by Niall Doherty

Imagine it’s August and you find yourself surrounded by bananas, dried fish and a live goat in the back of a pickup truck speeding south on a dirt track in Gabon, West Africa. The weather has been hot and dry since you arrived, as is typical for this time of year. You’re standing there clinging onto a metal bar for dear life when you notice that it’s started to rain.

“Oh, it’s raining,” you say to Anisé, your Gabonese travel companion.

Much to your surprise, Anisé disagrees with your observation. “Oh no,” he says. “It is not raining.”

You look at him dumbfounded, then down at your dusty death grip, seeing that the back of your hand has become spattered with raindrops. “Uh, I’m pretty sure that’s rain.”

“No, it cannot be raining,” Anisé reassures you. “It’s not the rainy season.”1

Now imagine you’re flipping through Time Magazine one day and you come across the results of a poll. The question posed is as follows:

If science found a fact that contradicted the tenets of your faith, what would you do?

You can’t help but raise an eyebrow as you peruse the results: 64% of Americans said they would reject the fact in favor of their faith.

Sixty-four percent!2

We may sit back and laugh at the aforementioned Gabonese chap, as well as the two-thirds of Americans noted above, but we’re all prone to such stubborn, irrational thinking. We cling to our beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence.

Last week I wrote about why I quit veganism, and received a bunch of comments in response. Many of the comments disagreeing with me were smart and respectful, alerting me to flaws in my reasoning and thus inspiring me to think deeper on the topic. Meanwhile, some folks wrote comments flat-out disagreeing with my arguments, without any explanation as to why. Those people seemed so married to the ideology of veganism that they were unwilling to entertain any argument against it.

I found myself wondering what it would take to change their minds.

Could anything?

The British evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane once famously stated what it would take to disprove the theory of evolution: “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.” That last word means nothing to me, but I like that this guy had defined what it would take to change his mind. Methinks we’d all do well to do similar.

For example, say you’re an atheist. What would it take for you to believe in God, or Allah, or Zeus? What evidence would you accept as undeniable proof that such a deity exists?

Or if you believe that, say, the Bible is the literal word of God, what would it take for you to give up that belief? What evidence would you need to see?

If you find yourself saying that nothing would change your mind, that’s dangerous. It’s like running into a snarling bear in the woods and bounding over to give him a hug because Winnie the Pooh and Yogi always seemed so nice and harmless.

Some say that unshakeable faith should be respected, but I disagree. Always be willing to question your beliefs, consider opposing arguments, and accept that you might be wrong. Because we’re all human, we’re all fallible, we all suffer from irrational beliefs. We’re just blind as to which.

Comments are open.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. This is the jist of a conversation Graham Hughes had with a local when he visited Gabon in 2009.
  2. I heard of that Time Magazine poll via this presentation on evolution by Jerry Coyne. Worth a watch.