Often, there are calls for debate and discussion regarding belief and the concepts which underpin it. Mostly (online anyway) these seem to come from those who already hold to a belief and want to debate with those poor heathens who do not agree.
Now I think it is more than possible that some of the people making these calls are doing so for honest reasons, and actually want to have a debate. Sadly, I also think that most do not actually want a debate but, instead, seek to convert others. Shame on them.
In this, I am not talking about the fallacy of scientific debate, I mean things like the “blogwar” between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan (which was mentioned yesterday). This happens on television and radio as well (especially on Radio 2 in the UK, during the lunchtime phone in show). It creates the impression in the observer that both parties are open to new ideas and are open minded enough that they are willing to listen to others and possibly become swayed by a new point of view.
In science, and in rational people, this is common. For a long period of time Newtonian gravity was believed to be the best model, but then along comes general relativity. For a long period of time people believed the Earth was the centre of the solar system (and indeed, the stars were part of “our” solar system) but then along came telescopes, mathematics, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe et al. Rational people accepted the new information and changed their world out look as a result of it.
There are always nutcases who ignore the new evidence and, normally, they are marginalised and laughed at. Flat Earthers, people who think the moon landing was a hoax etc., are not even given the respect of normal kooks (alternative medicine practitioners for example).
Oddly, this doesn’t happen if the irrationality is based on a Religious Belief. The assumption that a “religious belief” is due more respect than any other belief weighs hard with people and I think this alone will ensure any debate is meaningless. As soon as any points are made, the defence “it is my belief” becomes unsurmountable – even if the religious belief is based on as much evidence as Flat Earthers have (i.e. none). Even religious moderates, and people who profess to have minimal religious belief argue from a position on unshakeable conviction. Take this excerpt from Andrew Sullivan, where he is replying to a question in which Sam Harris asks what evidence it would take to make him give up his beliefs: (emphasis mine)
I have never doubted the existence of God. Never. My acceptance of God’s existence – of a force beyond everything and the source of everything – goes so far back in my consciousness and memory that I can neither recall “finding” this faith nor being taught it. So when I am asked to justify this belief, as you reasonably do, I am at a loss. At this layer of faith, the first critical layer, the layer that includes all religious people and many who call themselves spiritual rather than religious, I can offer no justification as such. I have just never experienced the ordeal of consciousness without it. It is the air I have always breathed. I meet atheists and am as baffled at their lack of faith – at this level – as you are at my attachment to it. When people ask me how I came to choose this faith, I can only say it chose me. I have no ability to stop believing. Crises in my life – death of loved ones, diagnosis with a fatal illness, emotional loss – have never shaken this faith. In fact, they have all strengthened it. I know of no “proof” that could dissuade me of this, since no “proof” ever persuaded me of it.
Now, in all fairness to Andrew Sullivan, this is the cornerstone of “belief” but it does make a mockery of any debate. In science a theory is “believed” to be true until some evidence is discovered to show that it is not. In belief, there is no need for evidence one way or another because people are indoctrinated from childhood to accept it as true. The idea that “faith chose [me]” is laughable. This is an otherwise intelligent, educated person creating a “supernatural” force to explain the fact that growing up in a Christian family, learning about Catholicism (in this case) pretty much from birth and the attendant “brainwashing” (for want of a better word) has created an unshakable faith in him. I am 100% sure that if he had grown up in a Pentecostal, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Jain (and so on) family he would be equally saying the “faith chose him” but it would be a different faith.
Now, even though I am an Atheist there are numerous ways in which any Deity could convince me of his or her existance. That does not mean I have “less” faith than a “believer,” it simply means I am rational. I have not been brainwashed. I am not insane. If Andrew Sullivan was talking about a teacup floating in orbit around the Sun, people would laugh at him. Because he is talking about the other invisible fantasy, people respect him
Is that not madness?