Sunday, July 31, 2011

Oh how my head hurts! : Reflecting on a common response by theists to my arguments against God

Photo from Start line Physiotherapy
 I was fortunate enough this week to get another taste of the Caribbean as I went to make a presentation in Curacao. It was a short visit, where the time travelling from Calgary equalled the time I actually spent on site in the island. However, as has now become the norm, the journey itself was filled with meeting new fascinating people and the subject of religion never seemed far away. Once again I had chance to discuss the idea of God's existence.

 I must say that now I have had the opportunity to talk about  my atheism with theists of many different flavours in the Caribbean I am starting to notice certain patterns in how the discussions have gone. There have been a few surprises along the way in terms of the objections I have received or in many cases not received. Yes, I keep going into these discussions expecting push back on assumptions about first causes and  fine tuned universes. In reality these have seldom come. What I have got a lot of is, " Oh how my head hurts!" A basic comment suggesting that the  points I am making are just too high level. They claim that the arguments are just too intellectual and philosophical for them. After this point the debates often ends or peters out. Over the last few days I have been reflecting on this "Oh my head hurts" phenomenon.

I must admit that the first response that used to come to me upon getting the ' head hurt'  comment was  a sense of satisfaction that the person in the discussion was basically conceding that I had won out intellectually. I suppose there is a part of your ego that is fed when someone tells you that your level of understanding of some topic is greater than theirs. Perhaps it is that type of raising of ego that leads so many Christians to consider that atheists are arrogant. However, now that I have had the response more times and have had more time to reflect on it I see it differently now. The truth is that I consider that the people I have talked to are in no way inferior to me intellectually. I am no brighter than them.  It's just that critical thinking in our society is so widely discouraged that most people are simply just not able to follow what we as full time skeptics would see as straightforward logical arguments.

Exercising Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is like  a muscle and sadly for many in the Caribbean it is a muscle that has atrophied due to lack of use. It means that often when you enter the debates with theists about religion the lack of critical thinking conditioning appears early. It's feels like as you are out on your gentle morning jog, you can hear them panting for breath behind you begging you to slow down so they can keep up. It is not  that there is any lack of intellect in the Caribbean. Indeed, we can boast in our region to having some of the finest brains internationally in a number of areas. It's just that our strength tends to be in learning the core disciplines in our chosen fields. We can then apply those  fundamental principles to become successful practitioners in our  careers.

Where we fall down is in being able to criticise other ideas especially when they fall outside of our domain of expertise. We are often good at expounding and representing our own positions but comparatively weaker in  being able to ask the searching questions to others when they bring  ideas that we have not previously been exposed to. The lack of this ability in our general populace I think relates back to our education system and where we put our focus. I definitely do not think that there is any inherent  weakness in us that makes us incapable of being critical thinkers.Actually, I think that in Barbados there is a desire to learn more and develop that ability to challenge. It's just that in the 'intellectual gym' of the island there are no critical thinking machines available. Therefore you just can't spend the hours doing the necessary reps to get fit .

I am sure it is not surprising for skeptics to find that a lack of critical thinking is one of our main problems. It is something I have spoken about a lot in blogposts and is a point made many times by writers from parts of the developing world who are working to promote secularism. But, I think there is a part of the 'head hurt' response that goes beyond the lack of emphasis on critical thinking. Regularly in discussions I will make a statement similar to the one below.

" The fact that I cannot  disprove the existence of Big Foot  is not good reason for anybody to come to the conclusion that Big Foot exists. The persons out there that claim they have seen Big Foot have the burden of proof to show the rest of us the evidence for what they claim. We are justified in saying that Big Foot doesn't exist even if we can't prove it 100%."

Everyone that I have put an argument like that to has been able to follow my line of reason immediately, regardless of educational background. Many would tell me that it is so obvious that it doesn't even make sense to even state it. However, when I simply substitute the word 'God' for ' Big Foot'  the old 'head hurt' phenomenon comes back to the fore. I hear comments like

 " Oh, that's too deep for me!"
" Woah, this is so intellectual!"
 "I will have to back to my grad school philosophy notes."
 "You are the big doctoral student writing a thesis this is far too much for me to take in."

All of a sudden it seems their brains become incapable of  the cognition required to do the necessary reasoning. It is the equivalent of asking a child at kindergarten how many cherries you would have if you had three at first and added two more and he answered, " Five of course!" You then ask  him what you would get if you had three pears and added two more and he tells you that this level of maths is  far too difficult for a student in his class, and  that he would have to do an advanced course in pear arithmetic to answer that one.

It's interesting that cutting out 'Big Foot' and putting in 'God' suddenly changes an obvious statement into a super intellectual one, but it's true. Say you are having a debate " Does God exist?" and many would tell you that is a deep intellectual topic that only  the elite theologians, philosophers and theoretical physicists can weigh in on. Say you want to have a debate on the topic " Do fairies exist?" and you would be laughed out of court with  people telling you that you must have the intellectual development of a five year old, that is if they don't send you to a mental asylum  first. The truth of the matter is that the two questions, at least as far as the atheist is concerned, are absolutely equivalent. Substituting one invisible being for another is no different than substituting a cherry for a pear.

Probability Phobia

It all makes me wonder if there is a defence mechanism in the brain that actually affects your ability to understand when you have an argument that potentially calls into question a strongly held belief. Could the brain actually be capable of causing itself not to function? Can a person become momentarily less intelligent on account that their core belief is being challenged? It certainly has me thinking. I remember at school that many of my colleagues used to tell me that of all the topics within Mathematics, they hated 'probability.' I always found this baffling because to me 'probability' was my favourite part of Maths. I could easily grasp the concept of the ' lottery' and how the chances of outcomes would be affected by adding or subtracting cards with hearts or spades from a box that someone was drawing from. For me it was  easy to visualise what was happening and I couldn't understand why it would be so confusing to other students. On the other hand there were topics within 'Pure Maths' that really did make my head hurt. The second order differentials and double integrals were almost impossible for me to solve yet many of my colleagues with the 'probability phobia' seemed to get through these calculations relatively easily.

Now, I am wondering whether the underlying worldview of their religion was playing a part in their inability to grasp 'probability'. For many theists there really is no such thing as 'probability.' In their world view everything is ultimately ordained by God. There is no such thing as chance, coincidence is simply an illusion. As a lady I met recently put it, it's all divine arrangement. Maybe when such theists are presented with a paradigm that suggest that whether I get a ripe or rotten golden apple from a bag is something that only depends on Maths, the brain rejects and becomes incapable of grasping the entire concept. Meanwhile other aspects of Maths that are more deterministic, where there is one correct answer, are easier for them to get. Such aspects fit neatly into a worldview that suggests things must be the way they are as God knows what will happen with every atom of every piece of material. This is all of course just hypothesis but I think it is an interesting one for the psychologists to look at.

Anyway, regardless of what is going on at the conscious or subconscious level, the fact is that in many of these 'God arguments' theists will give you the compliment of suggesting that you have defended your position with sound logic and that they are at least not at that point able to respond to much of what you have raised.  To many atheists this will seem like a victory and maybe it is. But the thing to understand is that in their mind you have won not because your position was stronger, but because you were a bit more prepared than them for the fight. Also the fact that they don't fully understand the points you made gives them a reason not to change their position. Rightly, they take the view that they would have to spend some more time going over what you just said before they could even begin to consider changing their position. So, if the objective is to keep your faith alive there is definitely an advantage in not understanding. I think they are often convinced that there are arguments that persons like Lee Strobel and Deepak Chopra have that could have your argument for dinner. They just have to study them and come back for you next time.

One lady I spoke to was literally beating up on herself for what she thought was a personal failure on her part to defend her position properly. She vowed to go back and read up on her arguments so she could be more convincing next time. I felt like telling her she was just being too hard on herself. That is the problem with religion, it always makes the individual follower feel they are not worthy. They have problems representing their side because the underlying belief system is flawed with internal contradictions at every turn. The problem is the message not the messengers.

It is ironic that within religion itself, not understanding is a virtue. Christians will tell you quite freely that there are many things in their faith that they don't understand fully. The trinity, transubstantiation, the problem of evil, many theists will confess to their inability to understand these things. But most will never think of reconsidering their beliefs due to their lack of understanding. In fact the mystery just makes the thing more beautiful . They are confident that their faith is the right one whether they understand it or not. All will be revealed one day and even though they have no idea what the revelation will be it will confirm that it was the right decision to have accepted what their faith is telling them now.  It's a curious double standard. They withhold judgement on things they don't understand when they come from outside but will accept prior to understanding when the argument comes from within.

Well there is nothing we atheists can do about such things but it does seem to me that so long as the average theist feels that he or she is not our intellectual equal we will have problems in promoting our point of view. We have to level the playing field in that respect. The only way to change that is through the education system, especially in the Caribbean. Logic, reasoning and  especially logical fallacies should be topics that everyone does alongside Maths and English. For sure everybody should understand and appreciate how the scientific method works. It is unfortunate that currently it is only people that take the decision to pursue Science at the highest level  that actually get to be taught exactly how the system works. Understanding the scientific method and how hypotheses are developed and tested  is easier than grasping the rudiments of long division and the latter is a staple part of the primary school curriculum.

So, maybe if we put the critical thinking as part of the core exercise regime in education we will see more Christians who have the strength to defend their position . The only downside is that  by the time they reach their optimum condition, they will almost certainly find that there is no position there to defend.

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