Thursday, June 03, 2010

Why people don't like talking religion and politics at the dinner table

The reason why these topics get so sensitive is that we transfer our discussion of the issues, which can be difficult, to a discussion of the people who hold the positions in question, which is easier. It is easier to talk about Democrats than it is to talk about Democratic policies, it is easier to talk about believers (or unbelievers) rather than beliefs. But when people take this "easier" path, we find that the conversation takes on a personal tone that is missing when we just talk about the issues. It is easier to say "Atheists just don't want to believe in God" or "religion is a crutch" instead of seriously considering the reasons why one should, or should not believe in God. But to say that religion is a crutch, or to say that atheists just don't want to acknowledge God, is to go beyond saying that the other side's belief is false to actually insulting the person on the opposing side.




If we could all learn to avoid what in logic is called the ad hominem fallacy, we could discussion politics and religion at the dinner table without raising the hair on the back of anyone's neck.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't know about that. Religion and politics discussions get heated because they are important things that have immediate relevance. No one is really affected by your beliefs on what the weather is or how your kids are. Even some sports discussions get heated because people have such strong (and absurd) feelings about different teams.

In order for a religion or politics discussion to stay civil, everyone needs to share the same basic principles. These days though, the division between left and right is fundamental.

Dustin said...

I agree somewhat with anon--the discussion can get heated because people feel that principles they cherish and are heavily invested in and are being called into question. But I don't agree that, for the discussion to stay civil, everyone *needs* to share the same basic principles (though maybe it depends on what you mean by basic principles.)

Gordon Knight said...

I get heated about politics but not about religion. I think this is because there is a strong connection between politics and morality. So when someone has a political view that looks to me like 'screw the poor' I can sort of lose it, though I try to distingujish that sort of view from principled libertarinism (for instance).

But religion is different. I don't think non religious people are worse morally than religious people, I don't think people who accept different religious views are worse people than me. I recognize human beings are fallible and these deep questions, the questions religion tries to answer, are very difficult to figure out.

Now if there was a religion of "screwing the poor" i would get a tad heated.

Gordon Knight said...

of course religion is connected to morality, but I don't know of any immoral religions

JS Allen said...

Christianity, at its very core, is an ad hominem argument. This makes it especially challenging to discuss without having people take things personally.

Dustin said...

How do you figure that?

JS Allen said...

Christianity teaches that we are all fallen sinners, deserving of death. Christ says, "Repent, and follow me". That's about as "ad hominem" as it gets. The Bible teaches that "the heart is deceitful above all things", and that we are "desperately wicked". It teaches that every desire of the heart is bent on wickedness, and "there is none righteous, no not one".

These are at the very core of Christianity. Why would we need to repent or be saved if we weren't wicked and desperately lost? If one doesn't accept the desperately fallen nature of man, Christianity makes no sense.

It makes conversations a bit tricky. When an unbeliever says something like, "I'm basically a good person, with good intentions, and you can trust me to soberly judge all of the facts and arrive at the right conclusion" we have no basis in scripture for believing what this person says. To the contrary, scripture teaches us to be very skeptical of people's motives.

Hussein said...

People dont want to have to face other peoples opinions that is why they dont want to. They may find out something "horrible" about themselves or others.

Dustin said...

you can trust me to soberly judge all of the facts and arrive at the right conclusion

If that's not true--if that's not even plausible--then how can you think *you've* arrived at the right conclusion?

JS Allen said...


If that's not true--if that's not even plausible--then how can you think *you've* arrived at the right conclusion?


Are you questioning the fact that people are deeply irrational and untrustworthy, or are you asking me to explain what the Bible says about the matter? If the former, I would be happy to point you to a growing body of scientific research. Science isn't necessary to make the point, of course. One need only look at the rampant self-delusion and superstition surrounding us to conclude that trustworthy rational behavior is a rarity indeed.

If the latter, the first thing to note is that Christianity never puts the person in the driver's seat. Christianity is based on individual revelation and witness, nit universal rationality. Christ speaks only to those who "have ears to hear". The Bible says, "The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3). Christ says, "I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me." (John 10:25-27. Also, Ex 33:17, Isaiah 43:1-2)

Dustin said...

I am asking, if pointing out that someone is a human being is enough to invalidate their viewpoint, then how can you trust your own viewpoint? How can you trust your beliefs, for instance, that God is good, or that the Bible is reliable, or that your interpretation of the Bible is correct, or what have you?

Walter said...

How does one have a polite conversation with a believer when the believer feels that all humans except the elect are non compos mentis in matters of theology due to our "wicked-to-the-bone" fallen nature?

JS Allen just demonstrated why it is hard to play nice sometimes.

JS Allen said...

@Dustin - the only way to have some degree of confidence that your viewpoint is valid is to be intimately familiar with all of the innate foibles, cognitive biases, and deceptions of the human mind, and do your best to avoid them. Starting with the assumption that you don't have any "ad hominem" faults to be corrected is the worst possible way to ever be right.

JS Allen said...

@walter - as I explained, the deep irrationality of human nature is scientific fact, completely independent of religion. People get really offended when you point it out, just like little kids get their feelings hurt when you point out that they are not really "spider man".

Unfortunately, participating in someone else's delusion about being "basically rational", just because they get feelings hurt or accuse you of "ad hominem" is nothing more than playing make-believe.

Walter said...

as I explained, the deep irrationality of human nature is scientific fact, completely independent of religion.

Agreed. People believe a lot of stupid things for a lot of very bad reasons--both theists and atheists.

I take umbrage with the Augustinian notion of "total human depravity" which means that I also agree with your earlier comment that Christian proselytizing is ad hominem. To buy into conservative Christianity you have to be sold on the fact that you are a vile piece of trash whose mere existence is an affront to a holy and righteous creator. Not hard to see why this could raise some hackles at the dinner table.

JS Allen said...

@Walter - But I don't think the "ad hominem" nature of Christianity can be constrained to just the hyperconservative "we are all loathesome insects" types.

While Arminians would maintain that God loves us more than he loathes us, they still hold to total depravity. And every form of Christianity that I can think of holds that humans are fallen, sinful creatures in need of repentance. Even if someone holds to a semi-pelagian form of "self-help" Christianity, implicit in the concept of "self-help" is the idea that the person needs help.

I just can't imagine any sort of Christianity that would start with the premise that people are basically rational, with our hearts in the right place. Atheist scientists aren't even that silly, and man's fallen nature is the most essential component of Christianity. I mean, if we do away with any acknowledgment that the person is flawed, it ceases to be Christianity, doesn't it? How can we talk about Christianity without acknowledging that we have personal faults?

Walter said...

I just can't imagine any sort of Christianity that would start with the premise that people are basically rational, with our hearts in the right place.

What I get from a lot of believers is that all men are irrational in matters of the spirit whilst the regenerated elect have become rational by the action of the Holy Spirit. This is in effect telling your skeptical opponent that she is irrational but that you are not. And that the only way that she can become rational is to agree with you. As an agnostic I can tell what effect that will have on the conversation.

Maybe there is a time and place for proselytizing, but I do not consider it be polite table talk.

JS Allen said...

@Walter - No argument from me. Trying to proselytize at the dinner table is rude and stupid. I was just reacting to Vic's insinuation that theists resort to ad hominem "because it's easier". Theists and atheists alike resort to ad hominem because it's true.

The idea that we can legitimately discuss any important issue, decision-making process, etc. without discussing "the people who hold the positions in question", seems illogical and unscientific to me.

Of course, I'm happy to let dinner companions "play spider-man" when they are discussing finances, religion, or whatever. Refraining from pointing out the "ad hominem" implications of their arguments is most certainly the easiest way out. I'm pretty expert at "polite table talk", which never allows people to be confronted with their own irrationality.

Dustin said...

Yeah, JS, I'm still confused. An atheist says, "I have done my best to discover the truth, and that is why I hold my views."

You say, "But people are deeply irrational, and often are led astray by their irrational impulses while searching for the truth."

The atheist says, "Certainly. So there's what I think to be the truth, and what you think to be the truth. You think I am being irrational. But it will not surprise you to hear that I think you are being irrational. Quite possibly one of us is. But that says nothing about *which* one of us."

You say...?

JS Allen said...

@Dustin -- This needn't be about religion. Allow me to replace "atheist" with "person" in your example:


A person says, "I have done my best to discover the truth, and that is why I hold my views."


My immediate reaction to such a person is skepticism. Anyone who leads with a statement like this is asking me to assume way too much about his character. And he's giving away his implicit assumption that "truth" is arrived at by piling up arguments and reasons.

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates:


Socrates concluded that, while each man thought he knew a great deal and was wise, in fact they knew very little and were not wise at all. Socrates realized that the Oracle was correct, in that while so-called wise men thought themselves wise and yet were not, he himself knew he was not wise at all which, paradoxically, made him the wiser one since he was the only person aware of his own ignorance.


Before trusting someone's application of argument and reason, you need to get a sense of what kind of person he is. How familiar is he with human irrationality, cognitive biases, epistemological error, etc.? How many times has he made major "truth" blunders, and what did he learn from those experiences? What are his motivations toward the topic in question -- what are his ulterior motives?

Then you need to get a sense for his general competence level. How experienced is he at forming valid thoughts, and being tested by others? See this guide for new Philosophy students: http://web.mit.edu/~philos/www/guides/pinkguide.pdf. I would generally consider Vic's application of reason to be more trustworthy than a first-year MIT philosophy student, if only because Vic has been doing it far longer. And I'd probably trust a first-year MIT philosophy student to apply reason more appropriately than a typical dinner guest.

Nobody is perfect at applying reason all the time, and improving yourself is very hard work. That's why people take the easy way out and say, "Let's pretend we're both trustworthy, and then evaluate each other's arguments on their merits". The problem is, the mind is like a Hydra. When you chop down one argument, two new arguments grow back. We're experts at inventing reasons; if we weren't, the human race would've died off long ago. But arguing with someone "purely on the merits of the arguments", without addressing character issues, is ultimately like a chess game -- fun and challenging, but ultimately pointless.

Dustin said...

I have to admit, I'm still not quite sure what your argument here is supposed to be. You talk to an atheist (I understand that it has broader application, but I'm trying to make it concrete.) He has a better understanding of human biases than you (presumably most of the scientists carrying out the studies to which you point were not conservative Christians.) He says, "We agree that humans are often irrational, but of course we also both agree that they sometimes find the truth. I think my beliefs are the truth."

You, I guess, point to what you suspect are character issues that might cause him to irrationally accept atheism. He then points to similar issues with yourself that might cause you to irrationally accept theism. And... you have wasted a few minutes. The mere presence of such factors tells us nothing about whether they are true. If we know a position is irrational, they might help explain why people hold it; but until we have evaluated the merits of the arguments, they will not tell us anything.

JS Allen said...

@Dustin - You started by asking me how Christianity can be described to be an "ad hominem" argument. I explained why, and I assume you accept my explanation?

Next, you took issue with my advice about being very skeptical of people who say things like "I'm basically a good person, with good intentions, and you can trust me to soberly judge all of the facts and arrive at the right conclusion". You seem to think that it's inconsistent or hypocritical.

I think you're wrong, and I explained why. People who say that they are basically rational and unbiased are usually lying. People who are really trustworthy rarely lead with such, nor do they argue so strenuously "trust me". Such comments require a great deal of skepticism.

Dustin said...

I don't accept it because I still don't understand it. Humans are often irrational; therefore... atheism is false? other people are irrational, but not you? It seems that what follows is, "People will often hold false beliefs which can be attributed to these irrational impulses." But this will not be part of the argument, since we cannot attribute beliefs to these irrational impulses until we have decided they are irrational.

As for your second two paragraphs, are you really going to base your argument on the fact that we didn't type out the rest of the conversation? I had assumed the person was claiming they were trustworthy in response, or in anticipation, of your claiming they weren't.

JS Allen said...


I don't accept it because I still don't understand it. Humans are often irrational; therefore... atheism is false?


OK, I think I see what your objection is. I wasn't claiming that atheism is false, at all. I'm not an atheist, but my comments had nothing to do with refuting atheism. Many Christians defend their "belief" through utterly irrational motives.

I was just pointing out that it's illogical to claim that we can talk about Christianity without being "ad hominem". Christianity is "ad hominem", which is bound to upset people at the dinner table.

Dustin said...

So it is not an ad hominem *argument*--it is just that part of the position is that people are deeply flawed, which some people might take offense at?