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Loss of Belief

I’ve just watched the video of Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” talk at TAM8. This talk has spurred a lot of discussion and a lot of strong feelings around the place. It’s probably spurred varying degrees of reflection by sceptics on our own behaviour. Personally I know it’s made me think more about how (and particularly if) I approach discussions. I don’t think I’ve been too terrible before, but I did become more aware that I can tend, if not careful, to get snaky and mocking. – And I don’t want to be a dick. ;) Consequently I think I’ve become more likely in fact to steer clear of discussions where it seems to me that the other party is incapable of changing. I figure what’s the point of raising my blood pressure (and maybe theirs), and running the risk of being a dick, when I’m not going to change their mind at all. The young Earth creationist isn’t going to turn around and say “you know, I see it now: Darwin and all those other science fullas were right. I guess I’ll go burn down a church and start having bacchanalian atheist orgies”. The homeopath isn’t going to say “ok, you got me: it’s just water, with no memory, and it’s all non-specific effects. I think I’ll apply for a job with a drug company.”

So that’s one thing, and I would suggest strongly that if you haven’t watched it yet, you do so.

The other thing though is what I want to write about now. It’s something that just occurred to me as I was listening. Plait talked about belief, and losing it. The majority of atheists I encounter online seem to have been believers previously, and lost their faith for one reason or another. Plait wasn’t talking just about religious belief (he specifically mentioned UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle), but that seems to be the number one.

What occurred to me is that I’ve never had religious faith. – And the next thing that occurred to me was related to the point Plait made a number of times about how scepticism is hard, often unpalatable, and our brains aren’t wired for it. Basically scepticism about religious belief – once I actually encountered it “in the wild” so to speak, as opposed to in books of myths and legends – was not difficult or unpalatable. It wasn’t that my parents pushed my sisters or me away from religion, they just didn’t indoctrinate us into religious belief. Consequently, when presented with the bizarre stuff found in the Bible, my first reaction is pretty much WTF? (In a way it makes it harder for me to argue with religious belief, since I honestly cannot see how such belief is maintained.┬áMagic and ghosts and so on – likewise.

But … my grandmother studied acupuncture, and my parents would advocate a bit of acupressure here and there. Later on I found myself rationalising madly in an attempt to maintain belief in acupuncture (not for too long; I think the generally rational tone of my upbringing – and particularly the absence of religion, which provides such an overarching irrationality – has left me reasonably ready to think rationally about many subjects) before I finally accepted the weight of evidence against it having any specific effect.

My experience of those two areas of belief is vastly different: I had no trouble dismissing any notion of religious belief, and yet held on to a belief in acupuncture in the face of contrary evidence. The question that occurred to me is “why?” I wonder if there’s more than just our brians being “not wired for scepticism” as Plait says; I wonder if in fact the potential is there, but it can be shaped – towards or away from critical reasoning – by your upbringing. No surprise there, as most or all psychological/cognitive characteristics depend on both nature and nurture.

Let’s take religion. How did I encounter religion while my brain, and thought processes were developing? Books of Norse myths and legends primarily, as well as the Greek and Roman myths – and comic books ;) (Asterix, and Thor, natch).

When, much later, I encountered Christianity, it fitted rather well into the same mental box as Thor, Odin, Zeus, Jupiter … in fact seeing how Zeus -> Jupiter, Hermes -> Mercury, Hera -> Juno etc really leads one to think about the reality of religions and gods, if they’re so malleable, and depend really on who’s writing the books. So what I wonder is if a non-indoctrinated upbringing can mean that scepticism in that area isn’t actually that difficult.

And then I look at acupuncture. While I wouldn’t say I was indoctrinated into a belief in acupuncture, it was something I experienced as an accepted thing while we were still quite young. Perhaps as a consequence, developing a sceptical approach to acupuncture was harder for me and took longer than for religion.

Implication? We really need to look at the environments in which our children grow and develop. One of those environments – and probably the next most important one after home – is school. This is perhaps why it is harmful to the ability of people to reason critically, to have them exposed to irrational religious beliefs as children at school. At least, exposed to them in an accepting, uncritical way. Maybe if we expose children to more critical thinking and less faith and dogma, they won’t find a sceptical approach to the world so hard.

And if we expose them to lots of Carl Sagan they certainly oughtn’t to see scepticism as joyless or lacking passion. 8)

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  • re experience (and upbringing) – is it a question of at what point and in the face of what sort of authority one will invalidate one's own personal experiences? If I genuinely feel a reduction in pain after acupuncture – at what point and for what reason will I say – I was mistaken- and either re-lable the observed effect as a placebo response (rather begging the question ) or convince myself that I must have been totally mistaken in my experience. I guess it depends on the power we give to the authority

    people also report a feeling of God's intervention in their lives (not my experience but I am happy to accept this is an honest report of how they feel) so what will make them invalidate that? different authorities for different people I guess

    So a childhood experience of conforming to authority figures may make this easier to just change from one authority to another??? maybe why so many sceptics are 'born-again' sceptics full of fire and fury – and those of us brought up with a casually sceptical environment right from the start are perhaps not as likely to automatically accept various scientists as authorities who should determine our attitudes to our own experiences

    • I don't think it is begging the question. I think it's actually fairly simple: if sonething doesn't do anything more than a control condition, then it has no specific effect, and anything we experience is down to various non-specific effects. Some of that is placebo effect, some not.

      As for accepting evidence that appears to be contrary to one's own experience, i have a hard time understanding why anyone prefers supernatural explanations over natural ones – which tend to be far more testable and plausible, and far less convoluted and internally/logically inconsistent.

      Quantum mechanics excepted :P

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