Tuesday, October 30, 2012

You Wouldn't Believe It

"Is there anyone who 
Ever remembers changing their mind from 
The paint on a sign? 
Is there anyone who really recalls 
Ever breaking rank at all 
For something someone yelled real loud one time?" 
     - John Mayer, Belief*

I used to believe a lot of things that are different from what I believe now.

Some things I held as beliefs out of ignorance and apathy.  "I don't know anything about climate science, but Al Gore makes me not care about it."  Once I did some research and assessed the biases of those arguing about it, I came to my own informed conclusion.

Some things I believed because I was brought up believing them.  "There just HAS to be a God, and my world won't make sense if there is not!"  Once I realized how little sense my world made anyway, and began asking myself objective questions, it wasn't hard to drop this - but the cultural pressures working against making that change were a different story.

Some things are very clear to me, even if they are hard to explain to others. "You can choose how to respond to everything; so I choose to be happy, even in worst situations."  My outlook on life has been called "ablist" (still not sure what that is supposed to mean), but I describe it as an aggressive and defiant joyfulness.

Some things are extremely murky and confusing, but I do the best I can. "I really have no idea how financial or economic systems work; I just know who has tried to screw me over in the past, and avoid dealing with them."  I am not a mathematics person; I am a language person.  If you start trying to work your number-fu on me, I will get semantic on your ass.  That way lies stalemate.

Obviously, I have changed my mind about many things over the years.  Some of these changes were trivial, and others were deeply painful. Most importantly, none of them had anything to do with you.  It doesn't matter who is reading this essay, it is not about you - or what you believe, or why.  It's about me, and how I came to make the choices and changes that led me to where I am.  It's up to you whether you make those choices or not - and as long as you don't choose to tilt at my windmills, I don't care what you choose.

In other words, don't try to make this about you - I'm not trying to change your mind.  I am being intellectually generous when I take you at your word that you even have one.

So how have I gone about making these changes in myself?  It depends on the topic and how much I know about it, but there are two important things that I have made every effort NOT to change which have driven a lot of the other changes over the years.

    1. I value reason and evidence, and change my position when new facts arise.

When I was a kid, as you may read in other posts here, I was a devout Southern Baptist. I considered myself to be a Christ following, born-again believer, and I believed in many of the positions that tended to go along with that description: that God created the world in 6 days; that morality meant what God (via my pastor or Dr. Dobson's radio program) said it meant; that America was based on good Christian values of freedom and liberty; and that while there were millions upon millions of other people who *call* themselves Christians, there were only a relative few who were "real" Christians.  Not only did I believe, but I insisted that all of this was logical and consistent with objective reality.

I was taught this by all of the religious authority figures who mattered to me - taught that we did not simply adhere blindly to all of these positions, but we also had proof.  Our proof mattered, and was only ignored by those motivated by Satan to destroy us and keep us down. This basis in reason was important to me, at first because it was important to those who taught me.

Later, when the fallacies and lies that most of this belief system were built on began to unravel, the only thing that I could count on was myself; and following the advice of I Thessalonians, "test everything, keep only that which is good," I found that I could honestly only stick with those ideas that could stand up to scrutiny.  I found that most of the things I believed in were built on fallacies - circular logic, semantic tricks, or "gotcha" gimmicks.

As an example of one of the most basic of these: saying "You can't prove that God *doesn't* exist!"  or in other words, insisting that someone else "prove a negative," when the Burden of Proof clearly rests on the believer.  Some of the less obvious examples require honest research into claims that the believer does not want to disprove. I insisted for years that there was physical evidence supporting the existence of Noah's Ark and plenty of evidence that Jesus existed as a real person when, in fact, the tiny amount of "proof" that exists is unverifiable at best, and outright fraudulent in most cases.

You don't have to take my word for it - just find anyone who claims there *is* proof, and insist that they show it to you.  Where is it?  What is it? What tests have been done to verify it?  I would have loved to have been armed with that proof back in my youthful days of "debating" my atheist friends in school, and yet, strangely, it never materialized.  There is probably a good reason for that: it doesn't exist.

     2. I do not hate anyone. Ever.

Following logic and reason to reach difficult conclusions is (by definition) hard to do.  It requires a lot of discipline and work - and frankly, I have neither the skills nor the time to explore or know everything there is to know about the world. No one does.  And that means trusting others who look into things more deeply.

Unfortunately, since I have to trust the work that others do, that means that I have to allow others to do the same, and they don't always trust the same people or accept the same margin of error that I do along the way. And sometimes, of course, I will learn that the person(s) I trusted were wrong or lying. That can be maddening.

From where I sit, though, figuring out the basis for someone's opinions and establishing how reliable their facts are is the whole point of any argument. Those who get along with me best are the ones who recognize that; others seem to assume outright that I am ignorant of the topic at hand, while they hold some magically reliable Answers or Truth. That can be frustrating - especially when you get into arguments that provoke strong emotional responses with someone who clearly hasn't done any research or thinking about the topic at hand.

Most of the "political" posts on this blog are about dealing with this phenomenon of trust, background, and POV. They are usually told from my point of view - since I'm the one writing them - but always represent my attempt to understand the friend or opponent - and their position - as objectively as I can.  Some examples don't end well, at least not if my goal was to change someone's mind (as opposed to just making them understand my position better).

But there are lessons to be learned from the people involved in all of these different situations, and at the end of the day, no matter how heated the words may become, I can't hate them for essentially being what I was when I was a kid: confident, opinionated, and dead wrong.

In fact, while most of the losers in arguments that I have will dispute me on this claim, I always allow for the fact that I may still be quite wrong about any or everything that I talk about.  But by now, anyone who hopes to convince me should know better than to walk into the conversation with bumper sticker ideas and shallow memes to back themselves up, because even if I agree with your premise or principle, I will still poke at your logic.  Sometimes, people accept this humorously - which is honestly the reaction I am looking for; others resent it, and I apologize for stirring up that resentment.

But I don't hate anyone.

Hate, like love, is a choice you make.  In my faithful childhood, I learned to hate Satan and Evil.  That was the focus of any hatred I felt, and I bought into the whole "love the sinner/hate the sin" idea because I had that focal point for my hatred.  When I grew up and found that "Satan" was a fictional symbol for all the Things We Don't Like(tm), and that Evil was usually just the accumulated effect of a lot of flawed people rationalizing their small-e evil, it was hard not to transfer that hate to all of the individuals around me - the "sinners". If there is one universal truth that believers and non-believers agree on, it is that people can be despicable.

But I learned that I had to find a way to not hate others, because like love, hate can get wrapped around your passions and drive you to ignore important things - like your morals, your reason, and your compassion.  I argue passionately with people because from my point of view, many of their ideas are things that used to poison me, too, and I want to help them. Even if they reject that, I try to make them realize that even if they don't choose to let go of things that I think are silly beliefs, they can at least rest assured that I'm not a threat to them for making their choice.  All I really ask is that they are honest with themselves; about me, about my ideas, and about their own motives.

I expect that I will rarely see any "wins" come out of this.  I'm not arguing with you, hoping the light will dawn and you'll come around instantly to my way of thinking.  But I am hoping that I will force you to think.  I am hoping that, if I'm right, you will save yourself and others a lot of pain in the long run by abandoning your bad ideas.  And if you're right, I'm hoping you'll be able to prove it - because wouldn't it be a shame if you were right, and you failed both of us by failing to show your homework?

I learned from my childhood that you should never take anyone at their word.  You can never rely on assurances of belief or faith - those things are vapors and illusions.  They are useful for imagination, and if you explore them, there are things to be learned.  But always question them.  And don't expect me to change my mind just because you said you did and you were satisfied by the answers you pulled out of nowhere.

The point is, I have changed before. I may change again.  But along the way, I've learned to be careful about it. I want you to be careful, too.

But ultimately, only I can change my mind - and only you can change yours.

*Here - I Googled it for you already:

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