Chris Mooney – Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief

May 09, 2011

Special Guest Host: Ronald A. Lindsay

In this special episode, Chris Mooney changes places and becomes the interviewee—and then finds himself facing some probing questions from CFI president and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay. This frank interview is all substance and no fluff as Mooney is asked to defend accommodationism and his Templeton Foundation fellowship. The tough questions elicit vigorous replies as Mooney restates his belief that some of the New Atheists are adopting the wrong tactics in criticizing religion.

In the second part of the interview, Mooney discusses his recent work on the psychology of belief in general, emphasizing how our commitments and our values shape our reasoning and our processing of information.

Ronald A. Lindsay is a bioethicist, lawyer, and President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. For many years he practiced law in Washington, DC, and was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and American University, where he taught jurisprudence and philosophy courses.

As well as a usual host of Point of Inquiry, Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write “The Intersection” blog together for Discover blogs.

Note: This episode was recorded on board the 2011 CFI Greek Islands Cruise on which Mooney was a speaker.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, May 9th, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m your special guest host for this show. Ronald Lindsay point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. 

Our guest is someone who’s very familiar to our audience, but he’s in an unfamiliar role. Our guest is Chris Mooney, who, of course, is one of the hosts for Point of Inquiry. But today he’s in the hot seat as someone being interviewed in addition to being a host for point of inquiry. 

Chris is a noted author and journalist who focuses on the area of science and public policy. His first book, The Republican War on Science, was a bestseller, and that was followed in rapid succession by Storm World. And then unscientific America is engaged in work for another book that will address, at least in part, the psychology of belief. And in the last half the show, we will be discussing some of Chris’s research on that topic. But for the first part of the show, I’m going to concentrate on a controversy that was sparked, at least in part by the book Unscientific America. This is the controversy over so-called accommodation ism. Now, there are different definitions of an accommodationist, but I think the core meaning of an accommodationist and the one I’ll be using during my interview would be someone who either maintains that science and religion are compatible or that they should be described as compatible, even though in fact there may be some tension between science and religion. The term is also used to describe those who believe it is important to be restrained in one’s criticism of religion. And that’s some of the so-called new atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, are far too shrill and condescending, and their criticisms of religion are counterproductive. So with that somewhat lengthy preface, Chris, let me welcome you to the show. 

Good to be here. All right. Let’s get to it. 

Let’s start off with an assertion that you make an unscientific America. You state the following, quote, The official position of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science is that faith and science are perfectly compatible. It is not only the most tolerant, but also the most intellectually responsible position for scientists to take, close quote. So is that your position that faith and science are perfectly compatible? 

And if so, isn’t that position at least partially incorrect? 

There’s no doubt that faith in science can be compatible. There are also cases where they come into conflict, and I think we’re very aware of this, creationism’s the most obvious case in which faith and science conflict. What I view my accommodationist position as stating is that because there are so many diverse world religions and they have very different relationships with science and because people don’t even follow their own doctrines. So that within religions you have many different kinds of relationship with science. You don’t necessarily have to have a conflict. So faith, I would state it like this. Faith in science can be compatible. However, we do see conflicts all around us that are faith and science conflicts. 

So would you then perhaps back off a bit from the statement that the faith and science are perfectly compatible? 

The word perfectly is actually. I wonder if I even am quoting them exactly correctly, the National Academies. I’d have to go back and look the word perfectly, maybe suggests that it goes a little bit more felicitously than it does. 

All right. 

You say that at least in some cases, faith and science can be compatible. But wouldn’t that simply be in situations where certain religious beliefs or certain religious people have backed off from making any claims about the natural world? I mean, when religion does make claims about the natural world, claims, at least in principle, might be tested by science, doesn’t tend to be a conflict. 

Well, what if the religion is saying that, you know, it’s OK to accept evolution, it’s compatible with our beliefs. I mean, that would be not directly saying we’re scientists, but saying that, you know, this is OK, this is kosher. Right. 

You make that point in your book and let’s explore that a bit, because, in fact, I think the one passage in your book, you say that at least on the topic of evolution, there’s no tension between some major religions and science. And you cite, for example, the Catholic Church. But that’s not quite accurate, is it? Because, yeah, the church says the faithful can accept evolution, but that comes with a big asterisk. The church insists that Catholics must also believe that God intervened at some point and put a soul in humans. In other words, the church insists there’s a sharp discontinuity between humans and other animals, which is sore. Which is something that science doesn’t support. 

Depends on the soul in this description is something that they are claiming science can test or measure. If the soul is beyond science, then, you know they can say that. But whether it’s really a scientific claim as opposed to a supernatural claim that’s not testable by science is something that’s open to debate. If they said God put a soul in and we can prove it and we have the data and this is how we do the studies, then there would be clearly putting themselves into conflict with science. But I’m not so sure that that’s really the kind of claim that’s being made there. 

You’re right, and I don’t want to get too deeply into the theology of the Catholic Church or theology of any other church, but maybe this leads to another point, and that is how one describes the consistency or compatibility between religion and science. We take science strictly to mean something that subjects evidence to controlled experiments and testing an effort to try to replicate results. Yeah, perhaps there aren’t that many claims that religious making that is thought are testable by science and therefore maybe in direct conflict with science. But isn’t there really an indirect conflict between science and almost all religious beliefs in the sense that if one takes in here, I’ll give you a broader definition of science, which basically would mean it would encompass any type of secular reasoning, any type of reasoning that says we should conform our beliefs to the evidence. And if that’s the case, isn’t it true that size in that broad sense of secular reasoning undercuts support for essentially all religious beliefs because there’s simply no evidence to accept belief in a sole belief in immortality, belief in a personal God? So there is that deeper conflict between, again, science and abroad science or you called secular reasoning and religious belief. 

Sure. But you know what this also entails? It means that every scientist who has a religious belief that, you know, is somehow not really scientific by your definition. And I don’t think they would like that very much. And I don’t I don’t think I would like that very much. So you realize if you use this strong definition, that you’re painting them all with a nonscientific brush? 

Now, I think the response would be that we simply recognize the fact that, you know, people sometimes within their own minds can hao’s incompatible beliefs. That happens all the time. Jerry Coyne used the example, I think, and one of his articles. You know, people say they believe in marriage, but there are a lot of people who also engage in adultery and they somehow find that compatible at a certain level. How they explain that to themselves, boy, is up to them. And maybe a somewhat tendentious example. But there certainly are scientists probably who believe in things such as therapeutic touch. Reiki doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not scientists. It just means that they are perhaps not entirely consistent how they apply science. And I think someone who would maintain there is this conflict between science and religion could say, sure, I recognize our scientists who are religious. I think that’s simply an instance of people not following the scientific method to scientific viewpoint in all aspects of their life. 

That’s one way. That’s one way of slicing it. But I would say that that definition of science is not the definition of science that has been the one that’s been most accepted throughout history. For instance, if you look at a Galileo and Newton, etc., I mean, these are people who thought that God created the world and they thought that doing science was detecting God’s plan in the world. But they also thought that they had to follow a methodology of research in order to make sure they could test claims. And so that’s why we came up with the definition of science as methodological naturalism. And that’s been a definition that has not only been defended strongly by a lot of people, but actually was sort of the victorious definition in the Dover evolution trial. And that is a much more limited definition than the one that you’re using. 

Correct. I wanna talk, Bennett, about the historical examples, because this comes up, you know, a fair amount of discussions about the relationship between science and religion and certainly the case that some of the scientists from the early modern Arular era, as you say, Galileo Newton is a great example who spent a lifetime trying to research the Trinity. They were religious individuals. But isn’t this simply example of how with the progress of science and science’s increasing ability to explain things that previously were inexplicable, the ground for religious belief has receded so that in fact, whereas people in the sixteen hundreds are sounding hundreds may have thought, well, we need a God to explain the universe, we need a God to explain how it is we have human beings, how the world seems to be designed in such a way that’s compatible with life. Now we no longer need a God. We no longer need that hypothesis. So, yeah, some of the early scientists were religious, but couldn’t someone maintain nowadays that that simply is a position is no longer tenable? 

Well, it’s not culturally nearly as powerful as it was tenable as different thing, but I think that’s not being quite fair to the religiosity of Galileo and Newton, because actually it seems that the religiosity that inspired the science, in other words, you know, because they were doing glory to God, so to speak, they wanted to understand God’s plan. So actually, religion was in some sense motivating learning. Which again, suggests a relationship that’s a little bit less antagonistic. 

That I think would require risk to engage in explorations of counterfactuals, which I think is always a dangerous thing, because one could say, for example, well, if the fact Galileo lived in a non-religious culture when he also had been similarly motivated to explore things that he didn’t understand and try to find explanations for things, it’s hard to actually assess that. Frankly, I think one way or the other, because that’s simply contrary to the facts of history. We only know what Galileo may or may not have done. Have you been in different culture? But I’m not sure that means we have to concede to religion an important role in scientific discoveries. 

OK. I mean, the fact is that it was a motivating factor for the early modern scientists. 

Well, let’s turn to another aspect of the accommodation’s dispute, and that’s your claim as set forth in unscientific America and elsewhere, that frank, unsparing criticism of religious beliefs is counterproductive. If one of our goals is to get religious people to be more accepting of science and in particular the fact of evolution. The first question I have for you is what’s the evidence for that? Isn’t that assertion just really based on a hunch? 

No, I think there’s a huge amount of evidence in favor of that. I mean, it’s all basically psychology. And since since writing unscientific America, I know having done more research, I’m even more convinced of the validity of this. Basically, the evidence is that religion is a deeply held belief. And we know this. It’s central to people’s identity. And I think that that’s obvious. So if you look at how people respond to attacks on their identity and it’s it’s about how they perceive them, right. Not about how you perceive them. It’s about what they internally feel. Then we know that this triggers a defense mechanism and it’s a defense mechanism that is largely acting. It appears subconsciously before they’re even, quote, consciously thinking they are emotionally in a defensive mode, then they are led to bring to mind the thoughts that they’ve thought before and to defend and rationalize who they are, their identity. It seems to me highly unlikely that taking someone on in that way for whom the identity is strong is going to have an effect other than reinforcing leading them to reinforce the identity. Now, of course, there are gonna be people for whom the identity is not strong. They’re gonna be people who are looking for a reason to change. And this might be the way of getting them there. 

But what you’ve described is a general theory about the psychology of belief. And again, we be talking about that further during the show. But in terms of specific evidence, I mean, do you have any evidence that the book’s publication, speeches by these so-called new atheists have actually interfered either with the acceptance of science in general or with the acceptance of evolutionary theory in particular? 

Not as such, but you make it sound like I should. But what kind of controlled experiment would you conduct to do this and who has the funding to do it? It’s not like you can set this up very easily and and prove one way or the other. I mean, you’d have to get a big grant and you’d have to set up a major study using a polling data, et cetera. Right. By a lot of people also won’t have heard of them. I mean, it’s going to be complicated. It’s not something that I am able to do. I would hope that there would be a researcher out there who would do that. And if I saw that study and the results were and I don’t know what they would be, I have my suspicions. But the results were something very different than what I suspect. I would be glad to acknowledge that. 

Right. I suppose that’s one of the things that some your critics may may assert that in fact, what you relied on in in unscientific America is really suspicion. You think there’s maybe in a common sense level makes sense that if you harshly criticized someone’s beliefs, they’re deep seated beliefs, they’re likely be very resistant to that. And that may lead to resistance to things they associate with your criticism. But I suppose, as I said, the comeback would be, well, give us the evidence. This is actually more than a suspicion. 

It’s an inference based on a lot of evidence and a lot of knowledge. Yeah. I don’t have the airtight study, but we make these kinds of inferences, I think, all the time. It’s very, very hard to do the kind of research that you’re suggesting. It’s very expensive. 

Well, let me ask you something else along these lines, because it may at least lead one to question some of your assertions. 

I was intrigued by the observation that you made in your book that residents of the European Union are less scientifically literate overall than Americans, but they have less of a problem accepting evolution. And one could surmise that’s because at least many in the European Union are less religious and more secular than Americans, which perhaps means that if we want to get people to understand science better and maybe accept evolution, what we should do, in fact, is to get them to give up their religious beliefs. 

So, in fact, the way to get people to accept evolution is not to soft pedal criticism of religion, but rather to in fact subject religion to rather harsh criticism. 

If you assume that the harsh criticism is going to change their minds, which is something that I strongly reject, I think it will backfire. And I think that we have good reason to suspect that. I will grant you that if you have a society that’s less religious, it’s highly likely to be a society that’s more accepting of evolution. But the question is how you get there. And how would you get there except through critical examination of religion? No, I think that that’s I mean, you say critical examination of religion as if suddenly by making the rational arguments against religion, these are going to be taken up and accepted in the minds of the people for whom religion is the center of their identity. And I say that’s incredibly naive psychologically. So. That’s not how we work. That’s not how human beings work. So what would I do? I would try to empower the messengers that they will listen to people who are more like them, people who they trust. That means people in their community, hopefully pastors, scientists or religious people are closer to them and can speak a bit more of their language and may be able to move them. It will still be very hard. It will still be you will still trigger a lot of resistance. But I think there will be more openness than kind of the frontal assault from someone with whom you have very little or nothing in common. An atheist. 

Do you think that’s how European countries became more secular? 

Well, I mean, the history of a lot of things are different across this divide and all the factors. You know, I don’t know if they could even put my finger in all of them. But, you know, we have a different relationship between church and state than some of the countries do. And so there’s there’s a lot of a lot of factors going on. We you know. Essentially, people who are evangelical moved here. We’ve had various religious revivals in our history. I don’t think it’s a simple question why we’re different religiously than they are. 

All right. Let me pass on two. Still within the accommodationist issue overall. But this is a question more about perhaps some of the things you’ve done that have resulted in some criticism not to go through. The whole history of various critiques have been off the view. We don’t have a time for two or three houses show. Yes. 

Bob. As a three year show. 

But I’ll just concentrate on one thing that you did that has drawn some criticism, and that is you accepted a fellowship from the Templeton Foundation. Mm hmm. I assume most of our listeners are probably familiar with the Templeton Foundation, but in essence, it’s a very well endowed foundation that devotes a substantial amount of its grant money to projects that are intended to show the compatibility of religion and science. Some people have described it as an endowment m. for apologists of religion, but that may be a little unfair. In any event, I think it was last year you accepted a journalism fellowship at Cambridge from Templeton. 

That’s correct. Yeah, it was a two week total period is two months. You spend two weeks in Cambridge at the beginning, then you go back home, then you come back at the end. 

And during the time when you’re at home, you supposed to be working on a project of your choosing with, you know, and they they work with you on figuring out what you’re going to work on and then you’re supposed to presented at the end. 

Did you apply for this fellowship or were you invited by the foundation? I applied. Now, before I ask you specifically about the Templeton Foundation. First, let me ask you, I assume there’s some organization organizations from which you would not accept a fellowship. For example, you would not accept a fellowship from the Iranian government, correct? Probably not. Would you accept a fellowship from the Discovery Institute? No. How about Liberty University? No. 

How would you distinguish? I think I’d have to, you know, I mean, these are kind of easy. I applied for this one. I didn’t just accept that. I said, I want this fellowship. I want to go to Cambridge and I want to work on what ended up working on which was a piece about the spirituality of scientists who don’t believe in God. Actually, my whole Templeton project was about Athie ism, which they were very happy with. It was about eight ism, but scientists who were not actual believers still said they’re spiritual, which an interesting growing phenomenon which I explored. 

Would you apply to Liberty University for a fellowship to explore the spirituality of scientists? 

No. But I mean, no. But it’s not it’s sort of an extreme example. And I doubt such a thing is on offer. 

Well, let’s assume it is not or would be you. So the answer is no. So how would you distinguish? 

Applying for a while, your mellersh really is. Well, let’s tell you just tell us tell us how easy it is. 

How would you distinguish, let’s say, taking a fellowship from the Discovery Institute or Liberty University and taking a fellowship from the Templeton Foundation? 

Well, I think it’s very simple. Discovery Institute. As many folks have documented, including me in my first book, I went I was very critical of the Scrivens in my first book. Discovery ensued, undermined science by pushing intelligent design, something I’m very, very opposed to. So the answer is obvious. Liberty University. If I recall, founded by Jerry Falwell, is that correct? Yes, I believe that’s correct. OK. So, again, Jerry Falwell, leading anti evolutionist, also happens to be very politically different from me, founder of the Moral Majority and so forth. Not, you know, in someone I think I’m trying to think of. I’ve ever directly said lots of things about Jerry Falwell, probably, you know, in Jerry Falwell hasn’t been. I think he’s deceased. Yes, he is. So hasn’t been has not been resurrected. He has not been prominent in public life lately. But, yeah, I mean, these are these are kind of no brainers with the Templeton Foundation. I believe it’s a very different situation. I don’t you know, basically what is happening with the Templeton Foundation and particularly with the Cambridge Fellowship, which I did, which is for journalists, it’s only one very small part of what they do is that they’re generating a dialog. And I would say they’re doing it very successfully. They’re generating a dialog about the relationship between science and religion. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing about that dialog that they are controlling in the sense that they are forcing people to come up with particular ways that they view the relationship between science or religion. They are just generating attention to the topic. Now, when they generate attention to the topic, it turns out that a lot of people have views other than these strict, incompatible list view. That’s just the way it is. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s, frankly, the topic science and religion is much broader than simply the question of how do they get along? You know, there’s many, many aspects of the topic and many people’s presentations. You know, there is one presentation about, you know, freewill and quantum quantum mechanics. I mean, is that about our science and religion compatible? Not real. I mean, it’s it’s tangentially related. This is what one person worked on. So I don’t see anything wrong with generating this dialog. I think some people don’t like the direction it goes when it gets generated. But, I mean, that’s just that that’s the marketplace of ideas, really. You know, you could say that they are lending, you know, that there are quite a quite a large player in the marketplace of ideas because they’re able to sponsor a lot of research, journalism, etc.. I think that’s true. But I don’t think having the discussion is a bad thing. So I don’t think that they are like tilting the marketplace of ideas. I think it’s Sarlat in a lot of stuff into it. 

Isn’t that part of their express mission, though, is to advance the view that is not a question of science being compatible with religion, but science actually points the way to religion, according to the people who started Templeton and as part of their mission. 

And they’re trying to people certainly probably believe that. But what I’m saying is that when I go into a Templeton Fellowship about the spiritual views of non-religious scientists, I have no interest in that. 

And they have no interest in making me support that. 

And they’re very encouraging. We’re very encouraging of what I did. So it’s not like I’m being controlled. And I brought the topic to them of my own volition and interest. So, you know, I it’s not like anyone’s telling me what to do. And so I think that’s fine. 

But once the argument perhaps be that, yes, they don’t directly control what your work is, but what they’re getting out of you is the name of Chris Mooney, who is someone who is a respected science journalist, written a number of books, as we’ve indicated. And you’re lending your prestige to this foundation. 

You said at the outset that though I’m writing something to write Byeong support, to research something I’m interested. Right. In, which is important for someone who’s independent journalists. Right. All right. Over. But, you know, you said at the outset that one reason you won’t work with the Discovery Institute is because they’re undermining science. Right. Can someone say that Templeton is doing the same thing, but they’re doing it in a much more subtle way? What they’re doing is that they have managed because they have a lot more resources than discoveries to they’re able to recruit noted scholars, including scholars such as yourself or atheists, to work with them. 

And that lends a certain veneer of credibility to their work. And they’re therefore you are contributing to their mission of undermining science. But in a very subtle way. Yeah. 

Well, first of all, there’s people with much more stature than me that work with them. Much, much more stature than me. But yeah, you could say that. But it would be wrong because I don’t believe they’re undermining science. 

Even though their mission is to show that signs leads to religious belief. 

I’m not sure that’s their mission. I’m not sure that that is exactly the nature of their activities. I really believe that what the Tumblin Foundation is doing is generating, as I said, a dialog about the relationship between religion and science. And I don’t believe that that dialog has to undermine science. Again, if you go to this Cambridge program and you hang out with some of the people there, then what you’re going to find is that there’s a lot of top scientists at Cambridge working with the program and some are religious and some are not. But, you know, you know, I got to hang out with Sir Brian. He Pu’s a member of the Royal Society and very involved in the program and happens to be really concerned about climate change. And we had a lot of really great discussions in Cambridge about that subject. I mean, this is not sort of like outside of the scientific mainstream. This is the scientific mainstream. 

The last person that they awarded, the last couple of people that they have awarded the Templeton Prize to have been really, really top scientists. Martin Rees, who is the, I think, former head of the Royal Society, head of the Royal Society. Right. Okay. And before that, Francisco Ayala, a very, very distinguished evolutionist, evolutionary scientist. I mean, this is not like fringe stuff, right? 

Those are the recent recipients. But then Billy Graham also got the Templeton goes back. 

Clearly, the Templeton Foundation has evolved a bit and has changed a bit over time. And I believe that the Tembin of a nation at one point supported the Discovery Institute, which is something that I very much objected to. And if it was the same organization doing that, I would have a real problem. But I don’t think that that’s the case. And my experience suggests that it isn’t the case. I’m someone who’s written a lot about the integrity of science, messing with science violations against science. And I’ve waved red flags and no various one of them is religion encroaching on science, leading to attacks on evolution. Attacks on stem cell science. You know, they make up this thing about adult stem cells being as good as embryonic and doing it in service of God. Okay. Attacks on reproductive health, science, are they make up crap about, you know, abortion leads to breast cancer or abortion makes women have mental illness. They claim that fetuses can feel pain before they have brain configuration just so they can attack. This is all a tax on science in service of religion. I blown the whistle on all these things and all the corporate attacks on science, the climate change, endangered species, mercury pollution, on and on and on. I think I know when I see it and I don’t see it here. This is a different thing. This is about the relationship between science and religion. 

I don’t think that talking about that is wrong. And I think when you talk about that yet, people come to different conclusions. But I think it’s a good thing to be talking about. 

Let’s segway into the second half of our program here. We may come back to the issue of accommodation ism. But as I mentioned at the outset, you’ve been doing a lot of work recently, only psychology of belief. And in fact, you had an article appeared just last month and Mother Jones called The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science. Essentially, that’s what some research is telling us about how we form our beliefs. Is it safe to say that the I guess you call the Cartesian notion of a thoroughly rational person who comes to a decision without being influenced by emotion? 

So pretty much of a myth. 

The neuroscientists have pretty much discarded that one at this point. And that’s been going on for some time. And it goes back. I mean, perhaps the most influential person who basically made us realize that belief that emotions and reason are closely tied together and work together is Antonio Damasio. But at this point, I think it’s widely accepted that we don’t reason free of emotion. But moreover, emotion comes first and it seems to be more powerful and it can set us down paths before we even know it. When I say comes first, it’s comes first temporarily and it comes first subconsciously, automatically. So it can set us down past before we even know it. And reasoning turns out to then be rationalizing the kind of trajectory of, quote, thought that the emotions setup. So that’s what I was thinking. 

And that’s called motivated reasoning. And it’s basically the updated modern neuroscience version of something called cognitive dissonance theory, which we can talk about. But this is the this is the version that’s compatible with some of all of what we know about how the the mind works and not just how we form beliefs, but more how we defend them and how we refuse to change. 

And how would want to describe some of the research that’s being done in this area, especially how it reflects on how in fact we defend our beliefs when we’re challenged? Sure. 

Well, you know, one of the classic studies that leads to motivated reasoning and I’m going to jump out of all the research on cognitive dissonance, you know, in 1979, this really entry in this disinfects science, reasoning about science in particular, but it infects any kind of reasoning. 

They’d set up a study in which they gave people fake fake studies, fake scientific studies or fake summaries of find scientific studies that, you know, found either that the death penalty deters murderous crime or that it doesn’t. And they let them read them both. And it turns out these were faked studies. So neither was a good study. Neither was a real study. And both had the same roughly the same methodological weakness. But depending upon whether the people reading the studies supported the death penalty or didn’t, they found the study congenial to their beliefs to be strong and convincing. And they found the other one to be weak. OK. And so then that that kind of experiment has been carried out again and again and again on a variety of different topics like, you know, our gay stereotypes accurate. Well, you know, they show fake studies. And if you have gay stereotypes, then you think the studies that show gay stereotypes are real are convincing studies when in fact they’re faked studies. They’re not accurate studies. So we you know, we study people like this and we find all the time that they’re engaging in this kind of process where they’re more likely to believe things that are that gel with what they already believe. Motivated reasoning is just, you know, sort of laying down how we think it works in the brain and we don’t know everything about it, but we’re starting to know the basic process. 

So how did how do you get someone to change their views, especially if it’s a deep seated commitment they have? 

So it’s going to be extraordinarily hard. And, you know, George Lakoff helped me think about this, too. And what he points out, I forget where. Probably in one of his books. Maybe it was on point of inquiry. He points out that the beliefs are actually physical. They’re part of the brain. They’re not a cell. They’re in there in the connections of cells. Right. But the pathway, quote, so to speak, that activates all of them becomes stronger with use. Right. So the more you, you know, reinforce this belief, the more you call the mind this belief, the more you defend this belief, the more you’re liable to do it more in the future. So when you think about beliefs in that way, why would do you know, just poking at what’s going to make the connections in the brain go away? No, it’s it’s going to activate it and the connections are going to then, you know, play themselves out again. So. So what do you do if you want to change someone? Well, that’s really interesting. You have to you have to make it evolve. You have to make it shift, Jeff, to make it grow. And it’s going to be very hard to do. But that that leads to the logic that you probably want to come in in the context that’s compatible to begin with, with the belief in some way. Right. So you say, well, you know, we might differ about a lot of things, but, you know, clearly we believe in X, Y and Z. And so we start on the shared ground at least. And so you’re starting to starting to make inroads that way. Some of this motivated reasoning stuff also shows that, you know, a frontal attack on the belief leads to people affirming it even more strongly. So, for example, there are studies where, you know, if you show someone something they believe and then you show them that it’s false by the factual correction, the belief will be reinforced. It’s called a backfire effect. So we know that frontal attacks on certain deeply held beliefs are not going to work. I mean, there’s going to be people for whom it may work. But, you know, most of the time, if it’s strongly held, I was going to ask that because there’s is true. 

I mean, there are examples of people who change course sometimes rather quickly. I’m sure to use a religious example, you know, Paul, on the road to Damascus. John Shook was a rational argument that persuaded, at least according to legend. But right there, there are people who change their minds about deeply held beliefs, perhaps in a matter of hours or days. 

No, there’s no doubt that we do change our minds. The question is, what triggers it? 

I mean, if it’s a really, really firmly held belief and it’s been built up over a lifetime and reinforced over a lifetime, then it’s probably going to take a lot. But what can happen, you know, is that if some you have some kind of life crisis, you know, death in the family divorce, I mean, those are very destabilizing. And you often see people change in those contexts. 

So that’s one way it can happen. I mean, you know, sometimes you could become dissatisfied. I think rationally you could become dissatisfied. All all this is meant to say is that it’s extraordinarily difficult and not just that we know why. There’s a science of why. And it’s because when these things are that much a part of our identity, then. We are defending them from assault and we’re defending them before we even know it. Because we’re having a defensive emotional reaction which guides our thought process. 

So does that mean there’s actually very little room for rational argument? 

It means that rational argument may not be the best way because so CFI has got to fold up shop. No, it doesn’t. I think the CFI is a great organization that is very interested in science and reason. And if science and reason tells CFI that science and reason may not change people’s minds, then see if I will start to study what the science says about changing people’s minds, which will be wonderful and may lead to progress. 

It’s gonna be you know, there’s a lot to learn about what you then do if that’s your approach. Also, many reasons to still state the arguments of science and reason. You want to put them on the record. You know, you want to have good books that document all why we believe in evolution. OK. Or what the critiques of God. 

But in fact, those arguments are persuasive. What’s one there persuasive? 

There were a lot of us there persuasive to you and me. And we want to record and we want them to be articulated, very persuasive. Are they persuasive to you and me? Because we already accept. Sure. Well, that’s that’s what this leads to, of course. And you have to. And it teaches you to be very questioning of your own beliefs, hopefully. And to try to second guess yourself, because you’re saying to others you should be saying. You should be. You should be practicing what you preach. But it’s also very important for education. If you’re teaching someone you know, they’re gonna be a philosophy major. They need to read this stuff and into studies of, you know, you want to also you want to have the refutations on record for the people who agree with you, because that can be motivating for them and they can use those arguments. But I think it’s still nevertheless important to recognize what kind of creature we’re actually dealing with in human beings. And I don’t think that this this result is really that surprising to most of us. 

And when we think of all the times we’ve tried to argue with someone and, you know, given our best shot and hit a blank, you know, hit hit a wall. And been incredibly frustrated, this says why? And it says that that’s how you would expect it to be. And once you hear it, say it this way, I think a lot of people say, oh, that’s what was happening. On all those occasions. 

Now, even here in People’s Voices, when I give a talk and someone’s angry with me, there’s a couple of topics on which they’ll be angry with me one way where often I would be angry with you. You. It’s hard to believe. Yes. One of them is often climate change, you know, especially radio callers or public talk sometimes. 

And when someone gets up to ask a question and you hear in their voice that a tremor, an emotional tremor and they start saying more and more and building an argument, I’m like, I know what’s happening here. 

This is you know, this is an emotional moment. This is not a reasoning moment. They’re very upset with me and they’re now going to engage in the whole reasoning process. And so I it completely changed the way I now respond. That’s kind of. I mean, I do not want to get into that kind of argument because it’s just going to be heated. So how do you respond then? I respond by attempting as much as possible to the emotionalize. I think with what a lot of this says is that it’s going to be very important to the emotionalize issues. 

Could one argue the other way, though, that if you, in fact, emotionalize, if you will. 

You know, appeal to someone’s emotions in the right way or the right type of emotions that actually may cause them to change their beliefs. 

Sure. But you don’t want is the negative defensive you’re attacking me? Emotions. If it’s the many other emotions, right? You want to you want to inspire. You want to. You want to motivate you. I mean, how about here? 

Here’s an emotion. And this will take us back, perhaps for least a little bit to the whole issue of accommodation ism and the criticism by the new atheists. I was reading a book recently called The Honor Code and talked about how some of our great moral revolutions came about due to people feeling ashamed of what they’d been doing. Talked about Duling, it talked about foot binding in China, talked about slavery and how the abolitionist movement was helped a lot by people beginning to feel ashamed about slavery. Wouldn’t be the case. Could a new atheist argue, say, look, this new research actually supports attacking religion very harshly, not because of necessarily move the interlocutor of the person I’m actually had a discussion with. But when I point out how ridiculous religious belief is, how these BAEO beliefs and miracles, a belief in the Trinity belief and resurrection of the dead. How just absurd they are. It will have an effect on people who are listening to the argument and they’ll feel shamed that they actually believe in these fantasies. And because they feel that shame, they may be motivated to give up their religious beliefs as oppose. If I just went in there and said, well, you know, there’s something you can draw your own conclusions about. I can’t really say where there’s a God or not something for you to judge. And no size really doesn’t have anything to say about this is, you know, something you have to form your own conclusions on. 

Who are these onlookers? I mean, I think the people who are listening to perhaps a debate, are they believers? I mean, they might be malingerers. Yes, they in fact, they might be. I mean. 

I don’t think it’s as likely to work out that way to make them feel ashamed of themselves. I mean, people you know, it’s a shame that they hold certain beliefs, beliefs or beliefs or. Make us feel that we are smart, intelligent, good people and something all of us need to feel about ourselves. 

And when you know you’re right and wouldn’t want an argument that is very persuasive, that would tend to show that, in fact, it’s not really that intelligent to believe in fantasies like, you know, resurrected people and virgins. 

So basically, you’re going you’re going to someone who thinks that they’re intelligent and reasonable and smart is going to be convinced that they’re not. Quickly, by you, who are they? 

I mean, I don’t know necessarily quickly, but perhaps over time plants a seed that, you know, when I think about it, this is as ridiculous as believing in zoos or Aphrodite or any of these other things, which nowadays, you know, if you said you believed in the Olympic gods, you’d feel left out. You feel ashamed if you actually believe in those. And Burnell agree with you with that. 

But they’re but to them, what they do believe is not in the same category. And to you it is. But they’re not going to jump into your perspective. I mean, yeah, I don’t it doesn’t sound to me like it’s going to be very fruitful. I mean, there may be there may be outlier cases in which it would, but I don’t expect it would. I mean. This is religion is one of the most central things about who we are for people who are religious. I mean, for people who are not religious, it’s one of the most central things about who we are, if not the most. So it’s built up over a long time. And clearly, this identity is something that we come to feel confident in. And as I said, it’s part it ends up being part of the brain, ends up being physical. You’re you’re talking about creating very, very strong to go back to, you know, one of the theories, dissonance between. 

And what do we know about how people resolve dissonance? I mean, they resolve it in favor of the prior beliefs by rationalizing, you know, whatever it is that they have to rationalize. 

In the Mother Jones article, I talked about the seekers who were this, you know, UFO group who believe the world’s going to end on a particular day. And when they’re, you know, the world didn’t end. What do they do? They didn’t throughout the beliefs. They changed the facts and they said, well, the we saved the world by believing the world suran. I mean, that’s I think that that’s kind of much more likely than telling the Seekers’, Oh, we’re a bunch of idiots. We sold our houses. That was stupid. You know, we hung out and spent, you know, all this time huddling around the living room, trying to transcribe what the aliens are saying. That was dumb. What the hell were we thinking? They’re way too invested for that, right? 

That obviously clearly is a reaction that people have to fill prophecies. I’m sure we’re going to see the same thing on May 20 seconds. When the rapture doesn’t happen, there’ll be all sorts of ways to dismiss the big nonevent. And that point, the birthers, when they got the birth certificate. So sorry. They claim there was, you know, perhaps it was fraudulent. You know, why did it take two years? 

I know we had important. We know this will happen. If someone gives them the evidence, they won’t accept that. 

They’ll move the goalposts. They won’t change the beliefs. We know this. This is how it works. 

But again, is that because perhaps we haven’t found the right emotional hook for that? And as I say, I’m suggesting to you that, you know, part of the explanation, I think, for why Western culture has generally become more secular is that people. 

Have found that it’s simply it’s uncool, if you will. It’s unacceptable to believe these myths and these fantasies is just something that someone doesn’t want to talk about because it’s it’s actually ridiculous is believing that fairy tales. And if we get people into that mindset of accepting that this is something they really shouldn’t be proud of is, you know, it’s believing in something for which there’s no evidence. It’s using faith as a vehicle for knowledge. And faith is not a good vehicle for knowledge, but get them to accept that, then that is really perhaps a central motivating factor for people to abandon their religious beliefs. 

Well, that’s all true, but it’s not how you’re going to persuade the people who aren’t abandoning their beliefs. That’s all I’m saying. Right. I mean, if that kind of sensibility spreads throughout the culture, you know, your friend thinks that you want to think. Your parents taught it to you. I mean, that’s going to change people because they’re not going to have the beliefs laid down. All right. They’re not going to grow up with them. They’re not going to be as strong. They’re not going to have the the mental, quote, pathways there. But for the people who have them, I don’t think that that’s going to be the same story at all. 

And is that possibly because they you know, we talked about the seekers or other groups who have these prophecies. One reason they don’t abandon those beliefs is only because they’re very committed to them, but all their friends and colleagues are committed to them and they perhaps don’t really have anyone that they know on the outside that is outside the cult. Absolutely. 

And perhaps one of the one of the strategies that the new atheists have recommended is that people who are athey are atheists come out more than they let it be known that, in fact, you know, where your friends, your colleagues, your coworkers were atheists. And, you know, we’re having happy, normal, fulfilling lives. And it’s OK to admit that you have doubts and accept the fact that, in fact, that perhaps is no God. So that if. 

If. We have like a two pronged approach. 

That new Athie is some new atheist may adopt one more atheist need to come out of the closet. Let it be known they’re atheists. And two, we need to keep up our criticism of religion. That combination of efforts would, in fact, lead to a decline in religious belief. And after that, it became of a snowball effect. 

Well, there’s a lot there that I’m sympathetic to. I recently blogged I changed my view a little bit of the new atheists. And based on a psychology study, they come out where they done four experiments and they found that exposure to atheists. 

People being aware that they’re there, decreased prejudice toward atheists. And I was like, Wow. So out Athie ism sounds good. I don’t think it means that necessarily out confrontational eigth ism. 

And just to get back to your other point, I do think that we are more open to hearing different points of view if they’re articulated in person by someone with whom we develop or starting develop a rapport so that you say this is a conservative Christian, I never knew that they could be good to hang out with something like that. And then you start saying or vice versa. Right. 

Because you then reach someone on that personal level where you’re like, I’m a human being, you’re a human being. We have a lot in common. Let’s be friendly to one another. And then you start to have a more. That’s how cosmopolitan perspectives, I think, grow. And if people are sealed off, they’re not meeting those other kind of people. And it’s easy to see them as the outgroup. And the strange group. 

I mean, I think that’s very valuable. Not much. I’m not sure that I follow logic to the confrontation. Right. Because I don’t think what we’re talking about is confrontation. I think we’re joined by something very different. All right. 

Well, one of the goals, the point inquiry, of course, is to bring differing views and dialog to our listeners. 

And I think today’s session, I hope, has achieved that. It’s been a very interesting discussion. Chris, thanks again for letting me take over your seat as host. 

I enjoyed it. I enjoyed our discussion. I enjoyed it as well. 

Thank you for listening to this special episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show. Join the online discussion forum at point of inquiry, dawg, views expressed on point of inquiry are not necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry, dawg. 

One of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard, your host today with Wannabe’s. 

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ron Lindsay is senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry, having previously served as president and CEO from 2008 to 2016. Prior to joining CFI, he was in private legal practice in Washington, D.C. for twenty-six years. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Georgetown University and his J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law. Among other works, he is the author of Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas (Prometheus 2008), the entry on “Euthanasia” for the International Encyclopedia of Ethics(Wiley Blackwell 2013), and The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What To Do (Pitchstone Publishing 2014).