Are Punitive Approaches the Best Way to Change Minds?

chains on a fence
Photo by Jose Fontano on Unsplash

Every one of us has encountered people who hold views we detest. We have all experienced anger when encountering someone who expresses such views. We know they are wrong, but the problem is more serious than that. They are wrong in a way that is bad for us because the more their views win out, the more likely ours are to lose. When their views gain traction, ours are set back. This could be a political ideology, some form of bigotry, or something else. It makes sense that we would oppose such views and desire to prevent them from taking hold.

Views of this sort do not exist in a vacuum; many people hold them. These are people who, much like most of us, are capable of changing their minds from time to time. If you doubt that people can and do change their minds, remember that you are reading the words of an ex-Christian. Some of the people who hold views you find abhorrent will change their minds despite anything you do. The question is whether you might be able to contribute to that in some way. That is, can you facilitate the process of another person changing his or her mind?

You can. In fact, there is a great deal you can do to help achieve this sort of change. Of course, there are even more things you can do to make it less to occur. Like the god in which many Christians believe, you can "harden hearts" and strengthen the opposition to your views. With a little effort, you can make people more determined to work against you. We attack some groups out of an understandable desire to correct perceived social injustices. This sometimes backfires.

Punishing those who express views with which we disagree can do some good. It feels good, and it may reduce the expression of such views. Unfortunately, this effect often seems to be temporary. Because punishment suppresses these views without changing minds, it usually drives them underground. They remain unchanged, festering until they emerge again. And we often seem unprepared for their re-emergence.

Things are not as simple as I am making them sound. But our efforts to punish those who say things we don't like can make it less likely those who hold these views will change their minds. And because of that, our punitive measures often seem to make it more likely that these views will persist. In some cases, we may even be strengthening them. If we want meaningful and lasting change, we would do better to focus on changing minds.

The atheists who are familiar with street epistemology could play a role in these efforts. Many atheists have applied these methods with some success to religious believers. We have learned that there are more effective means of helping to change minds than frontal assaults and angry arguments. Why not heed this lesson in other contexts?

In closing, I'll leave you with one more thought to which I expect most atheists to be able to relate. Think of a time when you were interacting with a Christian and they threatened you with the hell they imagine. How helpful was this in bringing you around to their point of view? Did you fall on your knees and embrace their Jesus? And when they accused you of being evil and started calling you names, did that make you more likely to renounce your atheism? Is it that hard to imagine that calling conservatives (or whoever else) names might affect them in a similar way?

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