I guess the reason why I chose an example that sounded like an exchange of advice is to point out that even if you had a huge chunk of your identity wrapped up in your belief that the shuttle was safer, you would still be glad, in hindsight, that I confronted you, no matter how uncomfortable the confrontation was, because knowing the truth has set you free.

Where individual beliefs most likely do not have consequences (theology, national politics, parenting styles, sports-team-affiliation, etc.), there should still be a norm against unwanted confrontation.

All of those seem to be things that do have significant consequences though, with the possible exception of sports team affiliation.

Admittedly some questions of theology seem almost completely inconsequential (what does it matter if Jesus is consubstantial with God?) but others would be matters of extreme importance if true. Anything with a bearing on how to achieve a desired afterlife, for example. They only seem inconsequential if you haven't internalized the idea that they apply to anything real.

The Sin of Persuasion

by Desrtopa 1 min read27th Nov 201063 comments



Related to Your Rationality is My Business

Among religious believers in the developed world, there is something of a hierarchy in terms of social tolerability. Near the top are the liberal, nonjudgmental, frequently nondenominational believers, of whom it is highly unpopular to express disapproval. At the bottom you find people who picket funerals or bomb abortion clinics, the sort with whom even most vocally devout individuals are quick to deny association.

Slightly above these, but still very close to the bottom of the heap, are proselytizers and door to door evangelists. They may not be hateful about their beliefs, indeed many find that their local Jehovah’s Witnesses are exceptionally nice people, but they’re simply so annoying. How can they go around pressing their beliefs on others and judging people that way?

I have never known another person to criticize evangelists for not trying hard enough to change others’ beliefs.

And yet, when you think about it, these people are dealing with beliefs of tremendous scale. If the importance of saving a single human life is worth so much more than our petty discomforts with defying social convention or our own cognitive biases, how much greater must be the weight of saving an immortal soul from an eternity of hell? Shouldn’t they be doing everything in their power to change the minds of others, if that’s what it takes to save them? Surely if there is a fault in their actions, it’s that they’re doing too little given the weight their beliefs should impose on them.

But even if you believe you believe this is a matter of eternity, of unimaginable degrees of utility, if you haven’t internalized that belief, then it sure is annoying to be pestered about the state of your immortal soul.

This is by no means exclusive to religion. Proselytizing vegans, for instance, occupy a similar position on the scale of socially acceptable dietary positions. You might believe that nonhuman animals possess significant moral worth, and by raising them in oppressive conditions only to slaughter them en masse, humans are committing an enormous moral atrocity, but may heaven forgive you if you try to convince other people of this so that they can do their part in reversing the situation. Far more common are vegans who are adamantly non-condemnatory. They may abstain from using any sort of animal products on strictly moral grounds, but, they will defensively assert, they’re not going to criticize anyone else for doing otherwise. Individuals like this are an object example that the disapproval of evangelism does not simply come down to distaste for the principles being preached.   

So why the taboo on trying to change others’ beliefs? Well, as a human universal, it’s hard to change our minds. Having our beliefs confronted tends to make us anxious. It might feel nice to see someone strike a blow against the hated enemy, but it’s safer and more comfortable to not have a war waged on your doorstep. And so, probably out of a shared desire not to have our own beliefs confronted, we’ve developed a set of social norms where individuals have an expectation of being entitled to their own distinct factual beliefs about the universe.  

Of course, the very name of this blog derives from the conviction that that sort of thinking is not correct. But it’s worth wondering, when we consider a society which upholds a free market of ideas which compete on their relative strength, whether we’ve taken adequate precautions against the sheer annoyingness of a society where the taboo on actually trying to convince others of one’s beliefs has been lifted.