Tag Archives: Richard Dawkins

“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!).


Critics of the New Atheists and the curious case of Vridar’s Neil Godfrey

voldemort The Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz calls it the “Voldemort effect”: we must follow Obama’s lead and refer to “extremism” and never mention that we actually mean “Islamist extremism”. For most people, the idea that Islamist theology contributes to the extremist nature of Al-Qaeda and ISIS is obvious. But, to others, this idea is anathema. Since criticism of ideas can be misinterpreted (deliberately?) as condemnation of people, any critique of Islamist ideology can be disallowed and dismissed as “racist”. For wanting to reform his own religion, Maajid Nawaz has, bizarrely, been labelled an “Islamophobe”.

New Atheists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris get called worse. Many people delight in denigrating New Atheists whenever they can, accusing them of everything from a lack of scholarship to being unthinking “fundamentalists”.

At this point, let’s state the blatantly obvious. The causes of ISIS-style extremism are never simple, with multiple factors always being involved. As Nawaz and Harris agree in this recent discussion, the factors leading someone to become radicalised are multiple, and some of them are: (1) Western foreign policy and interventions in Muslim-majority countries; (2) their own personality; (3) their friends, social groups and exposure to radical preachers; and (4) their theology and their interpretation of their theology. The combination of all such factors, and more, is important. It would be quite wrong to say that any one of these factors, by itself, would always lead to violent extremism. Human beings are never that simple.

If one is a critic of US foreign policy, as many liberals are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that US foreign policy plays. If one is a critic of religion, as New Atheists are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that religion and theology play. That is all fair.

The problem comes from those who want either to exonerate religion entirely, or just to sneer at New Atheists for the sake of it. Such a person might then claim that Western foreign policy is the only relevant factor leading to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and that the presence of religion is irrelevant. Continue reading