The joy of changing your mind

I was thinking earlier today about religion as a meme, and the familiar point that (as Steven Weinberg summarizes it in the TLS) ‘the persistence of belief in a particular religion is naturally aided if that religion teaches that God punishes disbelief.’ I was thinking about the fact that what that means is that religions that do teach that are a racket, in a quite literal sense. A racket, and also circular. ‘Believe in this god because it will punish you if you don’t.’ ‘But why should I believe that?’ ‘Because it will punish you if you don’t.’ ‘Yes but why should I believe that it’s this god that will punish me, what if it’s actually a different one that will punish me for believing this one?’ ‘Because this one will punish you if you believe that.’ And so on. That’s one of the problems with Pascal’s flutter, of course. So anyway, it’s circular, and a racket. And it’s a very nasty racket at that – one of the nastiest that could be imagined.

Why? Because it systematically and deliberately disables one of the core human abilities: flexibility: the ability to change our minds.

That really is horrible, you know. I don’t think we appreciate how horrible it is, because we’re so used to it. But it is very horrible. Look, it’s a privilege being human. We get to have long-term memory, and we get to have language so that we can extend our memories by exchanging them and discussing them with other people, and we get to extend them further and make them more reliable by recording them in various ways. Think of that. Even the cleverest of other animals can’t tell each other what their ancestors did; they know nothing at all about anything that happened outside their own memory and observation. It’s a privilege having such complicated minds, and flexibility is one of the luxury appointments of those minds. The ability to change them is a fantastic thing, and religion’s short-circuiting of that ability is an appalling way of proceeding. We’re so used to it we take it for granted, we don’t notice the horror of it, but really it is a bad thing.

It’s one of the best things about us, the ability to change our minds, and it makes possible many other best things about us – the ability to learn, for a start. Imagine disabling people’s ability to learn. Terrible business.

Dawkins touches on this in an interview at Alternet, in reply to the observation that ‘People finally say, “What’s it to you? Why not be an atheist if that’s what works for you, and leave the rest of us to be as religious as we wish?” This, I believe, is offered as a challenge to your open-mindedness or your respect for others. You’re being called “an atheist fundamentalist.”

“Fundamentalist” usually means, “goes by the book.” And so, a religious fundamentalist goes back to the fundamentals of The Bible or The Koran and says, “nothing can change.” Of course, that’s not the case with any scientist, and certainly not with me. So, I’m not a fundamentalist in that sense.

Nothing can change, you see. What a horror. What a nightmare that idea is. Those poor deprived people. It’s heart-rending.

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