Since we can see that childhood indoctrination, threats of punishment, cultural isolation, biased argumentation, cognitive dissonance, low self-esteem, and low intelligence lead people to illogical conclusions about religion, the question should now become how to undo the effects of some of these phenomena. One of the primary findings of persuasive psychology is that, outside of the rare instances of instinctive and biochemical factors, people are tied to their opinions through emotional and/or logical deduction. In other words, people believe that certain concepts are true for emotional and/or logical reasons. Therefore, in order to instill a new belief into an individual, we must remove the existing belief by appealing to people through the exact avenues by which they have derived their beliefs.
Let us consider a hypothetical scenario in which we are entrepreneurs who have just opened a business on the top floor of an old city skyscraper. Everything is set to go, but there is one major problem with which we need to contend. The only business consultant in the entire city refuses to take the elevator to such a high elevation because he has deduced that something tragic could possibly take place at that height.
Since our first impulse is to conclude that the man has a fear of heights, let us first consider that this is in fact the correct scenario. We must now ask ourselves whether this man has a fear of heights for emotional reasons or for logical ones. Barring the presence of a series of tragic events that have taken place while the consultant was in similar structures, it is a reasonably safe assumption that the man has a fear based on emotion. This should be nothing new to us because we realize that phobias are typically emotional fears often attributed to isolated events that took place at an impressionable age.[i] Therefore, the next logical step here is to ascertain why the consultant is afraid of heights. If he cannot articulate a legitimate reason and relies instead on such explanations as “I just get scared when I look out,” we know we have made a safe assumption that the man holds his belief for an emotional reason.
How do we eliminate this fear? Should we bring in the experts who built the structure to ensure him that it won’t fall? Should we show him the evidence that demonstrates the skyscraper was constructed according to proper building codes? Should we show him the statistics of how unlikely it would be for a tragic event to take place at that height? None of these measures would likely work because the logic falls on ears that are deaf to reason. The man has an emotional fear of heights, thus we cannot appeal to his senses through pleas of logic. As he is perfectly aware that millions of people go into tall buildings every day and return to the ground unharmed, what good would it do to tell him what he already knows? Instead, we must appeal to his emotion. One such recommendation would be to have the man ascend the building slowly, allow him to look outside on each floor, and let him adjust to his surroundings each time until he feels comfortable progressing up the skyscraper. Such methods are how psychologists often remove unreasonable fears in their patients.[ii]
Let us now consider a situation in which the man thinks that the building will fall because he believes that old skyscrapers are not as safe as the newer ones. Instead of having an emotional fear, our business consultant has formed what he believes is a logical reason to avoid ascending the building. Do we use the same measure as we did in the previous scenario? Will having him slowly ascend and allowing him to adjust to his surroundings alleviate his fear? No. Why would such a tactic fail to work? The man has a logical fear, thus we cannot appeal to his senses through pleas of emotion. We must show him the evidence that the building was constructed according to code. We must bring in the experts who built the structure to ensure him that it will not fall. Such methods are how we appeal to logical intellect in order to remove unreasonable fears from reasonable people.
Religious beliefs, like the beliefs of the consultant, must also be held for emotional and/or logical reasons.[iii] With this in mind, how should someone free of indoctrination approach the practice of convincing others of their false beliefs? As before, we must delve into the history of the individual’s beliefs to find the avenue from which they originate. I would be confident that if we undertook this exercise in a large group of people, almost the entire sample would have built their beliefs upon emotional reasons. Remember four conclusions we reached earlier: 1) Children are introduced to the emotional components of Christianity before the logical ones. 2) Notions of God being perfect, Jesus loving us, and heaven being for the saved are consistently instilled in children long before they are approached with evidence and arguments that weigh the genuine or fraudulent nature of such claims. 3) Smart people believe dumb things because they are very gifted at coming up with ideas that support their irrational viewpoints. 4) Apologists are masterminds at creating quasi-logical reasons for the defense of their emotional beliefs.
If our tentative conclusion is accurate that religious beliefs are primarily built on emotional grounds, we now know the avenue that one should take to change the incorrect beliefs held by Christians. This discovery, of course, does not destroy the layers of conditioning that one will have to fight through, nor does it remove the individual’s propensity to invent absurd justifications to eliminate cognitive dissonance. It does however demonstrate the near-certain futility in trying to convince someone that the gospels are unreliable by pointing out factual discrepancies like the year of Jesus’ birth. People with emotional ties will emotionally cling to the gospels’ veracity in this instance while the apologists’ absurd “Quirinius was a governor twice” or “Quirinius was a co-governor” explanations alleviate their cognitive dissonance.[iv]
Life, however, is rarely as black and white as we can make it in hypothetical scenarios. Often we find emotional and logical reasons for religious belief closely intertwined. The apologists who purport that they have all the answers have in reality weaved a tangled web of what they believe are logical defenses for the foundational beliefs and emotional attachments acquired from the most persuasible stage of human development. While simply clearing the emotional attachments before destroying the perceived logic may work for ordinary individuals, this tactic will surely not work on those who have come up with clever ways to convince themselves that their beliefs are solid. With a network of logical and emotional bonds to wade through in order to reach the apologist, how does one even begin? For the answer, I believe we should revisit the business consultant scenario offered earlier.
Let us now consider a hypothetical situation in which the consultant has a combination of emotional and logical reasons for not wanting to visit us at the top of the skyscraper. Not only has he developed an emotional fear of heights beginning at a young age, he has also convinced himself of the legitimacy of his fear by reinforcing his decision with a network of misinformation built upon logical inaccuracies. Now the man has created a wall of what he perceives are legitimate reasons as to why his emotional fear is a sensible one. How do we handle this situation?
Since we wish to invoke clear thinking in order to get people to drop their misplaced beliefs, we must decide whether emotion or logic is the biggest initial obstacle of instilling rational thought. This choice should be obvious since emotion is often irrational, and logic is closely related to rationale itself. In short, we cannot begin appealing to logic when emotion is in the way. We must defuse as much irrationality as possible before we can begin to utilize reasoned arguments in support of our position. We cannot simply usher the man to the top of the building by allowing him to adjust to his surroundings because there will come a time when the logical fears of being higher than floor three will be outweighed by the emotional fears of being higher than floor ten. The amount of success in this initial step of tackling emotion will vary from person to person, but through much time and effort, we might be able to force the man to make enough concessions on his emotional beliefs to eliminate enough emotional irrationalism so that we can illustrate how his logical fears of floors four through nine are misplaced. If this much easier step of tackling logic proves fruitful, then we simply lather, rinse, and repeat.
[i] Research has also shown that there is likely an advantageous genetic predisposition, acquired through natural selection, to certain potentially dangerous situations.
[ii] Two such practices are cognitive behavioral therapy and systematic desensitization therapy.
[iii] Given the widespread belief of the supernatural, one could make the assertion that it is instinctive to believe in a god or gods. However, one cannot make the argument that it is instinctive to believe in a particular god, which is the issue we wish to investigate.
[iv] Or perhaps by some lower level justification, such as “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”