Lately, I got embroiled in an online argument (it was hardly a discussion among adults) with someone about Secular Buddhism. One would think that as someone who’s been an openly practicing Buddhist for nearly twenty years, is active in both the atheist and skeptic communities, and does a weekly podcast called The Secular Buddhist, I might have some familiarity with the topic.
Though that blogger openly admits that the term secular Buddhist “escapes me completely”, that proclaimed ignorance is enough to determine it’s “a new brand of phony buddhism [sic]”. And another commenter on the post resorts ad hominem attacks, and general condescension as the way to push others aside and be Right.
Ignorance is one thing, and easily remedied. Willful ignorance is quite another. And arrogant ignorance is still another, perhaps the worst and most difficult to disengage because it doesn’t even recognize the problem.
This is the heart of the challenge we sometimes have with people who have a less skeptical approach than ours. There is an acceptance of ‘facts’ neither in evidence, nor even compatible with an understanding of the natural world. I may not have seen Earth from space, for example, but have seen enough clear and externally reproducible evidence to accept that it is roughly spherical in shape, and not being carted around on the back of Gamera.
There are choices we make each time we engage with people who have views differing from our own. We can be outspoken and rude, certainly. But as Phil Plait shared in his Goals of Skepticism talk at TAM last year, this may not be the most effective means of helping people reach a place of understanding. We need to keep the goal in mind, and being rude isn’t going to help.
Sure, there are some skeptics who proudly hold up examples of those they’ve angered enough that they’ve stormed off to prove us wrong, did actual research for a change, and realized they were wrong. That is certainly true! And also cherry picking the data – it completely ignores the other, much larger number of people who have not done any more research on the topic because they’ve dismissed the person who irritated them, rather than the point of view. We tend to forget that the view is not the person, and we need to question the view rather than antagonize the individual.
With reason, evidence, and experience on our side, we need neither supernatural agency nor angry words. That is our strength, and we weaken ourselves when we rely on ad hominem attacks to make our point. Having an open and friendly discussion is much more likely to result in opening someone’s mind to other possibilities.