On my Facebook page a small argument brewed over an image I posted from Reddit of a former Christian describing his deconvertion process. One person said that the Redditor’s deconversion basically amounted to a superficial, unsophisticated view of theology (really theodicy, but I’m being pedantic). I agreed that his views were simplistic, but I commented that most Christians become Christians for similarly superficial, unsophisticated reasons.
Of course, this much is true. But someone countered that many Christians looked at the more sophisticated arguments for/against religion and stayed Christians. However, that’s not the point. The true value of arguments will never be how well they retain current members, but how well they sway the undecideds and the opposition. And if you start to study cognitive science you’ll know why this is correct. From that post on the cognitive analogy for the “thief” and “wizard”, I wrote:
Unfortunately, the wizard does everything that the thief asks him to do, especially attack positions that she doesn’t like and defend positions that she does like. This applies to everyone. The wizard would not know who to cast a spell on without the thief’s instruction or deference… Christianity is large and complicated; it is a final boss at the end of a dungeon. It would be unwise to use only the thief on a final boss, or only use the wizard after attempting to drain the majority of the final boss’ HP with only the thief …That would be a horrible strategy in any RPG. The final boss would soundly pummel the thief and she would run out of HP and the game would be over very quickly.
But it’s simple confirmation bias and motivated skepticism that keeps believers being believers (and unbelievers being unbelievers). An argument that overcomes those two deeply, deeply entrenched cognitive biases would be the truly strong argument. An argument that doesn’t have to deal with those biases, which actually have those biases in its favor, is a relatively bad argument. An argument that keeps a person in a belief that they already believe, comparatively, isn’t a very good argument.
This is why most arguments for religion are pretty worthless. Very few atheists are convinced of the sophisticated arguments for why the Christian god allows evil, to give one example. The fact that those arguments keeps Christians believing doesn’t really say anything about how good the argument is. Its worth as an argument can only be gauged on the undecideds and non-believers. On the other hand, the logical/evidential problem of evil itself is probably the best argument against Christianity, since that is what draws the most Christians away from Christianity, compared to its sophisticated equivalent on atheists (the problem of good?).
More specific to Christianity, there are very few people who were undecided or skeptical of Christianity and then read the sophisticated arguments of Christians (or the NT itself) and then became believers. What usually happens is that the person has an experience they can’t explain and then they use their surrounding society’s cultural language to explain it; for most modern Christians their cultural language is Christianity. You can’t call this situation “brainwashing” as John Loftus does, however, since if it were then most people reading this blog have been “brainwashed” into having English as their first language.
But anyway, this sort of conversion is wholly unsophisticated. Yet it’s only after this unsophisticated conversion that the born-again Christian looks into the sophisticated arguments for Christianity and are “convinced” by them. In short, the sophisticated arguments for Christianity are normally only a means of validating a belief arrived at through unsophisticated means. Thus the sophisticated arguments have no true value outside of that context.
Really though. An experience you can’t explain is an experience you can’t explain. This is a statement about you, and has nothing to do with the truth value of Christianity. Which is why religious experiences are wholly unsophisticated. Yet once Christianity has subdued the thief, the thief then asks the wizard, now employing sophisticated arguments, to defend Christianity at all costs.
Most Christians and atheists are unaware of the sophisticated arguments for their positions. If an unsophisticated Christian is convinced by an unsophisticated argument for atheism, this to me seems fair enough. If an unsophisticated atheist is convinced by an unsophisticated argument for Christianity, this also seems fair enough.
The worst test for an argument is how many unsophisticated Christians are convinced by sophisticated arguments for Christianity, or unsophisticated atheists being convinced by sophisticated arguments for atheism.
The real test would be to see how many unsophisticated atheists are convinced by sophisticated arguments for Christianity, and how many unsophisticated Christians are convinced by sophisticated arguments for atheism. The best test would be sophisticated Christians being convinced by sophisticated atheism, and vice versa. From my point of view, it seems that the one I see the most is unsophisticated Christians being convinced by sophisticated arguments for atheism, with the opposite of that almost never happening.
Since atheism itself is a rising trend, this speaks volumes about how good arguments for Christianity (or generic theism) are. In other words, not very good.