“If only everyone thought like me!” said pretty much everyone, ever. Unfortunately, such is not the case. And when it comes to important ideas, we often wish that the problem people — those who stubbornly refuse to change their views — would either just go away or, even better, have a sudden change of heart. Hopefully, I have something of a solution.
For a long time, I was one of the problem people to the various liberals I had befriended through Facebook. We had long conversations about different topics, and while most of those conversations didn’t go very far, they were at the very least informative, and I have to credit their graciousness in putting up with me as formative in my eventual change of opinion (which I outlined in my last post).
But as much as it might accomplish in the long run, I hardly think subjecting conservatives to religious abuse at the hands of a manipulative pastor (the tipping point for me) is a very good strategy for convincing more people to be religious liberals. Fortunately, I think there is a good solution. It obviously won’t work 100% of the time, but it may be quite more effective than just general arguing. The answer? Paradigms!
Photograph of Thomas Kuhn punching Rush Limbaugh/Jerry Falwell in the face.
Philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote about paradigms in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. To give a very crude summary, a paradigm is a general way of thinking about a subject which goes relatively unchallenged for a long period of time until people start discovering boundary cases where the general way of thinking has to make up all sorts of excuses as to why the paradigm is still any good at explaining those cases — the worse the excuses, the more likely it is people abandon the paradigm. Poor excuses push the paradigm into a crisis, which results in a paradigm shift.
But why should this apply only to science? What happened to me, for example, was that I had to deal with mounting evidence that my beliefs did not lead to the results I would have expected. The religion which claims “you will know them by your love” did not seem very loving, especially when I found the knife in my back at the end. This was the boundary case which I couldn’t explain, and it wasn’t enough just to make excuses. I had to undergo a total paradigm shift.
Manufactured pop music has to deal with the boundary case of why it is not this awesome.
By contrast, I remember a conversation long ago, when I was still something of an inerrantist, in which some people had tried to convince me that there were at least two separate stories of how David met King Saul in the Bible. Indeed, there are (1 and 2), but the problem is that it’s really easy to make excuses. “Oh, well Saul was a king, so he probably met a million people and just forgot who David was.” This and similar excuses are really easy to employ against minor inconveniences to the paradigm.
My solution, then, is to focus on the major problems with the problem you may be criticising. Fundamentalists already do this to would-be religious moderates who want to have their cake and eat it too on the intersection of LGBT issues and Scripture. The so-called “clobber verses” are very difficult to overcome on Biblical grounds, and honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to believe both in LGBT equality and Biblical inerrancy — pick one.
Fundamentalists seem to understand paradigms in an intuitive sense, and they are smart to take the approach they do, even if they support the wrong ideas. It is indeed a bit silly to suppose a startling new revelation in interpretation will suddenly change both the Bible and Christian history. Both/and approaches to LGBT equality and inerrancy frankly fail to make a strong case. Fundamentalists press their points where it hurts argumentatively, not just argue about every little thing that might be wrong. Hence, everyone gets really tired of the clobber verses, but honestly, it’s the best argument the fundamentalists have.
Social progressives, then, should focus on very clear counterexamples to the fundamentalist paradigm. My favorite example right now is Romans 1, which provides a supposed account of how same-sex attraction occurs. That passage is demonstrably wrong, and thus it has proven itself to be a very difficult problem for many of the fundamentalists to whom I’ve mentioned this. There are usually excuses about why psychology is bunk (and to be honest, as a nascent science, psychology does sometimes have issues), but the problem is even more insurmountable for the fundamentalist paradigm when one leaves out the moral judgments of psychology about same-sex attraction and focuses strictly on the attraction’s origin, which is very well-documented and directly contradictory to the Biblical account.
Photograph of Thomas Kuhn making excuses for his behavior.
My point is to focus on things which stretch the paradigm the hardest. There are lots of ways in which fundamentalists are wrong, but many of the legitimate arguments against fundamentalism also have very strong excuses. “It’s not loving,” for example, has the tough-love counter, which is true in enough other cases to feel legitimate when countering pro-LGBT arguments. In fact, this is the primary reason why I think sharing the stories of LGBT persons will be particularly ineffective in convincing fundamentalists to change their positions, because the tough-love objection is so strong in excusing abusive behavior. Granted, that is not always the case, and stories sometimes really are convincing, but
So while I’ve noticed the progressive blogosphere tending toward sharing people’s stories, which is good, I think it is important to recognize that there really are intellectual issues at play here, too, and we need a holistic approach which stretches the fundamentalist paradigm to its limits and forces them to create enormous excuses. Additionally, we need to make people aware of their behavior so as to lower the number of excuses necessary before someone abandons a paradigm. If we keep repeating arguments which have easy excuses, then our objections will fade into obscurity and generally fail to convince, even if they are legitimate arguments.
Unfortunately, though, one of the problems (or perhaps just “sad implications”) with paradigms is that perhaps there are no arguments or experiences powerful enough to shake the incumbent paradigm out of someone’s mind. Even among scientists, whom you would presume to be eminently reasonable, sometimes the death of a particular idea coincides very directly with the literal death of those supporting it. But let’s do what we can to minimize the number of “problem people” by focusing our efforts on our most convincing arguments in order to push people into a whole bunch of individual crises of belief that require a total paradigm shift to solve.
I certainly do not have the exhaustive list of the most persuasive techniques, though. Let me ask this: if you, the reader, ever changed your mind on a major issue related to fundamentalism, please let me know in the comments below what eventually convinced you to change your mind. What was it you found most powerful? What did people try that you found ineffective? Or, if you are still fundamentalist in your beliefs (against LGBT rights, feminism, historical infallibility; pro-Biblical infallibility, religiously exclusivist), what do you find unconvincing about progressives’ arguments? I look forward to hearing your feedback.
All “photographs” copyright 2014 by me, Chris Attaway. But seriously, you could do better than copy these images…