28 February 2012

I can relate to this

Daniel the ex-Mormon atheist from Perth (who explained why atheists are so rude) has a blog post in the form of a letter to a “New Age friend” who unfriended him on Facebook, presumably because said friend got ticked off by Daniel’s debunking of his/her woo-ish beliefs. I’ve had my own disagreements with friends who subscribe to that sort of mumbo-jumbo. One even questioned the truth of evolution, and has a rather hypocritical disdain for ‘Western’ civilisation and modernity. He’s the kind of relativist who rejects ideas like objective truth, critical thinking and the scientific method, who has a romantic view of ‘authentic’ (i.e. poor and underdeveloped) societies, and who idealises the ‘spiritual’ as being superior to the material, whatever ‘spiritual’ is supposed to mean. Our friendship is no longer as cordial as it used to be, since our philosophical views are so diametrically opposed.

In his letter, Daniel explains why he refuted his friend’s unfounded beliefs:

Why did I comment? Well, let's face it -- I'm kind of annoying. If someone says something wrong on the Internet, I like to get in there and set things straight, like that ever works.

But there's more. Deception pisses me off. I saw that you were getting tricked by phony psychics, buying “inspirational” books by screwy swamis, relying on astrology and numerology to guide your life. You're getting cheated, and I hated to see that happen to you. I think I was hoping that if I gave good information, something would happen and you'd start thinking a little more critically. Guess not.

I totally sympathise with Daniel. I too am incapable of letting a wrong or inaccurate view go unchallenged. When I attempt to correct a friend’s erroneous convictions, or to teach them a useful critical thinking skill, I don’t do it to flaunt my intellectual superiority (at least it’s not the main reason). I do it because I know that it’s going to benefit them. That it’s going to make them more knowledgeable and less gullible. But I admit that there are both effective and ineffective ways to persuade someone to change their views, no matter how wrong or misguided those views may be.

It is a commonly accepted maxim that telling people their beliefs are wrong is disrespectful, even if those beliefs are wrong. But it is simply foolish to think that all opinions deserve respect, regardless of their veracity. As Daniel points out:

It's a funny thing about respect: People whose views are the most tenuous seem to demand most vociferously that those views be respected. What you didn't seem to realise was that not all points of view deserve respect. Ideas deserve respect in proportion to the amount of evidence that supports them. As for me, I don't want my views to be respected. Slash away! If they're wrong, I'll change them, and I'll thank you for helping me.

Precisely! This is an important principle that sadly isn’t as widely embraced as it should be. Respect for one’s beliefs cannot be demanded as an a priori entitlement. It has to be earned by having those beliefs supported by evidence and sound reasoning, by having them conform to reality. And disrespecting someone’s beliefs doesn’t mean disrespecting that person. Yes, many people strongly identify with their beliefs, false or not, but it’s not the fault of the one criticising wrong or harmful beliefs if their holder chooses to take personal offense. Offense is as much taken as it is given – when no personal insult is intended by the person making a valid criticism, the onus lies with the one whose beliefs are being challenged to exercise maturity, and not be a thin-skinned child who throws a tantrum whenever someone has the audacity to tell him that he’s wrong.

Here’s Tim Minchin showing us how to disrespect a typical New Ager’s kooky beliefs with wit and rhyme.


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