Wednesday, 27 July 2011

'... So open-minded that our brains drop out'

– Richard Dawkins, The Richard Dimbleby Lecture: 'Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder' 1996

Wednesday 27 July 2011

The other night I was discussing religion and politics with someone whose opinion I really respect when, as conversations of that nature are wont to do, it got heated and devolved into a more personal argument.

‘I can’t believe how closed-minded you’re being,’ she said at one stage. I didn’t really respond to this accusation at the time, but it’s stayed with me more than anything else since the argument, I suppose because I don’t think of myself as closed-minded.

And yet I understand how, from her perspective, it would’ve seemed completely closed-minded. If closed-mindedness is being non-receptive to new ideas, and every time she asked, ‘But what about this?’, ‘What about that?’ I still wasn’t being swayed, then it would be reasonable for her to conclude that my mind was made up and there was no way anything was going to change it.

That’s the problem I’m interested in. But let me first explain a little about my spiritual history. As a child I was sent to a private Catholic school because, although not religious, my parents wanted me to be ‘a good person’ and to not be negatively influenced by the types of kids attending the local public schools in our low socioeconomic area. I wholeheartedly embraced Catholic doctrine, and I was distressed by my parents’ apathy towards the topic. I was taught it was true. Religion was a subject right alongside English and Maths; it was my favourite subject, infact, and I took it very seriously. Paradoxically, it was the fervour of my belief that lead to my rejection of it.

For me, since it all came from the same place, it either had to be entirely true or entirely false. As I grew up it became increasingly evident that elements of the faith were absolutely absurd, and as I began to question those elements, I reluctantly had to question it in entirety. Why would some things the Bible says be true and others not? This is an eleven-year-old’s logic. I can still never understand how people can pick and choose which parts of the Bible they want to believe.

From Catholicism I turned to a rigid atheism that lasted about until I was fifteen. Around then I began entertaining vaguely spiritual ideas. I was open to the possibility that there was ‘something else’, and I also formulated my own semi-karmic and Secret-like theory of the universe which included the principles that ‘everything happens for a reason’ and ‘everything works out for the best’, and was based on empirical, personal experience–based evidence long before I had any contact with ‘The Secret’ or any of those similar quasi-religions that have become so popular in the last couple of years because Oprah likes them.

(Image from

Despite my spiritualist dabblings, I was still opposed to institutional religion at this point, which meant I followed atheist discourse with interest. The more contact I had with these texts and ideas, the more I agreed with them, and the more I was torn between atheism and spiritualism. I swung wildly between the two at first, then vacillated mildly before finally stabilising my opinion. The problem was that I had come up with my theory myself, and it had been reinforced by the success of The Secret and Eckhart Tolle’s books. It seemed to work so well. It seemed to be so true. It made so much sense.

The deciding factor was when I realised something about the human mind. It is designed to make patterns, to find meaning, and no matter what happens, when you look back over your past or any event, you will always be able to find a causal sequence of events that led to it. In this sense, everything really does happen for a reason, but in the most mundane way. Not due to some greater universal plan, but because one thing can’t happen without another thing happening first (and don’t try to use that as an argument for Creationism, because as has been pointed out by many but listened to by few, saying ‘God did it’ only changes the question to, 'What made God?'). I'm now also more suspicious of things that 'just make sense', because so many things 'just make sense', but with interrogation, aren't necessarily true.

I still have a soft spot for that kind of philosophy, though. I think unlike the world’s major religions, it’s fairly harmless, and it does work. There’s a possibility that the law of attraction applies on a metaphysical level, and you can draw positive events to you by emitting positive thoughts, but even if that’s not the case, as I’m inclined to think, that’s still a good way to live, and it will still work, because thinking positively and optimistically will make you think the best of whatever happens to you anyway.

My opinion now is not certain. I believe that there is more that we don’t know about the way the universe works than what we do know, and that one of the things we don’t know about could be that elusive concept of ‘something else’ that everyone’s always talking about. But that concession is still a thousand light years away from the idea that that ‘something else’ is the Christian god (or any god). I’m uncertain about what that something else could be, but I’m almost certain it’s not a god from any of the world’s religions.

So why, you ask, do I call myself an atheist? Wouldn’t agnostic be more appropriate? Possibly. I’m probably paraphrasing Richard Dawkins here, but you can never reasonably be a hundred per cent sure of anything. That doesn’t mean I have to say I’m agnostic about the existence of a unicorn or a leprechaun or any of the other mythical figures atheists always use in these scenarios.

The fact is that, based on the information we have, I think the most reasonable position is that of atheism. Yes, there MIGHT be something else, and we can conjecture as to what that might be, but it’s unreasonable to actually believe any of those conjectures. On Dawkins’ 1–7 scale of surety of the non-existence of a god or gods, I’d put myself at 6.5, meaning I’m just close enough to seven to round up to it, although I’m still not actually a 7.* To say that you’re a 4 is to suggest that there’s an equal likelihood of the existence or non-existence of a god or Gods, which is probably not what you mean, or at least not if you thought about it properly. It’s useless to throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘I’m never going to know for sure, so I’m not going to speculate.’ Instead, you acknowledge that you’re never going to know for certain, then ask yourself what you think is probably true, and live your life as though it is. To do otherwise would be like a historian saying, upon encountering relativism for the first time, ‘Well, I guess that’s it. We’re never going to know what REALLY happened in the past, and it’s impossible for me to interpret the evidence without imparting my personal bias, so I may as well not bother.’

*It’s also worth noting that Dawkins himself doesn’t claim to be a 7, all you moderate Christians who cry, ‘Dawkins is just as bad as the fundamentalist Christians!’ or you lukewarm atheists who say ‘I’m an atheist, but I’m not like Richard Dawkins!’ without even having read his work and simply assuming that, because he is among the most vocal and famous of atheists, he must then also be among the most extreme.

But the point of that ‘short’ history was to explain that my mind is not ‘made up’. Conceivably, evidence or argument could change it, but to be honest, it probably won’t. Does this make me closed-minded? I’m not sure.

Below are the actual definitions of open- and closed-mindedness, lifted from

1. Having or showing a mind receptive to new ideas or arguments.
2. Unprejudiced; unbigoted; impartial.

1. Having a mind firmly unreceptive to new ideas or arguments.

I think we're dealing with the opposite of the first definition of openmindedness here, because my interlocutor wasn't accusing me of being prejudiced or bigoted, just being unreceptive to the ideas and arguments she was presenting.

I would argue that the key word in both relevant definitions is 'new'. Part of the problem, I think, is that I’ve already thought about religion so much. In a world where it's considered impolite to bring up religion, and where even many of the religious seem to practice without reflecting on or questioning it, here I am almost obsessed with it. For whatever reason, it fascinates and enrages me. It’s one of the five things I’ve noticed I’m most concerned with. I’m forever thinking, writing, reading and talking about it. I’ve consumed an enormous amount of information on the subject and I’ve already processed it and come to resolutions from it. It wouldn’t make sense if there was one thing you could say that would change the way I think on the issue. It would be like hovering over a full bath tub squeezing in individual drops of dye, waiting for it to change colour. Whatever question or argument you throw at me, I’ve probably already heard it and, if I couldn’t come up with an answer or rebuttal that I find convincing, then I would’ve already changed my mind and subsumed it into my ideology. In other words, nothing I was hearing was 'new'.

Again, I ask, is that closed-mindedness? Is open-mindedness bending your opinion of what is the truth to accept anybody else’s? Is it simply the state of indecision that comes from not having thought about something enough that you are willing to change your mind every time you hear a new argument? Is it subscribing to that pseudo-intellectual belief that all arguments are equally true? I don’t think so. Relativism rightly taught us that everyone’s opinions are true for themselves and that everyone is equally entitled to their own, that there is no one way of doing things that is ‘superior’ to another just because other ways are different, that what is considered ‘good’ for one person, society or culture can be bad in another, but it’s wrong to take those lessons and extrapolatethat ‘all arguments are equal’, and don’t try to tell me it isn't. Don't try to tell me that's what you believe, because it isn't. Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but no, you wouldn’t say that one person’s belief that it’s good to set off a bomb and go around an island in Norway shooting people is as reasonable or good or true as my belief that it isn’t.

Which leads into another issue. Obviously there are people in the world who take their faith very seriously and who have devoted as much, if not more, time and energy thinking, reading, writing and talking about it as I have (as evidenced by Behring Breivik's 1500-page book), who have the complete opposite opinion to me, but are the types of people myself or the moderates of society might call closed-minded. In other words, it can’t just be that a person has devoted a lot of energy to an issue that excuses their being closed-minded about it.

Maybe these people are only ever called closed-minded in the other sense of the word, as in prejudiced and bigoted. But if we are talking about the first meaning, all I can suggest, in my consciously subjective and objectively unprovable opinion, is that these people have been indoctrinated and are working from the position of proving the point they already believe, rather than seeking the truth that evidence and reason suggest. And that’s something I’m glad no one can ever accuse me of. My spiritual journey has been self-driven. I’ve rejected indoctrination, then formulated my own belief system which, in turn, I scrutinised to the point of rejection (my two mottos to my children will be questions starting with ‘How would you feel if ...’ for empathy and ‘Think again’ for critical thinking; I want them to be able to question even beliefs that they arrived at themselves).

My beliefs are not fundamentalist, because they are not immutable, and they are not based on vague notions of instinct or feeling ‘what’s right’; they have been pushed beyond that, questioned, modified and qualified into a largely cohesive (I would be suspicious of anything entirely cohesive), rationally defensible, though not impervious, theory that I’m proud of, which is more than can be said of most beliefs.

Is that closed-mindedness? If it is, I don’t think I want to be openminded.

But that’s a lame way to end an essay, so I’ll go on: I think the meaning of closed-mindedness does extend to people who are only closed-minded to incorrect ideas. As a result of this, I can no longer regard openmindedness as an unconditionally good thing. I think it is possible to be justifiably closed-minded. After all, if someone proposes a ridiculous idea, your mind is closed to it. As you develop a more complete opinion on something, your mind can become justifiably more closed and, unfortunately, people deem that a bad thing.


  1. Well said, L Phillip. It's maddening to me that relativism is often used as a means for denying moral truths——someone recently tried to convince me that the Confederacy (US Civil War) was justified in their secession because "it was about states rights" and "slavery seemed all right to them."


    Hope you've escaped the worst of Jet Lag.

  2. Just wanted to let you know that reading the manifesto, this post in particular, really makes me wish I had gotten the chance to sit down and have a proper conversation with you in England.

  3. Thanks guys. And yeah, Kelia, that's a shame! One of the wonders of the interent though, I suppose. It'd be great if this blog wasn't just me monologuing on everything I feel like but actually discussing/debating in the comments as well. So please feel free to engage, or make a post on your own blog and we can get an inter-blog conversation going haha.

  4. Here's what I'll say on religion, for now. I do have an essay I should be writing instead.
    My Dad came from an Irish Catholic family, my Mom from a Jewish one. Needless to say I had an interesting religious upbringing, including but not limited to by baptism at age seven on our living room couch.
    Dad's family was quite religious, and he was a man of very strong faith himself. He overcame his alcoholism in his twenties, cold turkey, with naught but his faith and willpower. However, as evidenced by his relationship with my mother, he honored everyone's right to believe, or not, as they wish. It was important to him that his three children receive their First Holy Communion, but didn't push any of us to go further. For my part, I hated it from day one, and never believed in any of what I had been taught.
    Most fervently, I believed that once a person has died, that's it. Like my Jewish grandmother, and many of the Jewish faith, as well as plenty who are not, I believed that upon death, you cease to be. There is no afterlife, no Heaven, no place for your soul to go and live on.
    But just a few short months ago, after an incredibly courageous battle against brain cancer, my father passed away. And though I've lost all my grandparents, that is by far the closest I've ever come to death. I mean, I even watched it happen. And now, confronted with this new missing piece to my life, I'm no longer sure what I believe. For starters, the thought that Dad is not out there, somewhere, watching over me and looking out for me is nothing short of terrifying. And while the notion of Heaven still seems incredibly outlandish to me, the notion that perhaps, one day, we would somehow be reunited, is definitely a comforting thought.
    Foolish, perhaps, even by my own standards, but comforting nonetheless.

  5. Wow Kelia, I'm so sorry to hear that. I hope you're doing alright. I'm sure it'll keep having an impact on the way you think about these issues. Sorry once again :(

  6. Yes, there MIGHT be something else, and we can conjecture as to what that might be, but it’s unreasonable to actually believe any of those conjectures.

    This may be a bit off topic, but ...

    When people want to know if you are an atheist or an agnostic, they mean, are you an atheist or do you believe in my or someone else’s goofy idea of God. It is a false dichotomy.

    I don't know what life is, how beings think, what comprehension is. Does "awareness" every become nothing, or is it reused in some way, like matter? I don't know. I don't know if beings we would think of as spiritual, but not omnipotent, not omniscient, not all good, but just spiritual beings with abilities we cannot comprehend, exist. I cannot know.

    Am I an atheist or an agnostic. It is not a fair question for a "believer" to ask, because he will never understand the answer.

    It is easier to say that I don't believe in anything he believes in and I don't pretend to have answers that are not available to me, nor should I. Easier still, I just tell him I am an atheist.

  7. Haha. Precisely. It would be stupid to think that one word can ever sum up entirely a person's complex beliefs; that's the point I was making. In a way, I 'round up' to atheism. It's the closest thing.

    Thanks for your comment.