Can We Really Change Anyone’s Mind? June 14, 2011

Can We Really Change Anyone’s Mind?

There’s an article making the rounds regarding “The Backfire Effect.” It argues that “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”

At least at it pertains to us, when we argue about religion with theists, their defenses tend to go up, and they may become even more religious in the process. If we think we’re changing their minds with our use of Reason, we should think twice.

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.

I want to say that something similar happened when I visited churches — that pastors made arguments for god and what they said made me not believe in god even more strongly, if that sort of thing is even possible… but I don’t think it’s the same thing. Their arguments just weren’t persuasive. And while I was open to hearing a contradicting point of view, I had logical reasons to reject their ideas.

I would hope we, as skeptics, are better than those people who just block their beliefs from the truth. Even our most cherished beliefs should be open to scrutiny if the evidence warrants a second look.

Since we’re on the topic, though, a couple questions for everyone: Outside of god, what’s something you once believed in strongly that you later changed your mind about? What caused that change?

(Thanks to Julien for the link!)

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  • The only thing I can think of (for me) is affairs of the heart. I have loved A, then B, then C, then D. (Married D). In each case, I didn’t get over the previous one until the next one came along. Nothing really logical about it though.

    I’m also curious if reading this blog over time has been instrumental with anyone losing their religion…

  • I will honestly like to somewhat agree to disagree. I have debates/conversations on my Facebook page all of the time about religion. I might invoke the person I am debating with to have “stronger faith” but for all the closet agnostic/atheist persons out there if makes them more and more stronger to come out and say how they feel. After each discussion I have at least 2 people that have questions for me and are thinking about “coming out”. They like the fact that religion gets tested. Also, its good for spectators who call themselves religious to see both sides of the story. Nine times out of 10 they see that the humanistic agnostic/atheist is a more loving person and one that actual cares and they choose to do more research. I don’t plan on changing ones beliefs… I simply want to challenge and make the religious do more research on both sides. 😀

  • Andrew

    A few years ago I was a hardcore “Climate Skeptic”, but I forced myself to read as much about climate change as possible and just couldn’t deny the facts any longer. Also, I was a very strong “libertarian”, but I’ve moved a way from that as well. But I believe politics is based more on emotions than on reason, so I don’t think any “facts” caused that change. I’m not sure if there was a correlation between my change in political stance and my view of climate change or vice versa? But it seems likely.

  • Some Lady

    I grew up in a very conservative home and used to be STAUNCHLY Republican… attending local meetings, rallies, marching in parades, bumper stickers on my car, the whole nine yards. I never considered myself religious though, and as time went by, the conservatives seemed more and more focused on Christianity (and being hateful towards those who don’t fit their mold). Or, perhaps I just became more aware of it. I support smaller government, less taxes, etc… but I refuse to throw my gay friends (as well as myself as an atheist) under the bus over it. I find it somewhat terrifying that there exists such a large portion of our country that believe “God” is running the show, because that seems to permeate everything – environmental policy, medical research, treatment of minorities, etc. I watched the Republican debates last night for as long as I could stomach it… not really sure I could ever vote for a Republican again until they change their tune on all this bible-beating. I won’t be holding my breath though.

  • reg

    ayn rand used to be one of my intellectual heroes. then i graduated to high school… ’nuff said.

  • Jon

    I used to believe we needed to believe. Philosophies of both mind and science changed that view. We don’t need to believe anything. A thing is either known or it isn’t and if it isn’t we can say we don’t know and search for the answers without assuming the thing is true because we want it to be.

  • Roxane

    I’ve never converted anyone from belief to atheism. I have, however, converted people from hating, despising and fearing atheists by being out.

    “Confirmation bias” and “backfire effect” make it sound like it’s impossible for people ever to change their minds, but that is manifestly not true. About 40 years ago, my husband was rather anti-gay because he thought, in some vague and unexamined way, that homosexuality “wasn’t natural.” Over the years he met more gay people, had gay colleagues, etc. As more information became available (and accessible), suggesting that sexuality isn’t a binary condition but rather a spectrum, he started understanding more. For many years now he’s been very much in favor of gay rights. If CB and BE were deal-breakers, we’d still be stuck in the Stone Age.

  • Hugh Kramer

    Having argued with many committed theists and never making a dent in their armor, I’m willing to accept there’s a “backfire effect.” What I’d be more interested in knowing is how to circumvent it.

  • Siobhan

    I once believed my parents had been married in a garage at the Justice of the Peace’s house. My brother told me and I had no reason to doubt him. I believed this -for years- until it occurred to me to ask my mom. I found out they got married in the living room of the Justice of the Peace. I also once believed that my eyeballs didn’t move when I was facing forward and looking off to the side with them (again, my brother told me this, don’t ask my why I thought he was such an authority on everything, he was my older brother :). This is one I believed for months until I finally realized he’d just been having me on.

    I think it’s much more difficult to change the minds of people when they don’t know you very well. You hold no credibility in their eyes, and so nothing you say, no matter how shored up by factual reality, is going to make a dent on something that they’ve been told by an authority that they actually trust (no matter how factually wrong it might be). Over time and many conversations, it is possible to get someone to seriously consider or look at their stance on things, after you’ve developed some credibility in their eyes.

    However, in general, I think most people fall back on their trusted authorities first, and if you didn’t get to them first, you’re just not as trusted.

  • Ali

    This is likely true for the anti-vaccination parents. Once they hear about the new study that links autism to prenatal vitamins, they will probably become stronger in their convictions and ignore the evidence, even if it is only preliminary findings.

  • Trace

    Circle the wagons!

  • Claudia

    The one big issue that I’ve changed my mind on is the death penalty, which I used to support but now oppose (with the provision that true life without parole is an option). No one thing changed it for me. On the rational front, reading news about clearly innoccent men being put do death really chipped away at my nochalant “Well yes, there will be mistakes, but the net effect is positive”, making it much more real. The inability to find actual data supporting the notion of detterance was another factor. Yet another was seeing how unequally it was imposed, seeming to depend sometimes as much on ambitious (and sometimes unscrupulous) prosecuters or publicity as it did on how actually horrific the crime was.

    But I’ll admit that I too am a human subject to human emotions and I cannot discount that moving to Europe was a factor. I live in a much safer country now (with a ridiculously lax justice system, unfortunately) with a much less hysterical media, which lowers the emotional tone of percieved threat. The death penalty is largely viewed as unacceptably uncivilized here, and I would be lying if I said that the disapproval of many people whose opinion I respect didn’t at least make me examine the issue more closely than I did before. There’s a reason many Christian fundamentalists warn teens away from secular colleges. When you surround yourself with people whose opinions differ from your own, you will give them a second glance, which can result in you changing your mind, particularly if your opinion was more emotion-based and not rationality-based.

  • Siamang

    I think there’s really 2 different effects at work here, and we’re measuring only one. I think the first, knee-jerk effect is the backfire effect. But if the backfire effect was the only effect, then there would never be any movement forward on civil rights, gay rights, women’s equality, etc. Which clearly isn’t the case.

    So what’s the other effect? I’ll call it the “Background” effect. WHILE the arguments about atheism, or gay rights or whatever, causes some people to immediately backlash, put up walls, etc… there’s the other, more subtle long-term effect of the moral landscape changing. The more people who hear more people around them voicing an opinion… the more people assume it’s an acceptable opinion. The more people hear and see who it is who’s arguing against gay rights, for example, and see hear how the arguments are beginning to sound more and more out-of-step with the folks that surround them, the anti-gay rights position begins to sound more narrow and angry and love-denying… the landscape continues to shift.

    So it is and can be with atheism. Describe atheism as freeing *for you*. Describe what it means *to you*. Describe it as a humble outlook that puts you in touch with life, with the earth, with science, with the universe and with the preciousness of your loved ones… and the more people who hear that message coming from all around them, it will change the background.

  • Anonymous

    what’s something you once believed in strongly that you later changed your mind about? What caused that change?

    This is a great question, and a concept that needs to be explored more often. The single most important lesson in skepticism is making decisions based on evidence, and I would like to see that happen publicly, and be celebrated, to illuminate the thought process and model the behavior. One of my favorite examples is the extreme intellectual honesty of Diane Ravitch, former No Child Left Behind supporter who has done a complete U turn and become a vocal activist for the other side.
    http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/thewrongstuff/archive/2010/05/17/diane-ravitch-on-being-wrong.aspx

  • Claudia

    @Ali, but at least that particular study won’t lead credulous parents to deny medical care to their children. The absolute worst that could happen would be fore some pregnant woman to damage her liver from a vitamin overdose. They probably won’t buy it anyway, because it would suggest that you could do something to lower the risk of autism by buying pharmaceutical products, and We All Know Pharmaceutical Companies Are The Devil and Love Giving Kids Autism.

  • Ben

    I went with another teacher, who taught biology, and some of his students to Dawkins “Purpose of Purpose” speech. Most of the students where Catholic and as they came out of the speech most of them just said that his speech ‘strengthened their belief.’
    I know when I read “The God Delusion” & “God is not Great” my doubts about religion increased. I guess it my come down to what each individual person is looking for.

  • My guess is that this backfire effect mostly applies when one has no strong reason for changing a belief. Someone who is perfectly happy with his/her religion, who hasn’t had to face the kind of suffering that would prompt a person to question deeply held beliefs OR who relied strongly on religion to get through suffering in the past, who has never had a reason to rely on scientific methods or skeptical thought in his/her daily life (IOW, your average church-goer)– this person is not going to even want to understand attacks on the beliefs that have served him/her so well thus far.

    And yeah, I do think that atheists & agnostics can fall prey to this backfire effect, too… BUT, in this country, a good chunk (probably the majority) of non-religious folk came from a religious, usually Christian, background. They’ve already seen the flip side of the coin, so to speak, so it does seem to me that they might not be as prone to this kind of bias as their religious friends.

    As far as having my mind changed about something major… I guess my political beliefs started flipping around the same time as my religious beliefs. There was no one big cause for either change, just a series of small realizations that ultimately culminated in a final realization that my beliefs had changed so much that I could no longer even pretend to subscribe to them any longer.

    Whew, sorry, didn’t mean to leave you with an essay there. This post just got the ol’ brain juices flowing I guess! Thanks for giving us the opportunity to discuss this.

  • Ali

    @Claudia – I hear you. It’s just mind-boggling that when evidence comes out to reject their vaccine hypotheses, they actually grow stronger in their convictions rather than weaker.

    So it seems, in that case, the Backfire Effect seems very believable.

  • JimG

    I agree with Siamang – I think it’s a mistake to assume that there’s only one psychological factor operating in people’s minds at any given time.

    That said, it is virtually impossible to change someone’s mind outright on deeply held beliefs. It’s also a common mistake, however, to automatically assume that that all-or-nothing conversion is the goal.

    Generally, people can be persuaded by degrees. You won’t change someone’s mind 180 degrees, but if you’re not directly confrontational (i.e., openly contemptuous of their belief), you can chip away at it. Change someone 5 degrees by showing them it’s possible to doubt. Come back next week and nudge them over another 5 degrees. Won’t work with everyone, but that’s how minds do get changed – slowly.

  • Michelle

    Most recently my mind has been changed a bit on nuclear energy. I like to think it is safe, but the mounting evidence is showing that we do not do enough to resolve problems. We spend so much time protecting our nuclear sites from attacks by ‘bad guys’ and not nearly enough securing them from natural disasters or dealing with waste.

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    I think Siamang’s “Background” effect is spot on. When people realize that their opinions are out of step with those around them, it may make them hold faster to them or reconsider them. In any case, they are forced to re-examine their arguements.
    The Atheist Experience often has theist callers who are astounded that people don’t believe in a god and say it out loud. The possibility that there is no god has simply never occurred to them.

  • jensan

    Great question! The one thing that did it for me (changed my mind) was when someone I really respected had a different point of view. It really made me go back and talk to them about why they believed as they did. Over time, I think the influence of people you respect can get you to reexamine your beliefs.

  • tommy

    Consider the difference between talking to someone 1 on 1, vs. Talking to a group.

    A lone person can think for themselves, or just pass. A group can feedback loop itself effecting each others thoughts becoming bulletproof. Look at those recent prayer in the highschool graduation videos. When the prayer gets though anyway, the whole room goes nuts for jesus.

    My observations are, talking to a group results in a backfire effect. The entire group tightens it grip on its belief.

  • Anonymous

    It’s funny Michelle mentioned nuclear power. It reminded me of George Monbiot’s turnaround that astounded many onlookers.

    http://richarddawkins.net/articles/612292-the-anti-nuclear-lobby-has-misled-us-all

    Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/21/pro-nuclear-japan-fukushima

  • Chris aka “Happy Cat”

    Outside of god, what’s something you once believed in strongly that you later changed your mind about?

    Three things, in order of loss of belief:

    1) The Tooth Fairy. (He was a cheap bastard anyway.)

    2) Santa Claus (What a let down!)

    3) God. (The damage from “gay guilt” lingered a couple of decades after.)

    4) Karma. (Buddhism phase)

  • what’s something you once believed in strongly that you later changed your mind about? What caused that change?

    In the last year, I had my mind completely changed about children and medication. I had more or less bought the conventional wisdom that we overmedicate, that ADHD is just a function of us repressing our kids energy, and that we should just “let kids be themselves.”

    The daughter of my best friend was diagnosed (after a great deal of angst and suffering–the kid was clearly struggling to make it through every day without massive anxiety) with OCD. Within a week of being on anti-anxiety meds, she was a whole new person. In a GOOD way. She’s who she ought to be now.

    That, and reading a book called “We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication” have completely changed my mind about medicating children for mental illness. I have far greater sympathy and empathy for the families of kids who are trying to navigate the wilderness–it is a really difficult thing to sort out, and there is a lot of cultural taboo that makes it even harder to get the help a child needs.

  • I think they are on to something. Direct confrontation is of little value.

    “….As far as possible, without surrender,

    be on good terms with all persons.

    Speak your truth quietly and clearly;

    and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant;

    They too have their story….”

  • cat

    Pacifism. I was a strict pacifist for a while. I read a memorial piece about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. It really made me reexamine my privilege around issues of self defense. Because the sort of responses you can give about alternatives to responding with violence in even a semi-functioning government situation do not apply when the Nazis show up to liquidate the ghetto. I was used to thinking of social violence as something that could be responded to with direct action alone, or with retreat, but faced with a reminder of a situation where anything but fighting back violently means dying in the most horrible ways imaginable made me re-evaluate my position on defensive violence. I am still anti-war and generally anti-violence, but I now leave a few narrow exceptions of genuinely necessary self defense.

    As to changing minds, I am not sure that the study is noting anything more than a confirmation bias affect. It is often easy when one is highly motivated in a belief system to dismiss a single contradictory claim (especially if it is not an extremely strong one). The fact that people “believe what they want to believe” is not much of a secret. The real question is more of a long term issue and an issue of the strength of specific arguments. While big, sudden persuasions can happen, they aren’t the most common way that people change their minds. Generally, people move by small increments. More and more data slowly chips away at that reactive attitude until the denial stops working. Take a look at other studies of persuading people to do things-Milgrim would argue that you can talk people into almost anything. One small data blip that flies in the face of idealogy written in a newspaper with no discussion does not have the force of social pressue that certain other situations do.

  • I am a vegetarian raised in a household of meat eaters. The process of changing my mind was slow and came from a number of directions till I decided to take the leap and cut out meat entirely. I bought into a few of the myths but I’ve been corrected on those too. Now being a vegetarian is a choice like choosing what to have for dinner (mushroom and leek stroganoff).

    I’ve never believed in gods so that’s the closest I can think of. I don’t see the emotional investment that people have with deities. Where is the return on that investment? I can only assume that it comes from others who have the same beliefs and who therefore act to support the belief system. If that is the case then the good news is that as the number of atheists rises the less support theists will have. Then they won’t get any return on their investment and we may seen an acceleration of non-belief. Wouldn’t that be good?

  • Naomi

    I was brought up as a creationist, and when I was young I was convinced evolution was a scientific conspiracy to ignore the truth, so they didn’t have to answer to God (yes, that is seriously what I taught). As I became more educated, I became VERY confused. I am an honest person and I do not ignore facts that contradict my worldview, but needless to say it was very uncomfortable to hear the two sides and not know who to believe. But as my understanding of the process of evolution grew, I was forced to accept it (by my integrity). It was some time after that that I discarded my faith, from a similar process of honest enquiry.

    I also echo Cat’s thoughts on pacifism, I think I would still consider myself a pacifist, but I just can’t speak in absolutes (about anything, really!).

    I remember seeing a documentary years ago on how climate change was all a hoax, I was pretty convinced by that, but when I got a subscription to New Scientist that idea didn’t last long! But facts such as climate change and evolution- I was not personally, emotionally invested in them, I just genuinely wanted to know the truth. Faith is more insidious, it is so difficult to challenge your entire worldview, much respect to those of you who have been through that. Many of you will have had it harder than I (as I moved away from my religious family for university).

    Although it is sometimes hard to be wrong, I hold truth to be my highest value. My personal motto is: it does not matter how it makes you feel, what matters is whether it is true. Of course, if you can make a convincing argument for why truth should not matter, I’m all ears to challenge that motto 😉

  • Denis Robert

    Fundamental problem with all the accomodationist arguments: they all only factor in the short term, and ignore the effects to long term pressure.

    If you were to answer the question “Can water poke a whole through a stone?”, you would come up with the wrong answer if you only looked at the effect of a single drop, or even 10 liters. But if you dripped a single drop a second onto a stone, and came back a few years later, you would come to a very different answer…

    The same is true with the confrontational approach to atheism. In the short run, sure it will reinforce the targets’ defenses. But in the long run, the pressure, especially when a critical mass is reached, will have its effect. The very act of reacting against the attack destabilizes the believer, allowing new information to seep in. On the other hand, the accomodationist approach puts no pressure on the believer to make any change at all.

  • There are three things I have changed my mind about that were strongly believed at one time.
    I used to be a bigot. I was raised in a white family who believed that African Americans are somehow naturally inferior; that they are instictively prone to be law-breakers, lazy and live off of the working class. I questioned this belief for two reasons: I worked with many African Americans who I liked, and considered to be equals, and somehow still thought that they were the exception to the rule. I then asked myself why I believed what I believed, especially after having been challenged to question why I held these beliefs by other people. I came to the conclusion that the only reason I held this belief, my bigotted view of African Americans, was because of childhood indoctrination – the same reason other people have religous beliefs. My bigotry was not based on evidence or reality, but burned into my brain as a child. I have since gladly thown out that belief system and firmly hold all people to be equal in ability, or lack there of, based as individuals only – not race.

    I also used to resent paying taxes and believed the US would be so much better off if the government would just stay out of our lives. I was a strong republican. Experience has proven me wrong. While there is a lot of waste in government that I would like to see corrected, I now believe that people are inherently greedy and that left to ourselfs we would not do what is in the best interest of our nation. We would keep our money and not support social programs voluntarily, and in the end. ;eft unrestrained by government, I think we would have about 12 people who held 99.9% of all the wealth in the country, and the rest of us would rent from them. Age, and experience has given me some wisdom, as it did with religion.

  • francois

    i used to be a bigot for purely selfish reasons then someone gave me good arguments as to why i should hate homos and now i fully support gay rights.

  • Noel

    The decision to completely embrace reason is a personal decision, and the best we can do is to encourage them through discourse and example to reopen avenues of thought long since closed. Everyone is born an atheist.

    It’s not to say that there aren’t individuals who are terminally misintegrated, but if we hold to be true that reason is the only source of knowledge, then an objective exercise of that faculty leads undeniably, however incrementally, to wholeness.

    But the volition to change rests with the individual. He is his Prime Mover. It cannot be synthesized or coerced. An atheist born out of peer pressure, or emotional baggage, or some religious resentment, is the worst atheist we could have.

  • Greg

    Hard to answer – most of the important position altering things have come with things related to god – e.g. god existing; my positions on the morality of scriptures; my positions on the morality of the concept of religion itself – all have had pretty complete about faces. All the things that have caused it have been deep internal contemplation I think, although sometimes they have been helped along their way.

    There are other things I’ve been proven wrong about through experiences – e.g. other people or myself – but I don’t think that’s the kind of thing you are looking for.

    I don’t tend to be the kind of person who commits to belief in something unless I have really researched it though (any more, at least), so I’ve had my mind swayed from a non-committal point of view plenty of times if that helps!

  • Confrontation builds walls. The only way to chip away at those walls is from the side. Provide information, tell why you aren’t like them, ask them questions.

    Of all the atheist sites I’ve shared links from, my friends appreciate this one the most because it’s not in-your-face confrontational. It provides information, it asks questions and makes them think rather than automatically turn on the defenses.

  • Ash

    Beliefs do not change, on the whole, due to logic or evidence (with exceptions, naturally). Rather, logic and evidence are generally used (or misused) to rationalize beliefs. Direct argument can, over time, chip away at a belief, but indeed can have the opposite effect as Hemant pointed out.

    Beliefs can change, however, when there is internal conflict, either between opposing beliefs or between beliefs and held values. For example, many people reexamined their belief in Yahweh when they actually read the Bible and saw that he acted in ways contrary to their held values of love and compassion.

    I myself used to hold to occult woo with vigor. This did not change until I noticed that a lot of the underlying ethics of the system were at odds with my own values. When I realized that naturalism and science were in perfect accord with my values, I made the switch (although it took 2 or 3 years).

    I am all for direct logical argumentation. Sometimes it works, often in degrees as JimG pointed out above. But I think the best arguments that atheists make are those that point out the ethical problems with both the contents of faith and with the act of faith itself. By pointing out the conflicts between religion and people’s desire to be good, then more people will be open to alternatives (e.g. secular humanism, religious naturalism, etc.).

  • Alice

    I was never very religious, but when I was young I believed that there might be an afterlife. I couldn’t imagine life just snuffing out, it was just too…undramatic, I suppose.

    Now I’m pretty sure that dead is dead and I’m okay with that. It’s sad that some of my loved ones have died, but it makes me appreciate the living ones even more.

  • I did go through a somewhat libertarian phase, and then I learned about externalities and learned a lot more about environmental issues.

    More recently, I was for a long time a vocal proponent of more research and funding for space elevators. I’ve since become convinced that this is unlikely to be helpful in any timeframe that makes it a worthwhile activity at this point in time.

    For a long time, I considered cryonics to be absolute bunk and an utter waste since the ice crystal formation in the brain squishes things. Then about a year ago, I heard the claim that the ice crystal problem had been solved and that they can now vitrify with minimal ice crystal formation. I’m still looking at this and it looks like they’ve solved more of the technical problems. I’m very unconvinced that this is at all worth it in general, but it looks a lot more plausible than I thought it was.

  • Greg

    Actually, thinking about it, I have had my mind changed about one thing – I no longer dismiss people I disagree with about a group of people as simply bigots.

    I had the very naive position – once – that anyone who said something negative about a group of people was virtually automatically a bigot. Listening to other people holding the same point of view try to defend that position, and listening to someone defend what I thought was bigotry (even though in that case I am still convinced some bigotry was involved at a greater level, it wasn’t at the level I first assumed), convinced me I wasn’t justified in holding that position.

    So I came to understand the (rather obvious, really, I suppose) fact that it is possible for there to be something inherently bad about a set of beliefs, and anyone who follows that set of beliefs can then be tarred with one brush, so to speak.

    As an example:

    If a tenet of a religion X involves hatred of homosexuals, then it is not bigoted to criticise all people who hold to that religion and tenet.

    There exist toxic belief systems, and it is not bigotry to acknowledge that.

    It taught me not to be hasty when using words like sexism, racism, bigotry and that ilk.

  • Michael D

    Probably a bad example but i used to be a moon landing hoax believer. I saw a really bad documentary on it and was convinced and then i saw the arguments destroyed and stopped believing in it. Kind of a humbling experience.

    As to the you can’t change minds thing, I think it might be true to individuals but in a broader scale I think its bullshit. If you really look around the atheist community you can find plenty of former conservative christians to show that this argument is at best an over symplification. While its true that arguments might strengthen some they can also weaken others.

  • Blacksheep

    I want to say that something similar happened when I visited churches — that pastors made arguments for god and what they said made me not believe in god even more strongly, if that sort of thing is even possible… but I don’t think it’s the same thing. Their arguments just weren’t persuasive.

    Works both ways brother! It’s exactly the same thing, from different viewpoints.

  • Richard Wade

    A few years ago, I violated my own rule to withhold belief until acceptable evidence is presented. I believed President George the Usurper’s (ptui) claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I never believed his other lies about 911 being linked to Iraq, and those lies should have warned me to be suspicious about all his claims. But I think fear and the lust for seeing some ass kicked clouded my skepticism. Just a few weeks after the invasion, when no evidence was found, I realized I’d been hoodwinked. I hope that my embarrassment doesn’t fade, because it will remind me to follow my principles and not be seduced by my base drives of fear and violence.

    Lapses in skepticism are often lethal.

  • AmyC

    I’ve heard of this effect before, but it wasn’t called the “backfire effect.” I’m pretty sure I suffered from this for a long time when it came to things like evolution, abortion rights and gay rights.

    In fact, before I became atheist those are the three things that I changed my mind about. In high school I was against all three (I did have a soft spot for gay rights, that changed easily because two of my best friends were gay guys.)

    My mind changed about abortion rights, not because of arguments I had with people (where looking back I see they made perfectly reasonable points that I refused to accept or listen to), but from realizing that I can change my mind about issues if I have good reason for it. For a long time I was under the impression that if I changed my mind about an issue, than I was a “flip-flopper.”

    I did a research paper my junior year on whether or not surrogate mothers should be paid and whether or not it should be legal. I started out pretty much against paying surrogate mothers, but it wasn’t an incredibly important stance of mine so I was willing to look at the other side. Also, being a paper for English class, I had to look at the other side. What can I say? I like to research and write papers (I would have debated more often if I wasn’t so squeamish about public speaking). By the time I sat down to write the paper, after I had finished all of my research, my mind had changed completely. It made me realize that there’s a possibility that I could be wrong about some things (gasp!) and that my mom could be wrong about things too (double gasp!).

    I wasn’t even researching abortion when I changed my mind about it; I just read the book “The Cider House Rules” my senior year and, though it’s fiction, I realized what happens to women and children when abortion is banned. I changed my mind almost immediately after reading that book. I think part of it was that it was an emotional response. The book had a few reasoned arguments for legalizing abortion, but it wasn’t a book that set out to argue for it, the issue was just incidental to the story.

    Evolution was a different story altogether. I think I just kind of grew out of creationism. By my second year in college I looked at creationism and just thought “that’s silly and childish.” I still didn’t know much about evolution or geology or really anything about science, but so many other things my parents/church leaders had told me were wrong that it seemed likely they were wrong about evolution too. Plus, by that point I had completely rejected the notion of massive conspiracies (such as the ones creationists imply with movies like “Expelled”) and it just seemed more logical that the scientists working in the related fields knew more about it than the pastors and were more honest than the so-called creation “scientists.”

    All in all, learning how to change my mind when the facts demand it (which is the essence of intellectual honesty) had more of an impact on my stances than the actual arguments for and against all of these things. I guess what we should teach people is how to question themselves, and not worry too much about telling saying “you’re wrong and here’s why” (at least not if we’re trying to change an individual’s mind).

  • Amy

    Hi there. My first comment is a long one.

    I used to believe a number of things that I no longer do. The ones most important to me were intensely personal. Reason did influence me dumping many of those beliefs by pointing out errors in my logic and inconsistencies in the beliefs themselves. The wildest one I dropped after it became undeniable that it was at odds with something else I held dearer.

    For years, I believed I was a prophetess but I stopped believing that before I lost Christianity altogether. I don’t think anyone tried to talk me out of that belief. I suppose I came to the realization that my “prophetic” dreams could very well be a product of being especially observant like I knew I was in my wakeful hours.

    I used to believe and argue various terribly incorrect things about evolution and homosexuality. I changed my mind about those after I was older and had access to other information instead of being trapped in the echo-chamber where most everyone told the same wrong things.

    I once had a very narrow view of Christianity, that it could only be the particular way I was taught. That changed by exposure, especially to church history. Technically speaking, I had to change a belief to even have these changing beliefs, because the church I was a part of taught that it was wrong to have any religious learning outside the Bible. This included learning any formal theology or learning church history. Other than how can learning be bad?, I wondered at this: if the Bible is holy, inerrant, and God-breathed, how can it be evil and of Satan to learn how it was put together? I learned about the history of the Bible first and decided this was stuff I should have known, so I tossed out the rule and learned more. I doubt any of this would have happened if I hadn’t made a friend of someone with different beliefs who was willing to talk about them and introduce me to a new group of people who didn’t all think the same.

    Before losing Christianity, I also changed much of what I thought were requirements for being a good Christian and a good person (categories with overlap). Many things that I thought were so important to me lost almost all of their importance when I thought I was likely dying. It also made me comfortable with saying “I don’t know” and even adding “and I don’t think it matters”. But a brush with mortality can probably bring perspective that’s otherwise hard to gain.

    FWIW, I was a Christian and I’m now an atheist, but I didn’t change my mind about God. My mind changed in my sleep. Brain damage can have interesting consequences.

  • Slider33

    An ex-Christian myself, I suppose I too reacted in such a way up to a certain point.

    However, I think that people are being dishonest when they say that strong challenges to their faith “strengthens their faith”. I think it does the opposite. I think they are just deluding themselves to a greater degree and they know it.

    I think challenges to faith do exactly that: weaken faith. It may increase self-delusion, but there is no way someone can have less doubt after the seed of doubt has been planted, it seems logically impossible.

    I suppose it boils down to how susceptible people are in tricking and deluding themselves into believing in something, even in the face of clear evidence or rational thought.

    Faith and religion have a lot of things going for it that make it resilient against challenge:
    –having faith is considered a virtue by society
    –many religions leverage fear, a powerful motivator
    –childhood indoctrination
    –social pressure to conform to the majority
    –committed time and effort into current faith system

    People are reluctant to change, that much is obvious. However, I’m an example of someone who used to be very religious and over time became an atheist.

    In summary, I don’t agree that challenging people’s faith backfires. In the short-term, perhaps that is the immediate effect. However, long-term I think it’s important to plant the seed of doubt and let it grow. I wish that someone had planted that seed of doubt earlier in my life.

    And to answer Hemant’s question: What caused me to change my mind was living and working in a diverse culture of political and religious views. The environment forced me to broaden my own world view and reconsider my own faith. Being surrounded by non-like-minded people helped me develop my own identity and become a freethinking individual.

  • Lady Copper

    I agree with those who have said it’s a little by little process. Of course you can change peoples’ minds with facts, it is just that yes, sometimes all of us will have the backfire effect when someone confronts some belief of ours. Also, keep in mind that if a very strongly held belief is challenged, we tend to push back EVEN IF, sometimes ESPECIALLY IF, we can feel it wavering. If the evidence was convincing enough, we will think about it later – it’s just that instaneous 180-degree changes are almost impossible.

    So yeah, go ahead and talk to people, just try to keep your goal in mind. If you truly want to help them get out of a mental trap, do your best to help them save face at every point and know when to stop talking.

  • SlipperyWhenWet

    Santa

    And the tooth fairy (woke up to find my mom putting a dollar under my pillow)

    Though, it’s arguable whether I ever truly believed in those things or not. Same with God, I suppose.

  • Slider33

    @Richard Wade

    I fell for WMD’s hook-line-and-sinker, as I imagine a lot of people did.

    Even though believing their lie was a lapse in judgement; coming to the realization that they lied about WMD’s was a significant factor that triggered my gradual change to skepticism.

    Lapses in skepticism are often lethal.

    Excellent quote, and the WMD lie is a perfect example of such.

  • George the Usurper, WMD, etc.

    I’m sure that no matter how embarrassed some feel here, Colin Powell feels even worse. The neocons played him like a fiddle in the lead-up to the war.

  • Julia

    I thought organic food was better until I heard the segment on “Skeptics with a K” about how it’s not.

  • Blacksheep

    Having argued with many committed theists and never making a dent in their armor, I’m willing to accept there’s a “backfire effect.” What I’d be more interested in knowing is how to circumvent it.

    As a Christian, my observation is that there is a massive social component to this that goes beyond faith, but is a difficult gulf to bridge. Christians, especially more conservative ones, are just as wrapped up in a certain way of living as they are in their faith. If one conservative says to another, “You know, sometimes I wonder if maybe there is no God.” His conservative friend will not take offense, he might even say, “Sure, I have doubts too sometimes.”

    There’s comfort in having honest, heartfelt dialogue with a kindred spirit.

    Many atheists, though, come from a different world or take a different approach, which has the immediate effect of backfiring. But it’s not rocket science. For example, telling a whole group of people that they are idiots and believe in mythical beings builds no bridges. Coming from a place of absolute certainty, as hemant does, (Unless it forwards his opinion, in which case he extolls the virtues of doubt) is obnoxious in any social setting. Barely containing anger and frustration because you disagree with someones faith is, to us, a sign that there is insecurity in your position, and besides anger builds no bridges either.

    Atheists also miss a huge point of similarity between Conservative Christians and themselves: both groups love freedom and the right to personal liberty. Sure, it manifests differently, but it comes from the same place. Every time there’s an article in here about taking down a prayer, nativity, or cross it comes across as an affront to our freedom. Another cause for backfire.

    People will always listen to those whom they respect, and I assume that that goes both ways. If we heard the voice of an atheist who was served in the military, believed in marriage, low taxes, small government, was a patriot, didn’t go out of his way to stop prayer in school (because it didn’t threaten him), and also happened to not believe in God, (but didn’t hate God) there would be much less backlash – and maybe real conversation.

    The reason for backlash is that this is as much a social – change conversation as it is a religious conversation. And that’s too much for our tiny brains to handle all at once!

  • Lonne

    I was once some kind of anti-vegetarian. I loved meat and all and thought that vegetarians were wrong, vain and unhealthy. Then i really read a lot of stuff about the topic. And it occurred to me that maybe my opinion about vegetarians was just due to my feeling of being to weak for a change in life as big as this. After all the facts i had heard and read i knew that this way of life might have a lot of advantages, for me and for animals, the environment, other people in need for food etc… But the facts didn’t do it for me, i just couldn’t resist certain meals in daily life. It was a movie about industrial food production that really influenced me emotionally. After watching it i had the strength to stick to a vegetarian way of life until today. So i think facts are not always enough to persuade people, especially when people are emotionally involved (as this is the case with religious beliefs as well as with daily life matters like nutrition).

    i also think it’s very important to sincerely respect other people’s points of view so they will open up for a discussion. and if you only pretend, they will find out. They will be reluctant to believe something someone else tries to force them to believe.
    But if you discuss with people about a topic without wanting to change their mind, there will not be a backfire effect, but it will offer both sides a new point of view, a way to understand each other.

    Sorry if i made language mistakes, i’m not a native speaker.

  • One of the conclusions I reached after Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” speech is that there is probably a big difference between the person you’re ostensibly talking to, and the audience. That is, if you get up on stage to debate William Lane Craig, you almost certainly won’t convince Craig of anything, but you may have an effect on some people in the audience. (Unfortunately, I don’t have any data to support this, so this is just a gut feeling.)

    So even if your interlocutor digs in even more deeply, it’s still worth having the debate. A corollary is that if you’re practicing debating, you should do it in private, lest your opponent trounce you and convince the audience; and if you’re confident in your skills, you should debate in public.

    what’s something you once believed in strongly that you later changed your mind about? What caused that change?

    I used to think that the drinking age should be lowered, so that teenagers could learn to drink before they learned to drive; to help take away the forbidden-fruit aspect of drink, and generally help reduce the number of drunk drivers.

    But then I was presented with a paper (which, unfortunately, I can’t find anymore) that examined several countries in which the drinking age was raised or lowered, and it pretty much contradicted everything I believed.

    I’m still not 100% convinced that I was wrong. It was only one paper, after all, and it’s possible that it was flawed in some way that I didn’t notice. But I’m far less certain that letting teenagers drink is a good idea as I used to be.

  • I’ve never believed in organised religion, but firmly believed in my teens and early twenties in a spiritual existence.
    I’m still kind of wedded to the idea of free will… aaaargh!!

  • Blacksheep

    Hoverfrog,

    Now being a vegetarian is a choice like choosing what to have for dinner (mushroom and leek stroganoff).

    We disagree on religon but not on food. My wife loves leeks and mushrooms – I’m now looking for a recipe online. If there is one you love, please send me a link!

    Thanks

  • Edmond

    I once believed that Orson Scott Card was worth reading, then HE changed my mind about that!

  • Dave

    It’s probably a safe bet to say that anyone adamant enough to debate directly about a/theism is unlikely to have their mind changed. But that doesn’t mean that I think for a second that we should stop debating them, especially in public. There will likely be people in the audience, even religious people, who will come away with more questions about their beliefs or a curiosity for the truth.

    For every staunch defender of the bible, there are many habitual believers or children of church-goers who are more open to seeing reason. I should know, I was one of them, once upon a time 😛

  • If we heard the voice of an atheist who was served in the military, believed in marriage, low taxes, small government, was a patriot, didn’t go out of his way to stop prayer in school (because it didn’t threaten him), and also happened to not believe in God, (but didn’t hate God) there would be much less backlash – and maybe real conversation.

    Blacksheep, I’m going to answer this as a Brit with no constitutional axe to grind.

    If we heard the voice of an atheist

    You do, if you are prepared to listen.

    who was served in the military

    Many atheists do, many don’t, but what does that matter

    believed in marriage

    define marriage

    low taxes

    many atheists are ultra conservative or even libertarian, Ayn Rand for example.

    was a patriot

    to which country exactly?

    didn’t go out of his way to stop prayer in school (because it didn’t threaten him)

    As a citizen of the U.S you are in a privileged position. Your constitution guarantees that whether you profess any particular religion or none, your state institutions will not expect you to subject yourself to the rituals of any other. Contrast that with even the religiously benevolent U.K (my home) where school kids have to consciously opt out of religious education or assembly and thereby identify themselves as not Anglican/Catholic.

    and also happened to not believe in God, (but didn’t hate God)

    two logically incompatible conditions. You can only hate a god you have the misfortune to believe in. Atheists hate the “idea” of gods as presented to them by religion, mainly because the logical consequence of the existence such gods is horrific and morally abhorent.

  • AmyC

    @ Blacksheep

    Atheists also miss a huge point of similarity between Conservative Christians and themselves: both groups love freedom and the right to personal liberty.

    If we heard the voice of an atheist who was served in the military, believed in marriage, low taxes, small government, was a patriot, didn’t go out of his way to stop prayer in school (because it didn’t threaten him), and also happened to not believe in God, (but didn’t hate God) there would be much less backlash – and maybe real conversation.

    My definition of personal liberty is based off of the idea that your rights end where another person’s begins. In other words, you can’t outlaw activities that don’t harm and/or impose on somebody else’s rights.

    I’m very interested in your definition of personal liberty, because it seems that conservative Christians are not for personal liberty. They are for suppressing personal liberties, i.e. marriage rights, freedom of religion and women’s rights.

    Also, I don’t understand what you mean by “believes in marriage.” I can’t think of anybody who doesn’t believe that the institution of marriage exists. People may have differing views about what constitutes a marriage, what benefits should be accorded to married people or what value should be placed on marriage, but everybody believes in it.

    Prayer in school is a threat to everybody. It’s a threat to the kids in the school who are having a certain religious belief being imposed on them. By the age of 14 I was still a Christian, but I had rejected the notion that prayer had any sort of power. If my school had forced me to pray or asked us to pray I would have been very angry. In fact in Texas we have the mandatory “moment of silence” and pledge of allegiance. The moment of silence was not optional, but the pledge was, and I didn’t ever say the pledge because I saw it as the same as prayer–meaningless and ineffectual. It’s a threat to the church down the street that is having it’s authority over spiritual matters being abrogated by the state. I say “authority over spiritual matters” because religious instruction should be up to the parents and the church. It’s a threat to the parents in the school district who trust the public school to be educating their children–not hosting a sunday school. It’s a threat to that guy down the street who has no kids in school but still has to pay property taxes to support the public schools that are teaching and endorsing sectarian beliefs (yes, the power of prayer is a sectarian belief).

    So in other words, you would listen to an atheist who never stood up for their own rights and just allowed religious people to control the country.

    Also, why does the atheist have to have been in the military? Do you only listen and respect people who were in the military, or is that atheists have to go above and beyond what theists have to do in order to gain your respect?

    p.s. also, your line “but didn’t hate god” makes no sense. If someone doesn’t believe in a god’s existence, then they by definition cannot possibly hate that god.

  • AmyC

    Awww, Edmond, I still like the Ender’s Game series. 🙁

  • Blacksheep

    My definition of personal liberty is based off of the idea that your rights end where another person’s begins. In other words, you can’t outlaw activities that don’t harm and/or impose on somebody else’s rights.

    I’m very interested in your definition of personal liberty, because it seems that conservative Christians are not for personal liberty. They are for suppressing personal liberties, i.e. marriage rights, freedom of religion and women’s rights.

    I’m trying to make a more subtle point that might lead to mutual understanding. By analyzing my comment word for word, you are missing that. I’m trying to offer some insight, insight that might not be logical but still might be true, because humans aren’t always logical.

    Also, why does the atheist have to have been in the military? Do you only listen and respect people who were in the military, or is that atheists have to go above and beyond what theists have to do in order to gain your respect?

    I’m just painting a picture of a character to make a point. Nobody “has to be” in the military. I’m not trying to argue a position, I’m trying to explain that cuture gets in the way of this discussion, that’s all.

  • Blacksheep

    p.s. also, your line “but didn’t hate god” makes no sense. If someone doesn’t believe in a god’s existence, then they by definition cannot possibly hate that god.

    Again, didn’t say it made sense. But on this forum I was introduced to thye concept of a seething hatred for the Christian God by some posters. Obviously one can’t hate what one doesn’t believe in. Again, missing the point.

    If someone here posts that that the idea of my God is evil, vile, horrible, and disgusting, there’s no way that any inroads can happen.

  • I used to believe that Blacksheep was just a couple of witty atheist zingers away from deconverting. Now I believe that some prayers are slow in being fulfilled. 😉

  • I’m trying to make a more subtle point that might lead to mutual understanding. By analyzing my comment word for word, you are missing that. I’m trying to offer some insight, insight that might not be logical but still might be true, because humans aren’t always logical.

    Sorry to jump in… but Blacksheep, you can’t argue a point based on the supposed vagaries of others. Either there is a rational position or there isn’t and if anything is, personal liberty should be debatable on logical grounds.

  • Blacksheep

    Atheist MC,

    just like I said to AmyC… I’m not arguing the personality points in my illustration… just trying to make a pont about cultural differences standing in the way.

    Case in point, actually – people jumped right into the “definition of marriage” debate as if that’s the point I was trying to make.

    the discussion was about wht there is backlash in discussions on atheism.

  • Claudia

    @Blacksheep, first the disagreements. I would not call Hemant’s position “certainty”. As atheists, we simply default to nonbelief in something we do not see as having credible evidence (you don’t respond “I don’t know” to whether dragons exist, and I treat god the same way). I’m aware you don’t share this perspective, but you are mistaken about atheist “certainty”. I would also say that direct confrontation has its place, but it’s almost never with the person being directly confronted, but rather with bystanders who can observe the battle without having their egos and beliefs attacked directly. Finally I’d really love to know what you mean by “believes in marriage” because if that holds the typical meaning of “gays shouldn’t get to do it” then you’ll find blessedly (heh) few atheists who share that belief, since it is almost exclusively grounded in religious dogma. If however what you mean is that they believe in strong marriages, then that’s fine. Not all atheists feel the same way about marriages, but I would guess a plurality hold perfectly conventional positions on the thing, outside of not wanting to exclude gays from it.

    With all that aside I think I can agree with the general upshot of your argument. I think we do respond more positively to people like ourselves, so that if you want to change someone’s mind on a position, it really helps if you share a lot of other things, so that the person does not feel they are being attacked by an outsider. In that sense, the best kind of atheist to engage a conservative Christian on matters of faith would be a conservative atheist. Likewise if the religious wished to convert progressive atheists they would be well served employing progressive theists.

  • Blacksheep

    Sorry to jump in… but Blacksheep, you can’t argue a point based on the supposed vagaries of others. Either there is a rational position or there isn’t and if anything is, personal liberty should be debatable on logical grounds.

    So you disagree with my point?

    My point is that social differences and social agenda get in the way of discussions about whether or not God exists.

    Don’t get hung up on the personal liberty point.

  • In that sense, the best kind of atheist to engage a conservative Christian on matters of faith would be a conservative atheist. Likewise if the religious wished to convert progressive atheists they would be well served employing progressive theists.

    I may agree with this, but I’m not sure I like it. In reality common fiscal or political cause has a level of mutually agreed evidence based argument to legitimise it. Religious disagreement however has no common foundation on which to debate, whether between religions or against them.

  • Keljopy

    1. Abortion rights – I was once strongly pro-choice but a few logic-based arguments changed my mind (surprisingly this happened while I still considered myself a conservative Christian).

    2. Evolution – embarrassing to admit as a biologist, but I was once a young earth creationist who believed everything AiG put out there. The backfire effect was definitely in play as I could twist any evidence to fit my belief. It was only when I returned to my parents house after college and spent more time with church people and realized a lot of them weren’t very nice people that I started to lose my emotional attachment to the church. At the same time I was reading a few atheist blogs and realized atheism wasn’t scary. Once I was no longer emotionally attached to my beliefs or afraid of the other side (on both creationism and god) I could easily see the evidence for what it was and embrace it.

  • Blacksheep

    I may agree with this, but I’m not sure I like it. In reality common fiscal or political cause has a level of mutually agreed evidence based argument to legitimise it. Religious disagreement however has no common foundation on which to debate, whether between religions or against them.

    Human nature is what it is – whether or not you like it!

  • So you disagree with my point?

    My point is that social differences and social agenda get in the way of discussions about whether or not God exists.

    I don’t disagree with the diagnosis, just the implied treatment. If what you are saying is that atheists should be pro military interventionist, small government, homophobic, accommodationist, historically revisionist, misogynistic and otherwise ethically dishonest in order to engage with theists then… no, basically. I’ll stick with the current tactic of telling it like it is, in the way that I see it.

  • Blacksheep

    Jeff P,

    I used to believe that Blacksheep was just a couple of witty atheist zingers away from deconverting. Now I believe that some prayers are slow in being fulfilled.

    Nice to know that you care!:)

  • “Outside of god, what’s something you once believed in strongly that you later changed your mind about? What caused that change?”

    Visits to earth by alien lifeforms
    Sasquatch
    Nessie
    The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
    That homosexuality was a choice
    What opened my eyes? Reading material that challenged my views.

  • Rich Wilson

    (my first comment hours ago seems to have disappeared, I’ll try to catch up)

    First of all, here’s 17min on why being wrong is a good thing http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong.html

    I’ve been talking about religion with a Christian friend for years, and only last week something struck me. I think I could boil his side of things down to: atheists make a lot more than their share of noise, given their numbers. And they’re nasty.

    Now, we agree on most things like Blacksheep’s example conservatives. He’s not a bible literalist, we both believe in marriage. And we’ve never tried to convince each other as to the existence of God. A lot of times it’s constitutional stuff. But his take seems to be that atheists do a lot of complaining, but without real reason. Has even pointed out that we’re not getting lynched.

    I think we’re still in the ‘getting noticed’ stage, and still a ways from the ‘being heard’ stage. I’d like to have a dialog, and be heard, and hear, but frankly, I’m a human, and sometimes I lose my temper.

    I think the most I can do is be an example of a non-baby-eating-Atheist. Many Americans don’t know that they’ve ever met an atheist face to face.

    (for what it’s worth, I get even more frustrated about the lack of voice in cycling advocacy.)

  • Ibis

    I’m a big fan of fierce, confrontational challenges. The influence of the so-called backfire effect is far overblown. A person may react outwardly by being defensive in order to save face at that moment, but inwardly adopt the position of the challenger. Or they might leave the confrontation and later privately consider the arguments they had been opposing. Or, the challenges from many sources eventually add up and cause a person to abandon their previously held convictions. I’ve often seen person A emphatically argue with person B, then days or months later turn around and argue with person C using person B’s arguments.

    As for issues I’ve changed my own mind about:

    Abortion – as a teen and early twenty-something I was “pro-life”. I’m now as far from that position as I could get. This change was due to being much better informed, less naïve, and by being convinced by arguments concerning autonomy.

    The soul/reincarnation – I used to believe that reincarnation was a plausible after-death scenario.

    Purpose – I used to believe in signs, and that things “happened for a reason”. I believed that some things were fated, and that some people were “meant to be in my life”.

    Magic – I used to believe that merely by focusing one’s mind and “energy” (or that of a group) upon a specific goal or result, achieving that result was more likely.

    The latter three (along with a bunch of related woo) I changed my mind about because of the intellectual rigour brought to bear by the harshest, most ruthless proponents of rational scepticism like PZ Myers and Matt Dillahunty. I never got into an argument with them or anyone like them myself, but I saw how they challenged others’ beliefs. What do you believe and why do you believe it? Where’s the evidence that it is true?

    My pride in being an intelligent and educated, intellectual person far outweighed any defensiveness about being wrong on any particular issue.

  • AmyC

    @blacksheep: I hopped onto your description of an atheist that christians would listen to someone they respect because many of the descriptions didn’t make any sense and seemed like they were based on conservative Christian misconceptions. According to your description, you seemed to be saying that conservative Christians would only respect an atheist if they agreed with them on everything and didn’t question the authority conservative Christians are trying to have over the country. If that’s the case, then I don’t want conservative Christians to “respect” me. I don’t even see that as real respect.

    In regards to personal liberty, you’re the one who said,”Atheists also miss a huge point of similarity between Conservative Christians and themselves: both groups love freedom and the right to personal liberty.”

    I asked for your definition of personal liberty, because you said that’s what atheists have in common with conservative
    Christians. I also pointed out why I was asking the question because conservative Christians (by their actions and what they advocate for and against) seem to have a different definition of what personal liberty is. If it’s a different definition, then I don’t see how that can be a similarity between the atheists and conservative Christians.

    I understand your point about cultures clashing. That happens all the time. I also understand it can be useful, in some cases, to start with similarities and work from there, but I don’t think you explained yourself very well in that area.

    You can forget about everything else I said if you want (since you are outnumbered here and probably can’t respond to everyone): You cannot claim that atheists and conservative Christians share certain qualities or beliefs and then not explain it when asked. So, I’ll ask again what is your definition (or at least the definition of what you meant in your post) for personal liberties?

  • sara

    So Blacksheep’s plan for talking to religious people is to believe everything they believe or at least pretend to so we’re not so threatening? Also, what does “believes in marriage” mean?

  • AmyC

    I don’t disagree with the diagnosis, just the implied treatment. If what you are saying is that atheists should be pro military interventionist, small government, homophobic, accommodationist, historically revisionist, misogynistic and otherwise ethically dishonest in order to engage with theists then… no, basically. I’ll stick with the current tactic of telling it like it is, in the way that I see it.

    ^^^This, with a big “if” (I’m still not too sure if that was indeed what you were saying, blacksheep)

  • NewEnglandBob

    The “backfire effect” is nonsense. People are shown the delusion of religion and deprogrammed due to reason all the time.

  • @Blacksheep. I use something similar to this but without the chicken.

    If we heard the voice of an atheist who was served in the military

    I’d like to reduce the military to it’s bare bones.

    believed in marriage

    I believe in people having the right to marry if they want but I don’t believe that it should come with any rights.

    low taxes

    Taxes should be sufficient to pay for public services that we all enjoy.

    small government

    big enough to do the job and no bigger.

    was a patriot

    That could mean almost anything.

    didn’t go out of his way to stop prayer in school (because it didn’t threaten him)

    In the US it is against your own constitution and threatens the rights of those who uphold it’s principles.

    and also happened to not believe in God, (but didn’t hate God)

    Nothing to hate. However there is plenty to despise about organised religion.

  • Personal liberty (secular vs. Christian)

    For the Christian, personal liberty means being able to freely exercise the free will to worship Jesus and follow the will of God. It also means bringing all social responsibility down to the level of the church (and away from secular government). It is the dream of a church-centered world where everybody is free to “be a Christian” and all citizens in good standing are members of a church. No laws should be passed that restrict a person’s free exercise of Christian doctrine or principles whether in the classroom or the boardroom.

    For the Secularist, personal liberty means that each person is free to follow the dictates of their own conscious (as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others). Government should stay out of the way and not show any preference of one group over another. Each member of the society should show tolerance and respect for other people and allow a society where everybody is free to have their personal liberty.

    The problem is that secular personal liberty tolerates religious liberty, but religious personal liberty does not tolerate secular personal liberty. Christianity even has it built-in to the belief system that Jesus will send all but his followers to hell. No afterlife personal liberty for non-Christians according to Christianity. Assuming Jesus would kick people out of heaven for dissenting after they get to heaven, there might not be any personal liberty in Christian heaven either. It might just be a bunch of scared shitless people walking around on eggshells afraid to say or think anything at all – for fear of being cast down in the pit.

    I don’t believe in God but if I did, it would not be the Christian God.

  • what’s something you once believed in strongly that you later changed your mind about? What caused that change?

    You know, nothing is springing to mind. I’ve pretty much always had the same beliefs. There are some issues that I didn’t have as strong an opinion on when I was younger, but never have I done a complete “about face.” Maybe the closest I can think of is the death penalty. I was sort of indifferent, and I didn’t come to a strong opposition until I stayed up until midnight to watch the coverage of an execution on television. After watching the news for several hours and hearing that the person had been executed, it suddenly struck me how barbaric and inhumane the whole thing was. That macabre spectacle certainly convinced me that this is not something a civilized society should be doing.

    Blacksheep,

    In that sense, the best kind of atheist to engage a conservative Christian on matters of faith would be a conservative atheist. Likewise if the religious wished to convert progressive atheists they would be well served employing progressive theists.

    Interesting idea, but I really don’t think progressive theists are more likely to convert atheists than conservative ones are. I like progressive theists. Many of them are my friends. We agree politically, and I can appreciate the fact that they are open-minded. I respect them and consider them good, moral people. But their religious beliefs are every bit as ridiculous as those of their conservative brethren. Maybe more ridiculous, since a lot of them seem to be making it up as they go along. When pressed, they will often admit that there is zero evidence for their beliefs, which is hardly the kind of thing likely to convert atheists, who readily agree about the lack of evidence.

    At least with fundamentalists, we know where they stand. We know where they’re coming from. We know what they hold to be evidence and what they don’t. In contrast, progressive theists often seem like they don’t stand for much of anything. Their beliefs are flimsy, and their rationalizations for them even flimsier. It’s certainly possible to be friends with progressive believers, but I can’t have any intellectual respect for their beliefs. So much of it is just wishy-washy, warm-fuzzy, slippery nonsense.

  • Ash

    Blacksheep actually pointed out a key problem with fundamentalism…it is rarely isolated conceptually. Religious fundamentalism in America is tied into conservative ideology, which makes both highly entrenched. They’ve become so intertwined, they have become virtually one thing. And so, an atheist that shares the values and political beliefs of Christian fundamentalists will be a rare thing indeed. And even when we find one, Christian fundamentalists will be no more likely to hear what that person has to say…if anything, abandoning the religious component of their worldview would lead to dismissal and condemnation (just as a fervent liberal Christian would).

    This is why reality-based ridicule is the most effective tactic against fundamentalist forms of religious faith (and conservative ideology). No amount of logic or polite behavior will ever change their minds due to their insular culture and because they have abandoned reason altogether. Instead, we need to help promote a social environment where holding those beliefs are embarrassing and socially costly. This will not have much effect in regards to adult deconversions (although there will be some)…the goal is to prevent as many young people from being suckered into fundamentalist Christo-conservatism as possible.

  • Personal liberty (secular vs. Christian)

    For the Christian, personal liberty means being able to freely exercise the free will to worship Jesus and follow the will of God. It also means bringing all social responsibility down to the level of the church (and away from secular government). It is the dream of a church-centered world where everybody is free to “be a Christian” and all citizens in good standing are members of a church. No laws should be passed that restrict a person’s free exercise of Christian doctrine or principles whether in the classroom or the boardroom.

    For the Secularist, personal liberty means that each person is free to follow the dictates of their own conscious (as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others). Government should stay out of the way and not show any preference of one group over another. Each member of the society should show tolerance and respect for other people and allow a society where everybody is free to have their personal liberty.

    The problem is that secular personal liberty tolerates religious personal liberty, but religious personal liberty does not tolerate secular personal liberty. Christianity even has it built-in to the belief system that Jesus will send all but his followers to hell. No afterlife personal liberty for non-Christians according to Christianity. Assuming Jesus would kick people out of heaven for dissenting after they get to heaven, there might not be any personal liberty in Christian heaven either. It might just be a bunch of scared shitless people walking around on eggshells afraid to say or think anything at all – for fear of being cast down in the pit.

  • tyro

    Can we at least bear in mind that this phenomenon happens to some people for some period of time. It doesn’t affect everyone, and it doesn’t last forever.

    People do change their minds. This is an undeniable fact. Anyone that presents some study which appears to claim differently is either wrong or being misinterpreted.

  • mavitygirl

    I used to be terribly, horribly, virulently anti-gay marriage and “believed” that homosexuality/transgender identity crisis was simply a matter of personal choice.

    Oh, the things I said. To other people. Out loud. It makes me feel ashamed.

    Coincidentally, my changed (learned, educated) views on the right to marriage equality significantly impacted by belief on personal choice…

    about the same time I “came out” as an atheist to many of my closest friends.

    It’s a house of cards, non-critical-thinking “beliefs”. Once they start caving in, everything pretty much falls down until the only ones left standing are those which pass the truth and merit test.

    “You have brains in your head.
    You have feet in your shoes
    You can steer yourself
    any direction you choose.
    You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
    And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

    I love Dr. Seuss 🙂

  • Larry Meredith

    I used to strongly believe global warming was a hoax. I didn’t really care about the science of it, whether it was accurate or not. I just hated the way people use global warming as a scare tactic to force people to be more environmentally friendly and act like people are saints just for recycling or driving a hybrid. I’ve come to accept that it’s true, but I still hate how people use it as a scare tactic and to make themselves feel like heroes just for turning off a light or tossing a glass in the blue bin. It’s like how PETA uses disgusting videos of animal slaughter to scare people into being vegetarian.

  • CB

    The year I finally accepted my own atheism was also when I became a hardcore teetotaler. I was obsessed with finally seeing reality for what it was, and thus despised anything that I perceived as deluding me from truth. In liberating myself from my faith, I was unfortunately still quite weighed down by what I felt was a lifetime of being deceived. Resentment towards the falseness of religion and general bitterness, I’m afraid, made me judge and avoid the falseness of alcohol and anyone who drank it.
    That all changed over time, of course, as I discovered that the pure boundless joy and freedom of being an atheist absolutely and daily exceeds the darkness I suffered in the shadow of religion. And also as I discovered the joy of fine delicious beers.

  • dune

    I used to believe every crap imaginable. Horoscopes, astrology, magic spells, telepathy, telekinesis, creationism, acupuncture, fortune telling, magic crystals, auras etc.
    I even yelled at my doc why he never considers my zodiac sign when diagnosing, because it is clearly said that Taurus is prone to throat diseases, slow metabolism and everything else matches perfectly, too. I did love spells, sewed in magic threads in the people’s clothes to control them, and every day I had at least an hour devoted to training myself to move objects with my mind. I stared in the mirror trying very hard to see my aura and actually started seeing it one time.
    What a hard time it was letting all the comfy beliefs go…

  • I once strongly believed that people are fundamentally good or bad, I used to have a very polarizing view. I once believed there was no grey area. As I was educated that belief disappeared fast.

  • I thought I was making headway with one of my friends. She wasn’t very religious to begin with, but still was nominally Christian. I started introducing her to Unitarianism, as I sometimes attend the Church here in Tulsa. One of the potlucks I went to had 14 in attendance and 8 of us were atheists! So I felt comfortable there. I gave her a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson and thought all was going really well. Then she started saying, in jest (I thought), that Obama might be the anti-Christ. Little did I know that she was being serious. I would have figured that she would relate to him since her mother is white and raised her on her own and her father was black and wasn’t in the picture. I saw her one week and all was well, the next week I stopped by her work to say hi and she was all smiles and creepy happy. I asked her if her and her boyfriend were finally getting along, but she said that she found Jesus ( I didn’t realize he was lost) and she was happy. I told her I was happy for her if she was happy. About a week or two later I get a text message that read something to the effect “I am so happy now, I have been washed in the blood of the lamb. . .”
    I was a bit taken aback. She never made any efforts to be my friend after I responded that I was still “happy” that she was happy.
    One of our mutual friends at the time attended Rhema Bible Center (they can’t call it a school anymore for legal reason I suppose). I was a liberalizing agent to his beliefs. His parents are “prophets” of God and run a ministry in California (http://www.keithhudson.org/). Which I think is hilarious because his sister is Katy Perry (they were none too thrilled with her “I Kissed a Girl” song, though they did appear in another of her music videos). The family was able to take trips all over Europe on the ministry’s dime, and his school was paid for by a generous devotee of his parents (how nice). Well, he stopped being my friend at the same time as the girl went off the deep end. So, yeah I guess a little too much enlightenment can scare those that are uneasy without their “security blanket”.

  • Douglas Kirk

    what’s something you once believed in strongly that you later changed your mind about? What caused that change?

    Abortion is probably my biggest one. I used to be ardently pro-‘life’, but eventually changed my mind after seeing the positions argued many times over with the pro-‘life’ side always getting utterly demolished by pro-choice advocates. Watching them flail around when actually questioned about their beliefs and shown how they do not purport with reality was a big part in changing my mind and getting me to investigate things further. And showing me how naive I really was.

  • I don’t expect to de-convert anyone. I hope to get them thinking about what they believe.
    Anyone is going to get defensive if one goes and makes personal attacks. Problem with believers is they can’t divorce their beliefs from themselves

  • Blacksheep

    Just sending a test… I can’t get anything to post on FA from my email address

  • Blacksheep

    test

  • Blacksheep

    Sorry to those that with whom I was in the middle of a good discussion with last evening. After taking time to respond to all, I realized that FA was not accepting any posts from my email. Some kind of glitch, now it’s back.

  • Kathleen

    After reading “Why We Get Fat (and what to do about it)” by Gary Taubes, I no longer believe in the food pyramid and thermodynamics (calories in/calories out) as an explanation for weight gain. Other than this, I have pretty much held the same viewpoints – on religion, politics, human rights – since I was a young adult (40 years ago) and they have not changed, except perhaps, by becoming even more deeply held.

  • Blacksheep

    Blacksheep actually pointed out a key problem with fundamentalism…

    Actually it’s a problem with any entrenched ideology.

    it is rarely isolated conceptually. Religious fundamentalism in America is tied into conservative ideology, which makes both highly entrenched. They’ve become so intertwined, they have become virtually one thing. And so, an atheist that shares the values and political beliefs of Christian fundamentalists will be a rare thing indeed. And even when we find one, Christian fundamentalists will be no more likely to hear what that person has to say…if anything, abandoning the religious component of their worldview would lead to dismissal and condemnation (just as a fervent liberal Christian would).

    Thank you for understanding my point.

    This is why reality-based ridicule is the most effective tactic against fundamentalist forms of religious faith (and conservative ideology). No amount of logic or polite behavior will ever change their minds due to their insular culture and because they have abandoned reason altogether. Instead, we need to help promote a social environment where holding those beliefs are embarrassing and socially costly.

    I still say that this will lead to The Backfire Effect.

    This will not have much effect in regards to adult deconversions (although there will be some)…the goal is to prevent as many young people from being suckered into fundamentalist Christo-conservatism as possible.

    Now you’re presenting subjective opinion as fact.

  • Blacksheep

    @Anna

    Blacksheep,

    In that sense, the best kind of atheist to engage a conservative Christian on matters of faith would be a conservative atheist. Likewise if the religious wished to convert progressive atheists they would be well served employing progressive theists.

    This is not my quote.

  • Blacksheep

    I don’t disagree with the diagnosis, just the implied treatment. If what you are saying is that atheists should be pro military interventionist, small government, homophobic, accommodationist, historically revisionist, misogynistic and otherwise ethically dishonest in order to engage with theists then… no, basically. I’ll stick with the current tactic of telling it like it is, in the way that I see it.

    When making things up, please don’t attribute them to me. Actually, you did get one thing out of seven correct – I do believe in small government.

    Curious why you would label soldiers as “interventionalist.” That sort of tactic comes from much higher up onj the food chain.

    In your haste to jump into an argument, you’re still missing my point. (Why are you being so pissy, anyway?)

  • michelle

    This is likely true for the anti-vaccination parents. Once they hear about the new study that links autism to prenatal vitamins, they will probably become stronger in their convictions and ignore the evidence, even if it is only preliminary findings.

    I used to be VERY against Big Pharmaceutical Companies. My initial reasons were very personal. My younger brother is severely disabled with a very rare condition. In exchange for complete access to any and all of his medical information, a University and a Pharm Co provided 2 million dollars for his medical care. However, that meant he was often used as a guinea pig. Many of his current problems stem from mistakes in his early treatment, not the disorder itself. As I got older and became more concerned with the world around me, I started learning about things like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pfizer#Legislation_and_litigation. One critical source lead to another, and it is easier to just trust people when you agree with them. So, as far as I was concerned, it was just one step more to distrust Pharmaceutical companies about everything – especially something a profitable as vaccines. (It’s all about the money, right?) I was sure I would not vaccinate my children.

    THEN, well, I got pregnant. I’ve always been the type of person who researches like mad. I hate being unprepared for a new experience. The more I learned about childhood diseases and their effects, the harder it was to hold on to those old fears of vaccines. Even if vaccines did cause Autism (which there is no scientific evidence to prove they even might), the risk of dying from the diseases that vaccines prevent would still be greater than the risk of getting Autism. And that is what informed medical treatment is all about. Mitigating risk, choosing the best option. Being able to see the real good that came from vaccines, it was easier to see all the other ways that pharmaceutical companies have improved our lives. Have pharmaceutical companies done some very atrocious things, especially in Africa. Well, yes. But the world is not black and white, all good or all bad, and a lot of lives have been saved or impoved as well. Large groups of any kind are naturally a contradictory mix of all the very different parts that add up to make the whole, and a large company would be no different.

    The hardest part of changing my position was letting go of the emotions that roadblocked my logic. I had to see my brother’s situation from the perspective of an adult and parent, not a worried and angry child. Yes, among other things, he now has an immunodeficiency problem from overuse of antibiotics in the 1980s. BUT, a child that was not supposed to live out his first week is now in his 30s. I would say that is something for which I should be thankful, not angry.

  • Rich Wilson

    I realized that FA was not accepting any posts from my email.

    Me too.

    This will not have much effect in regards to adult deconversions (although there will be some)…the goal is to prevent as many young people from being suckered into fundamentalist Christo-conservatism as possible.

    Now you’re presenting subjective opinion as fact.

    Not at all. Well, ok, I supposes the goal is a bit subjective, since it’s not your goal. But it’s a bit cumbersome to qualify everything.

  • Blacksheep

    But it’s a bit cumbersome to qualify everything

    Good point, totally agree. Glad that FA wasn’t accepting your posts either – I thought I was banned!

  • Blacksheep,

    This is not my quote.

    Oops, sorry! Looking back, I see it was Claudia I was responding to.

  • The Other Tom

    The backfire effect is real, but I believe there are ways to convince anyone of reality… the problem is the methods often involve getting them to keep listening (even if they disagree), which isn’t always possible. Also, you have to be pretty perceptive at figuring out what will work for the individual. You can:

    Reason with them using facts. This is a great method if the person is logical and open minded and not too emotional about the particular topic, but this isn’t always the case.

    Mock them. Sometimes making someone feel stupid helps them to realize that they’re just plain wrong.

    Apply peer pressure. Getting others on your side doesn’t make you right, but it will make some people more inclined to believe you, even if that isn’t the right reason they should. It works particularly well in combination with mocking, incidentally: you mock the person, others laugh at them, they feel shamed, and might be more willing to change their mind… even if they’re not ready to openly say so.

    Guide their thought process subtly. Rather than openly telling them “believe this,” point them at individual facts and ask them small questions all intended to, over time, bring them around to a slow realization of what you want them to understand. You’re not telling them what to think, you’re helping them to learn about the issue to help them reach their own conclusion that you know will match yours if they really understand the facts. This is tedious, but with some people it’s the only way.

    Insult them. Tell them bluntly what their incorrect beliefs say about them, like “your belief in creationism shows you’re ignorant”, or “your opposition to gay rights shows you’re a bigot.” This can make the “backfire effect” worse, but if done carefully it can instead shock the person into examining their position. This also works particularly well in combination with peer pressure.

    With most people, some combination of these five methods works better than any one.

  • goldfinch

    The “backfire effect” is nonsense. People are shown the delusion of religion and deprogrammed due to reason all the time.

    This poster claims it is nonsense even though the weight of the evidence shows the effect is real. The poster’s personal experience apparently is reinforcing a belief that is contrary to the evidence. Oh, that is the backfire effect! And, no one said that there always is a backfire effect, just that there is a tendency of a backfire in certain circumstances.

    I have heard some atheists maintain the effectiveness of taking a harsh approach even though there is a lack of evidence that it does any good. It would be nice to actually know if it does do some good for some people at least some of the time rather than speculate. Carol Travis, a psychologist that researches in this area, maintains that those who are most likely to change your mind are those you respect and have some commonality in values.

    If we want to express our anger at religious institutions and how they are forced upon us, I have no problem with that. We have the right to have strong feelings. But to say that an angry in your face style is effective at changing minds sounds like rationalization to me.

    Blacksheep evidences a misunderstanding of atheism and the positions of most atheists but has some valid points to make. Treating the religious like they are stupid idiots accomplishes nothing. Plus, it is incorrect. Religiosity has not much if anything to do with how “smart” or “stupid” a person is. After all, even though Phd scientists have disproportionate numbers of atheists there still are theists in the bunch.