I have spoken to hundreds of people from different religious backgrounds. I have also spoken to my share of atheists and skeptics. One thing that I have thought about is the complex factors in changing a belief system/worldview (i.e., the way a person views reality).
What factors play a large role in how people form their beliefs? In my experience, here are some of them:
1. Sociological factors such as parents, religious institutions.
2. Experiential, psychological/existential factors: (i.e., some beliefs bring comfort, hope, meaning, purpose).
3. Learning through authorities: (i.e., professors, people who are experts in a certain field of study).
Sadly, one area that plays a smaller role is evidence, data, reason, and philosophy. Granted, I am just being general here and nobody can be boxed into one category. But I do know many people who have a religious background have developed convictions through a specific community or family.
From my own experience, here are some factors that continue to play a large role in this topic.
Problem #1: A Priori Commitments
A priori belief/commitments: means to assume something or presuppose something prior to experience/observation. This means any attempt to look at or interpret evidence will be seen though a prior commitments. We can see this in the following quote:
“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.” – Richard C. Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” Available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1997/01/09/billions-and-billions-of-demons/ accessed May 17th, 2017.
Methodological naturalism is a position that says science or history should seek only natural explanations and that attempts to find supernatural causes are ipso facto, not science. In contrast, metaphysical naturalism starts with the presupposition that all that exists is nature. Presupposing that all that exists is nature and then using methodological naturalism to prove this presupposition is arguing in a circle. In my experience, many people confuse metaphysical and methodological naturalism.
Problem #2: Plausibility Structures (what sounds reasonable or probable)
Another issue with people changing beliefs must deal with plausibility structures. Having talked to so many people from different backgrounds, this plays a huge role. As we talk to people, it is evident what we consider to be plausible is implausible to them. And what they say to us can sound implausible as well. Let me give a couple of examples:
1.Christian to Muslim: “Jesus is God and he died and rose from the dead.”
2. Muslim responds to Christian: “That is implausible. God is one! And Jesus dying for the sins of humanity is weak.”
1. Christian to Jewish person: “Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel and the nations.”
2. Jewish person responds: “Jesus didn’t bring peace to the world. The proof is in the condition of the world.”
Christian to atheist:
1. “Isn’t it reasonable to believe nature isn’t all there is.”
2. “Isn’t it reasonable to assume that if God were real, he would be powerful enough to communicate with us in a way we could understand?
Atheist tries to build a plausibility structure with a religious person
1. “Have you noticed almost every time we have said something has a supernatural explanation, we ended up finding a naturalistic explanation.”
NOTE: If you want to see a clip where an atheist won’t even consider any evidence see this short small critique of a debate between Hugh Ross and Peter Adkins. It is fascinating:
Problem #3: Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is the tendency to process information by only looking for, or interpreting, information that confirms one’s existing beliefs. For example, a Christian, Mormon, Jewish person, Muslim, and even an atheist will be surrounded by community beliefs. And when they hear something that challenges their community or longstanding convictions, this creates cognitive dissonance. For example, we may say to ourselves “I thought I knew this was the thing to believe, but now I am hearing counter evidence and I am experiencing dissonance or conflict.” People can tend to seek out answers that confirm what they already believe. I have seen this happen with people from different faiths as well as atheists. Confirmation bias isn’t going away. It is unavoidable, and everyone is guilty of it. Remember, many people have access to the same evidence. But they don’t agree with the interpretation of the evidence. That’s because they take their presuppositions into the interpretative process.
Problem #4: The Will
I found this to be an outstanding quote from apologist Frank Turek. I have had Frank come to our campus a couple of times. He says:
“I am not saying that an atheist’s motivation proves that atheism is false — someone can have the wrong motives and still be right. What I am saying is that many atheists don’t want Christianity to be true. I’ve seen this firsthand among atheists on college campuses. When I sense hostility during the Q& A period of an I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist presentation, I normally ask the questioner, “If Christianity were true, would you become a Christian?” On several occasions I’ve had atheists yell back at me, “No!”
(Frank responds) No? “Wait, you claim to be a beacon of reason, yet when I ask you if something were true would you believe it, you say ‘no!’ How is that reasonable?” It’s not. That’s because reason or evidence isn’t the issue for such people. They don’t have an intellectual objection to Christianity — they have an emotional, moral, or volitional objection. They’ve been hurt by Christians or think they’ve been let down by God. But more often, as several atheists have admitted, they simply don’t want to give up their autonomy and submit their will to God. They are not on a relentless pursuit of the truth, open to following the evidence where it leads. They’re on a happiness quest, not a truth quest. They reject Christianity because they think doing whatever they want will make them happy. So it’s a heart issue, not a head issue. It’s been said that this kind of atheist is looking for God as much as a criminal is looking for a cop. This resistance affects all of us at times. When we want to be our own gods, we’re not open to accepting the true God. Pascal put it this way, “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” Girlfriends, boyfriends, and maintaining your independence can be very attractive. Pascal’s insight may also help us answer the questions we posed at the end of chapter 1. Namely, why are atheists such as Dawkins and Krauss open to deism but not theism? And why are Dawkins and several other atheists open to admitting that the evidence points to an alien intelligent designer of the first life but not to God? I could be wrong, but it sure seems that the answer is right here: morality and accountability. A theistic God brings such demands, but an alien or a deistic god does not. What other reasons could there be? What reasons do you have for what you believe? Are you following the evidence where it leads? Honestly? Or are you more interested in believing what you find attractive? To be fair, this sword cuts both ways. Many people are Christians not because they’ve investigated the evidence, but because they find a heavenly Father and eternal life attractive. The difference is — although many Christians don’t know it — abundant evidence exists for their beliefs. So Christians can say with confidence that while some atheists have the attitude, “There is no God, and I hate him,” Christ had the attitude, “There are atheists, and I love them. In fact, I died for them. ” Frank Turek, Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case (p. 113).
So in the end, is it possible for people to change beliefs. Yes, it can happen. But it can be a long process. There are many complex factors at work. People are holistic beings. Thus, changing beliefs involves questioning, study, our emotions, our intellect, and our will. We can’t divorce any of these issues out of the process.
Note: you can also see our video here on the topic.