On humanism, and being positive

One of the criticisms that has been put forward about humanism is that it always has to be positive. Many aspects of that humanism is there for are simply not positive – it’s an alternative to religion, and religion is a thought controlling, people oppressing, unscientific load of nonsense.

However, as someone who labels myself as a humanist, I think both these statements can be true, and work together well.

Yes, religion is an evil that the world would be better off without. But saying that you can’t tackle this issue with a positive attitude is not only incorrect, but it is also naively counter-productive, even though it may seem intuitive.

The reason is, is that we know by now that, most of the time, arguing with someone’s beliefs only entrenches them further.

I mean, how many people do the believer and atheist camps actually win over to the other side? Almost none. In fact, it’s so rare that when we do, we feel the need to put a spotlight on them and get them to give talks about their conversion, because it almost never happens.

One of the reasons for this, is that arguing your case, even if you’re case is incorrect, actually reinforces your own belief that you must be right. In fact, even for us skeptics, who are aware this is a problem and try to counter against our own biases, it is difficult to avoid.

This has been general knowledge for a long time, but a great example is given in Richard Wiseman’s recent book about captured American soldiers in the Korean War.

During their time in the prison camps, they were often bribed to say or write about how positive communism was, and were encouraged to take part in mock debates in which they argued for communism.

The result – because they undertook the actions of promoting communism, an idea that not only doesn’t work and isn’t fair (in my humble opinion) but was specifically what they were fighting against in said war, they actually started believing what they were saying.

Similarly, when you get someone in a confrontational argument about their beliefs, where it be religion or any other form of ill-founded prejudice, bigotry or simply factually untrue belief, getting them to argue the point is only going to reinforce their belief most of the time, not weaken it.

So what can we take from this?

Firstly, I think it is a mistake for those in the freethought movement who suggest humanism’s approach of being nice and positive with people, is a sign of weakness or that we not as firmant in stopping the evils of blind faith from damaging our society. It isn’t – they’re just going about it in a more rational, scientific way.

Secondly, when considering your attitude, especially when running groups, it is important for it to be informed by this research.

For example, at A-Soc we discussed, on several occasions, the idea of having a debate with the religious societies where we would take the opposite position. IE, we would argue there was a god, while they would argue there wasn’t. Unfortunately, we never followed through with the idea. It is also worth considering what interfaith (sorry, can’t think of a better term) activities can be done between atheist and believer groups that promote an understanding of each others principles, rather than a confrontational nature – which in the end, actually have a reverse effect from what they are intended to have.



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This entry was posted on Monday, September 10th, 2012 at 11:42 am and is filed under Humanism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.