Since I started this blog in 2004, I've been trying to change the minds of religious believers in the direction of being less dogmatic, judgmental, and rigid.
In this endeavor I've been guided mostly by my own experience and intuition. So when I saw a book review in the July 2 issue of New Scientist about "How Minds Change: The new science of belief, opinion, and persuasion" by David McRaney, I was interested to see what the book is all about.
After all, how many of us have changed our mind about something after someone started screaming in our face that we were wrong, they were right, and we needed to start thinking like them?
In my case, exactly never. So these passages from the review rang true to me.
McRaney spends time with former members of the Westboro Baptist Church in the US, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America", learning how they came to disavow their vitriolic beliefs and become more beneficent to others.
The answer, he finds, isn't willing people to come around to your point of view, but letting them realise the folly of their ways.
...The concept -- that, with more knowledge, long-held hypotheses can be disproved -- isn't likely to be news to New Scientist readers. But it doesn't make McRaney's book any less interesting.
Indeed, his writing is a tonic for those who might scratch their head at how others could be so nonsensical as to distrust vaccines, believe the Earth is flat or subscribe to any other number of conspiracy theories.
It helps shift perceptions from the unhelpful attitude of "this person is stupid and beyond help" to "this person has a different frame of belief, and they can be encouraged to think more deeply about the issue."
Because that is the big discovery of those Californian campaigners and the neuroscientists behind them: simply shouting facts at disbelievers doesn't change their minds, rather it entrenches their belief -- as anyone who has tackled a tricky dinner table conversation will know.
Instead, to change minds, you have to not change minds at all. You have to let people come to their own conclusions -- though, of course, you can help them get there by posing the right questions.
When I got remarried in 1990, my second wife, Laurel, didn't share my belief at the time that the guru of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) was God in Human Form. Though she made no attempt to dissuade me from belonging to this India-based religious organization, Laurel would ask good questions.
Such as, how can you be sure the guru is God in Human Form? I'd basically reiterate the RSSB teachings, which came down to an unconvincing "I have faith that this is true and by following the instructions I was given at initiation by the guru, hopefully one day I'll know for sure."
If Laurel had been been confrontational, I would have become more defensive than I already was, hardening my religious conviction rather than softening it.
Her questions, though, slowly seeped into my mind, along with other ways that gradually brought me to doubt that what I wanted to be true, actually was. So in the end I came to my own conclusion that I needed to distance myself from the organization that I'd been a devoted member of for 35 years.
That conclusion, though, was the result of all kinds of influences.
My meditation experiences. Books I'd read. Discussions with other RSSB members. Learning more about the guru. Giving talks on behalf of RSSB that required me to ponder which parts of the RSSB teachings seemed reasonable, and which were difficult to believe.
I think it's easier to help someone with changing their mind when you have a genuine relationship with them. This is why counseling can be effective at resolving a personal problem, while reading a book generally isn't.
On this blog, as is the case with social media in general, most people only know each other as existing in cyberspace, not physical space. This makes it more difficult, though not impossible, to pose questions that will help the other person see things differently, and not be even more determined to look upon those things in the same way.
Appreciative Reader, a frequent commenter on this blog, is quite skilled at this. He's adept at questioning assumptions of other commenters without being excessively confrontational.
For example, recently someone claimed that consciousness has to exist after we die, because nothing existent can be destroyed. Sure, that's a tenet of matter/energy. It changes form, yet still exists. But Appreciative Reader pointed out the obvious.
Since consciousness almost certainly is a product of the brain, then when the brain and body die, changing form into the constituent atoms, consciousness, like life itself, no longer exists -- just atoms do, which become new entities.
A few cogent questions and observations revealed the hollowness of a belief that consciousness is eternal. I'm not sure if any minds were changed, but they might have been.