told me they felt like they were being “sold to”. I don’t know if anyone has actually taken him up on these offers, but I’m sure some were more receptive than those I spoke with.

My first thoughts were along these lines. The recipients of this kind of offer could be crudely divided into two categories:

  1. The ones who believe that intercessory prayer will work.
  2. Those who don’t believe it will work.

Now surely those in the first group would already be praying if they had a sick relative? It seemed strange to me that any god would be unable to hear a single prayer, but a chorus of prayer – well, that’s different, is it? Surely God doesn’t need a critical number of prayers before he’s willing to take action? As for those in the second group, well they’re not likely to take up the offer if they don’t think it will have any effect.

All of which lead me to wonder whether my Evangelical colleague’s motivation was rather more evangelical (small ‘e’). Perhaps he had that sermon up his sleeve ready to spring on a polite and unsuspecting enquirer. On the other hand it could have been an attempt to show (either to us or to his god) what an amazingly altruistic Christian he is.

Perhaps more likely is that he anticipated a third group, somewhere in between the other two. People who were perhaps desperate for the health of their loved-ones and willing to try anything.

So I questioned him about it and we ended up going for a drink and having a long discussion on this and related topics. Well, if I’m honest I mostly listened. Before that discussion I did some reading and thinking and managed to crystallize my thoughts on prayer. The main issue I had is outlined below.

(Disclaimers: IANAL (I am not a logician) and this might be full of holes, but I think my meaning is clear enough. Secondly, it borrows the idea from Ebonmuse’s thorough discussion of the Problem of Evil):

Assumption (1). The patient currently has a medical problem.
Assumption (2). Praying for the patient to be healed can cause miraculous healing of that patient.
Assumption (3). The god to whom the prayer to heal the patient is directed :-

a) Exists;
b) Is all-powerful (omnipotent);
c) Is all-knowing (omniscient);
d) Has perfect judgement;
e) Will only do what is right;

Conclusion (4). An omnipotent being would be able to heal the patient (from 3a, 3b);
Conclusion (5). An omniscient being would already know about the patient’s problem. (from 1, 3a, 3c);
Conclusion (6). Any patient whom the god deems it right to heal will already be healed. (from 3d, 3e, 4, 5)
Conclusion (7). It is not right to heal the patient (from 1, 6).
Conclusion (8). Praying for the patient to heal will not cause miraculous healing of that patient (from 6, 7)

Contradiction : ( 2 & 8 )

So I ask: What makes you think you (in your less-than-infinite wisdom) can change God’s mind about healing this patient?

That’s not the only problem with the idea of praying to a god to ask for things. As Greta Christina points out if a prayer doesn’t work the answer always seems to be:

“You did something wrong. You didn’t pray hard enough. You didn’t pray right, with the right kind of feeling or faith. You didn’t get enough people to pray for you. There’s something wrong with you. It’s your fault.”

Even more perniciously, any unreliable offer of healing can cause those most in need to abandon genuine treatments which might actually help them.

I’m going to continue asking awkward questions and challenging my colleague’s ideas about prayer. He tells me he’s keen to question and test his beliefs, so I’m hopeful I may be able to encourage him to try some kind of formal test or experiment. Maybe I’m too optimistic…