People Do Change Their Views

I found a rather odd interview with Susan Greenfield the other day. The site is some sort of Christian one, but some of Greenfield’s answers are still a bit strange.

My husband, Peter Atkins, is an atheist of the Dawkins stamp and so I’ve sat through many science-religion ding-dongs, and they strike me as a complete waste of time. No one is going to change their views. The Atkins-Dawkins stance treats science almost as though it were a religion, and evangelically try to convert other people. Meanwhile, the religious person can’t articulate why they believe what they do: they just do.

But people do change their views. Of course they do. Not all people of course, and not every time anyone tries to persuade them to, but some people some of the time. That’s what teaching does, isn’t it, it gets people to change their views. Going from ignorance about something to some knowledge to more knowledge, that’s a change of views right there. And people do indeed change their views about religion, quite often precisely because of reading a book or talking to someone. Ideas do that. And as for the fact that religious people can’t articulate why they believe what they do, they just do…well what of it? If I ‘just believe’ that the sun travels around the earth, what’s wrong with someone teaching me that it doesn’t? Religion isn’t just a vague emotion, it’s a set of truth claims; what’s wrong with scientists and skeptics pointing out the lack of evidence for those truth claims?

So, I don’t believe in God but that is a belief, not some thing I know. I believe I love my husband, but I couldn’t prove it to you one way or the other. How could I? I just know I do. My particular belief is that there is no Deity out there, but I can’t prove it and therefore I would not have the temerity to tell other people they’re wrong. The coinage of proof is not appropriate for belief ­ and Dawkins thinks it is.

But it’s not about proof, it’s about evidence. Naturally it’s not possible to prove there is no Deity out there, just as it’s not possible to prove there’s not an intangible invisible scentless and every other way undetectable by the human senses dragon in my living room – but that doesn’t mean I’m required to believe there is one, or that there are four trillion of them. Yes, I can choose simply to go ahead and believe it. But these ‘science-religion ding-dongs’ are generally about religion as a public matter, and there surely evidence is highly relevant. Religions don’t just sit back nicely and let people believe whatever they ‘just do’, they tell them what to believe, and how to act as well; they go into schools, they publish magazines and books, they go on tv and radio and write for the newspapers, they’re called in to give their opinions on ethical issues. So it seems perfectly reasonable and indeed very useful, in fact vitally necessary, for people who notice the non-existence of evidence for their beliefs, to point that out. And the analogy with loving someone seems to me to be a terrible analogy. People used to ask Carl Sagan that in a truculent manner, too. ‘Do you love your wife? Yes? Well how can you prove that? Can you see it? Huh?’ But what’s that got to do with anything? Again – religions are not just emotions, they make truth claims, claims about the world. Truth claims about the world can and should be tested and queried, surely.

Comments are closed.