"YOU SHOULD BELIEVE THIS BECAUSE ..."
When you hear or read those words, what's your immediate reaction? I don't know about you, but for me, my guard goes up. It's almost the reaction that Pavlov's dogs had: when the bell sounded, the dogs salivated … and when you hear or read those words, your guard goes up.
"BECAUSE I'M YOUR PARENT …"
You almost certainly remember that line. Probably the first time you remember hearing someone tell you why you should believe something … and it very likely was a good idea … because when you were a small child, your parents REALLY did know what was best for you. That line of reasoning made sense until you reached the point where that was no longer a good enough reason just to believe something. If you're adult, you probably reached that point some time ago.
So you probably no longer have your parents telling you what you should believe, but now you have other adults doing the same! For example:
"YOU SHOULD BELIEVE THIS BECAUSE …
I HAVE THE FACTS ON MY SIDE"
I HAVE SCIENCE ON MY SIDE"
I'M SMARTER THAN YOU ARE".
So let me ask you, as an adult, how often have you been persuaded when you hear those types of arguments? I'll bet your guard goes up, and you're not the least bit persuaded … even if the person made some good arguments.
So why am I making a point about something that is actually a "flash of the blindingly obvious?" Because while we know that we're not persuaded by these arguments, we somehow tend to forget this when we're trying to persuade somebody else to adopt our views.
Let me offer a real life example of this. Virtually all scientists believe that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is correct. In their minds, and mine too, it's a slam dunk. Nevertheless, half of adults in the USA don't believe that Darwin's theory is persuasive; and two thirds to three quarters of evangelical Christians are skeptical. The scientists just can't believe that anyone would reject such good science. How can this be?
It's been said that the only people who are surprised about this are the scientists themselves!
Why am bringing this up? Simply because when it comes to trying to persuade people to change their minds about something, we tend to go about the entirely wrong way. When we try to persuade people to change their minds, too much of the time we're trying to persuade by saying, "YOU SHOULD BELIEVE THIS BECAUSE …", when we all know that when people try to use those lines on us, we're not persuaded!
So if we're trying to persuade someone, we should keep the following principle in mind: people believe things for their own reasons, not yours. If you're going to persuade them to change their minds and adopt your idea, you have to do it in a way that fits their way of thinking, not necessarily yours.
So how do you that? By beginning your "task of persuasion" by asking two questions: first, why should someone want to change his or her mind?; and second, why would I ever change my mind? Well, you already know, it won't be because someone told you to change your mind for their reasons … but will you change your mind because you think it's a good idea?
Most likely, you have before … and you will again. That's because you're changing your mind for your good reasons, not somebody else's good reasons.
You'll probably also consider changing your mind about something if you think it will benefit you somehow. I don't know about you, but if I perceive that I could benefit by changing my mind about something, I'm pretty likely to give it some serious thought.
So let's now go back to the thing that astounds so many scientists: that so many ordinary Americans are skeptical about Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Contrary to what many people seem to believe, the reason isn't because these people don't believe in science or scientists. Actually, the data show that ordinary people tend to have lots of respect for science and scientists. A wonderful example of that occurred just the other day when a total solar eclipse by millions of people across the USA.
Instead, the following are more likely reasons for skepticism:
- They perceive a conflict between Darwin and something else they cherish: the Bible;
- They perceive that they're being asked to make a choice between one thing and the other, meaning that they think they're being asked to make a choice between science and religion;
- No one has given them a reason they should want to believe in Darwin (i.e., they haven't perceived a benefit for changing their minds).
When you frame the matter in these terms, it really isn't that surprising that there is a fair amount of skepticism. So with that in mind, how might one try to persuade the Darwinian "skeptic" to reconsider?
Unfortunately, it's often using the following types of arguments. "YOU SHOULD BELIEVE IN DARWIN BECAUSE THE SCIENCE IS BEYOND QUESTION!" Well, with the above in mind, do you think that's going to be a persuasive argument? How about, "YOU SHOULD BELIEVE IN DARWIN BECAUSE TO BELIEVE ANYTHING ELSE IS JUST PLAIN STUPID"! In light of what I've just discussed, aren't these types of arguments pretty ridiculous? Yes, you can see that.
So how about the following argument: "YOU SHOULD BELIEVE IN DARWIN BECAUSE IT ISN'T INCONSISTENT WITH THE BIBLE IS SAYING." This is an argument that Christians who believe in Darwin try to use of Christian skeptics. Why might this argument be less than persuasive? Because you still haven't given the person a reason they should want to have a change in mind.
These reasons aren't very persuasive, but there's actually another one that may be the least persuasive of all. Many Christians who believe in Darwin and evolution by natural selection have also concluded that Adam and Eve, and the whole Garden of Eden story at the start of the Bible, didn't really happen. It's all symbolic, and a whole range of arguments have been developed as to why that might be true.
Well, the arguments may be very well formulated, but if the goal is to persuade evangelical Christians to change minds and hearts about Darwin and evolution, this is a non-starter. Making that kind of argument is about the same as a telling a young mother her baby is ugly, and then saying, "but let me share with you why I think you ought to believe such and such …" Having heard those words about her baby being ugly, you know perfectly well that the young mother stopped listening. Well, evangelical Christians tend to stop listening when part of the argument is that Adam and Eve were non-historical, legendary figures. GAME OVER!
Thus, with all of the above in mind, if the goal is to persuade skeptical Christians to have a change of mind about Darwin, I believe the argument will have to accomplish two things:
- Provide a way that there can still be an historical Adam and Eve (the "ugly baby" argument);
- Provide a reason (or reasons) why the skeptical Christian should want to have a change of mind.
If those two things can't be done, the average evangelical Christian, who is already skeptical of Darwin, isn't going to have a change of mind.
So let's consider each of these, beginning with Adam and Eve. Is there a way that Adam and Eve could have been flesh and blood individuals and still be consistent with the available scientific data? Yes. Now that doesn't mean they were the original two humans from whom everyone else is descended, as a literal reading of Genesis would suggest. The available scientific data suggest that is impossible. However, the data suggest that the original human population was at least 5,000 individuals. Adam and Eve could easily have been two members of that original human population; and if you assume that Adam and Eve were two members of that original human population, the key elements of the Garden of Eden story fit not only with the Biblical account but also with available scientific data. Thus, there is a reasonable way to keep Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden as historical, and still fit the available scientific narrative about evolution by natural selection.
I believe this needs to be starting point of any attempt to persuade skeptical Christians to embrace, otherwise it will immediately turn into "your baby is ugly", and the person to be persuaded will have stopped listening. Necessary, but not sufficient.
Assuming you've overcome the "historical Adam and Eve" issue, you then arrive at the question, why might a skeptical Christian want to believe in Darwin? Let me suggest four types of reasons:
- Reason #1: accepting Darwin's theory will reinforce something that the Christian already believes about Christian doctrine;
- Reason #2: accepting Darwin will help the Christian be a better evangelist;
- Reason #3: accepting Darwin will help the Christian address concerns he or she has with how science is taught in school;
- Reason #4: accepting Darwin will help the Christian defend his or her faith against attack by others.
There isn't adequate time or space to go into each of these types of reasons. If you want to explore this further, consider looking at my book, The Unexpected Perspective. The overarching point is that if your goal is to persuade someone to re-think something, you need to build persuasive arguments; but what is persuasive to you may very well not be what could be persuasive to your audience. So before you start trying to build your next set of arguments, stop and ask the following:
- How does my audience look at the world?;
- How might my arguments unintentionally leave the audience thinking I just said, "your baby is ugly";
- How could what I say actually benefit my audience, for their reasons, not mine?
I've given a set of examples related to Christians and Darwin's theory of evolution, but the same principle applies for all kinds of other issues. As an example, how do you persuade skeptics that climate change is real? Everything I've said above about science and religion applies pretty much equally in the climate change debate. I encourage you to go back and read this post, but substitute "climate change" for Darwin and evolution. I think you'll see my point.
The good news is, in the right circumstances, most people are willing to consider different ways of thinking. They can be persuaded … but persuasion is an art that needs practice and nurture. The capacity to persuade others is an incredibly valuable skill in virtually all walks of life. Valuable, yet oftentimes under-appreciated.
At the same time, please understand, I'm not in the least suggesting that you try to persuade others by lying or making misrepresentations. There is absolutely no room for "alternative facts" (aka lies). Persuasion requires empathy, and empathy and lying in my mind are in parallel universes.
If we hope to be persuasive, we need to develop our skills and practice. We can all benefit.