A blog about belief

Arguing about religion

In Politics on June 21, 2011 at 1:14 pm

You may have already heard about the Christian-right campaign against Ayn Rand (Brian Leiter on it), which aims to point out the incompatibility of Rand’s ideas with Christianity. Peter Laarman has an article in Religion Dispatches that makes a good point about something that Fred Clark at slacktivist has also written about recently, the relative importance of community and personal anecdote over such logical argumentation in the way that our beliefs change. I have to take exception, though, to Laarman’s invocation of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber’s much-discussed-but-apparently-little-read article “Why do humans reason?” (about which I’m hoping to have a detailed post soon):

What is the point here? The point is that there IS no point to endless argumentation. Hearts and minds don’t change that way. They change when we share our stories and when we become present in a different way to those whom we wish to influence. The further point is that hearts change before minds do. It rarely works the other way around.

And now some scientists believe that we don’t actually argue to arrive at clarity or truth; argumentation is a “social adaptation,” they argue: we are in debates to win, and we will readily use flawed arguments if we think they will sway the other side. Irrationality is not merely a “kink” in the process of truth seeking. […]

Of course we are in debates to win. What Mercier & Sperber are arguing is that the primary function of reasoning is to produce arguments that are convincing to others rather than to produce better beliefs for oneself. This conclusion would obviously be false if it were uncommon that people be persuaded by arguments. It’s true that it’s not always logical validity that makes arguments persuasive (we’ve known that for millennia), but that’s not the issue here. The anti-Ayn Rand video is not going to fail for being too logical, because it’s not – it’s loaded with ad hominems of just the same sort that have been employed in scare-tactic campaigns for ages. I don’t think it’s likely that this campaign will cause hordes of people to change their beliefs individually, minds-before-hearts, but it could spark change if it becomes an object of discussion among churchgoers and in other community settings. Direct human relationships often do have more of an influence on our beliefs than arguments do, but arguments don’t exist in isolation from them.

Addendum: I was going to argue that the video is calling for people not to change their religious beliefs but to act on them, but being a holist I can’t say that adding a belief that Jesus is at odds with objectivism doesn’t change one’s belief in Jesus.

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