Sunday, March 31, 2019

An atheist and a YEC walk into a bar...

Enough politics.  Let's talk about religion.

Ever since I was a kid growing up in the deep south I have been mystified by how people can believe in God.  Note that I didn't say "why people believe in God", because that's a different question.  I think I understand the why (it helps people deal with existential angst); it really is the how that I have trouble understanding.  To me, it has always been self-evident that the Bible is a work of mythology, and so for a long time I was firmly of the opinion that the only way that one could sustain a belief in God was through ignorance.  This belief was reinforced by the people I tended to hang out with, mostly other atheists, who spent a lot of time and effort promoting rational arguments that religion is false.  (A commonly held view in the atheist community seems to be that the scourge of religion persists on this earth simply because atheists have been insufficiently diligent in spreading the seeds of enlightenment.)

Ironically, this theory is contradicted by data.  A lot of atheists seem to think that religion and education are universally anti-correlated, but this turns out to be false.  There is some truth to it, but one of the many noteworthy exceptions is American Christians.  (Jews and Hindus also tend to have significantly better than average educations.)  It was also contradicted by my personal experience.  Like any good atheist, I spent a fair amount of time arguing with religious people, and over the years I noticed two things: first, my arguments never seemed to persuade anyone (though it was not uncommon for me to offend people by reading certain Bible verses to them).  And second, a lot of the people I was arguing with were actually very smart and somehow managed to sustain their beliefs despite being well aware of all of the apparent absurdity.

This matters.  People's beliefs about religion vs. science sometimes get translated into policy, and getting it wrong can have grave consequences.  Accordingly, I think it's important to develop an understanding of the mindset that leads people to believe differently than you do rather than just dismiss them as ignorant knuckle-draggers (or, if you're religious, as incorrigible hedonists lacking a moral compass).  One of two things has to happen: either you'll learn something that will help you focus your own message and make it more effective, or you might come to realize that you were actually wrong about something.  Either way, that feels like progress, so over the past few years I've spent quite a bit of time hanging out with and talking not only to religious people, but also to believers of extreme views that seem completely crazy to me, including lunar landing denialists, flat-earthers, and creationists.  It's been a very interesting experience.  I've been fairly impressed with the sophistication of their arguments, even though, of course, I vehemently disagree with them.  It has forced me to think deeply about the foundations of my own beliefs, because although (say) a flat-earther's arguments seem absurd to me, refuting them turns out not to be quite as easy as you might think.

The fundamental problem is that today's world is much too complicated for an individual to figure out everything on their own, so you have no choice but to trust somebody.  No one has the resources to obtain first-hand evidence for everything they believe.  If you're an atheist you (almost certainly) adhere to certain beliefs because of something you read somewhere rather than (say) an experiment that you personally did, and that means that you have to trust that the author is not mistaken or trying to deceive you.  Now, there may be a sound reason to trust the author of (say) a scientific paper, but most people who put their trust in science don't actually give that a lot of thought.  They just hew to formulas like: if it is published in a peer-reviewed journal it's probably true (and vice versa).  And they will continue to believe this even in the face of evidence to the contrary published in a peer-reviewed journal!

There is a sort of social hierarchy of respectability of the sorts of trust that people choose to adopt.  At one extreme are scientists and members of the clergy of established religions like Christianity and Islam.  At the other extreme are the flat-earthers, lunar-landing denialists, alien abductionists, and Bigfoot hunters.  Somewhere in between are the young-earth creationists (YECs) who believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant Word of God, and that therefore the world was created in six 24-hour days about six thousand years ago, that Noah's ark was real, and that Charles Darwin is the spawn of Satan.  (FYI, that link is to an article about Ben Carson, the famous neurosurgeon, currently serving as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Trump Administration.  Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist, and hence a YEC.  And he is quoted as saying that Darwin's evolutionary theory "was encouraged by the adversary," i.e. the devil.  So "spawn of Satan" is really not much of an exaggeration here.)

These groups are minorities whose identities are defined by unfashionable beliefs, and so their adherents often feel beleaguered by modern society.  As a consequence, it's not easy to get them to talk to someone outside of their group.  They often view outsiders as the enemy.  But I've recently had the rare opportunity to have an extensive discussion with a YEC who was willing to engage with surprising confidence and intellectual honesty.  Over the past few weeks we've had what is quite possibly the longest civil exchange between and atheist and a YEC in the history of the world.  The thread started to get out of hand, so we decided to reboot the discussion here because Blogger is a better venue for extensive discussion than Reddit.  My correspondent's name is Jimmy Weiss, and his opening salvo is here.  The opportunity to have this kind of discussion with a knowledgable YEC is rare, and I am grateful to him for being willing to put himself out there in this way.  The differences between YEC and established science are quite stark, and it is not an easy position to defend in today's world.  Jimmy does quite an admirable job.

This introduction turned out to be quite a bit longer than I intended, so I will put my actual response to Jimmy in a separate post later today.


Jonathan said...

Ron, I find this topic interesting. Unfortunately Jimmy's style is verbose. It might benefit your readers if there was an "edited for brevity" alternate version with the main points.

Ron said...


I sympathize. I'm going to include a summary of what I think the main points are, but I wanted Jimmy to go first because I was worried that if I wrote a summary it would misrepresent his position. (As it stands, I have to correct some things Jimmy got wrong about *my* position. This is one of the problems that I really want to address: both sides view the other through the lens of their own deeply held beliefs, and that makes it hard sometimes to see what the other side's position actually *is*.)