Being A Curious Skeptic

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The thoughtful Christian blogger Demian Farnworth asked me recently,

…what do you hope to get out of talking to me? I’m seriously curious.

Which is a fair question. I’ve been asked similar things by other believers. I’m sure I’m not the only atheist who has been told to ask God to open their spiritual eyes. I know I’m not the only person who spent years trying this and got nothing but their own thoughts (aside:  If God actually opened your eyes it might be somewhat more shocking).

I spend a fair bit of time commenting on other people’s blogs. Often I think believers are unsure if I’ve come to mock and argue or whether I really want to know all about their beliefs. Am I just arguing for the sake of argument? Do I want to change their minds? Am I genuinely willing to change my mind? Why do I get into these debates?

For the sake of argument

I don’t actually like heated arguments. So I try to stick to the Socratic method, asking questions to help me understand and reveal flaws in other people’s arguments.

Changing other people’s minds

Yes, I admit I’d like to change people’s minds. Doesn’t everyone? Most of the beliefs I discuss here and on other blogs I consider to be mistaken. I feel an instinctive desire to put people right, educate them if possible. Whether they’ve said that atheists have no morals or that testimonials are a good indication of truth I’d at least like to encourage them to think a little more critically about their beliefs. Although some believers have expressed shock that atheists might want to convince people that they’re right, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make a case for what you believe and express your opinion. Others can do the same, maybe we’ll all learn something.

I know many non-religious people think it’s unrealistic to try to de-convert believers by debating with them. Believers seem impervious to reason. In many cases, I’m sure that’s true, but there’s also clear evidence that atheist and humanist writing on the web can have a positive influence on readers’ thinking. Perhaps my blog and comments haven’t yet changed anyone’s mind or pointed them in the right direction, but it is something I aspire to. Somebody said that false beliefs lead to bad decisions, which is one reason I try to find out what is true and help others do the same.

Changing my mind

I am absolutely willing to change my mind. If I see that there is good evidence of something I have no choice but to change my mind. For example, let’s say I see a specific prediction made by a psychic looking at a human hand. Something that could not have been influenced or come about by chance like, “In three weeks time an asteroid will crash outside your house causing you to spill leek and potato soup on your trousers”. I’ve already changed my mind about palmistry once, I’d have to do so again if the evidence was there. The same is true of religion. If believers can provide me with satisfactory answers to the many gaping holes and paradoxical illogicalities in their religion and provide me with some reasonable evidence, I’d be happy to reconsider. Alternatively, if a god or gods show up in an unambiguous way making it clear which religion they represent (an intricate flower could represent any religion or none), then I’d be a believer.

Yes I’d have to admit that I was wrong, but I think it would be worth it to then be right. I wonder if the people I debate with would say the same?

cat_curiousThat said, I’m reasonably confident that I’m right about philosophical naturalism. I’d say I’m about as certain that there are no gods nor genuine psychic fortune tellers as I am that the Earth orbits the sun. Not 100% certain by any means, but pretty close. I don’t expect to see amputated limbs regrow before my eyes or orbs of light behaving intelligently, but I’m keeping my eyes open. Keeping your eyes open is the reasonable thing to do and in the long run is more likely to lead you to the truth than grabbing an idea and sticking to it unquestioningly. Being skeptical means being open-minded as well as critical.

Curiosity

However, the main reason I get into philosophical debates online is my curiosity.

I’m curious to learn about the diversity of people’s beliefs and how they justify them. I’m curious about the psychology of apparently healthy, intelligent people who believe things which seem ridiculous to me. How do they do it? Imagine you met a regular-seeming person who genuinely believed that the Earth was flat. Wouldn’t that make you slightly curious about what goes on in their head to make that work? How could they manage it with all the evidence to the contrary?

I don’t know if this is an unusual fascination, maybe it’s just me. Either way, I want to know what people believe and why. The more illogical the belief and the more mentally normal the believer, the more interesting it is.

One Man’s Experience Of The Alpha Course

I don’t often write posts waxing lyrical about something I found on the interwebs. There are plenty of freethinking blogs out there who do an excellent job of covering topical issues that are of interest to the non-religious.

However, this case is of particular interest to me.  I have toyed with the idea of going along to a local Alpha Course and asking all sorts of awkward questions. For a while I’ve been badgering yunshui to come along with me, you know, to hold my hand. I thought it would provide an insight into the psychology of believers, both new and old.

Then, a few weeks ago yunshui came up with the perfect excuse. He sent me a link to Stephen Butterfield’s “Alpha Course Reviewed” blog. This is a detailed account of the author’s time as a curious skeptic on the Alpha Course. He was granted permission to make audio recordings of their sessions including the DVD presentations featuring Nicky Gumbel and the group debates which followed. Much of the conversation is transcribed word-for-word, with exception of the other attendees’ names. As a result the 11 blog posts are each rather long, however I found them compulsive reading. The blog shows how thin the arguments presented on the course are, and how nonsensical Christian doctrine is accepted regardless. For example, here’s an extract from the final session which includes a typically protracted discussion of evil and free will.

The long-standing male member is still keen to press the issue. He tells me that God gave us free will because he wanted us to choose whether or not we loved him. He continues:

Long-Standing Male Member: “The argument I could make is that we’d be robots if it were any different. If we HAD to love God then we wouldn’t be free.”
Me: “Are you free in heaven not to love him?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “I’m choosing IN THIS LIFE to love God. I make the choice HERE
Me: “Oh, so there’s no choice in heaven? I gather from that that we aren’t free in heaven, then”

What is especially impressive is the Stephen’s patient questioning, even when he is forced to repeat himself or listen to lengthy heartfelt testimonies. He seems to get along pretty well with the other members of the group – most of whom were already Christians.  He manages to avoid antagonising the other attendees while pressing his points and picking apart their rationalisations.

For those who aren’t Christians it’s well worth reading to understand the Christian mindset. For those who are, Stephen’s questions may help you to understand why so many people find it hard to accept your beliefs as true.

Rights and wrongs of evangelism

WitnessingPlenty of people have written about whether atheists should evangelise, but that’s not quite what this post is about.

Most people, especially atheists, are acutely aware of how annoying evangelism can be. This might be one reason why I think the vast majority of atheists don’t talk about their beliefs. Not only do they not wish to become an irritating preacher, they fear that expressing their beliefs may invite tedious religious lectures. We don’t go knocking on doors asking if people have thought about atheism partly because we know the reputation Jehovah’s Witnesses have for being irksome evangelists.

For the record, I do think atheists should evangelise, although in a passive and respectful way. I’m in agreement with Ebonmuse when he says we should: “…inform people of our existence without intruding directly into their lives…”.

So I’d like to hear your opinions on what kind of behaviour is acceptable when evangelising. I’m talking about evangelism in the broadest possible sense. Where you are evangelising Christianity, atheism, healthy eating, a political party, feminism or your favourite music, I think similar guidelines should apply.

So what is reasonable? What is effective?Alternative rock group

I think in many cases what is most effective at getting your message across is likely to coincide with what is thought to be reasonable and respectful behaviour. People are less likely to want to hear about your alternative rock band if you barge into their house, insult them and make their children cry. However, there may be cases that are not so obvious.

I know evangelism of any kind rarely converts people on the spot, but it may generate some sympathy or curiosity for a point of view the listener had not previously considered.

I’d start by suggesting the following:

  1. Be willing to take “No” for an answer…