Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Great Debate Debate

In The Long Debate and the Importance of Engaging with “Believers” on a Philosophical Level on JREF Matt Lowry talks about how his beliefs have changed over the years.

In the early days, I was often brash and overly dismissive of those who espoused various, for lack of a better term, woo-woo beliefs.  Over time I came to realize that I wasn’t really engaging in good skepticism but instead overt cynicism: I was simply adhering to a position and everything which didn’t automatically agree with that position got dumped into the proverbial dustbin.  I’ve spoken with a number of other skeptics who agree that this is how they used to behave as well; it was almost as if I was so proud of my newly acquired “skeptical badge” that I wanted to go around bashing everyone who didn’t think like me over the head with it. 
Now, from what I understand of human nature, we all do this sort of thing to a certain degree or another, but that fact doesn’t necessarily justify such behavior and it certainly doesn’t help to advance any sort of fruitful discussion.  
Funny how our different experiences cause us to change in different ways and so what one person considers the natural progression through life, can be completely opposite to another persons experience.
Case in point, when I was young I was a lot more willing to accommodate and try to work within the beliefs of others in order to engage them. As I've gotten older I've become more cynical and much more dismissive and condescending of believers. My main reason for my current level of cynicism with believers is the realization over time that it is completely futile trying to engage them on a philosophical level and my efforts as a youth trying to accommodated and work within the beliefs of believers was a significant waist of my time. 

Later Matt says: 
And that’s where we have to ask ourselves an important question: should skepticism be something which we only use to insulate ourselves from the varied nonsense beliefs out in the world, or should we utilize the tools of skepticism to engage with those who think differently from us & do not necessarily share our worldview?  I think the answer is “a little bit of both” – most all skeptics already do the former by default, but many are skittish about the latter.  I think it is vital for us to emphasize the engagement of, for lack of a better term, “believers” in what I like to refer to as the Long Debate.
Matt then gives 2 examples of Engaging with “Believers” on a Philosophical Level: one a relative and the other a worker, and both of the engagements fail to accomplish anything. It might be interesting to ask what he thought he was going to get out of the engagements and what he thought might of been the outcome had he chosen not to engage but he just seems to imply that there was some goodness in it.

One thing missing in this article is the distinction between how we engage the public and how we engage on a personal level. The examples given are only the latter. I think most people including most young brash atheists, would agree that  you can't be completely dismissive when working at a one on one level and indeed you need to be tactful and know your audiences to try to influence them. Admittedly how you figure out your audience and develop meaningful tactics for engaging people is a product of age and temperament, so our approach over the years is likely to change but that reflects little on the core beliefs themselves. Brashness and dismissive or even the desire to engage one on one are really just social attitudes and say nothing about ones fundamental beliefs like skepticism, atheism, or what ever.

But I would argue that how we engage individuals is almost unrelated to how we see our relationship to  groups. While there is definitely a political need to engage groups of believers to identify common causes and interests especially as it relates to overcoming the more extreme and powerful among the believers, I do not believe we gain anything by limiting our rhetoric to not offend believers. Reality is that those who we would offend are most likely those who see no problem offending us and usually never even realize it. I have yet to find a group of believers that is accommodating to us non-believers.  Our rhetoric, even by the Gnus, is no more vile and dismissive than any of the group we may want to engage.  Moreover, our own rhetoric (like everyone else's) even when addressing the arguments of believers is really intended for self consumption i.e. for other skeptics, atheists and non-believers and to limit it would do our community a complete disservice.

Lastly, Matt seems to have the notion that if you aren't among those engaging, you are isolating yourself. While I will admit (as I suspect many among the Gnu) there is a part of me that would rather not deal with non-believers. Our rhetoric is not born of an intension intention to push believers away.  Our tone and the occupational ridicule, mockery, scorn and venom is merely our attempt to convey our thoughts and attitude in as honest, direct, and admittedly entertaining manner we can for our fellow non-believers.  We merely seek to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" as we see it.

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