The First Question

I’d like to do some good in the years I have left. If I could contribute in some small way to the dismantling of religion, that would be very good indeed. Religion is an evil, corroding force. Is there anything I could do to weaken its grip on the human mind?

Probably not. But the possibility is surely worth pondering. Religion has no existence outside of the minds of its believers, so a natural approach would be to attempt in some way to change believers’ minds, to alter their thought processes. Indeed, it seems clear that no other method would be possible. Here, however, we run into a difficulty. The difficulty is that believers resist, often strenuously and with comic persistence, the process of changing their beliefs. When confronted with a simple rational proposition, believers tend to dodge, tap-dance, change the subject — anything rather than acknowledge the cogency of the proposition. What’s worse, they seem to do this without realizing that they’re doing it. Their cognitive functioning has been wildly distorted by their ingrained beliefs.

So it seems to me that the very first question one ought to ask of a religious believer, on entering into a discussion with them on matters pertaining to their faith, is this: “Are there any circumstances at all in which you would reconsider and possibly change your current beliefs?” This is a simple question. It can be answered yes or no. (Expect to see some tap-dancing, though. Persist. Demand a clear answer.)

If the answer is, “No, there are no circumstances in which I would reconsider my beliefs,” then there’s not much point continuing the discussion. Don’t bother pointing out the absurdities in the Bible, or trying to explain the scientific method. Don’t even bother trying to defend atheism. This person is going to ignore whatever you say. You might, however, point out that their belief system is, by definition, irrational. That is, it does not depend on any sort of rational thought processes.

If they find this disturbing, if they claim to be rational with respect to religion, you need only respond, “No, you have already made it perfectly clear that you’re not willing to engage in rational discussion on the subject of religion. Your mind is already made up. Nothing I could possibly say to you would affect your thinking. Your thinking may be correct, or it may be incorrect, but we have no way to determine which it is. Your thinking could be wildly wrong in all sorts of ways, but you have already ruled out any possibility of my demonstrating that to you, so I’m not going to try.”

The point of this observation is, of course, to plant a seed of doubt — or, if doubts are already lurking, to nurture them.

The person you’re talking with may, on the other hand, say yes. They may claim (correctly or not) that there are circumstances in which their beliefs might change. If so, try to learn what those circumstances would be. The answer, unfortunately, may be along the lines of, “If I start to feel differently about my beliefs.” Then the next question is, “What exactly might cause you to feel differently?”

The Socratic dialogue may go on for a while. Your goal is, if possible, to steer the other person toward the idea that they might be swayed by rational, scientifically demonstrable evidence. If you can reach this crossroads, it seems to me, there is hope.

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