Skeptical Sampler for “Super” Friends
Posted: 17 January 2009 10:56 PM   [ Ignore ]
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THE SHORT: Suppose you could recommend just a few resources to a friend who’s inclined toward supernatural beliefs but is willing to seriously consider a skeptical viewpoint.  What would you suggest that’s likely to “hook” him or her and motivate further exploration?

THE LONG: To make that a bit more concrete I’ll personalize it: Several friends (and relatives) of mine are smart, ambitious, good-hearted people leading busy, successful lives.  In many ways they’re reasonable and intellectually open, but religion is important to them (most are Christian).  I’d like them to seriously consider adopting a more rational, naturalistic worldview; I suspect some of them would See the Light.  I haven’t discussed this with most of them but would like to in the near future; if I do and “teachable moments” arise, I’d like to have in mind some articles, books, podcasts[1], blogs, videos, Web sites, films, or other sources toward which I can point them.

To be clear, I don’t want to compile a large bibliography to unload on my friends.  I’d rather offer them a select few high-impact pieces—concise stuff they’re likely to read, watch, or listen to during their busy lives but that gets across key ideas in a compelling way.  I guess I’m sort of asking for the crack cocaine of skeptical material.  Also, as much as I’d like to, I don’t have time to sort through scads of resources to pick the few I personally like best; furthermore, I trust this forum’s collective judgment more than my own.

I realize it’s hard to recommend things for people you don’t know and who might have very diverse backgrounds, sets of beliefs, and motivations for maintaining those beliefs.  Think of your own friends (or family), if that helps.  If you want to explain any of your recommendations or qualify any of them as more appropriate for particular types of people or for sparking interest in certain kinds of worldviews, please do (but also feel free to just list a few).


Footnote

1. My initial idea was to ask for a handful of specific episodes of “Point of Inquiry.”  I may re-consider that in the future, but for now that seems too restrictive.

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Adam

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Posted: 17 January 2009 11:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Not sure how many is several in this case, or if you’re willing to spend a little, but my first thought is to get them gift subscriptions to Skeptical Inquirer, Skeptic and Free Inquiry (possibly the Humanist - depending where you live this changes - there’s great UK and Australian versions). I point those out because it seems your friends and relatives who you wish to “teach” may not have a problem with science in general? Subscription such as these would offer long term influence, they also offer a wide range of ideas, including book reviews and historical accounts.

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Posted: 17 January 2009 11:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I can suggest one negative idea: DON’T hit them directly over the head with something like “The God Delusion”. That just gets peoples’ hackles up. I suspect that the best approach would be to concentrate on the importance of rationalism. Mr. Gore’s “The Assault on Reason” addresses the topic, but he is an unfortunate author for the topic: the book will be pre-judged by all readers based upon Mr. Gore’s other work. I think that the best possible resource here would be an unimpeachable source extolling the virtues of reason. Can anybody suggest an alternative to Mr. Gore’s book?

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Posted: 18 January 2009 12:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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ROBERT: Ah, interesting suggestion!  I hadn’t thought of magazine subscriptions.  Although I had in mind something they could immediately go out and buy (or I could buy for them), I kind of like the idea of having them get something fairly accessible in their mailbox every few weeks as a reminder.  My only concern is that the contents of a particular issue is a bit of a crap-shoot, and it’d be unfortunate if the first few articles they skimmed turned them off.

CHRIS: I’m glad you mentioned avoiding “The God Delusion” and its confrontational ilk; these might be something to gradually work into conversations or to suggest once they’ve gotten interested enough to cope with some of Dawkins’s (or Harris’s, Hitchens’s, etc.) ideas without being put off.  I’ve heard of Gore’s “The Assault on Reason” but haven’t read it; I see your point about Gore’s reputation’s preceding him, though whether that’s problematic may depend on the reader.

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Posted: 18 January 2009 12:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Appeal to authority I don’t know of a specific book but some the best and most influential people were atheists. Would it be surprising to know Einstein, Galileo, Edison, Adams, Lincoln, Freud, Socrates, the author of “God Bless America” Irving Berlin were atheists?

I don’t think you should waste your time trying to convince them, you risk making them not like you so much.

[ Edited: 18 January 2009 12:36 AM by Some Guy ]
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Posted: 18 January 2009 12:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Breaking the spell by Daniel Dennet

“Despite my worry that Dennett is too hopeful that religious readers will be open to his arguments, I found Breaking the Spell thoughtful, informed and probing. It is surprisingly cautious: Dennett is sensitive to the limits on what we currently know and is mainly concerned to develop a research agenda. In discussing specific hypotheses about specific religions, he is not at all dogmatic. I doubt, though, that the book will reach the audience he wants.” - Kim Sterelny, American Scientist

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Posted: 18 January 2009 10:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Thanks, Dan.  I’m not sure how useful pointing out atheist luminaries would be, because that doesn’t provide much guidance for someone re-considering his or her worldview—unless maybe it were offered along with insights about *why* they opted to be atheists (do any good resources discuss various luminaries’ rationales for their non-belief?).  Also, it can easily devolve into meaningless comparisons between which “camp” has more (in number or degree) influential people (and who decides what “influential” means?).  Of course, I have no empirical evidence about how effective this approach might be; it could actually be useful to at least point out things like this (e.g., the percentage of top scientists who are non-religious).

At any rate, I’ll need to decide for myself whether the benefits of (maybe) leading a friend toward a more enlightened worldview outweigh the costs of (potentially) losing the friendship.  Dennett’s book seems promising.

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Posted: 18 January 2009 11:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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PsyStat,If these people are already ambitious,intelligent,and kind-hearted folks than what further can you hope to gain?
I mean really? Ambitious,Intelligent and kind-hearted.Perhaps some of these quality traits are reinforced by the very dogmas you wish to quelch.
I would offer you this idea though:introspect the thing.Approach them,wholeheartedly and genuinely to seek out the fountain of their spirituality.Seek from them the values and well-springs which they draw from.Stay on it,and stay focused.Soon,they will be doing for you,the very work in which you set out to do.Automatic consensus will arise and new angles of perception will unfold.
But again,if they are already kind-hearted,intelligent,spiritual,and ambitious then I don’t see what the problem could be.Unless you want to become Sysyphus.

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Row row row your boat gently down the stream.  Merrily Merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream!

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Posted: 18 January 2009 03:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Just three quick responses for now, VYAZMA:

1. My original request was aimed more broadly at eliciting resources that someone *in general* (not just me in particular) might recommend to friends who’d be willing to reconsider their worldviews.  Although I tried to make my query more concrete by illustrating it with an example involving personal friends of mine, I’d like to see recommendations that might be useful for others in similar situations.

2. I suspect there *is* something to be gained if people with otherwise positive character traits and high intellect take a more rational, naturalistic, skeptical approach to certain aspects of their lives.  Here’s a specific (true) example that doesn’t involve religious beliefs (I could give several that do): A relative of mine has a graduate degree in mathematics and is quite likable and generous, and he’s basically an agnostic with respect to religion and fairly progressive on political and social matters.  He consistently makes dubious health choices based, I suspect, on misunderstandings about evidence-based medicine and unfounded suspicion of “established medicine”; for instance, when told recently that he might have prostate cancer (based on high PSA counts), he sought out a naturopathic doctor and CAM remedies and largely neglected advice from his general practitioner.  That’s an isolated example, and you might question my characterization of this as a “dubious health choice” (I’m avoiding details that would make it more compelling), but it illustrates my point: People who are “good” and “smart” can still tend to make poor decisions about their lives or others’ that might be improved by a better understanding of the scientific method and a better appreciation for evidence (vs. faith).

3. If I understand correctly your thoughts about working with each individual to gain insight into what motivates their beliefs, they’re well-taken.  That said, I’m willing to dedicate only so much time to intensive interpersonal interactions, especially with some of the people I have in mind.  Sure, ideally I’d have the resources (time, money, intellectual and emotional reserves) to allocate as much as each of them needs, and doing so would probably be a positive growth experience for everyone involved.  But in light of my other responsibilities and pursuits, it’d be nice to supplement what limited one-on-one time I can allocate to each person with some resources they can pursue on their own.

So that’s why I’m asking for suggested resources (and not asking whether changing friends’ worldviews is a worthwhile endeavor).

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Posted: 18 January 2009 07:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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PsyStat,I don’t know of anything really.One of my Favorites is Desmond Morris’ “The Naked Ape”.It’s a small book,very easily read.It is a little dated,and I’m sure some of the other members here will scoff at it,as they’re apt to.But,I’m telling you,assuming you haven’t read it,it is good.it covers the evolution of man,and his subsequent formation of groups.Quick read,page turner.He has other works as well including the “Human Zoo”.
“Guns,Germs and Steel” is another one I have read.Author Jarret Diamond.It was ok.I think it got a Pulitzer Prize.I was a little surprised.
These are the only publications I could recommend.I like history and science.These are also helpful in developing a rational picture of the world.I personally don’t like the word skeptical.It sounds too curmudgeonly to me.
Interestingly though,I see the usual books mentioned above by the authors named.These would be great I presume,if you could get your buddies to read them.I never could read philosophy or books touting or refuting religion.
I didn’t have to read any books on how to become a humanist or a non-theist.Or to read them to reinforce my views.This was my earlier point sort of.I don’t know the value really in you trying to nudge your buddies towards another belief system.Or to try and get anyone to think in a different manner.Maybe if they’re kids,but these are adults I presume.People have ways of gravitating towards their own truths.

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Row row row your boat gently down the stream.  Merrily Merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream!

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