Changing Minds Is More Fun When It’s Your Own

By Wendy Thomas Russell | May 10, 2012 | 13 comments

Yesterday I was helping a friend put together a digital photo book for her daughter. She had arranged all the pictures herself, and I was going through the book adding text and repositioning things. In looking through the photos she had discarded, I found some great shots. I mean, really great shots. Some of them were the sort of unstaged, unscripted family shots that tell a real story. Others were just adorable pictures of her daughter that I couldn’t believe she’d overlooked.

I really wanted to make the book as good as it could be, so I made the executive decision to swap out a few of the pictures for others. In a montage from her daughter’s birthday party for instance, I took out a picture of the backs of children’s heads and replaced it with one of her daughter’s smiling face.

The result of my well-intentioned inerference was… not so good.

Within hours, my friend had seen the changes I’d made and written an e-mail, slapping me on the wrist as nicely as she could. When I revisited the book, all the beautiful shots were gone.

And you know what? I didn’t blame her.

Although I failed to see it at the time, there was a lot of arrogance and presumptuousness in what I did. Now, let me say this: I’m confident, based on my photography experience, that the pictures I chose were of a higher quality than the ones already placed in the book. I know a dozen professional photographers who would back me up on that.

But some things are not about facts, and photography is one of them.

I talk in this blog a lot about backing out of the mindset that keeps us from viewing religious people compassionately. Often, non-theists will tell themselves they can’t respect religion — or, by proxy, religious people — because religion is a fallacy. In this era of science, belief in ghosts and heavens and higher powers is a rejection of reason, they say. How can we support faith in any way, when faith is so obviously false?

But let’s say my friend’s opinion is her faith. She believes her pictures are the best of the bunch — but I know different. Can’t I just try to talk to her about it? Can’t I show her manuals on photography, and discuss what makes one picture better than another? Won’t she listen if I explain to her about lighting and pixels and the rule of thirds? The book will be better, will it not? The end result will justify the means, yeah?

The thing is, my friend doesn’t give a shit what the manuals say. She couldn’t care less about the shadows, resolution or positioning. In her mind, each of those photos is infused with memories. She was there when the picture was taken; she knows what was happening the second the shutter clicked, and what happened after. She knows the people in the photos, and their relationships to her and to her daughter. She remembers what was important about that day. She is keenly aware of every minor shift in her family members’ faces, and what those shifts meant at the time. A smile is not just a smile when you’re looking at someone you love.

My pictures are the better shots — that’s the unbiased truth. But the value of that particular truth to my friend? It hovers somewhere around zero. So, in terms of religion, you know what I’m trying to say, right? About how faith is not about facts, but about feelings? And changing minds is not the same things as changing hearts?

I hope so. Frankly, I just don’t have time to spell it all out today. I’ve got a photo book to finish.

And it’s going to be great.


13 comments

  1. Danny Ray says:

    In this most interesting discussion, I posit the need to recognize and acknowledge we are all heretics, literally “choosers” in our personal preference of belief. Perhaps the secret is to learn to laugh and smile not just at others, but especially ourselves. In the nitty-gritty of day-to-day discussions, one soon concludes strongly held personal axioms (aka-“self evident beliefs”) are not so universally self-evident to others.

    In terms of allowing religion to legislate how non-adherents should behave, I am totally against Sharia-type laws from any religion. There is a difference between making an impact/influence and exerting control/coercion in relationships. In the smorgasbord of beliefs, is it our job to restrict unsavory items less cognitive individuals find intellectually palatable? We however do have the mutual right and responsibility to not shove unwanted beliefs down fellow citizens’ throats by controlling the political or legal machine. A quote attributed to Jefferson is fitting-“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

    An old proverb states-“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Hopefully in relationships with those with whom we disagree, we can take the high road of dialogue in which any sparks generated can be used for illumination and not ignition. Unfortunately, dialogue if not done respectfully can rapidly degenerate reminding us that “anger is the wind that blows out the candle of reason.” Also in the process of busting bubbles and raining on parades, one should not just debunk, but also always kind heartedly offer an alternative recipe for hope. If you truly feel you are a guide to the blind and a light to those living in darkness, yet can only arrogantly extinguish optimism without possessing a more illuminating option, perhaps your privately held half-baked schemes should in fact remain private .

    What about the children? Edison once remarked “The greatest invention in the world is the mind of a child.” In the battle waged over the precious minds of children, can we ever legitimately restrict what others teach? Personally, I have concerns about parochial schools and home-schoolers, but also cringe when I see present in the theatre children obviously too young to process a movie accurately labeled as inappropriate for youngsters. When do we cross the line between freedom of choice and protecting from harm? Prohibitions on religious instruction, like the previous one on alcohol, will only make desire for religion stronger. Perhaps religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse, but any draconian attempts to protect the intellect of children from their parents will fail. Apropos is the bumper sticker that says “Stupid People Shouldn’t Breed.” Unfortunately, those less cognitively endowed seem to procreate more profusely than intellectuals. (See the Movie-“Idiocracy)

    As to ultimately where the change is going to come from, consider a lesson from the genre of the light-bulb joke. “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? It only takes one, but the light bulb has to want to change. Author Marilyn Ferguson is quoted as saying-“Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another…”
    I agree changing others is difficult, yet we need to always work to be agents of positive transformations by not only rattling the cages of our fellow primates while not forgetting to shake up our own.

  2. Chris Bartley says:

    > But some things are not about facts,
    > and photography is one of them.

    What?!? So it’s all subjective and there are no general, agreed-upon best practices such as lighting, focus, composition, etc. It’s all a fabrication (like religion/theology), untestable, grounded only in personal taste, there can be no experts, and the vast tomes which teach photography are all mere opinion. Balderdash. You must know this, too, because you later wrote “My pictures are the better shots — that’s the unbiased truth.”

    Still, setting that minor quibble aside, what has me really puzzled is why your friend sought your help in the first place. If she only wanted the photo book for personal use, with no intention of showing it to anyone else, or at least not to anyone outside the family that wouldn’t know the memories or be able to pick up on the subtle facial cues, then why bother asking for your (or any “outsider’s”) help with the photos? Presumably she chose you because of your photography expertise, right? You don’t find it even slightly annoying that you spent your valuable time helping out, only to have it all not only completely ignored but also rewarded with a virtual slap on the wrist?

    Sounds to me like your friend is looking a gift horse in the mouth.

    • Chris, I have a feeling you speak for a lot of people, so I’m glad you wrote. First off, let’s put aside the photo book discussion. You’ve made an awful lot of assumptions that aren’t true (my help was enlisted on for the writing bit), and it’s irrelevant anyway. So moving on…

      The biggest issues, as I read your comments, are: 1) whether photography and religion are subjective, 2) whether we can separate doctrine from religion, and how, and 3) whether there’s anything of value in religion besides lies, fiction and harmful practices.

      1. I think you misread my blog. I was acknowledging that in photography there are rules and facts and evidence for these facts, etc. That’s why I called my pictures “the better shots.” I’m arguing not that photography is subjective but that people’s enjoyment of photography is subjective. Photographers often tell me that their favorite shots from a photo shoot are almost NEVER the ones chosen by the customer as being their favorites. In those cases, the fact that a photo is “better” is meaningless. The photographer will (almost) always defer to THE PERSON BUYING THE PICTURES. This is true of religion, too. Atheism may be the truth, but it’s not important if a person doesn’t feel it. So what I’m trying to get at — and dammit if I didn’t want to spell it out! :-) — is that there’s really no benefit in trying to change someone’s mind about their own faith. It will just lead to hurt feelings; and hurting people’s feelings is not keeping genital mutilation from happening. Not by a long shot.

      2. Yes, we can separate the doctrine of religion from the spirituality of religion. Of course we can, and people do all the time. “I believe that a God is with me, listening to me, guiding me. I believe that Jesus was his prophet and that he taught me everything I need to know to be a happy person.” Is that not Christianity? Where in there is doctrine? Where is the part that you object to personally, Chris? Which part of that is so offensive that you can’t not speak out against it? Is it because it’s not true? There are lots of things that aren’t true. Have you ever put your kid in a Time Out? Because the current research shows that Time Outs are not only ineffective, but that they damage child-parent relationships. Lots of things that we think are true aren’t true. That’s the way of the world. If you’re going to go around judging people for thinking wrong things, then you better be ready to be judged right back. It’s a two-way street, and the ride isn’t pleasant.

      3. Is there anything of value to me? Not at all. I love being an atheist. It is, in part, because of atheism — not despite it — that makes me feel secure and confident and happy in the world. I find human beings fascinating and complicated and maddening and really lovely, and I think it’s all completely random — and I’m good with that! I feel a certain superiority with my “knowledge” because I believe I am 100 percent right. And as a result, I’m not out searching for anything. I’m enjoying my life to its fullest. (I’m even enjoying this!). And I feel no more fear about death than anyone else. But that’s me. I think lots of people could say the same about their religion. That they love it, that it makes them happy, confident, secure; that they feel superior; that they’re not searching; that they’re enjoying life to its fullest, that they have no more fear about death than anyone else.
      Are they right? I don’t think so.
      Does it matter? You tell me.

      I’m actually not sure I’ve answered all your questions, so let me know if I got off-track, and I’m happy to get back on. And thanks again. Fun to hash these things out, don’t you think?

      • Chris Bartley says:

        Hi Wendy,

        Thanks for the long and thought-provoking reply. Before anything else, though, Happy Mother’s Day. Your daughter is a lucky kid. :-)

        Second, sorry if my posts from last night came off dickish. It was late and I was tired, and they lacked needed smilies.

        Third–and I’m totally stealing this line from…uh, somebody smart–sorry the following is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter. :-)

        > First off, let’s put aside the photo book discussion.
        > You’ve made an awful lot of assumptions that aren’t true,
        > and it’s irrelevant anyway, since the real issue is
        > religion, right? So moving one…

        Fair enough. Deal. Apologies for the assumptions.

        > I’m arguing not that photography is subjective but that
        > people’s enjoyment of photography is subjective.

        Alright, I can buy that I guess. So on some level maybe you’re saying it’s akin to my longstanding, firmly-held position that pickles taste terrible and are a Vile and Disgusting Tool of the Devil. Or at least they’re strong evidence against the existence of a flawless and all-loving deity ;-) And no amount of talking trying to convince me otherwise will hold sway with my tongue. I guess the same could be said for photography, but I dunno. One can’t explain a flavor (except in terms of being like another), but someone *could* explain to me why I should appreciate Andy Warhol’s art, the technical details, why it is/was so important and revolutionary, etc. And while I could understand it on an intellectual level, it still likely wouldn’t grab me on an emotional level as does, say, Andy Goldsworthy’s.

        > …there’s really no benefit in trying to change someone’s
        > mind about their own faith.

        Proactively, maybe not. Debatable, but not now. What I was puzzled by was why you’d get slapped on the wrist for giving advice from someone who (I assumed…apparently wrongly) had asked for it. But we’ve already set that aside. But, if someone asks me why I don’t believe the bible is true and the word of god and they get offended by my answer (which will lean heavily on evidence provided by Bart Ehrman’s books), then…well, sorry. I can’t help it if someone chooses to ignore evidence and is offended when I present it when asked for it. I mean, I’m not going to be demeaning or a dick about it, but if requested evidence offends, that’s not something I can do much about.

        > Yes, we can separate the doctrines of religion from the
        > spirituality of religion. Of course we can, and people
        > do all the time. “I believe that a God is with me,
        > listening to me, guiding me. I believe that Jesus was his
        > prophet and that he taught me everything I need to know
        > to be a happy person.” Is that not Christianity? Where in
        > there is doctrine?

        Where is the doctrine? Seriously? :-) That looks riddled with doctrine to me. God, a god that listens to me, a god that guides me, Jesus as god’s prophet, etc. All doctrine. How could someone come to have those beliefs *without* doctrine (and indoctrination)? Personal revelation is all that’s left, no? It’s not coincidence and that billions of people believe Jesus was the son of God. That’s doctrine. Would billions of people all independently believe there is a god who listens, guides, etc. *without* doctrine? I doubt it.

        > Where is the part that you object to personally, Chris?
        > Which part of that is so offensive that you can’t not
        > speak out against it? Is it because it’s not true?

        Well, partially, yes. Seeking truth is very important to me. But the main objection is the one I made in the earlier post. If kept private and personal and harmless, then fine, believe whatever you want. Belief without evidence becomes a problem the instant is restricts the rights of others, harms them, teaches them anything other than (currently accepted) truth. It’s like the saying “your right to throw a punch ends at the tip of my nose”.

        > There are lots of things that aren’t true. … Lots of things
        > that we think are true aren’t true. That’s the way of the world.

        Yes, and it’s the unrelenting pursuit of truth that makes science so powerful and wonderful. What’s absolutely objectionable to me is the all-too-common attitude of “I hear you saying that there’s evidence contrary to my beliefs/claims, but I refuse to accept it or even examine it…oh, and I have no evidence to the contrary other than I know I’m right”. It’s different from ignorance. One can’t be blamed (or at least only to a MUCH lesser degree) for being ignorant of evidence, but that’s VERY different from willfully ignoring presented evidence.

        You gave the example of time-outs for kids. The difference I’m trying to illustrate is between one who would say, “oh, wow, I hadn’t heard that…thanks for telling me. I’m going to read more about it, find more effective techniques, etc.” and another who would say “I hear you, and I can see that you’re holding the medical journals supporting your claims, but I know I’m right so I’m ignoring you.”

        > If you’re going to go around judging people for thinking wrong
        > things, then you better be ready to be judged right back. It’s
        > a two-way street, and the ride isn’t pleasant.

        Maybe not, but it’s a great way to learn, refine your beliefs, be prompted to (re)examine evidence, etc. It’s exactly what scientists do every day (often to themselves).

        > …I’m not out searching for anything. I’m enjoying my life to its
        > fullest. (I’m even enjoying this!). And I feel no more fear about
        > death than anyone else. But that’s me. I think lots of
        > people could say the same about their religion. That they love
        > it, that it makes them happy, confident, secure; that they feel
        > superior; that they’re not searching; that they’re enjoying life
        > to its fullest, that they have no more fear about death than
        > anyone else. Are they right? I don’t think so. Does it matter? You
        > tell me.

        Again, if that’s the end of it, then…awesome. Seriously. Awesome. More power to ‘em. But we both know that that’s rarely the end of it, and it spills into desires/actions to indoctrinate/control/restrict others, and so on.

        > I’m actually not sure I’ve answered all your questions, so let me know
        > if I got off-track, and I’m happy to get back on.

        Nope, you’re spot on. I think we probably agree on a lot. I just suck at making English. ;-)

        > And thanks again. Fun to hash these things out, don’t you think?

        It’s a blast, and I appreciate it. Thank *you*.

        And Happy Mother’s Day. :-)

        Chris

        • Not dickish at all, Chris. I know this is my most “controversial” opinion, and I’m really grateful for your input. First off, you are so right: Doctrine is not the word I should have used. I’m not even sure if dogma is the word I was looking for. If I had a little more time, I’m sure I could come to it, but right now, I just have to acknowledge that I’m wrong: Belief in Jesus Christ is definitely doctrine!

          Maybe it all comes down to a risks-benefits analysis for me. There are things I really hate about religion, but all religion? Well, no. There are plenty of “liberal” places of worship out there that don’t bother me. And because so many of us these days — with the advent of science — have become pick-and-choosers when it comes to religious belief, I just can’t justify painting all religion with a broad brush. (I feel like I overuse that cliche, but sometimes it’s all that fits.) There are lots of things I hate about the United States. So many things we’ve done that make me just as sick as what the Al Qaeda did to us. But I still live here. Why? Because I love this country. Despite everything, I still love it. (Plus, my family is here, and I don’t want to learn a foreign language.) I know none of my analogies (including the photo book analogy) are right on point, but I do hope they all make my point. (Oh, by the way, my friend asked me to edit the writing in her book, not the photos… that was the issue.)

          I’m still thinking all this through myself, but more and more I’m uncomfortable with condemning religion as a whole. I don’t think it’s fair or right. It’s certainly not effective or attainable. It doesn’t help me to be a more compassionate person, and it definitely doesn’t help me teach my child to be more tolerant and open-minded. Call me crazy, but I think religion — as we know it today, at least — will eventually go away. Science will see to that. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens did a great job bringing atheism into the mainstream consciousness, they just don’t speak for me. than good. I truly believe that friendly compassion (WITHIN REASON!!) is the way to a happier life and a happier universe. If that means I’m an accommodationist, well, so be it.

          Okay, gotta run. Loving this discussion. Thanks, Chris!

  3. Derek says:

    My only issue is that someone’s photo preferences do not (as far as I am aware) lead to or dictate how they vote on gay rights or women’s rights or freedom of expression or a myriad other issues that religion holds a position on.
    Religion isn’t just about personal preference. Almost all religion tells people how all people should behave. As such individuals holding archaic views of human morality and behavior have a significant impact on those around them.
    That, at the end of the day, is why I care about religion and why I’d like to see most of it go away and why I do not care what someone’s preference of photograph album is.

    • Derek, I don’t think we’ll ever see eye to eye on this. But, for me, I think it comes down to this: There are religious doctrines and traditions that I absolutely despise; that make me sick; that make me angry; that make me want to tear people’s throats out. Now, I can choose to use those feelings to justify an opposition to religion as a whole (which I have done in the past, incidentally), or I can choose to separate those specific doctrines and traditions from religion as a whole. One of these ways seems kinder to me, more progressive, more effective, and far less exhausting.

      I choose that one.

      • Derek says:

        You may be right (about seeing eye to eye) but I am open to changing my mind. For me you hit on an important issue when you said “One of these ways seems kinder to me, more progressive, more effective, and far less exhausting.”

        I’m unsure about kinder and more progressive. Better to leave someone in their delusion or to shatter it? That may depend on the person.

        The more effective issue is the key for me. I only want to put a stop to those same things that make us both sick and angry. This debate is perhaps the same one between the accommodationalists and the confrontationalists. Are we going to see more success by trying to soften the doctrines of christians or by breaking the next generation of their christian programming before it takes root?

        No doubt it’s a bit of both, but from where is the majority of change going to come?

        I don’t doubt you’re right about less exhausting. However feeling I must accommodate that which is used to subjugate, control and disempower entire groups of people is, to me, very disheartening. How do you bring yourself to accept it? (I’m interested in how you got to that acceptance).

      • Chris Bartley says:

        But Wendy, where does one draw the line when choosing “to separate those specific doctrines and traditions from religion as a whole”? Clearly, some (a lot?) of it goes straight in the can–anything that harms or limits others physically, mentally, emotionally, etc. But what about beliefs that are clearly, demonstrably *wrong*? Like that the earth is less than 5000 years old. Or that evolution isn’t a fact. If Joe Schmo holds such a view, and keeps it entirely to himself and all the consequences of such beliefs never affect others, then, well, OK. Regrettable, but OK. But is that ever actually done in practice? What if Joe teaches his beliefs as fact to his kids? Kids who have a right to learn the truth (and beauty and wonder!) of reality on their own, and not be brainwashed by fiction and lies? Clearly they’re being harmed by such false beliefs, so those must be thrown out too.

        What’s left? I can only imagine that it’s just private, untestable, opinions and effectively secular traditions.

        So I’m genuinely curious…what would you keep?

  4. Harry Schaefer says:

    I think you are right on with this one. Improvement or refinement of someone else’s belief (religious, photographic or otherwise) is an arrogant journey. Only when a person wants something else will something else have any value. And, god damn it, they just might not ever want or need more than what their beliefs currently provide.

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