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Benedict comments on Welcome to Less Wrong! (2012) - Less Wrong

25 Post author: orthonormal 26 December 2011 10:57PM

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Comment author: Benedict 22 July 2012 07:52:49PM 16 points [-]

Hey, I'm -name withheld-, going by Benedict, 18 years old in North Carolina. I was introduced to Less Wrong through HPMoR (which is fantastic) and have recently been reading through the Sequences (still wading through the hard science of the Quantum Physics sequence).

I'm here because I have a real problem- dealing with the consequences of coming out as atheist to a Christian family. For about a year leading up to recent events, I had been trying to reconcile Christian belief with the principles of rationalism, with little success. At one point I settled into an unstable equilibrium of "believing in believing in belief" and "betting" on the truth of religious doctrine to cover the perceived small-but-noteworthy probability of its veracity and the proposed consequences thereof. I'd kept this all secret from my family, putting on a long and convincing act.

This recently fell apart in my mind, and I confronted my dad with a shambling confession and expression of confusion and outrage against Christianity. I'm... kinda really friggin' bad at communicating clearly through spoken dialogue, and although I managed to comport myself well enough in the conversation, my dad is unconvinced that the source of my frustrations is a conflicting belief system so much as a struggle with juvenile doubts. This is almost certainly why I haven't yet faced social repercussions, as my dad is convinced he can "fix" my thinking. He's a paid pastor and theologian, and has connections to all the really big names in contemporary theology- having an apostate son would damage both his pride and social status, and as such he's powerfully motivated to attempt to "correct" me.

After I told him about this, he handed me a book (The Reason for God by Timothy Keller) and signed himself up as a counselor for something called The Clash, described as a Christian "worldview conference". Next week, from July 30 to August 3, he's going to take me to this big huge realignment thing, and I'm worried I won't be able to defend myself. I've been reading through the book I mentioned, and found its arguments spectacularly unconvincing- but I'm having trouble articulating why. I haven't had enough experience with rationalism and debate to provide a strong defense, and I fear I'll be pressured into recanting if I fail.

That's why I'm here- in the upcoming week, I need intensive training in the defense of rationality against very specific, weak but troubling religious excuses. I really need to talk to people better trained than me about these specific arguments, so that I can survive the upcoming conference and assert my intellectual independence. Are there people I can be put in touch with, or online meetups where I can talk to people and arm myself? Should I start a discussion post, or what? I'm unfamiliar with the site structure here, so I could use some help.

Oh but dang if there aren't like over a thousand comments here, jeez i don't want to sound like i'm crying for attention but i'm TOTALLY CRYING FOR ATTENTION, srsly i need help you dudes

Comment author: wedrifid 23 July 2012 12:52:09AM *  22 points [-]

my dad is unconvinced that the source of my frustrations is a conflicting belief system so much as a struggle with juvenile doubts.

That is roughly speaking what juvenile doubts are. The "juvenile" mind tackling with conflicts in the relevant socially provided belief system prior to when it 'clicks' that the cool thing to do is to believe that you have resolved your confusion about the 'deep' issue and label it as a juvenile question that you do not have to think about any more now that you are sophisticated.

Next week, from July 30 to August 3, he's going to take me to this big huge realignment thing,

You clearly do not want to go. His forcing you is a hostile act (albeit one he would consider justified) but you are going along with it. From this, and from your age, I infer that he has economic power over you. That is, you live with him or he is otherwise your primary source of economic resources. I will assume here that your Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) sucks and you have essentially no acceptable alternative to submission to whatever power plays your father uses against you. Regardless of how the religious thing turns out, developing your potential for independence is something that is going to be worthwhile for you. Being completely in the power of another sucks! Having other options---even if it turns out that you don't take them---raises the BATNA and puts a hard limit on how much bullshit you have to put up with.

Now, the following is what I would do. It may or not be considered acceptable advise by other lesswrong participants since it abandons some favourite moral ideals. Particularly the ones about 'lying' and 'speaking the truth no matter the cost'.

I haven't had enough experience with rationalism and debate to provide a strong defense

Providing a 'defense' would be a mistake, for the reasons Kawoomba describes. The people you are dealing with are not interested in rational discussion or Aumann agreement and you are not obliged to try yourself. They are there to overwhelm you with social and economic pressure into submitting to the tribe's belief system. Providing resistance just gives them a target to attack.

Honesty and trust is something people earn. These people have not earned your respect and candor. Giving people access to your private and personal beliefs makes you vulnerable and can allow them to use your words to do political and social damage to you, in this case by making everyday life difficult for you and opening you up to constant public shaming. Fortunately that is better than being stoned to death as an apostate but even so there is no rule of the universe that you must confess or profess beliefs when they will be used against you. It is usually better to keep things to yourself unless there is some specific goal you have that involves being forthright (even if that goal is merely convenience and a preference for openness in cases where the consequences are less dramatic than you face.)

Religion is not about literal beliefs about physics. They lie to themselves then lie to you. You can lie too! You understand belief in belief already. You understand that religious belief (and all equivalent tribal beliefs) are about uttering the correct in-group signals. Most people convince themselves that they believe the right thing and then say that thing they 'believe' out loud. Your main difference is that you haven't lied to yourself as successfully. But why should thinking rationally be a disadvantage? Who says that you must self sabotage just because you happened to let your far mode beliefs get all entangled with reality? Sincerity is bullshit. Say what is most beneficial to say and save being honest for people who aren't going to be dicks and use your words against you.

Brainwashing is most effective against those who most strongly resist. While it can take longer to brainwash people who firmly stake their identity on sticking to a contradicting belief, it is those people who resist strongest are most likely to remain brainwashed. Those that change their mind quickly to make the torture stop (where torture includies shaming and isolation from like minded people) tend to quickly throw off the forced beliefs soon after the social pressure to comply is removed. (Forget the source, is it in Caldini?) If you make confessing the faith some sort of big deal that must be fought then if your brain is more likely to rationalise that it must have been properly convinced if it was willing to make such a dramatic confession. The hazing effect is stronger.

Precommit to false confessions. Go into the brainwashing conference with the plan to say all the things that indicate you are a devout Christian who has overcome his doubts. Systematically lying isn't all that much of a big deal to humans and while it is going to change your beliefs somewhat in the direction of the lies the effect will be comparatively far, far weaker given that you know you are lying out of contempt and convenience.

Fogging is amazing. Have you ever tried to have a confrontation with someone who isn't resisting? I've tried, even roleplaying with that as the explicit goal and I found it ridiculously difficult. It takes an extremely talented and dedicated persuader to be able to continue to apply active pressure when you are giving them nothing to fight against. Frankly, none of the people you are likely to encounter, including your father, would be able to do that even if they tried. They just aren't that good. You don't want to be barraged with bullshit. Saying the bullshit back to them a couple of times makes the bullshit stop. No brainer.

Are there people I can be put in touch with, or online meetups where I can talk to people and arm myself?

Sure, but I suggest meeting with the likeminded people for your own enjoyment and so you don't develop the unhealthy identity of the lone outsider. That and rationalists know cool stuff and have some useful habits that rub off. Where do you live? Are there lesswrong meetups around?

Comment author: Bundle_Gerbe 23 July 2012 02:11:57AM *  3 points [-]

It does not sound to me like you need more training in specific Christian arguments to stay sane. You have already figured things out despite being brought up in a situation that massively tilted the scales in favor of christianity. I doubt there is any chance they could now convince you if they had to fight on a level field. After all, it's not like they've been holding back their best arguments this whole time.

But you are going to be in a situation where they apply intense social pressure and reinforcement towards converting you. On top of that, I'm guessing maintaining your unbelief is very practically inconvenient right now, especially for your relationship with your dad. These conditions are hazardous to rationality, more than any argument they can give. You have to do what MixedNuts says. Just remember you will consider anything they say later, when you have room to think.

I do not think they will convert you. I doubt they will be able to brainwash you in a week when you are determined to resist. Even if they could, you managed to think your way out of christian indoctrination once already, you can do it again.

If you want to learn more about rationality specific to the question of Christianity, given that you've already read a good amount of material here about rationality in general, you might gain the most from reading atheist sites, which tend to spend a lot of effort specifically on refuting Christianity. Learn more about the Bible from skeptical sources, if you haven't before you'll be pretty amazed how much of what you've been told is blatantly false and how much about the bible you don't know (for instance, Genesis 1&2 have different creation stories that are quite contradictory, and the gospels' versions of the resurrection are impossible to reconcile. Also, the gospels of Matthew and Luke are largely copied from Mark, and the entire resurrection story is missing from the earliest versions of Mark.) I unfortunately don't know a source that gives a good introduction to bible scholarship. Maybe someone else can suggest one?

Comment author: TimS 23 July 2012 12:38:32AM 3 points [-]

Welcome. I'm sorry that you are in such an awkward situation with you family. In terms of dealing with this conference, I can only echo what MixedNuts said (except for the panicking part). I've always found this quote interesting:

Adulthood isn't an award they'll give you for being a good child. You can waste . . . years, trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No. You have to just . . . take it. Give it to yourself, I suppose. Say, I'm sorry you feel like that, and walk away. But that's hard

We have every reason to think that children's beliefs have no momentum - the evidence is right in front of us, they change their minds so often for such terrible reasons. By contrast, the fact that I disagree with another adult is not particular strong evidence that the other person is wrong.

In other words, try to free yourself from feeling obligated to defend anything or feeling guilty for not engaging with those who wish to change your beliefs. You might consider explicitly saying "Social pressure is not evidence that you are right (or wrong)." If the people talking with you assert that they aren't using social pressure, then ask them to stop continuing the debate. Their willingness to leave is a victory for your emotional state, and their refusal is strong evidence that arriving at true beliefs is not really their goal - but the proper reaction to that stance is to leaving the conversation yourself, not try to win the "you are being rude" debate.

In short, maximizing your positive emotional state doesn't rely on winning debates. Your goal should be to avoid having them at all. (If you hadn't already read the book your father found, I would have suggested declining to do so).

Comment author: MixedNuts 22 July 2012 11:58:20PM 6 points [-]

Go in panic mode.

This conference is not just making a case that Christianity is correct and debating about it. It's bombarding you with arguments for six days, where you won't hear an argument against Christianity or if you do it'll be awkward rude dissent from people in inferior positions, where you won't be able to leave or have time alone to think, and where you're going against your will in the first place. This is time for not losing your mind, not time for changing it. Don't keep an open mind, don't listen to and discuss arguments, don't change your mind because they're right, don't let the atmosphere influence you. If it helps you can think of it as like being undercover among huge patriots and resisting the temptation to defect (and their ideology may be better than yours), or like being in a psychiatrist hospital and watching out for abuse when you know the nurses will try to convince you your reactions are psychiatrist symptoms (and they may well be).

So don't see anything at the conference as a social interaction or exchange of ideas. Your goals are to get out of there, to block everything out, to avoid attention, and to watch sharply for anything fishy. Block out the speakers, just watch the audience. If there's a debate be quiet and don't draw attention. If you're asked to speak, voice weak agreement, be vague, or pick peripheral nits. If you're asked to participate in group activities go through the motions as unremarkably as you can. At the socials be a bit distant but mostly your usual self when making small talk, but when someone starts discussing one of the conference topics pretend to listen and agree, smile and nod and say "Yes" and "Go on" and "Oh yeah, I liked that part" a lot. Lie like a rug if you must. Watch the social dynamics and the attitudes of everyone and anything that looks like manipulative behavior. You'll be bored, but don't try to think about any kind of deep topic, even unrelated (doing math and physics problems in your head are ok, anything with a social or personal component is not). Try to get enough sleep and to eat well. Enjoy the ice cream. Don't think about anything related to the conference for a couple weeks afterward.

This is only short-term, and it won't help with your father; you probably want to handle that afterwards separately.

Comment author: OnTheOtherHandle 23 July 2012 03:09:55AM 2 points [-]

I'm not sure how much specific atheist reading you've done, but I found this list to be very helpful at articulating and formalizing all those doubts, arguments and wordless convictions that "this makes no sense." This is also a handy look at what would be truly convincing evidence of the truth of a particular religion's claims. The rest of that author's website is also wonderful.

Comment author: Grognor 23 July 2012 01:41:08AM *  2 points [-]

Hello, friend, and welcome to Less Wrong.

I do think you should start a discussion post, as this seems clearly important to you.

My advice to you at the moment is to brush up on Less Wrong's own atheism sequence. If you find that insufficient, then I suggest reading some of Paul Almond's (and I quote):

great atheology

If you find that insufficient, then it is time for the big guy, Richard Dawkins:

If you are somehow still unsatisfied after all this, lukeprog's new website should direct you to some other resources, of which the internet has plenty, I assure you.

Edit: It seems I interpreted "defend myself" differently from all the other responders. I was thinking you would just say nothing and inwardly remember the well-reasoned arguments for atheism, but that's what I would do, not what a normal person would do. I hope this comment wasn't useless anyway.

Comment author: Kawoomba 22 July 2012 08:44:57PM 5 points [-]

Hi Benedict!

Bad news first: You will not be able to defend yourself. This is not because you're 18, it's not because you can't present your arguments in a spectacular fashion.

It is because noone will care about your arguments, they will wait for the first chance to bring some generic counter-argument, probably centering on how they will be there for you in your time of implied juvenile struggle, further belittling you.

And - how aggravating - this is actually done in part to protect you, to protect the relationship with your dad. With the kind of social capital, pride and identity that's on the line for your father, there is no way he could acknowledge you being right - he'd have to admit to himself that he's a phony in his own eyes, and a failure as a parent and pastor in the eyes of his peers.

To him it may be like you telling him he wasted his life on an imaginary construct, while for you it's about him respecting your intellectual reasoning.

Maybe the rational thing to do is not strive for something that's practically unattainable - being respected as an atheist on the basis of your atheist arguments - but instead focus on keeping the relationship with your parent intact while you go do your own thing anyways. Mutual respect of one's choices is great in a family, but it may not be a realistic goal given your situation, at least in respect to discussing god.

Good news: While this is such a defining issue for your father, is it a defining issue for you to tell your father publicly your new stance? How hard/easy would it be to let him continue with his shtick, retain the relationship, and still live your life as an open atheist for all intents and purposes - other than when with your family, where you can always act with mild disinterest?

Rational in this forum is mostly construed as "the stuff that works in optimising your terminal values". It is possible for you to be the "bigger man" here, depending on which of the above you value higher. But make no mistake - I doubt that you'll change anyone's opinion on god regardless.

Comment author: Vaniver 22 July 2012 09:10:25PM 3 points [-]

Hey! I've got a pastor father too, but thankfully my atheism doesn't seem to be a big deal for him. (It helps that I don't live nearby.)

I think the "conflicting belief system" is, as I understand it, the right model. There's a Christian worldview, which has some basic assumptions (God exists, the Bible is a useful source for learning about God, etc.), and there's a reductionist worldview, which has some basic assumptions (everything can be reduced to smaller parts, experiments are a useful source for learning about reality, etc.), and the picture you can build out of the reductionist worldview matches the world better than the picture you can build out of the Christian worldview. (There are, of course, other possible worldviews.)

I would not put much hope into being able to convince the people at this event that they should be atheists; I wouldn't even hope to convince them that you should be an atheist. And so the question becomes what your goals are.

If you're concerned about recanting your atheism and meaning it, the main thing I can think of that might be helpful is the how to change your mind sequence. You can keep that model in mind and compare the experience you're undergoing to it- it's unlikely that they'll be using rational means of persuasion, and you can point out the difference.

Are there people I can be put in touch with, or online meetups where I can talk to people and arm myself? Should I start a discussion post, or what? I'm unfamiliar with the site structure here, so I could use some help.

Starting a post in discussion is an alright idea; it'll work well if you mention specific arguments that you want to have responses to.

Comment author: shminux 23 July 2012 01:54:58AM 0 points [-]

have recently been reading through the Sequences (still wading through the hard science of the Quantum Physics sequence).

The value of this particular sequence is a topic of open debate on LW, so don't get stuck on it, skip it on the first reading, you can revisit it later, after you cover more relevant stuff.

having an apostate son would damage both his pride and social status

While this would be one way to confront him, by pointing out that he is committing mortal sins of wrath and pride, your odds of success are not good. He is a trained professional heavy-weight who has control over you and is not interested in playing by the rules, except for his own. If you play by his rules, you lose. Think about how you can redefine the game, Kirk-like, to your advantage.

As for the meetups, there is one in NC, not sure if this is close enough to you.

Comment author: Ezekiel 23 July 2012 12:57:44AM -1 points [-]

I agree (in general) with Xenophon's advice: Calm down, do whatever you're comfortable with spiritually, and in the worst case scenario call it "God" to keep the peace with whoever you want to keep the peace with.

With that said, if you still want advice, I deconverted myself a year ago and have since successfully corrupted others, and I've been wanting to codify the fallacies I saw anyway. Before I start: bear in mind that you might be wrong. I find it very unlikely that any form of Abrahamic theism is true, but if you care about the truth you have to keep an open mind.

Here are some common fallacious arguments and argumentative techniques I've seen used by religion (and other ideologies, of course). They include exercises which I think you'd benefit from practising; if you get stuck on any of 'em, send me a PM and I'll be glad to help out.

  1. Abuse and Neglect of Definitions

Whenever anyone tries to convince you of the truth or falsehood of some claim, make sure to ask them exactly what that means - and repeat the question until it's totally clear. You'd be amazed how many of the central theological tenets of Abrahamism are literally meaningless, since almost no-one can define them, and among those who can no two will give the same definition.

For example: God created the Universe. Pretty important part of the theology, right? So what does it mean, exactly?

A smart theist will say: God caused the Universe to exist.

Okay, great. What does "cause" mean?

Seriously? You know what "cause" means; it's a word you use all the time.

(This is a classic part of this fallacy. In our own minds we have definitions that work in everyday life, but not for talking about something as abstract as God. In this specific case, the distinction is as follows:)

When I say "X caused Y" (where X and Y are events) I mean: within the laws of nature as I know them Y wouldn't have happened if X hadn't. But God created the Universe outside (or "before") any laws of nature, so what does "cause" mean?

... and I've got no idea what an Abrahamist theist would answer, since I've yet to hear one who could. Although of course I'd love to.

For homework: Play the same game, in your head (I assume your old religious self is still knocking around up there) or with a smart religious friend, on some of the other basic tenets of Abrahamism: God is all-powerful, God is all-knowing, God is (all-)good, God is formless. Similarly with any statement of the form "God loves X", "God wants X", or even "God did X" or "God said X" (how can the Cause of Everything be said to have "said" any statement more than any other?)

  1. Intellectual Package Deals

Most religious doctrines are comprised of a huge number of logically independent statements. In Abrahamic theism, we have the various qualities of God mentioned above, as well as a bunch of moral axioms, beliefs regarding the afterlife, and so on. "Proofs" of the doctrines as a whole will often treat the whole collection as a unit, so they only need to bother proving a small fraction.

For instance: A proof of Judaism one of my teachers was fond of was based on proving the Revelation at Mt Sinai - God made a thundering announcement to six hundred thousand families, announcing Its existence and several commandments (there's a dispute as to how many).

Okay, let's say I accept the proof that the Revelation happened. This points to a very powerful speaker, but does it indicate that the speaker is all-powerful? That it is good? That it is telling the truth when it claims to be the being that brought us out of Egypt? That I am morally obligated to do what it wants?

For homework: Write down as many of the axioms of Christianity as you can think of. Once you have a list, look at the behaviour of practising Christians you know, and try to see if it actually follows from the axioms you've got. Add axioms and repeat. (I did this with a religious friend of mine about Orthodox Judaism, and we got to at least fifteen before we got bored.)

Query your memory, Google, your books, and whichever humans you feel comfortable for proofs of Christianity. Check off which of the axioms on your list they actually address - before you even bother to check the proofs for coherence.

  1. X is not satisfactorily explained by modern science... therefore God/soul/etc.

(Including the specific cases where X=the existence of the universe, complex life, or consciousness.)

Aside from almost always falling under #2 (and sometimes #1 as well), arguments of this form are mathematically fallacious. To understand why, though, you have to do the maths. You can find it on this site as “Bayes's Rule” and it's well worth reading the full-length articles about it, but the short version is as follows:

We have two competing models, A and B, and an observation E. Then E will constitute evidence for A over B if and only if A predicts E with higher probability than B predicts E – that is, if I were to query an A-believer and a B-believer before I ran the experiment, the former would be more likely to get it right than than the latter.

This is easiest to see in cases where the models predict outcomes with very high or low probability. For example: If I ask a believer in Newtonian mechanics whether a rock will keep moving after I throw it (in a vacuum), he'll say “yes” (probability 1). If I ask an Aristotelian physicist, he'll say “no” (probability 0). And lo, the rock did keep moving. Therefore, the Newtonian assigned a higher probability to (what we now know is) the correct outcome than the Aristotelian, so this experiment is evidence for Newtonianism over Aristotelianism.

Got that? Then let's take a specifically religious example: as far as I know, modern science does not have a good explanation for the origin of life. We have a vague idea, but our best explanation is based on some pretty astounding coincidences. Religion, on the other hand, has: God created life. There's your explanation.

But translating into maths we get: if atheist science were true, the probability of life arising would be low, since it would take some unlikely coincidences. If theist science (normal laws of physics + God) were true, the probability of life arising would be...

Wait a second. What's the probability of God deciding to create life? We might say we have no idea, since God is inscrutable, in which case the argument obviously can't continue. But the clever apologist might say: God is good, which is to say It wants happiness. Therefore, it must create minds. So the probability of it creating life is actually quite high.

Except that God, being all-powerful, is perfectly capable of making happiness without life – a bunch of super-happy abstract beings like Itself, for example. So what's the probability of It “bothering” to create life? It has no reason not too, having infinite time and energy, but It has an infinite number of courses of action – what's the probability of It picking the specific one we observed happening?

I'm tempted to say that 1/(infinity) = 0, but that's not mathematically sound, so we'll leave it at “I don't know”. Regardless, the point is that arguments of this form fail once you actually look for numbers.

This answer is already long enough to qualify as a post in itself, so I'll leave off here (although there's lots more to talk about). Feel free to ask if I wasn't clear, or once you've finished all the exercises.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 02 August 2012 01:41:47AM *  1 point [-]

Hey, I agree with what wedrifid said. I fell in to the same trap of trying to beat religious nonsense out of people as a kid. It's a very sexy thing to think about but it doesn't really get you anywhere, in my experience. My only additional advice is that you consider trying to make your "recapitulation" to Christianity convincing. For example, don't give in right away, and make up a story for where you went wrong and why you're a Christian again, e.g. "I thought that x, but now I see that y and z, so x is wrong. I guess maybe God exists after all."

Something to keep in mind when arguing with your dad (internally only): your dad is presenting you with evidence and arguments in favor of God's existence, but these amount to a biased sample. If you really want to know the truth, you should spend an equal amount of time hearing arguments from both Christians and atheists, or something like that.

Also, you can check internally if any of his arguments hold up to this test: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=8854

Comment author: wedrifid 02 August 2012 04:08:14AM 0 points [-]

Also, you can check internally if any of his arguments hold up to this test: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=8854

Hey! It's Luke!

Comment author: Desrtopa 23 July 2012 02:11:28AM 0 points [-]

Should I start a discussion post, or what? I'm unfamiliar with the site structure here, so I could use some help.

I'm sure some people will offer other counsel than preparing yourself and giving the most persuasive arguments you can, which may be worth taking seriously, but if you make such a discussion thread I'm confident that you will receive responses to your queries, and think it is highly probable that the post will receive positive karma.

Comment author: Zaine 23 July 2012 09:39:20AM *  0 points [-]

While wading through all these responses for the very specific response you are looking for (which some charitable LW'er will probably provide if this thread is commented upon frequently enough), you might want to read "How to Win Every Argument - An Introduction to Critical thinking" by Nicholas Capaldi. It offers a brief overview of logic and rational argumentation, and touches upon fallacies and what this site calls the 'Dark Arts', which should help in arming you against common attacks. If you are mathematically minded, but don't want to go into too much depth, you might want to check out "Sherlock's Logic".
Mind, the former text is more of a survey course, whereas the latter is more of an introductory course.

I have read that Luke Muehlhauser has worked through a dilemma similar to yours, and his blog you may find valuable.

Comment author: beoShaffer 23 July 2012 02:04:26AM *  0 points [-]

You might want to wipe this site from your search and browsing history. Also, is it possible for you to feign/induce illness?