On Challenges to Worldviews

Bob Seidensticker, at Cross Examined, wrote a recent post using a thought experiment to comment on a difference between Christians and atheists regarding an openness to challenging information. The thought experiment goes as follows [he provides the thought experiment twice, but I have combined it into one]:

Imagine that [an atheist/a Christian] walks into a gathering of [Christians/atheists]. He says, “I hold in my hand a pamphlet that will rock your worldview. In fact, it will almost surely change your worldview. I have shown this to several hundred [Christians/atheists], and shortly after they read it, 90% admitted that [their faith in Christianity was pretty much gone/they saw the truth in Christianity].

“Now—who wants a copy?”

Seidensticker’s contention is that Christians would be reluctant to take a copy of the pamphlet while atheists would be more open to facing the challenge. He argues that Christians already bring a certain level of doubt to the table, so they would be reluctant to explore material that is likely to increase that doubt. Atheists, on the other hand, are said to hold their atheistic worldview due to the evidence before them. As such, the pamphlet would be viewed as another potential source of evidence worth considering.

My Take on Seidensticker’s Thought Experiment

It is possible that Seidensticker is correct in his conclusions about how the two groups would respond. I suspect his contentions are not accurate. However, I think there is a broader perspective that goes unexplored.

Seidensticker asks us if we would read the pamphlet. The biggest issue I have is with the pitch. Were I an atheist at the gathering to which the pamphlet-wielding Christian appears, I probably wouldn’t want to take the pamphlet because the presentation seems fake. It feels like chicanery. My everyday experience of someone making such claims is that said person is a flimflam man.

Of course, I don’t think this is Seidensticker’s intention. I think he wants the audience to take the pitchman as being sincere in his pitch and sincere in his results. The thing is, if we take the pitch and pitchman as sincere, then we are saying we genuinely think he has information that has changed the views of 90% of our peers. That is beyond overwhelming. Yes, I suspect an atheist would be willing to tackle a pamphlet converting 90% of his peers. However, I find it hard to believe that a doubting Christian would shy away from a pamphlet deconverting 90% of his peers.

Furthermore, I think we can point to the actions of Christians and evolution of Christian thought as evidence to back up the contention that they would be willing to face the challenge. The Protestant Reformation is perhaps a large example. However, I think you can even appeal to the more socially liberal strands of Christianity participating in the marriage-equality movement as evidence that Christians are willing to address and explore challenging information.

Certainly, one can point out that these examples don’t challenge the more foundational beliefs of Christianity (e.g., God’s existence and salvation through Christ); however, they represent a willingness to confront dogma. This, it seems to me, suggests Christians would be willing to read the pamphlet.

Yes, I’m Being Picky.

Interestingly, Seidensticker’s conclusion seems to be inconsistent with his thought experiment. We know that hundreds of Christians have read the pamphlet, and 90% of them have deconverted. However, Seidensticker concludes that Christians would not look at the pamphlet. Seidensticker needs Christians to be willing to read the pamphlet to give the thought experiment its force; however, he wants to conclude that they won’t, in turn, read the pamphlet.

I am happy to concede that I am being a bit picky in pointing this out; however, I think it is relevant. I suspect Seidentsticker had his conclusion in mind when he tried to construct the thought experiment. I suspect he wanted the thought experiment to act as an opening for brief commentary about a difference between Christians and atheists as regards worldview commitments.

To be honest, I can construe a sense in which his basic point is correct. When it comes to the values of the respective worldviews, there is an anti-abandoning system implicit within the Christian worldview that does not (at least obviously) exist within an atheistic worldview; namely, Heaven and Hell. This means there are at least some things (thoughts, actions, etc) that must be taboo in the Christian worldview, among the foremost being abandoning the worldview. In this way, we might consider an atheistic worldview more free to be explored and questioned.

Reading the comments section of Seidensticker’s post, a number of atheists do say that they would gladly read the pamphlet. Truth be told, a number of Christians say they, too, would read the pamphlet. I suspect, however, none are claiming they would take the challenge on principle and few actually think the challenge would radically alter their worldview.

If it were truly the case that the atheists would, on principle, jump at the opportunity to challenge their worldview, then an atheistic worldview would seem to offer little of value or substance. It may be brave and free, intellectually, to think one is always willing to challenge his or her worldview, but it seems like such a worldview utterly fails in other areas, like psychologically.

Yes, I believe a worldview should embrace a freedom of intellectual exploration. However, I think an individual should be cautious, at some level, in challenging their worldview. This gives me a certain empathy for that instinct in humans to dig our heels in when faced with cognitive dissonance. We may still be factually wrong, but the stubbornness is surely proper to some degree.

Worldviews and Substance

Whenever I hear a Christian preacher warn his parishioners against the loneliness and meaninglessness of living an atheistic life, I bristle. I get angry. It upsets me because it is a claim that is immediately falsified by my own, personal experience. I live the life I do; therefore, the preacher’s message is false.

It seems to me, if I should step up and face a potentially worldview-changing challenge without apprehension, my current worldview isn’t worth much. Thankfully, I would be apprehensive. And, my honest guess is, most atheists would be apprehensive as well. Let me try to tease out this instinct.

…With Another Thought Experiment

We’re faced with this pitchman telling us he has a pamphlet that will almost certainly convert us to Christianity. He has shown it to hundreds of our peers, and 90% have sincerely found it convincing and converted to Christianity. The pitchman makes one more comment, he overviews some of the shocking revelations inside.

It turns out that the message is an amalgamation of the most restrictive of fundamentalist Christianity and the Creativity movement. The information includes:

  • Stoning your children when they misbehave to an extreme
  • Women are to serve their husbands
  • Sex is forbidden except for the purposes of procreation
  • Homosexuality is forbidden
  • Homosexual acts are to be punished by burning
  • Whites are, in fact, superior to non-whites
  • Enslaving non-white people is actually beneficial

And on and on. Of course, everything revealed in the pamphlet is morally good, objectively.

It has been read by hundreds of your peers and, with complete sincerity, it has convinced 90% of them to convert. Do you read the pamphlet?

I’m not sure I do. I would be impressed that, knowing all of the above is demonstrated in the pamphlet, 90% of my peers still converted. They were convinced. But, fuck, I’m not sure I’m ready to commit myself to that. I kinda want to stay ignorant of whatever information will convince me the above items are true.

The reason, importantly, is because those items all run counter to the good and positive and valuable parts of my worldview. My worldview provides a sense of ethics, values, aesthetics, and meaning that positively impact my life. They give my life and the experiences I have importance. No, I would not jump at the opportunity to take on a pamphlet that sincerely purports to convincingly demonstrate the very opposite of the positives of my current worldview. And I’m not entirely sure I should. Most relevantly, I think (and I hope) most atheists would be quite reluctant to read the pamphlet as well.

Worldviews, What do They Get Us?

Seidensticker concludes his post with a question:

What does this say about the truth of the Christian and atheist positions and the role of evidence in those worldviews?

Again, I think there is a sense in which intellectual curiosity is discouraged by the Christian worldview (see here, for example). This can be reinforced on an emotional level with concepts like Heaven and Hell and the fetishizing of concepts like (big O, big T) Objective Truth. In this way, we might answer Seidensticker’s question by saying that the Christian worldview is fine with truth insofar as that truth affirms the basic tenets of the Christian worldview. The atheistic worldview, alternatively, is skeptical and free to explore all available evidence.

However, a worldview is more than mere epistemology. It also gives meaning, purpose, and place to the individuals holding it. When considering information that is challenging to one’s worldview, these aspects are, presumably, just as important as the worldview’s epistemic values. I am not sure the Christian worldview is “better” than the atheistic worldview on these aspects; however, I feel comfortable suggesting that Christians are better than atheists as discussing and revealing how their Christian worldview impacts these aspects of their lives.

In this sense, we might call it a “win” for the Christian worldview.

Other Thoughts:

Nelson Mandela died, today, at the age of 95. It brings me great joy to know lives like his can be lived.

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