How Often Can Fundamentalists be Reasoned with?

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that in most cases there is little chance of anyone’s persuading a fundamentalist through reason and evidence to drop their fundamentalist beliefs.

Conservative evangelicals — or fundamentalists — tend to hold a number of opinions that are easily challenged by well established facts.  For instance, they tend as a group to believe Noah’s Flood was an historical event; the theory of evolution is false; abstinence-only sexuality education is effective; gay marriage will destroy the sanctity of their own marriages; America was founded as a Christian nation; and so on.  A whole host of factually absurd opinions.

It is perhaps interesting those opinions seem almost as meaningful to fundamentalists as the notions God exists, salvation can be had through Jesus Christ, and one should live according to the Ten Commandments.  Put differently, it would be just as difficult to discuss the religiosity of fundamentalists without discussing their belief in abstinence as it would be to discuss their religiosity without discussing their belief in salvation.  So when talking about fundamentalist religiosity it is worthwhile to note how fundamentalism involves many more beliefs than just strictly religious beliefs.

Intellectually — through reason and evidence — it is easy to challenge nearly every fundamentalist belief.  I don’t know of another ideology so wrong on the facts and so devoid of sound logic.  These days on the internet, thousands of people busy themselves with debunking fundamentalist beliefs.  Those efforts seem to me effective in showing how intellectually untenable most fundamentalist beliefs are, but I think they entirely fail to address a key reason many — perhaps even most — fundamentalists hold their beliefs.

That is, I strongly suspect in a great many cases, asking a fundamentalist to give up their peculiar religiosity is the same as asking them to risk giving up their family, friends, and community. That’s the sense I get from many of the fundamentalists I know.

In a way, that might not be so different from the rest of us.  It’s common for humans to form social groups based at least in part on shared beliefs.  Anyone who declared themselves for the Republican candidate at the Democratic Convention might quickly find themselves an outsider.  So it shouldn’t surprise us that fundamentalists might hold their beliefs — not so much from intellectual conviction — but in order to gain the benefits of being part of a group.

If that’s so, then an intellectual attack on fundamentalist beliefs will not address the primary concerns of those fundamentalists who value their relationships with their family, friends, and community more than they value intellectual honesty and truths.  And, I imagine, that is a sizable majority of fundamentalists.  We are, after all, a social species — perhaps much more so than we are an “intellectual” species.

16 thoughts on “How Often Can Fundamentalists be Reasoned with?

  1. This is TOTAL speculation on my part, so take this with the appropriate portion of salt. I wonder if fundamentalists “came to be that way” out of a need for something firm and enduring to hold onto. I mean, whenever humans find themselves in stressful, chaotic, uncertain circumstances, we tend to look for things that provide a sense of stability and order – even if it’s just illusory. Beliefs can be that way. “If I find something I can be sure of, that won’t shake me to my foundations, that won’t challenge my precarious sense of balance, then everything will be OK.” So, maybe fundamentalism is a frightened reaction to turmoil.

    Fundamentalism is a kind of an extreme form of conservatism – one that places excessive stock in “the way we’ve always done things” – one that deifies tradition to the point of near-idolatry.

    This doesn’t fit for all fundamentalists, probably, but think of where fundamentalism is strongest – the Middle-East, culturally & economically-threatened areas of our own country. This may not be the key to understanding fundamentalism in all cases, but I think it has some merit.

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  2. I can’t remember where I found this quote or if I’ve shared it with you before – hell, I might have gotten it from you – if so I apologize…

    “You can’t reason someone out of something they weren’t reasoned into.” – Jonathan Swift

    I’ve wrestled with and been fascinated by irrational belief for years and best I can figure out that like a strong building, it is a redundant structure. If one of its supports fails, it has other load-paths to ground. There’s social identity, existential comfort, cognitive parsimony, cultural familiarity, fear of the out-group, and many more flying buttresses. Demolition of irrational belief can be complicated and somewhat tedious, even for the believer set on the course of accomplishing it.

    Also, I have seen people whose irrational belief may be in some stage of collapse, roundly rejected and abused by rationalists – in effect, a person without a country.

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  3. The problem, as I see it, is that someone who can believe an invisible all-powerful sky daddy wrote an incomprehensible book to convey his own existence using humans as his quills can believe anything at all. When you question their opinion on the effectiveness of abstinence-only education (for example) you are attacking their entire method of formulating beliefs – not just that specific preposterous claim.

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  4. Paul: “…asking a fundamentalist to give up their peculiar religiosity is the same as asking them to risk giving up their family, friends, and community. … It’s common for humans to form social groups based at least in part on shared beliefs. Anyone who declared themselves for the Republican candidate at the Democratic Convention might quickly find themselves an outsider.”

    My father was a member of a particular church in the LCMS. He was also a college- (as well as self-) educated chemist and metallurgist. He believed in “God,” but also in the scientific method. (Guess which belief stuck with me…) His belief as concerns evolution was that (what we now call) “intelligent design” answers the question “who?”; “evolution” answers “how?”

    This belief, however, ran counter to the “party line” of the LCMS. Any acceptance of the concept of evolution, however conditional, was just not to be taken seriously.

    Ergo, this church gladly availed itself of his skill with computers, and remembers the “lively discussions” with him in weekly bible class, but elevated members less than half his age to the position of “Church Elder,” while bypassing him for that recognition.

    Even my mother hasn’t quite forgiven them for that.

    – M. \”/

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  5. Residing in East Texas, I am virtually surrounded, literally, by religion. I am not a believer, as I do not find the concept historically sound, and am a pragmatist by nature. I do find that the more afraid folks are, the more religious fervor they seem to display. I believe fear to be the greatest motivator. I find my spirituality out in my gardens communing with nature. I create memorial gardens there for loved ones. Churches, funeral homes and cemetaries are simply not for me.
    Brenda

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  6. I believe that fundamentalist are intellectually lazy. Rather than look deeply into the mechanics of the world around them they choose to let someone else dictate their thoughts for them. They are incurious people who live in a very narrow world.

    They are by nature very defensive of their beliefs and will not tolerate them being questioned. Rather than rational thought and reasoning they rely on faith to guide their lives. And, I think many of us realize how misguided faith can be. It allows for manipulation and control.

    I find that living without religion and faith is a very liberating experience. Instead of accepting everything I am told by fundamentalists and religious leaders I question their foundations. As an existentialist I am too busy living each moment to its fullest to worry about nonsense like an afterlife. The important thing is to accomplish as much as possible in the time alloted.

    As a combat veteran I question the existence of a supreme being who allows mankind to slaughter each other with regularity. All the while being on the side of the combatants, whether they be Nazi, Al Qaeda, or Christian Soldiers. When the battle is over our children end up nothing more than dead meat, the victims of religious extremist of all faiths. This is evil in its purest form.

    I believe that most fundamentalist are conservatives. They are conserving their brain power by not using their heads for anything more the repositories of mythology and nonsense. They are the Flat Earthers of the day. Mentally deprived and proud of their ignorance.

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  7. I’m going to amend my earlier comment on fundamentalism as a form of religious extremism and broaden it to include all forms of ideology. There are fundamentalist scientists, atheists, humanists, Marxists, Capitalists, Republicans, Democrats. Apart from that distinction, though, I stand by my earlier comment.

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  8. I´m reminded of Richard Dawkins and Douglas Adams discussing the nature of belief. In particular the idea that that you gain bonus points for believing things that are life-restricting, contrary to the evidence, just pure wacky, or ideally all three!

    The harder something is to believe, the more you are demonstrating your faith and your commitment to the faith community that you want to belong to.

    Also, the more that you have changed your life, frustrated your instincts and hurt other people to conform to a religion, the harder it becomes to entertain the idea that you might actually have done all this for nothing. Sort of like gang membership in that way!

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  9. IMAO, “faith” is the belief in a concept in the absence of corroborating evidence.

    Belief in a concept *in spite of* evidence to the contrary is something else entirely.

    – M. \”/

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  10. You can reason with fundamentalists all day, but you usually just go around in circles. Why? Because fundamentalists are afraid. They are afraid of losing friends, as Paul suggests. They are also afraid of change and, especially, afraid of anything strange or different. They’ve been taught to be afraid of these things. Everything in their fundamentalist world, which they are afraid to be outside of and thus it forms a constant backdrop in their daily life, implicitly, and often explicitly, confirms that they are in danger from people that are different. Even their own thoughts are dangerous. There are so many pitfalls to avoid if one is going to get into heaven. You just can’t afford to take chances. Think fear isn’t the big theme in their thinking? Just check out the answer Sarah Palin gave to the very first question put to her in the VP debate.

    When even your own thoughts, so carefully controlled and trained, are dangerous, any contact with people who think differently is REALLY dangerous. The safe thing to do is ignore the evidence that contradicts your beliefs and seek evidence that confirms them, or can be made to seem to confirm them. And this is what they actually do.

    Attempting to reason with fundamentalists is so frustrating for non-fundamentalists (and I think the increase in frustration is logarithmic as you move toward the other end of the scale) because their thought processes are impervious to logic. They stick to their conclusions because they’ve been told to do so and because the alternative is too frightening. Even if you manage to force a concession to logic, shortly they’re thinking will have reverted back to the default state.

    Recognizing this defect in fundamentalists’ thought processes has helped me to be less frustrated when talking with them. In many ways they really can’t help themselves and I pity them for that. It has also changed my strategy when talking with them. My goal has changed from trying to convince them that they are wrong or that I am right to simply trying to plant a seed of doubt. Most often nothing comes of it, but doubting is the first step toward questioning, and questioning is the path out of the wilderness. So I try to help them to doubt.

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  11. Interesting topic.

    When I face this question, I think of “tackle the ball, not the man,” a truism from sports. Without doubt, a given believer may not be deconverted by a given encounter, and the strong likelihood is that he/she will not be. But I think it’s always good to take a stand for reason and evidence (which has to entail recognizing your own failures by that same standard, by the way).

    The important struggle as I see it — the ball — is for reason and evidence as the only meaningful way truths get established over and above mere faith. Mere assertion establishes nothing. Mere sincerity establishes nothing. That something is emotionally comforting establishes nothing.

    There are diplomatic and undiplomatic ways to say it, but it can never be said too often that truth matters and that not every claim deserves equal treatment.

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  12. Words can’t change beliefs.

    I have a (fairly old) post in my blog by that name (http://lessertruth.wordpress.com/2007/09/24/words-cannot-change-beliefs/) and i was just gonna drop the (shameless) link, but…

    Those comments kinda scare me.

    For one reason: they all fail to acknowledge the most important issue here. Namely, that everyone has beliefs. We rationalists (or scientificists or science-freaks) would be exactly as reluctant to let go of our beliefs in scientific method as religious freaks are about their issues.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am also “converted” to the blind faith in science and technology, and i have no patience at all with religious people. I simply do not interact with people who are trying to preach to me AT ALL. And i think this is good policy too (though i admit to a secret desire to someday tell them that i am a Satanist or something like it just to see their faces).

    But please, let’s not begin to fancy ourselves beyond the realm of belief! In the end every idea is a belief. And the beliefs are anchored in LIFE — their life not yours! In other words, if they measure their own experiences and prefer to believe in the Tooth-Fairy rather than in Galileo, it is their right to do so! Your life lead to different beliefs, but you have not lived their lives.

    This is not a scale, with “belief” in one side and “reason” on the other. It is a big, shallow bowl of beliefs, and any comparison between them is relative and temporary.

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