“Sharing Reality” and how to persuade people

How does one best persuade people to favour a secular and science-based view of life? That’s the topic of Jeff Haley and Dale McGowan’s new book: Sharing Reality: How to Bring Secularism and Science to an Evolving Religious World (of which the authors kindly gave me a review copy). [Amazon.co.uk link; amazon.com link]

They start by discussing how not to do it. They quote Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remarks to Richard Dawkins:

“And it’s the facts plus the sensitivity [that], when convolved together, create impact. I worry that your methods, and how articulately barbed you can be, end up simply being ineffective.” It’s significant that Tyson didn’t complain that Dawkins’s approach was unpleasant or disrespectful. He said it was ineffective. His argument is that Dawkins’s own presumed goal of convincing others that his ideas are worthy and important is short-circuited by a failure to consider the state of the mind on the receiving end of those ideas.

It’s a common complaint, that Dawkins is too acerbic and dismissive of religious opinion, appearing to talk down to people. For example, Emily Willoughby writes:

With few exceptions, the strategy for combating creationism has been one of attacking and dismissing the foundation of this belief system. Yet it should be obvious that mocking someone’s beliefs does not win ideological battles.

But is it indeed “obvious” that such tactics are ineffective? A gentler approach might lead to a more pleasant interaction, but one which, thereby, has little long-term impact. After all, religious commitments are largely emotional, and it may need emotion, not anodyne interactions, to alter them. I’m willing to bet that Dawkins has persuaded more people to adopt atheism than any other individual one could name, and he does have a rather large collection of letters and emails from converts.

Further, and if nothing else, open disrespect for religion can move the Overton window, altering how religion is treated in society. Indeed, haven’t the New Atheists largely succeeded in doing that?

I don’t claim to know how best to persuade people, and would be interested in actual evidence about this (which is not the same as people reporting what is “obvious”). I suspect that a range of styles, from the aggressive to the conciliatory, might be best overall, with different people adopting the style that best suits them. In particular, in the public media, an acerbic and dismissive attitude to religion might be optimal, whereas when talking to individuals, especially people you know, a more friendly and conciliatory approach might be better.

The book by Haley and McGowan is at the conciliatory end of the spectrum, though it itself is not aimed at persuading religious people, it is instead advice to the non-religious on how to persuade people. Their aims are ambitious, they want to persuade society to accept a secular and sceptical outlook that embraces science. They coin the term “evidism” to connote “the value of discovering and accepting truth in all matters”.

Only by empowering people, by lifting them out of ignorance and fear, can the strength of real knowledge begin to eclipse the power of traditional or intuitive false beliefs. The most effective way to achieve that empowerment doesn’t start with ridicule, which often causes people to retreat further into the ridiculed belief. It begins with empathy for those who still find themselves in the grip of those natural beliefs.

One immediate problem with the term “evidism”, however, is that everyone thinks that they themselves are judging sensibly on the evidence, and are arriving at truth. No-one thinks of themselves as needing “lifting out of ignorance and fear”.

We might think of the religious that way, but the term “evidism” could well meet the reply: “of course I’m judging on evidence, I’m an evidist myself, that’s why I’m a Christian and accept the literal truth of the Bible and reject the pseudo-science of Darwinism!”. Very few of those who reject evolution or climate change or the efficacy of vaccination think of themselves as rejecting science, they think of their opponents as rejecting science in favour of ideological atheism or “Big Pharma” or whatever.

I agree with the authors that there is no ideal term to rally around (atheism, humanism, naturalism, secularism, non-theist, freethinker; all have drawbacks) but I’m not convinced that evidism is an improvement, leaving aside the very low likelihood of an invented new term actually catching on.

A further strategy that the authors suggest is to re-interpret religion in ways making it fully compatible with science. They want to “give space for religions to evolve to change their positions on facts to be consistent with science”. The idea is that religion is too big, too entrenched to overturn, and thus a better strategy is to subvert religion by turning it into doctrines that accept the secular, scientific outlook that the authors want.

Well maybe, and there are already religious groups like this, the Unitarian Universalists and some varieties of Buddhism. But they’re very much minority positions. Yes, wouldn’t it be great if all religions with supernatural beliefs rejected their theologies and accepted naturalism? But persuading people to do that would likely be no easier than persuading people to simply stop being religious.

Religion is still sufficiently prevalent in the US that American authors can tend to accept its dominance as a given, but the experience of parts of Europe and Scandinavia shows that whole populations can simply — and over not that many decades — become less religious to the extent that religion is no longer as big a problem.

A large part of the 200-page book is taken up with advice on the nature of science, on promoting education and secularism, and on human cognitive biases that can get in the way of a scientific outlook. Much of this is sensible and knowledgeable and well worth a read. I couldn’t help thinking, though — and here I’m probably being a bit unkind — that much of this had a slight air of naivety, as though all we have to do is explain all of this to our acquaintances and they’ll be persuaded. Would that such would work! As a teacher I know that you can explain something as clearly as you can six times spread over a semester, and half the class will then demonstrate in the exam that they still don’t understand. And that’s about mere factual stuff that should be easiest to teach; changing people’s values and world view is harder.

What is lacking here is an account of having put all this good advice into practice and of how well it worked. The authors’ scheme needs to be battle tested, and shown to work better than the ongoing cacophonous debate. Have they tried the term “evidest” on their acquaintances? How did it go?

As it is, the advice is too theoretical, whereas what would interest me is reports of what did actually work in practice, of testing and controlled trials, and of hands-on experience of having changed people’s minds. Is Dawkins’s approach actually counter-productive? (Hard evidence please, not just gut feeling!) Does Neil de Grasse Tyson’s gentler approach (he refuses to even call himself an “atheist”, though he is one) work better? (Ditto!).


20 thoughts on ““Sharing Reality” and how to persuade people

  1. Robert

    Part of the problem is that science is a material belief system. It does not address the non physical reality that seems to exist independent of the material world, and so science will never replace religion. Only religion will replace religion. And it’s not religion that will have to be shaped to fit within the philosophy of science, but science that will have to be restated to include the larger context of existence!

    1. Peter N

      Robert —

      Sorry, no. We have only to look at the example of northern Europe to see that people can get along just fine without religion at all. Religion flourishes not because there is a need for religion — it flourishes in a climate of fear, such as is societies with widespread uncertainty of economic and healthcare security. Fix those and religion will disappear on its own!

    2. Robert

      Your concept of religion is different than mine. As well is your concept of science.
      I do not believe in the truth/reliability of the western monotheists, but my friend, the west does not point to the answers I am referring to!

    3. Robert

      You are conflating the materialist religions with materialist science, and of course they both rely on authoritarianism and ignorance!

    4. vampyricon

      If it’s non-physical, which I presume means “cannot be detected via physical means”, it means the “non-physical ‘reality'” doesn’t interact with physical reality. If it doesn’t interact, how do you distinguish it from being nonexistent?

    5. vampyricon

      I also find it ironic that you claim science is just a materialistic belief system when you are using the fruits of its labor to spread such an evidently false claim.

    6. Robert

      Non physical means nonmaterial, no energy, the absence of space and the absence of linear time! And no science is not the original source of the implied belief in the non physical reality, Hinduism and Buddhism accomplished that thousands of years about!
      What I find vain and arrogant is that you think western monotheism are the only religious belief systems! And that you do not recognize how patently absurd these western religions are!

    7. vampyricon

      I don’t recognize how patently absurd western religions are? Just because I can recognize how patently absurd your claims are doesn’t mean I accept the absurdity of other religions. And I’m quite sure non material means nonexistent, especially since you’ve said it also has no energy. Everything has energy. Show me how I can reveal this so-called non physical “reality”?

    8. Robert

      I’m not going to spend more time explaining this shit to you after this, so pay attention!
      Matter is the primary physical property. Energy, space and time are all secondary properties or emergent properties.
      When you ad up all the positive and negative energies in the universe together you get zero. No matter, no energy, no space and no time.
      The only thing that will remain in tact is nonlinear time!
      Good luck!

    9. Robert

      I’m not spreading anything. The world is out of control and always will be out of control. Raising the level of your consciousness won’t make one bit of difference to me or anywhere else!

  2. Roo Bookaroo

    Being of an ironic or satirical bent of mind, I couldn’t help admiring the sentence:
    “Sorry, your concepts are incomplete and seem at least uninformed”.
    What a fabulous way to put a final stop to any debate. This sentence should belong to an anthology of famous retorts or other “bons mots” that can be used to terminate a discussion. There are many more, but this one, so direct and peremptory, so pompous, so ex cathedra, strikes me as irresistibly hilarious. Just rereading it makes me smile every time.

  3. notabilia

    Fine review of the book with very cogent points.
    Put “evidism” into the crapper along with a host of other terms intended to replace the basically worthy and hardy term “atheist.” There the proposed winsome, flabby term will sit in media res alongside “brights,” “agnostic,” “freethinker,” “whatever the hell de Grasse Tyson wants to apply to himself, who knows what else litters this field of disastrous re-branding.
    Look at any term that becomes acceptable to an abjured sub-group – it’s the capacious ability to morph into different shapes that matter for the term to be relevant: “queer,” “black,” “whatever, the specificity of the label’s meaning does not matter as much as its unifying force.
    “Atheism” works, as did the heroic work Dawkins put into combatting its near-universal derogation by believers in his time of glory. Who cares about the concern-feigning of those who want to kvetch about his supposed temerity and subsequent failings- he did all the work back then.

  4. Brent Meeker

    I think Coel is exactly right. Acerbic criticism and even ridicule is effective when addressing an audience, as in a debate or lecture. But in a one-to-one relation what works best to is to set a good example (what a Christian would call bearing witness) of courtesy, empathy, good humor while resolutely defending science against superstition.

  5. Ron Murphy

    Robert, “I’m not going to spend more time explaining this shit to you after this, so pay attention!”

    I really don’t think we have worry about how Dawkins might offend the sensibilities of the religiously inclined.


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