Recently a regular commenter on this blog, Spence Tepper, proposed an experiment. Basically, it was a sort of "reflective listening" exercise, where before arguing for your own position, you state as clearly as possible how someone opposed to your position feels/thinks.
Here's what Tepper said:
In fact, Brian, I would like to offer a social psychology experiment for those of us participating here regularly. Let's all work with you to create a list of our names and our current position on matters of Atheism, Agnosticism, Theism etc. And the opposite position. Then, for one week, each day we comment on a blog post you provide talking the exact opposite point of view to our normal perspective.
For example, I would argue purely for Anti-theism and point to the amoral and corrupting influence of all forms of theistic belief, including RSSB. You might choose to adopt the role of a devout Catholic... Arjuna and One Initiated might assume the roles of Atheist and Sceptic. Etc... If any of us falters or appears not to make the best case of the role, anyone is free to call us on it.
And we will be bound to deepen our case for the opposite view, or to do some research on that view and return with a stronger argument for it. My hypothesis is that, after a week of doing this with full sincerity, we will change our position. It might only change a little, or we might actually be firmer in understanding why we actually believe what we do now. But I believe our post experiment position will change permanently.
I also believe that each of us will report an understanding and greater respect of the opposite view we don't have now, which we would be unable to develop without stepping into that role ourselves. Well? Any takers?
Here's why I'm not interested in the idea.
(1) Been there, done that. Not every atheist used to be a religious believer, and not every religious believer used to be an atheist. But often this is the case. When it is, the person who switched sides, so to speak, has a very good understanding of how the other side thinks, because they themselves used to think that way.
This applies to me.
In my teen and early college years, I was an atheist. Then for 35 years I was a devotee of an Eastern religion. And for the past 13 years or so I've reverted to atheism. So I understand the religious mentality because it used to be a core part of my psyche. Meaning, I don't need to put myself in the role of a religious person, since I played that role for many years.
(2) Objective reality doesn't have two sides. Reality isn't this and that. It simply is.
Of course, when we aren't sure what reality is like, various hypotheses can be put forward, since no one knows which is true. For a long time people debated whether the sun revolved around the earth, or the earth revolved around the sun. Now that debate is over.
Ditto with whether human-caused global warming is happening. I have little or no interest in understanding how global warming deniers think, because their thinking is wrong. Likewise, I consider that anyone who believes in God or the supernatural is wrong, because there is no demonstrable evidence for those beliefs.
Yes, I understand that lots of people feel that God and the supernatural are real. I used to feel that way myself. But I don't see any point in trying to understand a viewpoint that is almost certainly incorrect.
(3) Facts would change my mind, not another mind. I love politics. I love discussions. I love newspaper opinion pages. So part of what Spence Tepper suggested appeals to me -- the part about examining the basis for opposing positions. In fact, in my blog posts I regularly ask religious believers to provide solid evidence that God or the supernatural exists.
I'm very much open to changing my atheist mind, but so far no one has provided that evidence.
However, it isn't understanding a religious believer's mind that would cause this change. Like I said above, I used to have that sort of mind. I remember how I used to think, and now I don't think that way, since it no longer makes sense to me.
In some cases, knowing how another mind feels about something is instructive. I like to read Top Critic reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes web site when deciding whether to watch a certain movie. But when it comes to deciding whether God exists, or the supernatural exists, for me this isn't a matter of opinion, it is a matter of fact.
Again, I already understand why people believe in God and the supernatural. I'm sympathetic to those beliefs, since I used to have them myself. Yet I don't see any reason to restate them, as Tepper suggested. The facts are on the side of atheism, and that's much more important to me than the mental mindset of a religious believer.