Monday, January 27, 2014

Talking them out of God

On my recent visit to Manteca to speak to Stanislaw Humanists about the resurrection, we had a bit of drama with some local church members.  When I arrived at the library to speak, there were 300 or so people assembled outside for a counter-protest/prayer vigil/religious service.  They had a P.A. system set up, were playing music, praying, passing out food, and so on.  During my talk, among other things, they encircled the building, held hands, and prayed fervently about what was going on inside.  A number of them sat through my talk and asked some questions after.  A couple of self-described “security” guys came in and out during the talk, had intense conversations on radio headsets, and scowled at me while I talked.  A number of them lurked outside the open door to the lecture hall and listened.  I invited them to come in and sit down, but they refused.  Some others who were passing by shouted into the room later in the talk.  And when I walked back to my car at the end of the night, a car full of people followed me slowly and finally drove off when I got in my car and started it. 
Here’s a video of the talk:

(Inexplicably, YouTube won't let me embed this one.)  

In a video of their sermon the week before, one of the pastor’s said, “We must drive back this demonic attack from our city” language during the prayer.  And also note the territorial language in their characterization of my visit. 

There’s a lot to comment on here.  But I want to focus on a particular issue that’s been on my mind.  Let’s talk on a meta-level about what’s going on when someone like me tries to give a carefully reasoned argument for why someone like the believers who showed up to my talk should stop believing. 

First, the Salem Witch Trials argument that I’ve been presenting for some years now, and in my book, is, as far as I can tell, a devastating argument against anyone who thinks that there is adequate historical evidence to justify believing in the resurrection.  No false modesty here.  The point is that if the really sketchy historical information we have about Jesus warrants concluding that he was resurrected, then the evidence we have concerning witchcraft at Salem, which is vastly better by any measure of quantity and quality, warrants us in concluding that there were really witches at Salem.  But, of course, there was no magic at Salem.  So we should reject both.  There are lots more details about this argument in my book. 

But here’s what I want to get to.  First, this sort of argument has almost no effect on the majority of believers who hear it.  That is due, in large part to motivated reasoning.  This is a well-studied proclivity in humans to acquire a belief, and then evaluate all new information they encounter in ways to make it conform to that belief.  Preference inconsistent information is critically evaluated with much more sever skepticism, and preference consistent information is accepted with much less critical scrutiny.  That is, if it’s not what we want to hear, we figure out some hyper-critical way to find flaws in it and reject it.  We all do it about lots of topics.  My book full of skeptical arguments about Jesus, not surprisingly, has brought motivated reasoners out in droves. 

These days, I find the base phenomena of motivated reasoning and the psychology of belief more interesting than actually engaging in the philosophical debate over that Salem argument.  The Salem argument is a slam dunk, as I see it.  The only question that remains is, what are the real reasons, psychological, social, personal, and neurobiological, that it just bounces off of so many believers? 

One of the reactions in Manteca got my attention.  Someone said something like this, “He’s making this argument comparing Jesus to the Salem Witch Trials or some nonsense, and he thinks that Jesus wasn’t real. [That wasn’t my argument, of course]. But we all know because of the presence of Jesus in our lives, and because of what we’ve seen God do that God is real and Jesus is his one true son. . . .  “ 

So I want to talk about that part:  the body of evidence that folks like the ones who showed up for my talk, take to be resounding proof of God.  I’m going to speculate a bit about what that is. 

First, this group of believers, like many in the U.S., is highly adept at getting themselves into a state of religious ecstasy, for lack of a better term.  Watch this bit of video, shot by local activist Dan Pemberton, of them praying.

Note the swaying, waving of hands, eyes closed, speaking in tongues, moral elevation, and altered state of consciousness in many of them.  And notice how quickly and easily they can slip into this state as they work themselves up.  There are some very powerful feelings surging through people here.  Undeniably uplifting, positive feelings of elation, transcendence, connection with something larger, and so on.  Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others have called something like this moral elevation: 

But I think what’s going on here also merges on to religious ecstasy:

Ok, so let’s take a believer and take the sum of all these ecstatic moments that she’s had as a part of her evidence.  What else is there? 

There’s probably also a number of cases where she’s prayed fervently for something—for a loved one to get better from illness, for someone to overcome drug addiction, for guidance about some important decision, and so on—and then as she sees it, later, the outcome she prayed for happened.  A loved one got over an illness, someone recovered from drug addiction, etc. 

What else?  All of her friends and family believe fervently.  They are utterly convinced.  God existence and God’s presence in their lives is an obvious truth to them.  The fact that so many people around her, including lots of people whose judgment she trusts, itself is a part of her evidence.  It’s part of what’s leading her to believe.  And this makes perfect sense.  We all look to the people around us for guidance about what to believe. 

So what would be required to bring someone like this around?  Importantly, a person who believes needs to care about believing reasonably, they need to care about the evidence, they must have as a priority something like Hume’s principle:  Believe all and only those things that are best supported by the evidence.  And believe them with a conviction that commensurate to the quality and quantity of evidence in your possession.  And make a concerted effort to gather all the relevant evidence (pro and con) that time, resources, and prioritization requires.  Call this set of priorities a Rationality Principle. 

Obviously, the Rationality Principle is huge.  Lots of people don’t have it as a priority.  Lots of people don’t understand parts of it.  And lots of people fail to see how central it is to their achieving lots of their goals.  So a real discussion with a believer that has the goal of getting them to not believe may just turn into a broader, and more fundamental discussion of why she ought to adopt or care about this principle. 

Next?  Well, it’s important to note, I think, that our hypothetical believer here has a lot of what we should call evidence.  She has a number of observations, experiences, events in her life, and a lot of information that is relevant to whether God is real.  And as she sees it, that information all points towards the God conclusion.  So if we can assume that she holds the Rationality Principle, then we’ve got to address this body of evidence.  We’ve got to look at the ecstatic experiences, the “answered prayers,” the community belief, and the rest, and we’ve got to figure out what the best explanation of all of that is.  God’s existence is a possible explanation, but it’s pretty clearly not the best explanation.  But convincing someone of that is the hard part.  A nice, short analysis of a reasoning mistake that is often made about prayer is in this video:   

The problem with this piece that that the writing and the tone here is inflammatory.  Even though he’s making a set of very good points about how prayer is set up to be non-disconfirmable, he does it in a way that will offend people and obscure the message. 

What about the religious ecstasy?  I have a number of ideas about what might put those experiences into a larger, natural context for people.  They are common in lots of human religions, including ones that make contrary claims to Christianity.  So one person arguing for God on the basis of her ecstatic experiences is faced with millions of other people having just the same sorts of experiences but taking them to imply that the opposite is true.  People also have these experiences, or something very close to them, at Justin Bieber concerts, during football games, when the national anthem is played, during chick flicks, and so on.  They are common, easily induced naturally, and we don’t have any substantial reason to think that the best explanation here is supernatural. 

What about the community believer evidence?  Education is the best key here.  Manteca, for instance, is an isolated, rural town.  Lots of the people there who got sucked into that church at an early age have never seen or considered the alternatives.  They’ve never been around non-believers.  They know very little about other religious movements, religious history, or the broader context of human religious belief.  Learning the basics about worldwide religious movements puts human religiousness into context, and usually suggests a natural, rather than a supernatural explanation.  The Internet will save us, I think.  It is democratizing information for humanity in a way that has never occurred in history.  A massive flood of information is available to a greater portion of people on the planet every day.  And at the end of the day, the more someone like the people in Manteca, or someone in backwater village in India, knows about what other people out there in the world think, they more they will put 2 and 2 together.  In a few generations, religiousness, especially the worst, most dangerous parts of it, will drop dramatically.  Daniel Dennett is good on this point here:

So there’s a sketch of what I think is going on in the head of a subset of American Christian believers.  That’s an enumeration of their evidence, and some rough suggestions about what it will take to win them, or more likely, their children or their grandchildren over. 



David W said...

Hello Professor McCormick,

You wrote "First, this sort of argument has almost no effect on the majority of believers who hear it. That is due, in large part to motivated reasoning. "

I agree, but I would like to add that the bigger effect here is essentially the believer biting the bullet on this one and claiming that there was witchcraft there. I grew up as an evangelical Christian, and belief in witches, devils, demons and angels was common, if not universal; it is certainly encouraged from the pulpit at most Evangelical churches in my experience.
I was recently in a blog comment convo with a believer, I linked your Salem argument, and this believer just bit the bullet and said that she believed that there were probably witches there, and that witches do indeed exist today.
I don't really know where to go from there, when someone holds such a belief.
Anyhow, I wanted to post this quickly, but I plan on responding more in full later on.

David Wolf.
I was a student of your's back in 2002-2004 btw :)

Unknown said...


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Unknown said...

Fuckin' cray-cray.

Anonymous said...

First I would say I am sorry for the way that community treated you. It was quite ridiculous.

I also appreciate the fact that you acknowledge both sides of this debate can be prone to bias.

But in your lecture you make a few bad assumptions in this.

You seem to assume that the people who copied the texts only had the fragments we have now. The fact that the earliest texts are now only fragments is irrelevant.

I also did not hear you mention any reasons why we think these copies more or less accurately depict the original texts. For example they have been found in several different places from different times. If one copier got it wrong all the subsequent copiers would also get it wrong.

You seem to assume Mark and Luke would have waited for the last few chapter of Mark 125 years or whenever your scholar puts it. But that is illogical. They had written their accounts before the addition.

You seem to suggest the earlier Gospel of Mark does not have the discovery of the empty tomb but it does.

You say the abbreviated Mark lacks the doubting Thomas scene but of course that is not in the additional bit from the Gospel of Mark either. Nor is it in any of they synoptics. It's only in John's Gospel.

You suggest that Luke and Mathew just copied Mark with one other source Q source. You assume this other source must have been oral. You seem to be aware that both Luke and Mathew have material that is not in either Mark or this third source and are sources unique to them.

You suggest what you say is in no way controversial among scholars in this field. But you get allot of it wrong.

As to your point about salem, I think you breeze through it a bit fast. Confessing was a way to hopefully avoid the gallows. Witchcraft tough to fake? Not if people think milk going sour is or a calf being born with a malformation is proof of witch craft. As was girls who would drop down and convulse when they saw someone they were accusing to be a witch.

But really you don't examine either case very carefully. You just make a superficial mention of "truckloads of documents" without actually going into how consistent they are with each other and what motives people would have had to make allegations like that when you have a crazy figurative and literal witch hunt happening.

"Persons who scoffed at accusations of witchcraft risked becoming targets of accusations themselves. One man who was openly critical of the trials paid for his skepticism with his life."

Of course the opposite happened to early Christians. Scoffing at the resurrection would have been the way to save your life.

Perhaps you can make a case along these lines. I honestly don't know that much about Salem. But your presentation really presented no actual evidence to make a reasonable person (let alone a skeptical one) think the Salem with trials and early Christianity was the same sort of thing.

That said I would ask what your views of "pragmatic encroachment" are. You and most atheists tend to only focus on the probability of something being true and never the stakes of believing one way or another. Do you think considering the stakes involved with belief is irrational?

Anonymous said...

I think David W makes a good point and one I was sort of wondering as well.

As a follow up, I would point that from my perspective if I thought the evidence convinced me that there was in fact something supernatural happening, I wouldn't call it "biting the bullet."

After all I have not closed my mind to the possibility that supernatural things can occur.

Here is another thing to think about. Whether or not there was witchcraft in Salem is likely completely irrelevant to anything a theist thinks or does. Right now I am inclined to think it wasn't really witchcraft (perhaps based on fictionalized plays like the crucible.) But lets say I were to plow through the truckload of documents and in the end decide something supernatural likely occurred, it wouldn't change any of my behaviors. Other than that single belief it wouldn't really change much.

On the other hand if I for some reason was convinced that supernatural things never could and never did happen, well then it might change things around for me. Looking at that truckload of documents might actually teach me something.

Of course it would depend on what bias I had going in. I might go through them with my mind closed to the possibility that something supernatural happened. In that case, my belief will be immune to truckloads of evidence to the contrary.

Dennis said...

You have a problem connecting with the reality that surrounds you the blind leading the blind will both fall into the pit. Atheism and Evolution are both the same thing a God less blind society living life without understanding of how the world reality is, in a perfect state of harmony created by God finely tuned for the existence of all things. You live a life in perpetual denial of the obvious of all things created not by chance but created by the creator God. All scientific research now admit human gene is so complex could only happen by intelligent design not by chance. CERN is a failure they will never find the God particle again so complex beyond their compacity and intellect. So I pray that the true light of God will shine in your life and put you back on the right path.

Unknown said...

Again, 1-outta-1 upNcroaks, pal: while our mortal bodies decay in the grave, our INDELIBLE soul rises-up to await our Judgement, thus, Heaven or Hell approaches, brudda, based on what WE do after a wee, 77ish years.

Sad how you got your teaching position: filling your students minds withe whorizontal epithets.

trustNjesus, dude.
Meet me Upstairs.
gotta lotta tok bout...

Anonymous said...

We can raise precisely the same objection against the materialists and ask them, "If we follow the chain of causality back, we will ultimately reach the primary cause. Let us say that cause is not God, but matter. Tell us who created primary matter. You who believe in the law of causality, answer us Ws: if matter is the ultimate cause of all things, what is the cause of matter? You say that the source of all phenomena is matter-energy; what is the cause and origin of matter-energy?"

Since the chain of causality cannot recede into infinity, they can answer only that matter is an eternal and timeless entity for which no beginning can be posited: matter is non-created, has no beginning or end, and its being arises from within its own nature.

This means that the materialists accept the principle of eternity and non-origination; they believe that all things arose out of eternal matter and that being arises from within the very nature of matter, without any need for a creator.

Russell openly states this belief in the lecture quoted above. He says: "There is no proof that the world ever had a beginning. The idea that things must once have had a beginning results from the poverty of our imagination."4

In just the same way that Russell regards matter as eternal, believers in God attribute eternity to God. Belief in an eternal being is then common to materialist and religious philosophers: both groups agree that there is a primary cause, but believers in God regard the primary cause as wise, all-knowing, and possessing the power of decision and will, whereas in the view of the materialists, the primary cause has neither consciousness, intelligence, perception, nor the power of decision. Thus, the removal of God in no way solves the problem posed by eternal being.

Moreover, matter is the locus for motion and change, and its motion is dynamic and situated within its own essence. Now, essential motion is incompatible with eternity, and matter and essential stability are two mutually exclusive categories that cannot be fused in a single locus. Whatever is stable and immutable in its essence cannot accept movement and change within that essence.

How do Marxists, who believe that matter is accompanied by its antithesis, justify the eternity of matter?

Anonymous said...

To suppose that accident is the infrastructure of the universe and its governing principle does not rest on any *logical* proof or scientific evidence cannot be accepted as a definitive solution to the geometry of the structure of being.

When the experimental sciences demonstrate that the elements and natural factors cannot exert any independent influence and do not possess any creativity; when all of our experiences, our sensory feelings, and our rational deductions point to the conclusion that nothing occurs in nature without a reason and cause and that all phenomena are based on an established system and specific laws, when all of this is the case, it is surprising that some people turn their backs on scientific principles, primary deductions and propositions based on reflection, and deny the existence of the Creator.