Caught in the Pulpit pg 139

“One of the forces maintaining the ironclad literalism of some conservative denominations is the fact that any relaxation of it within the denomination can have the opposite effect from the one intended. Instead of making it easier for doubters in the flock to accommodate to the creed, it can ignite the fuse of doubt and trigger an avalanche of disbelief. One of the eye-opening moments for Joe, the Mormon, was reading an article in a liberal Mormon magazine that broached the idea of there being only metaphorical truth in some point of LDS doctrine. This led Joe to a liberal Mormon online chat room (not one of the many anti-Mormon and ex-Mormon Web sites), which strengthened and elaborated his doubts. Similarly, it was an article in a liberal Adventist magazine that shook Michael from his innocence. So conservatives are perhaps more vulnerable to well-meaning attempts from within their own denominations than to skeptical assaults from outside the faith.”

–Linda LaScola & Daniel Dennett, Caught in the Pulpit, pg 139


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9 COMMENTS

  1. I’m a skeptic.

    This paragraph only offers anecdotal evidence and I’ve seen similar stories of the opposite – by which I mean: Faithful who had questions and found that their religion’s uncompromising position (usually a brush-off from a priest) dismissive and that this ignited more curiosity.

    On the other hand …

    … conservatives are perhaps more vulnerable to well-meaning attempts from within their own denominations than to skeptical assaults from outside the faith

    The Catholic Church fought long and hard to keep the Bible in Latin only. Once Guttenburg’s clever invention started to spread the pressure to translate the Bible proved irresistible. When ‘ignorant’ lay people could read the Bible schism reached epidemic proportions.

    The above is only a tangent on the case of de-conversion, but I hope it’s still a clear example.

    Squeezing someone’s beliefs is like squeezing a half inflated balloon. The more you squeeze the less likely you are to pop it out of existence and the more likely it is that those beliefs will change and swell in new directions. Our brains are wired to reach conclusions because indecision was more likely to be costly in our species’ past. You can’t be in two minds about a Tiger looking at you with a glint in her eye, or crossing a raging river without preparation.

    The key is not how hard and fast the rules are, but about what excites us to squeeze our own beliefs. What excites our curiosity and what motivates us to seek better understanding? Then, once we begin, what encourages us, what sustains us, through the tough tasks of investigating and thinking?

    Socrates, by design, tried only to ask questions and to avoid making statements – and he appears to be the first recorded person to habitually say he didn’t know … stuff.

    Those who de-convert alone, and it seems to me that they are still the majority of de-converts in any given period of time, often have personal stories that mirror Socrates. It seems to begin by people realising that their beliefs are not as rigid as they had assumed up to that point.

    Although more ‘liberal’ interpretations of a religion might, at first, appear to offer more chances of the Believer seeing the softness of their beliefs it is my (equally anecdotal) observation that metaphor and allegory are powerful mind tools that are perfect for obscuring paths to truth.

    The next step is to begin ‘squeezing’ (ahem, for want of a better expression) and that appears to lead, in most cases, to a natural tendency to acknowledge, internally, that we are ignorant of many things and that our beliefs, flexible as they now appear, are not immune.

    A thought that has often occurred to me when listening to a long-term, hard-line, hard-nosed, unyielding, believer (sadly, easy to find) is that they show quite clear signs of not being honest with themselves. If I’m right then de-conversion often begins with self-respect. The path to de-conversion begins not with questioning due to different interpretations of the same knowledge but with disarming Socratic honesty in the head and honestly admitting to oneself: I don’t know.

    It is only after the honest and self-respecting reflection “I don’t know” that the curiosity is sufficiently aroused to form the questions that demand answers. Again, forming questions being very Socratic.

    The severity or unbending nature of the dogma now being questioned seems to me to be beside the point. Knowing that something is not quite right doesn’t seem to hook us automatically. Regular visitors to this Site will know that the first reaction to challenged beliefs is usually to double-down.

    Something keeps some of us going. I wish I knew what that something is. I suspect that it has to do with self esteem and self-respect. Equally, I suspect there are things going on here that I know nothing about.

  2. A patron walks into a Bar in 1600.
    Patron (to Bartender): I heard that Senior Bruno announced that stars are really suns.
    Bartender: So, I gather you haven’t heard that the Church burned him at the stake this morning.
    Patron: So, I gather that means that stars aren’t suns.
    Bartender: You better believe it … or not!

  3. The paragraph is nice, and is probably more optimistic than I usually am (and therefore probably more effective). I work in a hospital, where I see countless examples of misplaced hubris toward a deity after science, technology and a mountain of human effort has saved a life. I admit I’ve become a bit cynical toward this, which isn’t helpful in “changing hearts and minds.”

    Lately, I’m of the “belief” that those who deny the reality of science and technology should not benefit from it. If you don’t believe in evolution, turn in your smart phone. Again, admittedly not helpful. A softer approach seems best.

    Last (unhelpful) thought: At some point, our star is going to go out and our planet will become incompatible with life..by that time, we will need to have developed a plan to survive. Most likely, that will involve a mechanism of moving to another rock with a younger star. When that happens…those who thank their “God” for the ability of star travel simply do not get to come with. Perhaps then, we can start over.

  4. Hi J,

    I love your wild optimism! Hey everybody, it’s okay we’re going to come through this and our great grandchildren will colonize other planets – brill!

    I understand, and share, your cynicism, but my humanity won’t allow me to become like them – neo-fascists who divide society into the in-group and the outsiders. The single most important thing, or so I’ve found, for a cynic is to not let your disgust at others lack of principle, curiosity and humility to affect you.

    I’m serious my friend, this is a case of avoiding mental torture – don’t go down that path.

    People are ignorant, and some are so ignorant they don’t even know it and therefore will never admit it. This is not just a case of people being people, yes, there are venal morons too. But ignorance is at epidemic levels.

    My free advice – hopefully worth a lot more than it first appears – is to become a Street Epistemologist. If you work in a medical practice you’re in the perfect place.

    Peace.

  5. As was stated in one of the Richard Dawkins debates on YouTube:

    If some catholic cardinals are now saying that Adam and Eve didn’t actually exist and therefore neither did the original sin…
    …then what exactly did Jesus Christ die for?

  6. “Similarly, it was an article in a liberal Adventist magazine that shook Michael from his innocence.” In my case it was reading the bedrock literature of Christianity – yes, the BIBLE – from cover to cover.
    My belief at the time was neither weak or strong, it was just there. Inherited by osmosis from society, not my family, belief was just a part of life. Then I was moved to an area for work where there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment, so I read a lot – and for no real reason decided to tackle the Book.
    By the end of it I was horrified at the violence, bored with the begats, disgusted by the treatment of women, and totally lacking in empathy with the main protagonist.
    Yes I didn’t like the god of the book.
    It took a while, but eventually I accepted that this nasty god had been invented by people who had a desperate need to feel more in control of their violent, unpredictable lives.
    The feeling of freedom was – glorious.
    Now that we as a species are vaguely aware of how the brain works, it is so important that we stop filling brains that took billions of years to evolve, with stuff that impairs their function.
    If I could sue some institution for brain abuse, believe me I would. (just kidding, but it’s a thought)

  7. Why is the RD site promoting these atheist self-help books again? The paragraph is anecdotal, as mentioned, babel. On the planet we’ve got your US extremists Christians and your medieval thinking Islamists, and all sorts of afterlife believers. We, of course, can be patient and tolerant, as a Canadian I can’t culturally bring myself to be otherwise; but I encourage those others, like RD (happy B-day), who blast away at the illogic and fact-less apprehension of sapient planetary existence. Given the story of Joseph Smith, how is it that we’ve got Mormons to deal with?

  8. Indeed, outright opposition can produce a backlash effect, a refusal to even see evidence that contradicts cherished, comforting beliefs. But perceiving the weakness of the arguments and apologies that support a contested faith can be most enlightening.

  9. There is a strategy at play in these nice liberal sounding publications. Basically it’s okay is you don’t fully buy this we’d rather you were with us (and perhaps latter you’ll grow in your faith). I believe they take this strategy on because to some extent it works. I know many nice liberal Catholics for example, when I bring up pedophile scandals they minimise the problem pretend it the same as the rest of the community etc. This is the danger of “we’re all really inclusive and open approach” because clearly within the hierarchy they are not. Yes it may backfire occasionally but it is essentially a form of marketing, advertising turns me off because I used to be a graphic designer who is aware of the techniques I employed to attempt to manipulate viewers. I have been on sets with adds being filmed and seen the lengths people go to make a product look like something it is not.

    As for what is a good strategy to help people loose their faith and the implication here that they are less likely to loose it from within that from direct challange…. I have no doubt that in some cases, with some people this is true.

    Some people clearly need to be herded ever so slowly into non-belief, some people actually like their beliefs. Mine was a sudden quick shock because I had swallowed the whole doctrine completely and having one tiny thing established as lie made the whole either a lie or unreliable. This undoubtedly says as much about me as anyone else. But I find this goal to find one correct way of de-converting people futile. If you have watched Jacob Brownoski’s Ascent of Man (and if you haven’t do so now), you’ll notice when he is talking about great scientists in history he continually is describing them in these sorts of terms (in this case Lugwig Boltzmann) “an irascible, difficult man an early follower of Darwin, quarrelsome and delightful and everything that a human being should be” – to me this instinct to go against your human nature if you are quarrelsome is like a big thumb trying to squash out any conflict to what make people feel more comfortable?! If you feel uncomfortable as an atheist then great don’t argue with people seek to gently guide and I’m sure as has been shown here it will work with some people, why people insist that we approach discussing religion in a way that does not suit your personality is beyond me.

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