Rationality Outreach: A Parable

by[anonymous]8y17th Mar 2011124 comments


This post grew out of a very long discussion with the New York Less Wrong meetup group.  The question was, should a group dedicated to rationality be explicitly atheist?  Or should it make an effort to be respectful to theists in order to make them feel welcome and spread rationality farther?  We argued for a long time.  The pro-atheism camp said that, given that religion is so overwhelmingly wrong on the merits, we shouldn't allow it any special pleading -- it's just as wrong as any other wrong belief, and we'd lose our value as a rationalist group if we began to put status above truth.  The anti-atheism group said that, while that may be true, it's going to doom us to be a group exclusively for eccentric nerds, and we need to develop broad appeal, even if that's hard and requires us to leave our comfort zone.

Things got abstract very fast; my take was that we need to get back to practicalities.  Different attitudes to religion have different effects on different types of people; we need to optimize for desired effects and accept what tradeoffs we must.  We can't appeal equally to everyone.  So I came up with a sort of typology.

The Four New Members


Annie is religious, and she's not particularly rational.  She's not great at following the thread of an argument; she can't really reason quantitatively; she shoots herself in the foot in her daily life (maybe she runs up a lot of debt because she can't keep track of her spending; maybe she has a pattern of bad relationships; etc.)  Going to church is really the least of her worries.  Annie is unlikely to come to us through the meetup group or LessWrong, but maybe she's one of our friends or family members, or maybe she read HP:MOR. 

We don't want to tell Annie to give up religion.  In fact, it might be best not to say anything bad about religion at all in front of her; because she's probably prone to the halo effect, if we sound anti-religious, she'll assume everything else we have to say is stupid. Instead, we probably want to focus on helping her, very gently, to make her own life better by being aware of things like hyperbolic discounting, the planning fallacy, happy death spirals, etc. Dealing with Annie sounds like very hard work.  Because she just doesn't think in propositional arguments, you can't change her mind about things with a chain of propositions and a "QED."  We would need heavy-duty psychology to help her.


Barbara is religious, but she's pretty rational. She's logical-minded and good at getting things done; religion just occupies a special compartment that she never touches.  When it comes to her areas of expertise, she's just as competent, or more, as us rationalists.  And there's no way in hell you're going to talk her into atheism -- she knows she's smart and competent, so she can be incredibly stubborn about the things she's precommitted to not changing her mind about.  She's the prototypical scientist who'll still never take the subway on Saturday (because she strictly observes Shabbat.) She may be a very sharp thinker about other things, and she may be in the geek/technophile/futurist cluster; she might be a LessWrong reader or someone who comes to meetups or lectures, or one of us might know her personally.
We don't want to argue religion with Barbara either.  She's not interested.  She might get fed up with us, and she's talented enough that she could be a valuable asset to keep around.  On the other hand, because she's cooler-headed than Annie, she can probably handle knowing that we're currently a majority-atheist group.  She's probably met a lot of atheists and has no problem with them.  She might even be okay with hearing offhand negative comments about religion; she won't agree, but it's not necessarily a big deal to her.  Barbara pretty much speaks our language, so we don't have to "trick" her into rationality, we can talk to her normally, with arguments and probability estimates and whatnot.  But she might still be turned off by some of the guru-disciple language in the Sequences -- when she has something to learn, we still have to be careful not to sound like we're condescending to her.  She pretty much thinks she already is rational, so it's a bit tricky to communicate to her that sometimes she still isn't.

Caroline is a seeker.  She's religious, but doubting; her beliefs are falling apart on her, and she wants some reassurance that she can find a way out of her dilemma.  Maybe she doesn't really believe in God but she's afraid that makes her a bad person, or afraid of losing her community.  Caroline may be a strong rationalist or a weak one, but she has the "failure to compartmentalize" that makes her carry ideas, sooner or later, to their necessary conclusions, and realize "Whoa, that idea means I'd actually have to change my life right now!"
I think we want to help Caroline.  Her doubts, if nothing else, show that she has the potential to be more rational.  If she's as smart as Barbara and she's got the failure to compartmentalize, she could turn out to be formidable. If she's indicated directly that she's currently leaving religion, or thinking about it, we should be friendly and supportive and recommend atheist resources. (My picks: Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian, Robert Ingersoll's Why I Am An Agnostic, the "Into Clear Air" page, and the LessWrong sequence about "How to Actually Change Your Mind," especially Belief in Belief.)  A lot of new atheists are lonely and want reassurance that they have company. Their faces just light up when they meet "another one."  Caroline deserves that support. Whether she's an advanced rationalist in general or a newbie, we need to pay some attention to psychology with her -- we need to show her that atheists can be positive and caring and make her feel good about her decision.
Donna is already an atheist, and she's an outspoken one.  Maybe she's already been active in self-defined atheist or skeptic clubs or activities. Maybe she even acquired an interest in rationality through the atheist/skeptic community.  Donna would actually be turned off by a sensitive attitude towards religion; the way she sees it, we should no more "respect" religious beliefs than we should respect belief in the tooth fairy, and she doesn't want to belong to any club that asks her to pretend "respect" for a ludicrous idea. She wants to be around like-minded people; she wants a place to let her hair down and not have to pretend she has any patience with the Imaginary Sky Friend.
If we simply don't bring up religion at meetings/lectures/etc, Donna will probably be fine.  But if we try to shut her up, she won't be happy.  She'll think of it as censorship.  We could lose her by being too carefully polite about religion and insisting that she follow suit.  If Donna is otherwise an asset to the group, it could be a shame to drive her away. A Donna can drive away an Annie, and can sometimes irritate a Barbara, though.  This is where there's a potential for conflict.  I think more current rationalists started off as Donnas than as any other type, so that's weak evidence that we shouldn't have too many group norms that rub Donnas the wrong way.  But it doesn't seem wise to be a Donna-only club and indulge in random feel-good religion-bashing -- that's bad for atheists' rationality too.
A rationalist organization's stance to religion (or even an individual rationalist's) should depend on what kinds of people we encounter, and which ones we value attracting the most.  Smart, competent, clear-thinking people are worth attracting for their own sake.  Criticizing religion openly will drive off Annies, and, occasionally, Barbaras; accommodating religion explicitly will drive off Donnas.  It really depends who you have in your area.  (People who live in predominantly secular countries just won't meet as many Barbaras.)  If you have the opportunity to tailor your approach individually, that's ideal -- introduce people to rationality in the format that works best for them.