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A Rational Conversation
Entry 1230, on 2010-10-05 at 21:10:36 (Rating 4, Skepticism)
There's an old saying in the skeptic community which says you cannot have a rational conversation with a believer (a believer is someone who believes in something despite the evidence against it and religious believers would be the number one example of this type of person). Actually, I'm not totally sure those are the exact words but that's the basic meaning of the idea. It should be obvious why this is true: if the person was rational regarding their beliefs then they wouldn't have them so the very fact that the person is prepared to debate them ensures they will be irrational.
Sure, I agree, this is a bit of a "just so" argument but I think there is some truth in it. The fact that believers almost inevitably resort to arguments based on faith, conspiracy theories, and unprovable points (instead of facts, objective evidence, and disprovable hypotheses) supports the idea, and most believers readily accept this which just confirms everything.
Anyway, the reason I started this entry was because of two topics I recently read: first, that a recent survey in the US showed that atheists know more about religion than religious people; and second, that some fundamentalist believers are predicting the end of the world based on prophecies from the Book of Daniel.
There are at least two types of atheists: those who don't believe in a god because that is the most sensible conclusion, and those who don't care. There are also several types of believers of course: those who believe through habit or tradition, those who believe because it suits their lifestyle, and those who don't care.
So being ignorant, or not caring, can lead to either belief or disbelief. That makes sense and which direction a person goes in probably depends mainly on the society they live in. I suspect the vast majority of people don't really care so whether a society is predominantly religious or unbelieving probably depends mainly on whether the society is already religious or not. That's not much of a basis for belief in a deity is it?
Here are some of the questions the believers got wrong: Who started the protestant movement? What does the term AD mean? How many authors does the Torah have? Who printed the first bible using a mechanical process? Who created the separation of church and state in the USA?
These are "practical" religious questions as opposed to deeply theological ones but they do have reasonable well-defined answers and they do form a basis of religious knowledge. Needless to say, I got them all right (or sort of right) but would you be surprised to hear that a majority of Protestants couldn't identify Martin Luther as the major originator of their own church?
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life ran the survey and pointed out that non-believers were better educated than believers and that unsurprisingly lead to greater knowledge. So it seems that (and I'm being deliberately provocative and imprecise in my conclusions here) to be a believer you must also be ignorant. Anyone who really examines a religion closely (and fairly) will see it's fake and will no longer believe, so the idea that you can't have a rational discussion with a believer might also extend to the idea that you can't have an informed discussion with one!
What about the second issue I mentioned? A friend of mine who is a fairly fundamental believer said he was convinced of the truth of his faith because of prophecy. I said "OK, give me your best prophecy and we'll see how credible it is". He mentioned the prophecy in Daniel regarding the emperor of Persia, Cyrus the Great. The Book of Daniel, which was theoretically written around 600 BCE, predicts events accurately which happened hundreds of years later. This seems convincing except it is now accepted by most scholars that the second part of Daniel was written after the events portrayed. This has been suspected for hundreds of years and even the Catholic Church has officially accepted it for 60 years!
So why does my friend still believe in an obviously fake prophecy? Because he's ignorant. And he's ignorant because he is being kept ignorant by a church which is itself either ignorant or corrupt. His church must know about the prophecies being fake so they must be deliberately misleading him. Or maybe they don't know and are just ignorant. Either way it doesn't make the church look too good!
And, even after I showed that he was wrong about prophecy it has made no difference to his belief because he wants to be ignorant. He wants to be mislead. Many Christians are proud of their apathy and naivety. No wonder they know so little about their own religion!
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