As a follow-up to my previous post on the subject, I want to share — and comment on — some of the best parts (IMO) of the conversation between the “four hoursemen”, which I still recommend that you watch in full (just click on the image above and download the files, if possible, or at least follow the YouTube links). Since there’s too much to comment on, I’ll divide it among several posts; here’s the first.
Daniel Dennett: Yeah, well I’m amused by it [the accusation that they are "strident or arrogant, or vitriolic, or shrill"], because I went out of my way in my book to address reasonable religious people. And I test-flew the draft with groups of students who were deeply religious. And indeed, the first draft incurred some real anguish. And so I made adjustments and made adjustments. And it didn’t do any good in the end because I still got hammered for being for being rude and aggressive. And I came to realize that it’s a no-win situation. It’s a mug’s game. The religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them critically without being rude.
Nowhere else, from my experience, does something like this happen. “I think you’re wrong” is not an insult or a personal offense… except in religion. I think this is a very important point.
And why is it? Harris and Dennett provide the answer:
Sam Harris: I mean, this is just not the way rational minds operate when they’re really trying to get at what’s true in the world. And religions purport to be representing reality. And yet there’s this peevish, tribal, and ultimately dangerous, reflexive response to having these ideas challenged. I think we’re pointing to the total liability of that fact.
Dennett: Well, and too, there’s no polite way to say to somebody…
Harris: You’ve wasted your life!
Dennett: …do you realize you’ve wasted your life? Do you realize that you’ve just devoted all your efforts and all your goods to the glorification of something which is just a myth? Or have you ever considered – even if you say have you even considered the possibility that maybe you’ve wasted your life on this? There’s no inoffensive way of saying that. But we do have to say it, because they should jolly well consider it. Same as we do about our own lives.
Again, this is pretty important. It’s something I’ve noticed when discussing these matters with less skeptical friends (and it wasn’t even about religion, but astrology, mysticism, “energies”, and so on): if you refute their arguments one by one, they invariably reach a point where they’re visibly emotionally affected — almost near panic — and, if you keep going on past that point, they get really offended, angry, and aggressive with you. Why? Because their beliefs aren’t just a matter of whether the methods (e.g. prayer, horoscopes, etc.) “work” or whether the propositions are “true”. These people have an emotional investment in those beliefs. A huge one. And, in a way, you’re telling them that they may have lost all of that investment. That, as Harris and Dennett say, they’ve wasted their life. A form of the sunk cost fallacy comes into effect — deep inside, the person may realize that their belief isn’t based on reality, but they’ve invested too much time, energy, and emotions into it to ever admit the fact. And anyone who insists on making them “look hard” at it is “hurting” them, is attacking them personally, is “offending” them.
I guess that, in many cases, there’s nothing that can be done. It takes a special kind of courage and honesty to admit something like “I’ve wasted most of my life”. In many cases, it’s probably hopeless to try to get them do do it — and it can cost friendships, in fact.
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