Here’s a truism we’re all familiar with: The wiser we get, the more we realize how little we know. It’s especially true of scientific investigation and education. More importantly, it’s a foundational difference between religion and science. The hallmark of science is its malleability. When the data changes, the hypotheses change. The best scientific thinkers are the ones who are constantly aware of the possibility of error and the dangers of asserting “ultimate truth.”
Unfortunately, this is one of the most troubling aspects of scientific thinking for many religionists. Some are unsettled by the notion that we can never be certain about anything. Others misunderstand the nature of uncertainty. Most, I believe, are suffering from an even more basic — and ultimately more “human” — problem. The language of science is emotionally unappealing and “wishy-washy.”
Politics, Religion, and Science
We can learn a lot from examining Republican Religionists’ reactions to politicians. They parse every word of political speeches, searching for any signs of doubt or inconsistency. They favor politicians like George W. Bush, who “say what they mean and mean what they say.” They want consistency, depth of passion, and fervor of belief. When a well educated critical thinker speaks, they deride him for “flip-flopping,” and having no “core values.” They see open-mindedness as a sign of moral weakness.
Most scientists will readily admit that science doesn’t have all the answers, and that no answer is completely reliable. Unfortunately, this plays poorly in an argument:
Religionist: I know for certain that my god is the one true god of the universe, and I am convinced beyond doubt that my mission is to save America for the higher purpose given to me by none other than god himself. Can you, Mr. Science, say the same thing?
Scientist: Well, no, not exactly, but you’re framing it in a way that makes it seem wrong to be less than certain…
The scientist is right. Doubt is essential to gaining knowledge. But to an observer, the scientist has just showed signs of weakness. He does not “really believe” his story. He’s flip-flopping. Waffling. Hesitating. He lacks conviction of belief.
Psychology and Belief
Unfortunately, the problem is bigger. There is abundant scientific evidence that arguing facts doesn’t work. We all suffer from confirmation bias to some degree. When we’ve internalized a belief so completely that it becomes part of our identity, it’s almost unavoidable. Humans are very, very good at picking out only the parts of an argument that support their position, and rationalizing other elements away.
Worse still, there’s ample evidence that when we are confronted with contradictory evidence, we dig in that much harder! We mistake rationalizing for reasoning. This is known as “motivated reasoning,” and it happens because we experience emotion faster than we think rationally. When faced with contradictory information, we first experience a fight or flight emotional reaction, and then our ability to reason kicks in. Unfortunately, our emotions often overwhelm both our desire and ability to reason once we’ve gone into defensive mode.
Arguing Science: The Paradox
Ironically, science has given us hints for arguing science. We skeptics, free-thinkers, and atheists have been reticent to embrace them. Perhaps… just perhaps, we’re experiencing a bit of fight-or-flight confirmation bias ourselves.
So how do we do it? How do we argue science effectively? I’ve already told you the answer, but I suspect many of you have skipped over it in favor of reinforcing your views on religionists.
I’ve just outlined what does and what does not work on religionists (and atheists, too…) but it’s likely that many readers just heard the negative. Religionists don’t respond to science. They dig in deeper when opposed. They don’t like accurate portrayals of uncertainty. But also contained in this article is what they do like. They like emotions. They like depth of passion. They like consistency. They like things that agree with their beliefs.
The answer, then, becomes very simple. To argue with a religionist, we must use emotion. We must display passion. We must be consistent. And perhaps most importantly, we must begin the discussion by giving them something to agree with. Once we have them in an agreement frame, we must keep them there as long as possible by appealing to things they do value. We must show them that what they value and desire is consistent with what we are saying.
It’s basic advertising. We don’t convince someone that they want our product. We convince them that our product is what they want.
Please, please do not gloss over the last point. It’s important enough to say again. To avoid the fight or flight reaction, we must begin by giving them something they agree with and want. From then on, we must continually appeal to their emotions and their respect for passion and consistency.
To many non-believers, this may sound like heresy. The whole point of thinking scientifically is to take emotion out of the equation and think objectively, right?
Right. But a discussion with a theist is not a science experiment. It’s a human interaction, and the rules of persuasion are different than the rules of scientific experimentation. If you want a theist to start thinking scientifically, you must first help them want to think scientifically. You cannot appeal to scientific thinking to get them to value scientific thinking because… DUH… They don’t value scientific thinking!
The way to a theist’s emotions is right there in front of us, and all we have to do is emulate it. We have thousands of preachers and politicians and “motivational speakers” to model. Many of us used to be Christians. We remember what worked on us. It seems daft not to embrace those techniques just because our god-belief changed.
Is it manipulative? Yep. It is. Unquestionably. But it’s also the way humans work, and there’s no moral victory in pretending humans aren’t… human.
Arguing rationally without emotional appeals does not work on laypeople. It works at science conventions (to a degree) because everyone there is well trained and has already embraced the value of objective critical thinking. They have an emotional desire to think critically.
We must realize first and foremost that we are not different in kind from religionists. We are just as emotionally attached to our position as they are to theirs. That doesn’t make us wrong. It makes us human. Science works. Religion doesn’t. We can prove that. But all the proof in the world won’t overcome the desire to believe. We must begin with desire. Anything else is just spinning our wheels.