An open mind means being willing to question your own dearly held convictions when faced with new evidence; it’s a rare gem to possess, but one nobly worthy of pursuit.
Many newly minted atheists have given up on god(s), but they seem to be tied to the religious baggage that went along with these beliefs. I’ve seen this most recently in the discussions on atheist web sites about the Gaza conflict, where people ignore actual history and law, and stick to positions that are a mere parroting of religious backed positions. As a lawyer, trained in international law, I find it highly amusing and rather disappointing when people tell me why something is a “war crime” or “illegal” when their position (often unknown to them) is based solely on religious presumptions and political propaganda. Getting rid of god(s) is easier than getting rid of religious dictated prejudices that have been drilled into you since childhood. The key to knowing that you suffer from this affliction, and the way to cure it, is to seek an “open mind” on topics that you may think you already “know” and understand.
You frequently see it online, where someone brings up a “fact” which is taken from a source that the other side questions, not because of the “fact,” but because of the source. A healthy dose of skepticism is good, but an outright rejection of something just because of the source can often be counterproductive.
It’s a normal human condition to trust things that you have had a good experience with and to distrust things that have disappointed you based on prior unproductive interactions. But skepticism does not equate with automatic dismissal.
It may have been my Grandmother or a grade school teacher who told me: “No one is right every time, and no one is wrong all the time.” Even Ken Ham (a famous American proponent of creationism) probably has some things to say that I could agree with or learn from, although admittedly it’s unlikely to be in the areas of science or religion, but you never know.
In our current world, it’s very easy to only listen to news reports that agree with your personal political perspective. You can choose what to read, and you can confine your information intake to only those views with which you are currently in agreement. But this limits and narrows your perspective on the world. Let’s acknowledge that it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to consistently spend the time necessary to canvas all perspectives on any ordinary issue of current concern. You can only watch one news source at a time, and whether you choose CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, RT, Fox, CCTV, NHK World, or France 24, it doesn’t matter.
What is important is that you don’t automatically dismiss something because of its source. If it’s about an issue of importance to you, then you should make an effort to check out the conflicting reports. I am not within the American conservative movement on most issues, and therefore see no reason to follow popular pundits for this perspective, such as Rush Limbaugh (a popular author and radio talk show host). But that doesn’t mean that I would consider everything he says to be false or without merit. The same goes for pronouncements from military governments (like the present one in Thailand, where I live) or by the Israeli Defense Force. Even though I have found their pronouncements many times in the past to be self-serving propaganda, and often outright lies, this is not the case for everything they say.
When you dismiss information that does not conform with your particular view of an event or “fact” take the time to ask yourself where your own conviction comes from. Could you source it? When people tell me that the reason they believe something is because “everyone knows,” then it sounds like indoctrination to me, and often this has come from religion or religious affiliated schools or politicians or news sources with a particular agenda. Often, these are designed to promote a certain religion, denigrate someone else’s religion, or promote a course of action beneficial to some religious group. Just look at the discussions in America on tax laws, which are partly dictated by efforts to support or defend various religious groups’ tax privileges (such as tax exemptions on investment earnings and “parsonage” rights for religious leaders) and on the issue of whether corporations are “people” and are therefore entitled to the freedom to practice their “religion” and discriminate against people who hold different beliefs.
Many things that you may feel strongly about, like abortion, birth control, sexual activities, social programs to assist the poor, land and water rights, environmental issues, whether there is such a thing as a “just” war, and many other topics may very well have been based on a religious underpinning when you were developing your opinion on them. Only by being open-minded enough to look at opposing opinions and “facts” can you really determine whether your own opinions are honestly held based on evidence and consistently applied reason. Many people will find that some of their most cherished opinions are inextricably linked to the religion of their childhood or the religious prejudices of the community in which they grew up or live today.
When you reject information solely because of its source, you start to sound like a creationist, who rejects everything that doesn’t conform to their religious texts. Information should only be rejected based on its merits. If the person speaking is an acknowledged bigot, or was a slave owner (like most famous people in antiquity), or has a political agenda, then by all means have a higher standard of skepticism than you might normally apply. But just because you dislike some feature of their past or personality, it doesn’t mean that what they are saying now is false or lacking in merit. Being willing to not reject something out of hand is not the same as being credulous, as I am not advocating accepting everything you hear. I am just advocating that you be willing to investigate claims that challenge your own accepted beliefs, and be willing to self-examine where your own opinions come from and what justifies them.
Keeping an open mind is the only way to avoid the trap of dogmatic thinking. If new evidence comes to light, you may want to change your opinion and you would certainly want to have the correct facts available to you. Finding out if the facts have indeed changed is often dependent upon exposure to what you may consider as an otherwise “unreliable” source.
Always remember the adage: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” If your eyes are closed to opinions that contradict your own, you will never notice a change in facts and you are little better than a religious believer shackled to an unproven text extolling the benefits of a non-existent god. Don’t be a slave to your own ignorance. Know where your opinions, especially the strongly held ones, came from and be brave enough to question them.
Photo Credit: Andrew R.