The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Just because you disagree doesn't mean that they're stupid...

One of the things that you're likely to come across whenever you delve into a controversial topic is alot of accusations of stupidity, craziness, etc. etc. back-and-forth between the proponents of the different sides. For example, when I express doubt regarding a supernatural claim, I typically find that I am labelled as "closed-minded" with the person applying the label rarely, if ever, stopping to consider that I would change my mind if they could simply give me a persuasive argument. Likewise, I am often dismissive of people who believe various supernatural claims, when I really should consider the fact that they likely come from a background and a subculture in which these claims do not seem all that strange, and therefore their belief is not a sign of insanity or low intelligence, but rather a sign that they are part of a particular group, and that I probably hold a number of irrational beliefs myself that I don't think of as irrational because my own group tends to support them. It's a subtle version of the the echo chamber effect.

I think that this is a point that everyone, whether you consider yourself a skeptic, believer, Christian, Deist, atheist, or any other label needs to keep in mind. We believe things not only when they are aligned with reality, but often when they aren't, provided that we come from a background in which such beliefs align with what we have been taught, our interests, and out prejudices. I think that Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid Podcast sums it up extremely well.

I have friends who believe things about the past that, often due to their religions but also for other reasons, that I know to be false based on my exposure to the evidence of archaeology. However, none of that changes the fact that these people aren't insane or stupid, but rather that they come from a background in which such beliefs are common and espoused by trusted community leaders.

By the same token, for a very long time even after I ceased being a believer, I myself long believed that religion was the only reliable source of morality, a concept that I now know to be deeply flawed and incorrect. However, I also no longer hold to the belief that a secular morality is necessarily going to have a stronger hold on people once they are exposed to it* - a position that I would not have reached until quite recently because I was, irrationally, clinging to a belief common amongst many of my current peers.

Anyway, the point is that we need to be cautious when confronting beliefs that seem strange to us. Leaving aside the question of whether or not they can be objectively justified, it is unusual for the people holding them to be guilty of whatever easy shortcomings we can slather them with. The bad news is that this means that weird, even dangerous beliefs may be extremely resistant to eradication. The good news is that it means that we are usually dealing with people who are reasonable within a context, and understanding that context, rather than insulting or dismissing the person, may help to figure out what underlies such beliefs.

Oh, and Brian Dunning has leapt in my estimation from being fairly bright to being a genius.

*I will still argue that a morality based on actual reasoning and thinking rather than arbitrary religious rules is better for everyone. I just don't believe that it can be as easily come about or permeate the culture as other methods.