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Why do people feel bad about exposing false beliefs?
Posted: 23 March 2007 01:34 AM   [ Ignore ]
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In somewhat of an attempt to move past these other two threads:

There seems to be some feeling that it is wrong or bad when one exposes fraudulent beliefs held on faith. I myself even have this feeling.

From Randi’s debunking of Peter Popoff to this interesting video on YouTube of a "Chi Master" being beat down by a real fighter, there always seems to be a feeling of sympathy or discomfort when proving these people to be fakes.

So, why do people feel bad about exposing other people’s beliefs as false, and why only certain types of claims? It seems that people only feel bad about exposing "supernatural" claims as false, whereas showing that a natural misunderstanding, such as correcting 2+2=5, is not perceived badly.

Why do we sympathize with people’s faith, and in what way does this impede the mission of CFI, and what can be done about it?

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Posted: 23 March 2007 03:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I love this topic. As a magician and mentalist (“psychic entertainer”), I am a participant of a number of other discussion boards online (most of them are private) that relate specifically to magic and conjuring. Exposure of “false beliefs” is a frequent topic of debate on these boards, although with far less mean-spiritedness and far less deliberate mischaracterizations of postings than recently have occurred on CFI’s forums.

When this debate comes up on the magic boards, I am surprised to find how many amateur mentalists and some magicians are openly hostile to idea of magicians like Randi using their magic background to be skeptical of religious or paranormal practitioners such as John Edward, psychic surgeons, faith healers, psychic readers, etc. There seems to be a pervasive belief among a certain contingent of mentalists that any “debunking” is necessarily done in a grand-standing, mean-spirited way. Of course I disagree with this point of view, and often defend the notion of magician-as-watchdog. In fact, one of the college talks I give is precisely in defense of this idea.

Having been involved in zillions of such debates on these magic boards, I see the dynamic of people feeling bad about others’ exposure of false beliefs coming from at least two impulses:

1. The impulse to be easy-going and accommodating of others’ beliefs, no matter what those beliefs are and no matter their consequences. Taken to an extreme, this results in the widespread assumption that there is something wrong with suggesting a person may be mistaken about something. It is thought rude.

It seems to be about the worst thing you can do to tell someone he or she believes in something for which there is no evidence. “Everyone is entitled to his opinion.” And “Who are you to say someone else is wrong.”

Of course, this posture is one that CFI engages among our cultural competitors on a daily basis.

2. Another impulse that feeds the dynamic of people disliking the exposure of false beliefs comes from the kind of false beliefs they are: Randi’s and other skeptics’ work hits people where they live and breathe—it relates to the most basic and central questions people can ask about themselves, the universe, God or gods, the supernatural, and the meaning of life.

When a magician-as-watchdog exposes a faith-healing fraud, he shouldn’t expect plaudits from the congregation, but instead their vitriol: he has taken from them, if they believe his expos, central beliefs about their beloved pastor, the power of God in their lives,  the outcome of their current ailments, etc. He might also make them feel gullible and easily duped, which for most people isn’t a fun realization. It is a thankless job. Thank God for good citizens like James Randi who use their backgrounds to help people not be so taken advantage of, even if they are hated by some as a result.

As a child, I got mad at my mom and dad when they took Santa from me; it took a while for gratitude to outweigh the sense of loss.

***

Now, about your last question—“Why do we sympathize with people’s faith, and in what way does this impede the mission of CFI, and what can be done about it?”

This is something we grapple with a lot at CFI.

At CFI, we say, even if it is inevitably rocking the boat, people are better served if they subject all of their beliefs to critical scrutiny, especially the most closely held ones regarding religion, God, immortality, free will, morality, political philosophy, etc. Even if that means those beliefs will be undermined.

But how do we go about encouraging people to look at the evidence of their beliefs, subjecting their beliefs to critical scrutiny?

1. Show compassion. Have a heart for people who believe things you think are nonsense, without condescending to them. Prize debate, but be polite (without politeness, can there be any real virtue?—politeness is the beginning of all other virtue). It might mean that messages ought to be especially tailored for the audience in mind. For instance, itis probably true that people in Popoff’s pews are being duped, but will it do any good service to them if a skeptic disrupte their service railing against their “idiocy”? Methods like Randi uses offer much more benefit, as they patiently gather evidence and result in public education.

2. Don’t compromise on the truth. Showing compassion for the credulous doesnt mean compromising on the truth. My grandmother, with whom I am very close, is something of a fundamentalist Christian. When we talk religion, I dont fight. If she asks me why I believe or lack belief, I say so, but realize completely that my relationship with her is far more important than winning an intellectual row. Still, my love for her demands that I be honest about my beliefs, and not pretend to be a believer in order to not upset her.

3. Provide viable alternatives. I dont think its enough to tear down, but oughtnt we also build? If you’re going to pull the rug out from under someone, put something else there in its place. We work hard at CFI to not just be critical of some of the reigning mythologies of the day, but to provide what we think are rational, ethical, satisfying alternatives—secular humanism I think gives religion a run for its money, provides a very competitive life-stance without recourse to the supernatural.  Whereas atheism just tells you what I don’t believe in, not what I do believe in, the worldview of secular humanism is about what I do believe (a long list of political, social and moral commitments that dont automatically follow from mere atheism).

4. Be able to move on. Sometimes a skeptic should put his reasons for his skepticism out there and just leave it at that. Even as we are tireless in our criticism of nonsense and nincompoopery, we should defend the right to stubbornly insist on believing nonsense. Young skeptics and humanists, atheists—and the more radicalized and activist among us—have such a deep sense of righteous indignation when someone around them believes in what they think is nonsense. I know atheists whose idea of a good time is to endlessly debate in high pitch and with gobs of enthusiasm why their neighbor the Mormon is wrong. But in the end, we should say the best that we can do (in the sense that even if we can do more, it might not be the best to do so) is to clearly communicate our skepticism, show our humanity in the process, understand the reasons why people believe what they believe, and leave it at that. Its a Sisyphean task to keep working against what we think is irrationality in society, but the world wont always be swayed by our rationality. Part of growing up is letting people believe nonsense if they stubbornly refuse to.


D.J. Grothe

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Posted: 23 March 2007 04:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Good points DJ.

I’m struck with the comparison between correcting normal errors in thinking and pointing out wrong beliefs held “by faith”.

It seems to me that most people are eager to learn, and most people have no problem if you demonstrate to them that they are doing something wrong or that they don’t understand something if it is, for example, how to fix a car engine.

“Oh, that’s how that works…”

Most people are excited to learn new things.

I just fixed the link to the YouTube video, I’m not sure if you watched it yet, but if not, do so.

That one is a little worse than some because it involves physically beating someone up, but still.

If that man had just said, “I’m the best fighter ever, and I can kick anyone’s butt, so bring it on,” then most people would have little sympathy for him when he got his butt kicked by a another fighter, but because he apparently really believed in magic, or was so used to faking or felt pressured and couldn’t think of a way out, or whatever, you tend to feel more sorry for him getting his butt kicked.

There seems to be some type of learning and some type of correction that people support and some type that they don’t.

Magic is a good example and a good place to start with this, because I am sure that you know that people can get excited about learning how a trick is done.

Perhaps it is a difference between people accepting that magic is just “meaningless tricks”, and not accepting that other things are simply “meaningless tricks”, so perhaps it is the meaning that people ascribe to their beliefs.

My belief’s don’t hinge on sawing people in half and pulling rabbits out of hats, but they may hinge on spiritual healing powers.

But I think that Randi’s general approach of showing people who these things happen and how they work is a much better approach than simply stating that they don’t work, or exposing fraud.

For example on the Tonight Show where Uri Geller was stumped, that was just bad, because that was embarrassing and it was just debunking and seemed cruel in a way (though it wasn’t because Uri Geller was a lair who was deceiving people and deserved to be exposed and made uncomfortable), but Randi showing how he did what he did has an opposite reaction, then its not so much a cruel debunking, but an enlightening “oh I see”.

But it is interesting that we sympathize with Uri Geller when he’s in the hot seat, but we don’t sympathize with other liars if they are lying about other things, and here Uri Geller was basically stealing from people, yet somehow people sympathize with him and don’t like it when his lies are exposed.

It’s mind boggling.

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Posted: 23 March 2007 04:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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OK what do you do about people who start climbing the walls like they’ve lost their minds?

Case in point:  My mother, for starters.  For example, we’ve had various conversations concerning why I do not accept Creationism (I.D.), but instead I accept Evolution.  It’s not Christian, don’t you know.  rolleyes  We start with Genesis’ creation story of course.  OK we seem to be fine at the start concerning the two contradictory stories Ch. 1 and 2 in Genesis, because she has even wondered why there are two creation stories.  Go much beyond that and she regresses to a child like state and acts like she is going to cry, saying, “You’re hurting me.”  It can be as simple as mentioning the timeline is off- the world was not created in 6 days and is not 6,000 y.o.  I can’t get much beyond the dates being off by several million years.

Then she starts worrying about my salvation and that I may not be going to Heaven.  I don’t have the heart to tell her this it and we have to live this life to the best of our abilities, because I know she will get even worse.  I do try to reassure that I’m fine, but let’s not go into that fact that it bothers her and not me that my 18 y.o. has chosen to be a Tao Buddhist (whatever that combo is).  She thinks I should be hurt because he says he’s a Buddhist and not a Christian.  I’m not though and I tell her that he will find his own way.

Then all of a sudden, with these conversations, she gets irate and virtually pins me against the wall demanding to know what I believe, under no circumstances.  You would think the Inquisitions were starting all over again.  It’s not a joking matter and not meant to be a funny statement.  It is a serious statement, so please don’t laugh.  In an act of self-preservation, I’ll tell her what she wants to hear when it goes that far, even though it’s not true, and she backs down.

Now my aunt is a little better and just says, “Let’s just drop it before this gets out of control.”

My grandmother, who’s 93 y.o., soon to be 94, just starts crying from the start realizing that I don’t accept the Bible’s account of creation.  I figure she’s 93, let her be and don’t push it with her.  Just let her digest that I reject the Bible and let it go.  Of course, she thinks I’m going to Hell in a hand basket because I’m a Humanist, which in her opinion, is demonic.  rolleyes

What do you do with that?  Esp in the case of my mother?  I’m a grown woman who’s almost 41 y.o., yet when she gets that way it’s very overwhelming and if I dare say, a bit frightening.

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“Sometimes in order to see the light, you have to risk the dark.” ~ Iris Hineman (Lois Smith) The Minority Report

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Posted: 23 March 2007 05:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I don’t know what to say about your situation, but clearly this is an important issue and one that CFI needs to really focus on IMO, and one that they do already focus on actually.

One group of the naysayers basically says “oh these beliefs are harmless, so what’s the big deal in just letting people beleive what they want,” or they claim that unless there are practical implications of the belief, i.e. believing that you can fly and then jumping out a window, then there is no reason to debunk it, but not only do I disagree, but this type of stuff shows that there indirect are consequences to thee beliefs and that they do become extremely important to people.

If these beliefs were so trivial then stuff like this wouldn’t happen.

It’s like what is said in “Breaking the Spell”, breaking the cycle of these beliefs can be difficult, but it has to be done, because it’s only difficult for people who have been indoctrinated with such beliefs in the first place, so we have to take action to stop this indoctrination, and that will be hard on those people who are indoctrinated, but unless we put a stop to it, the problem will continue.

You have broken that cycle already, so I tend to think that that’s enough for you. As long as the child breaks the cycle of the parent, its fine IMO.

Even if you were to convert back to Christianity, I doubt that you would ever enter the same state of mind and your mother. She, obviously, has never thought outside of that box. You already have, so even if you re-accept the religion, it still won’t be within the same box.

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Posted: 23 March 2007 05:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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This is true, but I was never a Fundie.  In fact, when I was little we only went to church when we visited my mother’s family.  My grandmother is Church of God and I have a great uncle who is a Free Methodist minister (soon to be 100 y.o.).  He had services that scared me so badly I wanted to run- the other direction.  Hour long alter calls to be saved and alike.

I was so much a freethinker at 7 y.o. that riding home from my grandmother’s home one time I was lying down in the back seat of our Vega (I’m very short), looking up at the sky and thinking, “We’ve been to the moon and back.  God is not up there.  If He is real, then where is He?”  Thanks to Gene Roddenberry, one of my heros, I started thinking for myself very early in life.  Sadly, I never got to meet the man.  :(  Anyway, that thought started my journey, believe it or not, and the beginning of many private thoughts that I pondered.

When I was 14, my mother was “saved” and “born again” at my great uncle’s church.  rolleyes  She had him baptise me in a river- I got swimmer’s ear, but my life was still the same.  No profound change what so ever.  I was still the freethinking me, only with swimmer’s ear.  (Go ahead, laugh.  I do.)  My mother decided to go back to church and knowing that I would rebel against Fundamentalism, she took me to a Lutheren church.  At 19 I left home and became an Episcopalian.  To my family, I had one foot in Hell and one on a banana peel, but they were happy that I was still going to church and left me alone.

Backing up a bit, as a teen still living with my mother, I got my hands on some Humanist literature.  I have forgotten what it was, but she found me reading it, snatched it from my hands, and stated, “THAT’S NOT CHRISTIAN!”  I never saw it again, but I knew then I was the black sheep of the family, because what I did read I appreciated and want to know more.

In the Episcopal Church, I ran into Bishop John Shelby Spong, now retired, and his writings.  What he said hit home and was truly me. Also around this time I had gone back to researching Humanism in even more depth- even signed up at COHE.  As I was reading one of his books I read something that was VERY humanist and surprised me because he’s a minister of the Christianity.  I wrote him and his reply back to me was, “Humanism is not anti- Christian or anti-God.  It is through the human that we experience the Holy, The Other. The Divine is The Ultimate (something, can’t read it) of the human.” He wants me to read his newest book “Jesus For the non-Religious” now, in which he says he attempts develops this thesis more.  I hate to say it, but he helped to open my eyes with what he said in his previous books about the Bible.  Not that I had accepted it before I read Spong, because I already knew it was written by man and what is written “evolved” from mythology, so therefore was in error, but I rejected it even more after reading what Spong has written.

Then I read Anthony Freeman, an excommunicated priest, who was involved with the Sea of Faith. Then got my hands on Jeaneane Fowler’s book, “Humanism: Beliefs and Practices” and I must say she is the best, next to Paul Kurtz of course.  The list of stuff I have read and listened to goes on and on and continues to this day, which has always included Humanism too.  My degree in Psychology has helped too and I still keep up with studies concerning the Psychology of Religion and alike.  Dr. Valerie Tarico’s book even caugh my eye, among others.  Sam Harris and Dawkins even got my attention eventually.  The list goes on and on, but I understand Dawkins when he talks about God (the Christain anthropomorphic God) and god (in the form of nature and the universe), thanks to Spong, Fowler’s discussion of Spirituality/Transendence in her book (I refer to her book when talking to people about Humanism), and my studies in neuro-Psychology.  I remember in one podcast, Dawkins said when people hear a scientist talk about God they say, “Oh he’s talking about the Christian God.  NO HE IS NOT!”  I broke out laughing.  When Harris talked about transcendence in one article recently, I knew exactly what he was talking about too.

I quit attending the Episcopal Church a few years ago for various reasons, including the idea, “If I don’t believe in the Theistic God, why am I still going?  Why do I go when I don’t want to go?”  Well, to keep others off my back, esp my family.  The reasoning was illogical, to borrow a phrase, so I quit going and eventually declared that I am a non-theist as well as a Humanist.

So, to make a long story short, like my dear role-model, Gene Roddenberry, I have grown into Humanism and continue to grow in it.

“Life has taught us that theism is dead. There is no supernatural God directing the affairs of history. Atheism, however, is not the only other viable conclusion. Supernatural theism is nothing but a human definition of God.”

- Bishop John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal bishop.

My answer was Humanism.  :D

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Posted: 25 March 2007 08:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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threat of violence: another reason not to confront people

This is hearsay, told to me by a guy married to a coroner in Tennessee. I haven’t been to the American South but he said the reason people there are friendly to each other includes the fact that many are armed to the teeth, and are “packing”. So you play it nice so you don’t end up on his wife’s disection table. He hears the worst stories every day, so his sample is probably off.
(Great post, Geoff, thanks for starting it. Martin)

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Posted: 26 March 2007 02:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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You know, I’m not surprised.  The Religious Reich has gone and lost their minds!  And they are right here in the South. You do know that “Jesus Camp” came out of Missouri don’t you?  The trailer was a horrid nightmere alone, IMHO, and very abusive to the children.  I have not seen the actual movie and have no plans to see it, but they are trying to brainwash and train the children, starting before the age of 7, to be “Soldiers for Christ”.  rolleyes  It’s boot camp for children of Christians and I must admit, on this respect, I’m with Dawkins on it being child abuse.

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Posted: 26 March 2007 03:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I agree with DJ.  It’s not a question of just “letting” people believe what they want because I don’t want to offend them.  I spend some time on a Christian forum, mainly defending evolution, but sometimes I speak philosophically about whether we can say for sure if God exists or not.  I try to keep these conversations as amicable as possible, but there always comes a time when it is clear they are going to believe this silliness no matter what say, so it’s best to just leave them alone before they get angry and ban me from the forum (and a few have made noises in that direction).  I like to quote Morpheus from The Matrix.  All I can do is show them the door.  They have to walk through it, and they can only do that when they are ready.

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Posted: 28 March 2007 06:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I agree with advocatus.  All we can do is to show them the door.  Unfortunately, most are not ready to walk through it and will not be for some time.

To use an example, I would ask someone to imagine themselves a nuclear physicist who has spent most of their career examining the possibility of cold fusion.  Assume you have looked at all the possibilities in detail and come to a definitive conclusion that cold fusion is not possible.  This conclusion has come through years of study, experimentation, and critical analysis of the research of others.  Now, assume that you speak to an acquaintance one day and learn that his preacher, who has no scientific training, told him in church that cold fusion is possible.  How would you approach this person?

It would probably do no good to attempt to convince them that their preacher is wrong, other than perhaps pointing out the difference in relevant expertise between yourself and the preacher.  Reference to research and experimentation, however, will most likely be useless because your target has no scientific background or ability to understand what you are talking about.  He would need a foundation of relevant scientific knowledge before he could make any sense of your arguments.  All he can do at this time is weigh the opinion of a well known, respected, and trusted authority, his preacher, against the word of a relative unknown, you.  Under those circumstances, there does not appear much point in even attempting a rebuttal.  The outcome is already clear.

But this is just what many atheists do in attempting to argue away the religion of their colleagues.  They approach the issue head on, attempting to directly attack the cherished beliefs that their religious brethren have accepted and most likely found their own ways to rationalize (to which they are personally attached) from childhood.  Most importantly, however, most religious people have never learned an important and necessary skill for analyzing such arguments, critical thinking.  It is often a foreign concept for a religious person to start from a null hypothesis and analyze each religious claim objectively, as atheists ask them to do.

I’ve found a more constructive approach to be to introduce your target to the tools you will be using and let them become familiar with them in a non-threatening context before using those same tools to discuss their specific religious beliefs.  When I think someone might be receptive to rethinking their religion (and this is a different question, since it often involves emotional needs that only religion can meet; they must have some incentive to look outside their religion before they will be receptive), I suggest books that look critically at other religions, like Islam (“Why I Am Not a Muslim” by Ibn Warrick) or Mormonism (“Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakaur).

They should have no qualms about (and may even have an internal incentive for) critically analyzing competing religions.  In doing so, however, they will learn important reasoning skills like textual analysis and historical context.  It may be that through this process, they naturally begin to look at their own religion through the same prism, because they want to demonstrate how superior their religion is to the competitor.  This would send them on the right track without any further intervention from you.

Regardless, however, if and when you do choose to broach the subject of their religion, they will at least have a foundation and context for the arguments and strategies you are using because they found the same approaches useful in debunking the religions of others.  Also, they may be less likely to get defensive, because they can more readily put themselves in your shoes as a critical observer of the religion of another.

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Posted: 28 March 2007 10:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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You can show them the door, but some people have these strange ideas about Atheism and will throw stones.  Just yesterday some Christian woman stated point blank in one of my classes that Atheists have no humour.  I said that isn’t true and she said “Yes, it is true.”  rolleyes  Then she got upset and said she didn’t want to talk about it.  She knows I’m a Humanist and is staunchly against anything that is not Christians. I’m not sure what her problem is, but she seems to enjoy taking every chance she can to throw stones via stereotyping those who aren’t Christian.  It’s a shame she won’t listen to one of the people who knows and if they have preconcieved notions, then those will have to go before they ever see the door.

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Posted: 29 March 2007 05:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I’ve found the best way to deal with this behavior is to be familiar with whatever text they find authoritative (in this case, the Bible) and use language from that text to demonstrate they are not being true to their faith.  It was, after all, Jesus who admonished a crowd not to throw the first stone unless they be without sin.  There are many other passages in the Bible that can be used in similar situations to great effect. 

Most of the believers I’ve run into aren’t very familiar with the scripture and thus aren’t in much of a position to debate you.  Also, they can’t very well argue with their own holy book.  There are many passages in the New Testament that talk about tolerance (as well as many that do not).  Many of the arguments for humanistic pursuits can be found there as well. 

The key is not to appear to be attacking their beliefs.  That is the quickest way to cause someone to be defensive, and thus closed to any further discussion.  It is best to seek areas of agreement rather than disagreement.  Over time, you may find their minds opened, a little bit at a time.

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Posted: 29 March 2007 02:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Yes you are absolutely right, lumberjohn.  Sometimes I think the only people who really do read the Bible are Atheists, Rationalists, Humanists, and alike.  “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is a good one, but I don’t know the chapter and verse of that one.

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Posted: 29 March 2007 02:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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My memory is fuzzy after about 70 years since I read it, but I think it was Christ’s statement to the crowd when they were about to stone Mary Magdelane.  I’d guess a Google search would give you the chapter and verse.

Occam

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Posted: 29 March 2007 03:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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No it wasn’t Mary Magdeline.  It was a woman who was an adultress though.

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Posted: 30 March 2007 08:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Back to the original topic of this thread: I think this is such an important question for those of us in the cognitive minority (dare I say the “cognitive elite” as Hitchens has referred to atheists, secularists, humanists, skeptics, etc) to be asking.

Seems to me there are two sets of considerations: philosophical and strategic.

Philosophically, we think we have very sound arguments or warrants for our positions of skepticism regarding the supernatural, the paranormal, and the ethical positions we tend to hold. We should never bend the truth just because the truth is unpopular. Engaging others who disagree advances our philsophical interests insofar as they may encourage similar skepticism among our cultural competitors. But this isnt always the case because of the second set of considerations, which are the strategic ones.

I dont think it is always in our interests as rationalists to rail against the credulous. Doing so can sometimes be unstrategic. I like the metaphor of leading a horse to water but not being able to force him to drink. Or as was mentioned above, showing those whom we think are overly-credulous a door but not being able to push them through it. Dawkins has a good take on this: to be uncompromising when it comes to the truth, but to show decorum, civility, humanity—you dont tell a religious patient dying of cancer in the throes of the illness that when she dies she is dead and her consciousness will be snuffed out and it will be for her as if she never existed in the first place.

When it gets down to it, the job of the skeptic is an unpopular one, but we can make it somewhat easier on ourselves while also maximizing the positive benefit of our skepticism to others by advancing our skepticism of the reigning paranormal and religious beliefs in a humane, even caring way, and especially by showing its benefits to others.

This is the doozy: are skeptics happier? Do they get more out of life? Does being more reality-based lead to a life that is richer, help one to flourish more? Does skepticism really benefit people?

As these kinds of questions explored more and more by our community, thats when we can have the most effective sales-pitch. (As opposed to merely being correct, and leaving it at that).

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"Few have the courage of their convictions. Fewer still have the courage for an attack on their convictions." - Nietzsche

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