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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why Debating is a Debatable Exercise

Untitled Ever tried to argue on the Internet with a frum person? Whether it’s a guy like Amnon Yitzchak or JP, it usually doesn’t get you anywhere.

Here’s 3 reasons why.

1. Cognitive dissonance

Just imagine you would have to be open for suggestions that challenge your current belief system. It potentially could mean that you would have to revise this belief system and, ultimately, your comfortable way of life. There’s too much at stake for your average kiruv clown to even start considering the option of the other person being right: It may lead to the disintegration of the family or financial insecurity.

Now, just because I see this question coming: these are same reasons why skeptics like me decide to stick to their current lifestyle (at least, for the moment). However, there is an important difference: at least skeptics are willing to listen to what the other guy has to say. What you do with that information is for you to decide.

But there are more interesting reasons why it doesn’t pay to debate religion with the religious…

2. You stick to the original information

In Why You Think You’re Never Wrong (and What to Do About It), Lifehacker quotes a Scientific American article called Lingering Lies (note: you have to pay for the full article):

Once an idea enters your mind it's hard to get rid of it. Even after you've been proven wrong and know that you are, your brain is wired to stick with the original information. It even influences you subconsciously. This makes it exceptionally difficult to actually feel wrong even when you know you are. Scientific American has the explanation of this phenomenon:

Psychologists asked college stu­dents to read an account of an ac­cident involving a busload of elderly passengers. The students were then told that, actually, those on the bus were not elderly. For some students, the information ended there. Others were told the bus had in fact been transporting a college hockey team. And still others were warned about what psychologists call the continued influence of misinformation-that people tend to have a hard time ig­noring what they first heard, even if they know it is wrong-and that they should be extra vigilant about getting the story straight.

This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to shake of the frum belief system.

3. Debating only strengthens beliefs

Now don’t get me wrong here. I am not saying that their arguments are better so we’d better stay out of their way. Quite the opposite.

As the author of You Are Not So Smart argues in a post called The Backfire Effect:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.

It is the same reason why you double-check your weighing scale if the weight seems to high but you never double-check it if it tells you that you lost some weight.

Tachles: If someone is wrong and passionately believes he is right, not only are your chances small you will win the argument, but you may end up strengthening his opinions.


  1. First of all, if you're blogging, you have an audience. Individuals in the audience may not have firmly taken a side yet and are persuadable.

    Second, not all debaters are equal. If you're arguing with JP and nobody else is reading, then yes, you might as well go bang your head against a wall instead.

    However, most people are to varying degrees more rational than JP, who is, I suspect, actually mentally ill. You're almost never going to get someone to experience, let alone admit, a radical change in belief during the course of a debate, but you can plant some seeds.

    Often, if you really strike a nerve, your opponent will gradually modify his beliefs. For example, an OJ who was a young-Earth creationist may gradually become one who's "ok" with evolution. Or someone who believed 100% in God may gradually become one who consciously "chooses" to believe but is deep down an agnostic. I even had one debater send me an email a few months ago saying that a debate we had several years ago finally convinced him to stop being Orthodox after years of it nagging at him in his mind!

  2. Don't give up on these people. It took almost a year for someone to convince me out of OJ.

  3. Debating is what planted my seeds of doubt back in 2007. It brought me to the short term conclusion that although I was still right (obviously) it wasn't that clear.

    Fast forward a few years and eventually I came to the conclusion that I wasn't so right after all.

  4. I think debating, especially on the internet (where it is in writing) also serves another purpose other than changing other people's minds- it forces us to put our thoughts down in a coherent manner, which forces us to organize our thoughts and really think through our own arguments, and figure out which ones are easily put aside and which ones will 'stick'. I've really clarified what my own beliefs are by being forced to debate them with others...before debating them for several years I probably couldn't give you as much of a clear description of them, and hadn't thought through many possible angles.

    Debating also trains your mind to approach problems from many directions, and to see many possible solutions. I went to a pedagogy (teacher-training) seminar recently which was all about informal writing (like on blogs!) and how it aids in cognitive development.

    Plus as other's have noted, when you are debating people like JP your audience isn't JP, it's all the non insane people lurking and reading that debate. THOSE are the people you're convincing, even though they are often invisible to us as bloggers.

  5. Thought provoking post mate, but if we can't debate religion on the grounds you stated, maybe we can't debate anything?

    Anyhow, wrote my own thoughts at http://www.postdogma.com/blog/politics/the-need-for-debate .

  6. I would suggest that this is an oversimplification of human behavior. Admittedly some people only become more entrenched in their beliefs when confronted with evidence that directly contradicts their internal dogma. However, there are many who are willing and able to modify their beliefs and actions based on new evidence.

  7. BP: Thanks for the mention in your post, man!

    SY: Great comment!

  8. > Ever tried to argue on the Internet with a frum person?

    Sure. At some point, they get usually ask what would make me believe, at which point I give them an answer and ask them what would shake their belief. The answer, so far, has always been that nothing will.

    If the goal is to get the other person to agree with you, it’s not worth it. It’s not going to happen. I debate because it’s fun and because, as Avi put it so well, they might see that it isn’t so clear.

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  11. The contention that atheists are unbiased decision makers is a ridiculous assertion. Maybe alcoholics and drug addicts are unbiased too. They often think they are by the way - it's called denial and it can be very sincere.

    Atheists (at least the common place, present day Western atheist) are motivated by one thing: sex. That's it. It's all about testosterone and promiscuity. Selfish, short term pleasure seeking. Witness the fact probably 80% of atheists, including Orthodox Jewish converts to atheism, are male. Witness the fact that almost all Jewish converts to atheism seem much more interested in strip clubs and prostitutes than they are in studying the details of Darwinian evolution or cosmology.


    Take for example apostasy to Christianity, quite common in the 19th century Jewish community, but something which is rare for Orthodox Jews today.


    Do you think they were all so convinced by the truth of Christian dogma? Of course not. It was all about money: a better job, entrance to universities, etc. although I'm sure many of those converts convinced themselves that Christianity really made sense.

    On the other hand, there is no good reason to convert to Judaism except that Judaism is the truth or because of marriage to a Jew.

  12. Debating isn't about changing the mind of the debaters. That's called arguing. Debating about changing the minds of the audience.

  13. UK: Can you please remove the hate speech that ignorant bigot leaves on your blog? It's your forum and I defer to your choices. But seriously, that man is either deeply disturbed or is purely driven by hatred towards those who live a belief system different then his own.

  14. The truth really hurts doesn't it. I'm sure that any of the hundreds of thousands of 19th century Jews who chose baptism would have been outraged by the suggestion that their motives were less than purely idealistic.

  15. The only truth is that you're a poseur. Since you claim not only to be a scholar on these issues but a "good Jew" tell us which poskim have given you a heter to read these blogs, post on them, to write your own blog, to use the internet for any purpose other then commercial business and which poskim have approved your contentions.

  16. JP has an 'idée fixe' with the atheist straw man. Did I ever mention atheist in my post?

    With regards to apostasy to Christianity: for many centuries it was illegal not to register yourself as having a religion, so the only way to get out was Christianity.

    Damn, am I debating JP or arguing with him now? :P

  17. You can't debate with him. Debate involves a presentation of well researched and well supported facts by both parties. He has a bigoted and hate-driven agenda and he cherry picks data to support it with fallacious logic. He simply uses well intentioned bloggers such as yourself in order to deceive people into opening his page.

  18. One reason I did not delete his comments is for people to understand how blatantly silly some of these arguments are. And to teach them about straw men, etc.

  19. "Since you claim not only to be a scholar on these issues but a "good Jew" tell us which poskim have given you a heter to read these blogs, post on them, to write your own blog, to use the internet for any purpose other then commercial business and which poskim have approved your contentions."

    I'm saving lives, which takes precedence over all other commandments.

    In any case, I think it's pretty obvious what's behind all this skepticism. No one has ever been able to seriously refute my arguments for Judaism or against atheism, but who cares? Skeptics are thinking with their genitals, not their brains.

    For proof, read this gem

    "We had several conversations like this one, in which he asked things like how many women I’d slept with and if I thought any of them would sleep with him."


    Don't tell me crap about how you're all about science and the documentary hypothesis.

  20. Yep, you are a poseur. You've decided entirely on your own without consulting rebbeim that you are entitled to do whatever you choose on the internet without their approval. Obviously you are an apikoris and a kofer. It leads one to wonder if any respectable rebbeim in your community are aware of what you do. Perhaps they should be informed. You are the one obsessed with sex, pornography and drugs. They really do need to know.

  21. I would think that a real skeptic would be thrilled to hear different opinions, including Jewish ones. I guess not. I guess some people can't rationally defend their beliefs.

  22. Good try but you fail. You use fallacious arguments and you falsely accuse people of patronizing prostitutes, using drugs and watching pornography. You deny the authority of the Rebbeim, claiming that you know better. I know a good number of people in Monsey and Wesley Hills. I wonder what they'll have to say.

  23. JP: I have been hearing the Jewish side for most of my adult life. And I got tired of the 'proofs' and researched things for myself and came to a different conclusion than you.

  24. "you use fallacious arguments"
    I can't wait to see you prove that.

    "and you falsely accuse people of patronizing prostitutes"
    The author of this blog said he did.

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  26. I agree there's no good reason to debate some folks. On the other hand, it's not a bad thing to draw such folks out. Just in these comments, someone makes an implicit comparison of alcoholics and drug addicts to atheists. Most any reader recognizes that the commenter is not out hash through issues but rather to be provocative and outrageous. This kind of commenter is good for a laugh, but everyone sees that s/he's not bringing anything to the discussion but firebombs.

  27. I'm waiting for intelligent proofs of atheism.

  28. JP: I did not mention anything about atheism in this post. Next time you don't stick to the topic, I will just delete your comments without looking at them anymore.

    @Ortho: There are better ways putting JP in his place then commenting the way you did.

  29. Speaking of drugs and alcohol, John Lennon, an atheist, was a drug addict while christopher hitchens was an alcoholic.

  30. We know of course that there are no Orthodox drug addicts nor are there any Orthodox alcoholics. There are in fact, no people believing in God who practice any conventional religion who are alcoholics or drug addicts. (sarcasm intended).

  31. These guys are revered leaders of the atheist community; we can imagine what the rank and file is doing.

  32. Rabbi Lanner, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Hillel, VP at the OU and head of NCSY was found guilty of child molestation. If such a revered leader in the Orthodox world was committing these atrocities, one can only imagine what the rank and file do. Does that seem illogical? It should. It's the same weak logic you apply.

  33. He was the principal of a modern orthodox girl's school and head of a modern orthodox youth group, hardly a universally revered orthodox leader, and his career ended with his conviction.

  34. One of your many mistakes is to assume that atheists have "universally revered leaders". In contrast to Orthodox Judaism, they don't need any leaders.

  35. There are atheist organizations, authors, speakers and leaders, like any other religion.

  36. As much as your specious comments about Lanner deny the prestige of the position he held at the OU, the largest kashrus organization in the USA, consider the Spinke Rebbe. Clearly a revered leader. He admitted his wrongdoing after he was convicted If he was doing as much- imagine what his rank and file do every day. Another illogical comparison- they are not collectively responsible for what he did. Just as illogical as your ridiculous comments about Lennon and Hitchens But what else should one expect from a narcissistic idiot who even goes so far as to deny that his own rebbeim and poskim (assuming you even have any) have the authority to rule on the halachic validity of your blogging. Gonna try to take me to task for calling you an idiot? You do it to posters on your blog quite frequently.

  37. How many percent of atheists consider Hitchens (or people like him) their "religious" leader? How many percent are members of atheist organisations?

    I think you need to get to know some normal atheists IRL. Arguments from authority are not popular among them.

  38. While your article was thought-provoking, your final outcome was problematic. The fact of the matter is that while cognitive dissonance can make it more difficult for someone to be willing to accept information that counters current beliefs, people still can have their minds changed through debate and can think about their beliefs. Some people will choose not to do so, but those people fall on all sides of debates. While initial information is indeed hard to overcome, it is not impossible, especially for those who enter debate with open-minds. While some people might have their beliefs strengthened by debate regardless of how well their ideas fared in rational discussion, there are those who can have their minds changed. In other words, this is not a case AGAINST debate, or why debating is debatable, as you said, but rather just a point that sometimes debate can lead to consequences that weren't desired, and that some people might be less likely to engage in rational debate. If you are interested in the research on cognitive dissonance and such, you can also read the research in cognitive psychology about situations in which cognitive dissonance can be avoided.

    As to debates between those who believe in G-d (any god/G-d) and those who believe in the non-existence of a G-d/god , they are on equally shaky grounds, as in that neither can be proven, and such debates will necessarily lead to a leap of faith in either believing that there is a G-d/god or that there isn't.