Beyond Religion: Part 2 – How did you come to your God belief?

Part 1, I argued that a better understanding of the secular origin of the Covenant can contribute to appeasing religious tensions. But in order to let go of fundamental beliefs, it can help to ask some fundamental questions. People have always relied on faith as a mean to make sense of the world and explain the unknown. However, as faith rests on subjective and non-verifiable impressions, it is an unreliable method of discovering truths about the universe and ourselves. In fact, it could be argued that faith is much like a virus that affects someone’s reasoning by providing him or her with an illusionary sense of certitude on things that simply cannot be proven (or disproven). This feeling of certitude explains why believers cannot be talked into reason: their internal logic makes sense; they simply choose to ignore that it rests on falsifiable evidence. This is why, in a dialog, even the best arguments seem to be falling into deaf ears. In A Manual for Creating Atheists, Peter Boghossian proposes “Street Epistemology”, a practical approach for engaging in powerful discussions. Instead of arguing, he suggests to get people to explain “how” they came to accept the perspective they hold. The idea is based on the Socratic method for critical thinking and moral reasoning, which focuses on steadily identifying and eliminating hypothesis that lead to contradictions. The objective is to focus the dialog around faith as a source of knowledge rather than arguing on the details. Anthony Magnabosco has put Boghossian’s ideas into practice. With a genuinely open and authentic mind, he engages with perfect strangers and brings them to reflect on their beliefs. The results are quite interesting. He argues that this method allows him to engage in rich, positive and constructive discussions that are not threatening. Instead of arguing on facts or beliefs, the focus is placed on “how” one comes to ascertain what is true or not. The method works because it brings people to realize that, no matter how they look at it, faith is an unreliable way to come to knowledge. Here’s how a typical dialog can unfold:

  • What supernatural belief (i.e. God, religion, karma) do you hold as true?
  • How convinced are you on a scale 0-100% that this belief is true?
  • Would the world be a better place if everyone shared the same belief?
  • How did you come to accept this belief?
  • How does one know if a belief is true or not?
  • What should we think of those who feel just as strongly as we do, that their beliefs – different and perhaps even opposing – are also 100% true?
  • Can both be right?
  • How could we find out who is right and who is wrong?
  • What positive change would take place in the world if others weren’t as convinced of their own beliefs?
  • What positive change would take place in your life if you weren’t as convinced of your own beliefs?
  • What event – or knowledge – would bring you to lower your level of certitude?
  • Are you still xx% convinced of your own beliefs?

Give it a shot! Meet with people where they are (in the street, at school, etc.). Let them know you are curious to find out about how they have come to believe in what they believe. Ask them if they would accept to engage in a 5 min conversation (respect time!) If they ask questions related to your own beliefs, be fair and let them know you will answer at the end, and do so. Keep the discussion centered on faith epistemology (how to acquire valuable knowledge). Determine early on if the person is ready for change based on their level of certitude. According to Boghossian if they are:

  • 100% convinced: they are not ready for change. Avoid facts and argumentation – stay entirely focused on faith epistemology. Leave the person to reflect on your discussion.
  • 80-90% convinced: they are getting ready for change. It is possible to start questioning the beliefs, but only after a positive discussion on faith epistemology resulted in clear openness to change.
  • Less than 80%: they are ready for change. It is possible to engage in factual discussion and question the beliefs themselves.

The most difficult part is to never let the discussion drift on God, beliefs, science, religion or politics. Politely end the discussion if it ever gets confrontational. Be a mirror to the other. Repeat their responses so they sink in their mind, especially if they make no sense to you. Pause a few seconds when appropriate. Do not try to argue or change the other’s mind or perspective; simply bring them to reflect on how they came to know what they know is true. This process alone can bring someone to undertake a more profound transformation, but accept that change takes time and that this discussion might only be the beginning of a long transformational journey.