Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Art of Persuasion

Still ploughing through my rapidly diminishing pile of periodicals.  Right now I'm reading Zadok Perspectives No 112, Spring 2011, and it includes a lovely lucid article by John Dickson, director of the Centre for Public Christianity and one of Australia's foremost Christian apologists, reprinted from the Sydney Morning Herald

Dickson is talking about the very same thing as Michael Shermer, confirmation bias or as Dickson calls it, the "Backfire Effect".  We readily believe evidence which supports our pre-existing views, while contrary evidence not only fails to convince us, it often "backfires" and strengthens our erroneous opinions.

His point is the same as Shermer's - that our beliefs are so rarely dictated by the evidence, and instead we read the evidence with beliefs in hand.  This effect applies equally to Christians and atheists, the those on the left and the right, to those who refuse to see the evidence that there is a real physiological basis for sexual orientation and those who refuse to accept the empirical evidence that Christian belief really does make you a better person.

What hope is there for us, if we are so intractably unreasonable?  Dickson turns to Aristotle's On Rhetoric for an explanation.  Aristotle identified three controlling factors for persuasion.  The first, logos, is about evidence and reason.  According to Aristotle we all like to believe that we believe on the basis of logos, but this is rarely the whole story.  Two other factors are also in play.  Pathos is our emotional reaction to an idea or proposition.  We are more likely to believe an idea or assertion we find pleasant or fitting, less likely to believe one we find repugnant.  The final factor is ethos, the social or ethical dimension to belief.  We accept the ideas of people we like and trust, disbelieve those we dislike or distrust, irrespective of the strength of their evidence. 

What counts in debate is a combination of intellectual, aesthetic and social factors. I find it interesting that Christian believers will very often admit that their convictions emerged in this threefold way; that their faith rests on the holistic basis of logos, pathos and ethos. For Christianity, indeed, satisfies all three dimensions of our existence. But what is especially interesting to me as I reflect on Aristotle and the research on the ''backfire effect'' is the way sceptics rarely admit that their scepticism rests on the same combination of reasons.

Typically, my atheist mates have protested that, for them, it is entirely a matter of evidence. "If there were more proof," they say, "I would readily believe." I don't believe them for a moment.
Yes, evidence is important, but it is not the only factor. I have spoken to too many atheists over the years who start out with a "proof" line of argument only to eventually admit that their reasons for rejecting religion have equally to do with some painful event in the past that called into question God's existence or some ugly encounter with a religious hypocrite that caused them to distrust religious claims. Personal and social factors prove as important as intellectual factors in the formation of belief and unbelief, whether on religious, ethical, political or social matters.

Whether on climate change, politics, religion or ethics, we do not change our minds on the basis of facts alone. Indeed, they may even bolster contrary views. What environmental campaigners, refugee advocates, gay rights lobbyists, atheist evangelists and churches need if they are to be persuasive are not just more facts but a narrative that stirs our hearts and a social movement that wins our trust.

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