When I was younger, I used to be in deep admiration for those who could do what I sometimes struggled with: being able to speak volubly with enviable eloquence, humour and confidence. They were, I observed to myself, so certain about everything they said. Ironically, despite having read widely, my present self is even more unsure than I have ever been. The more knowledge acquired, the more you realise how little you really know of anything.
How then, can anyone be so resolutely confident about religion, politics or morality? But – and I believe this is true in most cases – those who speak so wonderfully are also the least likely to change their minds. In fact, the more persuasive a speaker, the more wary I am. If you look past the glossy presentation veneer, you will see an ugly and stubborn mind that may not necessarily have good reasons to sustain its beliefs.
In the furious science vs religion debate (evolution vs creationism) between Bill Nye the science guy and Ken Ham the religious fundamentalist, a closing question was asked: What, if anything, would change your mind? Bill Nye stoically replied that he was willing to believe in religion if some form of strong & testable evidence could be presented. Ken Ham’s confident answer, however, was especially telling: “No, no one is ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true.”
And that quite nicely summarises most of our social interactions. We almost always want to persuade others to take up something we believe in, follow what we like or agree with our opinions. Conversely, we are far less inclined to allow ourselves to be persuaded of a contrary statement. We seek out information that matches what we are in agreement with and make no effort to explore our hesitations. Uncertainty is not encouraged but is instead smothered to death.
In a dinner I had many weeks ago, religion became a main (and serious) talking point. No surprise since it influences your moral attitude and understanding of the world. Though an atheist (a label I rarely use), I remained open to having my view(s) changed and so I listened deeply to my friend’s religious arguments. Unfortunately, the totality of the entire two hours could be outlined as follows:
God is a divine being beyond human understanding. You cannot apply logic or reasoning to it.
God’s actions cannot be judged. Only he knows what his celestial plan is. His acts of violence cannot be understood by human means.
Therefore, no matter what you say or how difficult it is to justify my position, I won’t change my mind.
Given the amount of convenient exceptions and innumerable fallacies present, there was no argument to be had. She simply would not entertain any possibility that she might be at the very least, slightly wrong.
Here’s another example of how difficult it is to change minds.
Despite Donald Trump’s bad business acumen (he went bankrupt at least ten times), blatant racism and repeated sexism, Trump supporters continuously defend him by playing down his deficiencies and dismissing his flaws as ‘good attributes’ to have in a leader. His audio recording of how easy it was to abuse his power to forcefully get any woman he wants has been accepted as ‘men’s locker room talk’ and therefore no big deal. (it isn’t)
In the face of irrefutable evidence, people simply do not change their minds. They will however, seek to either downplay the evidence or twist it around to support their cause. This quirk of the mind is, like many cognitive biases, well-understood in Psychology. And this also means that even if genuine evidence existed to undermine the ‘truth’ of religion, you can be sure that the faithful will never revise their opinions at all. If anything, it will more likely strengthen their resolve. For many who think logic and evidence is an effective persuasive tool, it’s probably somewhat depressing.
So what’s the point of persuading people when hard evidence (not anecdotes) can barely sway them, or if they are outright determined to completely hold on to their opinions? There’s honestly little that can be done except to educate the young on how to think well and clearly for themselves. Those younger are usually not yet locked down by their beliefs and are still forming an understanding of how the world works. Assuming they have an opportunity for exposure to authentic critical thinking, their capacity to think independently will likely stay with them for life.
Maybe it’s just me, but I believe some of the most fulfilling conversations to have are a deep willingness to listen, a tacit respect for equal speaking room, an outright love for change and a want to be changed. There’s something indescribably marvelous about embracing uncertainty with such a person and to be humbled but intellectually invigorated. Here, there’s no need to change minds. Hearts will change. It’s a pity such a moment is far too often the exception rather than the norm.
So have you thought about (HYTA) why it is so difficult to change someone’s mind?