The blog post cites a paper written by Ara Norenzayan and others in 2008. The introduction poses an interesting question:
Many have criticized Dawkins and the other atheist spokespeople for providing texts that polarize rather than convince (e.g., Bunting, 2007), especially given theoretical assumptions that religiousness is too stable to be aﬀected by such polemical arguments. The goal of the current study, then, is to gauge the mutability of religious belief in the face of these arguments for disbelief. Put simply, can rational discourse budge faith?
I am very interested in the question of polarisation and blogged on it recently. I am concerned that war is being waged between atheists and theists, I am worried about the level of derision and contempt that I encounter on both sides. I believe there is a need for constant dialogue and understanding, and I see precious little of it.
In particular there is a huge amount of heat that is produced by New Atheists and Creationists. Personally, I have very rarely met a Christian who does not support the science of evolution. However, when I chat to atheists they seem to assume that I am a Creationist. This is obviously influenced by more extremist views in America, but why do we reward these views by highlighting them? I think the answer in part is that they make easy targets to mock on atheist blogs, but does that really make the world a better place?
The video above is one where Pyschasm shows Richard Dawkins to be reasonable, but he comments that elsewhere he can be extremely mocking. As I watch the video, I find myself drawn to trying to understand what values underlie morality for each of us and I wish to strive to make the world a better place by working together, not by trashing each other.
So back to the research:
106 (66 female) undergraduate students from Arizona State University. A randomly assigned 45 participants read an excerpt from a lecture by Richard Dawkins that was reprinted in the Nulliﬁdian (1994) and brieﬂy summarized their feelings about Dawkins’ position on religion; the 61 control participants wrote about their favourite foods. Following the prime, each participant completed a distracter task, the implicit religious belief IAT (IRBIAT), a self-report religiosity measure, and a demographic questionnaire assessing sex, religion, ethnicity and age.
Right – so there are some students and 45 are chosen at random to read a bit of Dawkins where he says that evolutionary processes were quite capable of creating complexity through the simplicity of mutation and diﬀerential selection. He also says that the existence of God is unnecessary and highly improbable.
Then they did an “Implicit Association Test” choosing between ‘true’ and ‘false’ when presented with words like god, heaven, angel, devil and soul. True attribute words included actual, true, genuine, real and valid. False attribute words included fake, false, bogus, untrue and phony.
Finally they explicitly expressed their beliefs by answering six questions: “My personal religious beliefs are very important to me”, “My religion or faith is an important part of my identity”, “If someone wanted to understand who I am as a person, my religion or faith would be very important in that”, “I believe strongly in the teachings of my religion or faith”, “I believe in God”, and “I consider myself a religious person”.
The results are below:
On the left is how religious the people say they are, and on the right is how religious the implicit test suggests they are. The dark blocks are those who didn’t read Dawkins before the test and the light ones are those who did read Dawkins.
Obviously, there are questions to be asked about what would have happened if the students had read a text written by a theist, and also questions about how long the influence of reading the text lasts.
Then there are problems with the research because Liberal Christians are unlikely to believe in angels, demons and the like, and they may well answer the explicit questions very differently to more conservative Christians. Also, questions like ‘are you religious’ are meaningless. Better questions are ‘do you find prayer helpful?’ and ‘do you attend religious meetings?’. Also, some religions are much more about making a difference in the world, being part of a community and rituals than they are about belief.. so that is problematic in the research too, in my opinion.
From this we can see from the study that some young people at a university in Arizona with a Christian background are less likely to express extremist dogmatism in their religious belief immediately after reading Dawkins, i.e. as in the video above, Dawkins is not polarising people, but helping persuade them.
I don’t doubt that Dawkins is persuading people, challenging people and indeed teaching people. I think all this is good. However, I think there is certainly a degree of polarising people as well.
I guess I feel that the initial question is facile, “Put simply, can rational discourse budge faith?” Yes of course it can and should. When we are in a mode that is not defensive then we allow our beliefs to be shaped by the wisdom of our elders, the experiences we have as we go through life and by rational argument. This was true for me when I was an atheist and it is true now I am a Christian.
A more important question is “How can our discourse enable greater understanding and a better world?” I would suggest that less mockery and contempt on both sides is critical in this pursuit, and it is just as important as also taking all the scientific evidence into account.
I will finish here with one of Aesop’s fables that Peter Rollins referred to recently:
A dispute once arose between the Wind and the Sun, which was the stronger of the two, and they agreed to settle the point upon the issue – that whichever of the two soonest made a traveller take off his cloak, should be accounted the more powerful.
The Wind began, and blew with all his might and main a blast, cold and fierce as a Thracian storm; but the stronger he blew, the closer the traveller wrapped his cloak around him, and the tighter he grasped it with his hands.
Then broke out the Sun. With his welcome beams he dispersed the vapour and the cold; the traveller felt the genial warmth, and as the Sun shone brighter and brighter, he sat down, quite overcome with the heat, and taking off his cloak, cast it on the ground.
Thus the Sun was declared the conqueror; and it has ever been deemed the persuasion is better than force; and that the sunshine of a kind and gentle manner will sooner lay open a poor man’s heart than all the threatenings and force of blustering authority.
Note – I have only looked at one of the three papers that Psycasm used in his own blog post to look at these questions, the three papers are:
Norenzayan, A., & Lee, A. (2010). It was meant to happen: Explaining cultural variations in fate attributions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98 (5), 702-720 DOI: 10.1037/a0019141
Shariff, A., Cohen, A., & Norenzayan, A. (2008). The Devil’s Advocate: Secular Arguments Diminish both Implicit and Explicit Religious Belief Journal of Cognition and Culture
Norenzayan, A., Hansen, I., & Cady, J. (2008). An Angry Volcano? Reminders of Death and Anthropomorphizing Nature Social Cognition, 26 (2), 190-197 DOI: 10.1521/soco.2008.26.2.190"