The secular humanist, atheist, and agnostic community places great emphasis on reason—on our ability as humans to reason from assumptions to conclusions, to think critically, and to arrive at the truth. We also believe reasoned argument will allow us to convince others when they are mistaken. We like to think that our superior reason explains why we see through the fallacies of religion, superstition, and conspiracy theories when others do not. According to the traditional Enlightenment view, humankind has the unique faculty of reason, and this places it above the animals, who are ruled by instinct and passion. When I imagine an ideal reasoned conversation, I might think of a group of wise elders, independently wealthy of course, who at their leisure are able to recline and enjoy pure contemplation, free of financial want, prejudice, animosity, or other human frailties. Through this exchange and criticism of ideas, they are able to jointly find the most rational solution to any question. This Enlightenment view is also deeply entrenched in our Western worldview. We are capable of self-governing via democracy because we are reasonable; economic markets reach optimum price levels because we act in our rational self-interest. Likewise, our science uncovers the secrets of the universe via unbiased investigation.
Well, it seems we have been rudely awakened from this dream of reason into a post-Enlightenment world. Post-Enlightenment recognizes the limits and shortcomings of human reason (it is not antireason). And in fact, it was scientific investigation into human behavior that awoke us from the dream. The picture of human psychology that emerged includes our biases and our unconscious. Numerous studies show people are not generally convinced by facts and arguments, and when presented with facts that don’t align with their preexisting beliefs, they sometimes double-down on them! There is now a whole industry of book publishing about our cognitive biases. Study after study shows humans are not rational decision makers. Whether it’s anchoring, the availability heuristic, confirmation bias, loss aversion, or the sunk-cost effect, we make many predictable kinds of errors. It’s time to let go of the rational human hypothesis.
If facts don’t convince people, what does? Edward Bernays is considered the father of public relations. He realized advertising (which has the goal of convincing the public to buy something) is more effective if it presents a mood rather than facts. Don’t try to convince the consumer with logic; just show a picture of happy customers. (As the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays saw this as a method of reaching the unconscious to motivate.) Facts and figures may impress a few, but they generally fail with the majority of people. This realization is summarized in the advertiser’s phrase, “You sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Rather than an argument, think of an invitation to join a community or a party.
So now you can see the disconnect. Secular humanists pride ourselves on our reason, and in this pride we assume that reason-based methods—our strength—should be used to convince others. When we try to disabuse people of their false beliefs in pseudoscience, religion, or conspiracies, we marshal a lot of facts and theories. But reason dictates when the facts change, your opinions also must change. It is time to accept that reaching out and influencing others with reason will usually fail, and that means getting a little smarter about the irrational in people. Otherwise, we will continue to use the same methods—and get the same results.
You can guess why this is more critical than ever and why the need for secular humanists to become active is magnified. Our culture is flooded with conspiracy theories and political lies that support them. Whether it’s Pizzagate, QAnon, the Deep State, the Illuminatti, or anti-Judaism (typically involving the Rothchilds or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion), our democracy is facing a clear and present danger. The insurrectionists of January 6, 2021, were immersed both in a political lie of a stolen election and in a magical QAnon mythology in which evil child abusers run the Democratic Party and their savior Donald Trump was going to declare martial law and thereby bring the evil ones to justice. These things sound childish and absurd to us, but we are forced to take them seriously because the number of believers now affects the elections and the threat of violence is so palpable that even Republicans who don’t want to go along fear they have no choice.
So, do I think secular humanists can save the day? Well, no, not on our own. But I strongly feel we have a bigger role to play now than ever. Not the role we thought we had: not merely espousing rational arguments and asking for evidence. There is a place for that eventually, but it’s not the way to begin. We should begin by stopping the arguing and reaching out to the other side with a little more empathy or maybe some gentle humor. Those on the other side may likely be confused and hurt; they may see themselves as living in a world that has stopped making sense and feels unfair. Let’s get to know them and show them that secular humanism is a welcoming community where they may belong. How? Before COVID-19 struck, we at the Center for Inquiry New York City (CFI NYC) had started work on two initiatives. One was called “Know Your Neighbors.” It was just a social hour at a bar for humanists and liberal theists (Unitarians, Buddhists, etc.). There was no agenda; we just planned to meet, have a drink, and get to know each other a little. We have been more successful with community volunteering than our social endeavors. We organized several volunteer days at a New York soup kitchen and invited people to join from the liberal theism side. Hopefully both these efforts will resume after the pandemic.
Working together on a project of common interest is the best way I know to cross cultural divides, increase understanding, and perhaps change minds. This is how the military is able to foster unity among a group of diverse people. In fact, I think President Joe Biden should now institute a mandatory civil service “peace corps” for college-age Americans, who will have to serve one year outside their home state.
As to our volunteer project in New York City, were any QAnons present in our group? I don’t know. Maybe. It’s at least a start in a new direction, and I recommend you try it yourself.
The secular humanist, atheist, and agnostic community places great emphasis on reason—on our ability as humans to reason from assumptions to conclusions, to think critically, and to arrive at the truth. We also believe reasoned argument will allow us to convince others when they are mistaken. We like to think that our superior reason explains …