Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Why I engage

I had an online discussion (or perhaps a “run-in”) with a Mormon guy who I disagreed with on some issue. The issue isn’t important (gay people). What was interesting was his way of dealing with the disagreement. His response was essentially: I don’t expect you to agree with me. I’m a Mormon. You’re an ex-Mormon atheist. Our worldviews are too different.

Now I think this is a cop-out. I’m very open to hearing other views, and if they’re based on sound evidence and logic, I’ll even change my mind. But his “different worldview” view allowed him to miscast my reasons for not accepting his argument. It wasn’t that his reasons or his argument weren’t good ones; no, no. It was that I wasn’t open to change, or that our views just weren’t reconcilable.

I think this is projection on his part. While reason and evidence would change my mind, I seriously doubt that it would change his. He’s the one who is immune to reasoned argument because reason isn’t how he arrived at his religious opinion. And if he tries to use secular arguments, they’ll be hollow because they’re not his real reasons. He’s just using them to justify his religious reasons. He hauls out the secular reasons when he’s talking to secular people, but if those arguments are faulty, it won’t affect him at all. He’ll just shrug and keep believing.

I mentioned the discussion to an ex-Mormon friend who knows him, and to my surprise she said essentially the same thing: What did you expect? He’s a Mormon. He lives in Provo, for crying out loud.

I find this baffling. Here I am on the blog, and a lot of readers probably agree with things I write because, after all, we can’t read everything, and we like to pick things to read that make us feel good about our worldview. (Or I do.) But I’m also happy to engage with readers who disagree, and in fact I hope I get a lot of them. I learn a lot more that way, and it’s more interesting. But I feel like I’m standing on a chasm, shouting to ideological opposites.

Is there any point to discussing things? (Have I done any good on the blog today?) Or are we doomed to be divided into two camps that can never understand each other because of our different worldviews? I don’t think so. I think there’s a point to engaging in the Great Debates for two reasons.

First, people do change their views. I have, quite a lot, and I’ll do it again. Engaging with others is my way of saying that maybe no one’s beyond hope. Okay, maybe an online discussion won’t change the committed, in which case I’ll still keep arguing and discussing because I’m not trying to convince the committed — I’m trying to convince uncommitted bystanders.

The other reason I engage is that if I’m wrong about something, I want to know about it. How is it that I can say so confidently that there’s no evidence for the Book of Mormon? that that arguments for gods are uniformly awful? Because I’m here on the blog, and anyone who wants to can tell me something I don’t know, and I’ll consider it and change my mind if necessary. It’s not just meme propagation. It’s my continuing education.


  1. "Is there any point to discussing things? (Have I done any good on the blog today?) Or are we doomed to be divided into two camps that can never understand each other because of our different worldviews? I don't think so. I think there's a point to engaging in the Great Debates for two reasons."

    I don't much care for the word worldview because reality is not a viewpoint. Also, there's nothing to debate. Reality is what it is. Normal people don't have debates about it.

    "Is there any point to discussing things?"

    Can stupid be fixed? I don't think so. Evidence for reality can be shown to brain-damaged religious people. After that it's up to them to decide whether or not they want to grow up. Usually they prefer to live in the Dark Ages, because they're cowards and because they're just plain stupid.

    I would ignore these god-infected nutjobs if they learned how to keep their insane fantasies to themselves, but it's difficult to ignore religious lunatics when they're brainwashing innocent children or flying airplanes into buildings.

  2. "He's the one who is immune to reasoned argument because reason isn't how he arrived at his religious opinion."

    Nobody uses reason to pick a religion. Certainly atheists don't; theism has so many health benefits that the only logical choice is to be a theist. All religions (or whatever you want to call atheism) are based in faith, not logic.

  3. Re Original Article:
    It's really the issue of separate magisteria. If you (deeply, ie. subconsciously) believe in that, then there is no point, and noone will change your view in one magisteria from another. Think dual-boot laptop – if I fix software on one OS, there's no effect on the other.
    However, if people don't deeply hold to that separation (and I think it is actually pretty hard to do – brains like coherence), then the discussion has an effect.
    STRAW MAN ARGUMENT: "I explained some clear facts and logical conclusions to somebody, and they didn't change their mind. Therefore: people don't change their views in response to reasoned argument."
    What is wrong here? It denies the probabilistic nature of our fundamental reasoning processes. In Bayesian terms, there can be a tug-of-war between the prior level belief in something (untrammeled by evidence), and the conditional likelihood of the evidence we see if that something were true. All you can do in arguing with someone is hope to influence that conditional likelihood. Even if you dominate there (win the argument), the prior likelihood settings might drown you out. But the next time they meet an argument in the same direction, it might tip the balance.
    So keep drip, drip, dripping on that stone 🙂

  4. Maybe you'd be interested in a modern day author who takes to be one of his main tasks the mapping of different worldviews and the discussion of how people move through them by integrating more and more perspectives. I don't know if that's such a good description of his work, but anyway, maybe you'd be interested in checking out what Ken Wilber has written. Maybe not. Just putting it out there since you have a healthy attitude towards inquiry.

  5. Arguments are fun, especially when you're winning. Arguing on the internet is particularly popular because it's easy for both participants to believe that they're winning.

  6. Let me cheekily link to my blog posting here addressing this issue from a Bayesian view of belief and belief updating (crazily assuming humans act as rational agents in updating their beliefs). Warning: Here be Mathematics!

  7. Practical strategies of for moving people from a "faith and feeling" based epistemology to an "evidence and reason" one is offered by Peter Boghossian in his new book A Manual for Creating Atheists.

    "Peter Boghossian draws on the tools he has developed and used for more than 20 years as a philosopher and educator to teach how to engage the faithful in conversations that will help them value reason and rationality, cast doubt on their religious beliefs, mistrust their faith, abandon superstition, and irrationality, and ultimately embrace reason."

    He emphasizes Socratic questioning that steers clear of beliefs (what people claim to know) and continually bring it back to "how" they know – meeting people where they are, being sensitive to the context, understanding that a relationship of trust must first be established, etc.

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