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A pointless argument

You Cannot Radically Change Someone’s Opinion

The other day I met up with an old school chum. He is and always has been a devoutly passionate catholic who visits church regularly, often cites biblical verse and prays before eating. I explained to him, using logical scientific rationale, that his God simply could not exist and that he was wasting his precious life believing in this false deity. My friend followed my argument closely and said, “Golly, Jeffrey, that makes a lot of sense. I no longer believe in Catholicism or God and am now a proud atheist. Thank you for showing me the light!”

Of course that didn’t happen. Indeed, I would not waste my time trying to convince a devoutly religious person, of any persuasion, to become an atheist. Neither you nor I can radically change another person’s opinion with even the most rationally crafted argument. Oddly enough, this simple truism is largely forgotten. And nowhere is this more evident than in the polarised world of American politics.

The radical right is screaming their argument of reduced government (except, oddly enough, when it comes to the reproductive act and its consequences), greater Christianity and slashed taxes to put the economy in order. To them, these arguments are self-evident and logical. That those on the left fail to accept the right’s argument is a matter of incomprehension to the right.

Meanwhile, left-leaning Americans shout out their argument of society’s obligation to the poor, increased government services and more evenly distributed tax obligations, particular in the upper income brackets. They lay out these arguments with logical precision that the right derides with impunity.

And rather than trying to meet in the middle, both sides seem to be growing ever further apart in their arguments. Yet, if you look on social networks such as Facebook, for example, you will see members of one side thinking posting what they believe to be convincing arguments in short, pithy statements. Their like-minded friends all agree and someone eventually suggests that the short, pithy statement in question should be posted somewhere so that the other side can see it and, they seem to presume, be swayed by it.

But, of course, both sides are preaching to the converted. As their arguments become more vehement, the likelihood of changing the opinion, of anyone on the other side, becomes increasingly close to zero.

But perhaps this is what both sides want. After all, preaching to the converted is easier and safer than changing someone’s opinion even slightly.

But, if you do want to change someone’s opinion and that opinion is at odds with your own, you need to work slowly and carefully. You need to see yourself as a sculptor and the opinion that you wish to change as a block of marble sitting before you. No single stroke of your chisel will lead to a complete work. But slow, thoughtful chipping away at the marble, or opinion, will eventually result in a beautifully crafted sculpture – or opinion. For instance, going back to my Catholic friend. If rather than trying to convince him to become an atheist, I instead chose a simple bible story, such as when Jesus supposedly fed a crowd of 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, and argued that perhaps this was not a miracle per se but could have a more logical explanation that did not diminish its importance, then he might agree with me. And, if over a period of time, I chipped away at his arguments, I might eventually convince him to become an atheist.

Then again, I might not. Moreover, one has to be careful attempting to chip away at another person’s opinion. It also provides her with an opportunity to chip away at yours!

 

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium