I expect discussions between christians and atheists to get edgy at times. We are talking about important matters and the two ‘sides’ are poles apart. But some responses seem extreme, even to people on the same side.
How can other people be so wrong?
I have previously discussed how internet discussion and debate between atheists and believers is highly polarised, and psychologists believe they know why this is.
But we are increasingly seeing another phenomenon – the use of insults and pseudo scientific explanations of why those pesky people disagree with us.
The atheist use of “delusional” to describe christians has been around for a while. It sounds like an ‘accusation’ of mental illness, though some atheists say it only means ‘deluded’ or mistaken.
But other terms and concepts are coming into use.
- In this Debunking Christianity post atheist author John Loftus criticises christian philosopher Victor Reppert using words such as “delusion”, “irrational”, accusing him of having to “obfuscate … in order to believe” and finishes with: “Come up to the adult table Vic. Grow up. Throw off the childish fantasy”.
- Atheist historian Richard Carrier has recently released a book questioning whether Jesus was a real person, and has described eminent scholars who have reviewed his book as “grossly illogical, probably insane” and “makes major factual and logical errors, then lies about it”, and says of another reviewer “didn’t read the book, lies about it; doesn’t understand math; probably insane”. Fellow atheist Chris Hallquist has mentioned several other people Carrier has called insane.
Certainty and ambit claims
These aspersions are often accompanied by confident claims of the certainty of atheism. In his book The End of Christianity, John Loftus writes: “I honestly think that with this book …. Christianity has been debunked. The jury has returned its verdict. The gavel has come down. The case is now closed.”
And in a chapter on universal fine-tuning in John Loftus’ book, Richard Carrier says his negative conclusion “can actually be demonstrated with such logical certainty that Christianity is fully disconfirmed by the evidence of life and the universe” (my bolding) – this despite the fact that cosmologist Luke Barnes has shown that Carrier has poor understanding of the cosmology that is contrary to the majority of experts in the field.
Christians are not immune?
Christians can try similar gambits, though I haven’t come across anything stronger by recognised spokespersons than these:
- Christians often suggest spiritual reasons for atheist disbelief, for example Christian philosopher James Spiegel has written that religious scepticism arises from rebellion against God – though contrary to the above examples, he has at least done some research and written a book to support his claim.
- Many christians are confident of their faith and ‘know’ it is true, for example christian philosopher William Lane Craig says: “I know Christianity is true because God’s Spirit lives in me and assures me that it is true.”
Why might people make such strong statements?
I am not a psychologist, and I don’t think it helps to make accusations about the reasons for anyone’s beliefs – we just don’t know. But we can make a few general observations.
It is natural that we all tend to believe we are right in our opinions and choices – presumably if we thought we were wrong we would change – and Jared Reser found that one of the main factors in confident belief is “the quality of empirical evidence that people can offer to support the belief”.
But claiming absolute objective certainty and calling those who disagree insane seem to be two steps beyond simply believing we have found truth.
Further, if christianity is true, it is possible that God could give a christian certainty as Craig claims – that would be something difficult to prove but it might nevertheless be true. But if atheism is true, it is hard to see how these metaphysical questions could be known with any certainty – even scientific knowledge is always provisional depending on further data.
Psychological explanations for insults
Psychologists suggest several reasons why people insult those they disagree with:
- resistance is “a complex form of shooting the messenger … that blocks the delivery of hard, cold, facts to someone who fears them” (Steven Berglas)
- “the center of all psychological denial is a hidden agenda” (‘Dr Sanity’).
- malicious sarcasm “is normally used as a way for that person to try and improve their own standing and reputation by putting you down” (Stanley Loewen).
- “Low self-esteem either enhances negative evaluations of others, or makes you less likely to suppress those biases you already harbor” (Jeffrey Sherman)
- Self defense: “People defensively distort, deny, and misrepresent reality in a manner that protects self-integrity.” (Sherman and Cohen)
Whether any of these explanations apply in any case is beyond my knowing, but these explanations do suggest that insults probably don’t have a good motivation.
Psychological explanations for claiming certainty
Psychologists have also studied why people claim greater certainty than is warranted:
- Psychologist David Dunning has studied how people can overstate their abilities because “people tend to perceive their competence in self-serving ways” and because they don’t receive accurate feedback. (Interestingly, these effects are found in North Americans but not so much in East Asians.)
- Psychologist Lynne Namka says that some people have a deep need to be right, and attack those who disagree with them as a way to avoid thinking that they may be in error themselves, thus externalising the problem.
- Neuroscientist David Rock says our brains “hunger for certainty”.
- Jared Reser found that “the perceived importance of the belief to their sense of self-identity” was a significant factor in making a person more certain of their beliefs.
- David Straker says that a sense of certainty is associated with the need for a sense of control.
- Neuroscientist Robert Burton claims a sense of certainty arises not from truth or evidence but from the way our brains work: “Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” arise out of primary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of rationality or reason. Feeling correct or certain isn’t a deliberate conclusion or conscious choice.”
- Psychologist Valerie Tarico agree with Burton that none of us can know anything with certainty. “Those of us who are not religious could do with a little more humility on this point.” Ironically, John Loftus has blogged Valerie’s writings (including that statement), applied her conclusions to christians, and apparently not seen that they may equally apply to him and certainly don’t support the strong statement made in his book.
I’m not sure all these conclusions are compatible, and I don’t suppose many of us would agree with all of them, but they are surely food for thought. Overstatements of certainty may help us feel better and may even help coerce less confident opponents into agreement. But they are unlikely to promote rational discussion of evidence.
What type of person do I want to be?
We each have to face this question.
I am by nature argumentative, strong in the way I express my opinions, and inclined to want to push people to agree with me. But life changes you (that’s what it’s supposed to do!), and I’ve slowly learnt that such behaviours are unhelpful and insensitive. I try not to disparage anyone or impute motives to them, for how could I know? I try to use words like “seems” and “apparently” when discussing what others think. I try never to claim certainty – I don’t believe christian truth is certain, but probable.
I expect similar from those commenting on this blog. I hope this post shows another reason why.
And I hope for the day when spokespeople for opposing religious, ethical or political viewpoints can speak with more humility and less denigration of those they disagree with. I’m not holding my breath, but I can always hope.
What type of person do you want to be?