Friday, May 22, 2015

Self-Identity, Beliefs, and Emotional Logic


How does this guy feel when his beliefs are challenged? Do you suppose he's able to fairly consider ideas which conflict?
It's human nature at times to tie beliefs to our self-identity.  Religion is the most common example, but politics are a close second.  When we do this to ourselves, it makes us emotional about any challenge to our beliefs, as such challenges are also a threat to our self-identity.

For example, if a person says your belief system (be it atheism, Catholicism, or Islam) lead mankind to commit atrocities, the implication is that you are personally capable of and inclined to commit those atrocities. As the anger wells up in your chest, you become unable to discuss the assertion rationally. Our human minds are wired to respond to threats, and the fight-or-flight response responds to social threats as well as physical. Given the relative security and anonymity of the internet, it's a whole lot easier to choose to fight. When we chose to fight while emotional rather than to proceed with deliberate and thoughtful responses, things get ugly and we wind up looking like the "angry atheist".

Such attacks (i.e. the Hitler attack) are common on Twitter, and are blatant attempts to provoke an irrational, emotional response from the opponent.  This behavior should be called out for its immaturity or dismissed out of hand. Do not give the attacker the pleasure of seeing you mad.

Often, the provocation is much more subtle and we can miss the emotional reaction it induces in ourselves.  When a theist asserts that atheists have no morals or purpose, does that make you angry? Notice the biological reaction in yourself and use that awareness to take a deep breath and calm down before you respond.

A Solution

Sexy Lady Justice!
The best way I've found to help minimize my personal sense of threat or social hostility is to dissociate my beliefs from my sense of self. Though I identify as an atheist in this anonymous social-media persona, it's not a defining feature of my identity in real life. I've come to terms with my limited ability to know things. My senses and cognition are human, no more. I have made mistakes big and small, and I will continue to do so. It's okay to admit this fact and continue to do my best moving forward.

This approach to truth and honesty allows me to evaluate any claim that's made fairly and honestly. I'm not in any way set on maintaining my atheist belief. But I am keenly aware of the human cognitive biases which can lead to false beliefs. After all, I've fallen for many of those cognitive bias errors myself.

These cognitive biases are often mental shortcuts and assumptions we all make to simplify the decision-making process. The apply to all of us, and not just in our evaluation of religious beliefs.  I've made that mistake in many areas. Some good examples are irrational fear of flying and our tendency to make snap judgements of other people's motivations. It takes meticulous deliberation to think through beliefs and assumptions carefully, and each of us is liable to make that mistake when we're quick to reach a conclusion.

I often tell theists that I "Will Convert for Evidence", and I mean that with all sincerity. I believe I have drawn the most reasonable conclusion possible given the evidence available to me. If I discover new evidence that leads me to conclude a god actually exists, I will change my belief. Thus far, all the evidence I've seen is better explained by failures of human cognition such as group-think, wishful thinking, and emotional decision making.

The best I've seen from theists seems to be "promising" me that they "know" it's true. While I don't doubt the sincerity of their convictions, I understand the ways that people reach the wrong conclusions, then double-down on those conclusions rather than re-evaluating them.

I generally ask with sincerity how they know their particular god is real and how they selected it from among all the other religious beliefs. Most haven't considered any other religious beliefs. Those who have tend to draw comparisons like, "So which is most plausible? A mad prophet on a flying horse or humble Jesus on a donkey?" [link]

Such statements make it clear just how fair the evaluations of other beliefs were. The fear of damage to self-identity leads people to tip the scales in their identity's favor. The end result is a less impartial assessment of alternative explanations and a greater chance of missing the correct interpretation.

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