without understanding an opponent's position, you'll never learn anything. For all you ever get is confirmation of your own agenda.
- Kel on Pharynugla
People like to have opinions about everything - from politics to religion, philosophy, science, technology, parenting, etc. It's natural as humans to have opinions and to want those opinions validated, mostly by those close to us. We form groups of like minded people who share similar values and ostracise other groups. This of course can sterilise conversation, and ideas as a group becomes homogeneous, back-patting and dogmatic. Without a contrarian, without doubt, our ideas can never be challenged and we may never discover if we are ever wrong.
There are of course, some ideas which transcend opinion and are in the realm of facts and truths. The lack of (serious) flat earth societies is testament to the idea that peoples minds can be changed when it comes to issues of undeniable fact even if our basic intuitions (the earth looks flat) fail us. This doesn't work in all cases - to steal the ironic title of Ray Comfort's new book "You can bring a person to knowledge, but you can't make them think". The irony being that Ray has consistently been given the information, yet wilfully ignores it.
The difference between wilful ignorance and natural ignorance is the question of will. There are always going to be two sides (or more) to a story, and especially for controversial issues, the fact that a multitude of people exist on the other side means that you ought not to ignore it. Some people might be too scared to question their opinions or ideas they have for many reasons, including social ostricization, fear of hell, fear of being wrong, fearing the consequences, or an unhealthy belief that their position is indisputable - irrespective of what the other group has to say. Others are just arrogant and stubborn...
Natural ignorance is understandable. No one person knows everything, and some of us just go with our gut when it comes to things we do not know about. The question is, are you able to admit that you are not knowledgeable about something and that you might be wrong. If the answer is yes, then you are showing humility and an open mind. If you say no, you are probably closed minded and wilfully ignorant. Even if you believe you are knowledgeable about something, there is always a chance you might have missed something or new information has come to light. In either case, is there any justification for ever closing ones mind?
A novel idea I learned in high school when debating was to be put in *any* position. Which is to say, instead of just debating the side you already believe in, there is a chance you might need to defend the other point of view - even if you do not believe it. This is where debating becomes a game about convincing people you are right, or winning, even if you are in opposition to what is being proposed. This is the game lawyers play, especially in criminal cases where they know they are defending someone who really did commit the crime. Naturally there are bound to be sandbaggers who will present the case they do not believe in, in a negative light to convince people that point of view has no merit. This would make them fail the class or make their record look bad!
The easiest way to distinguish between someone who is wilfully ignorant and naturally ignorant is to ask them to argue for the other side. If they are unable to come up with even the basis of a cogent argument - they do not understand the other side. If someone claims they have "done the research" or presents themselves as an authority, yet does not present "common knowledge", it becomes trivial to identify those who have serious objections to those who are sandbagging for their cause. Sometimes it can be frustrating when you know someone is being wilfully ignorant - and you want to call them out on it.
I highly recommend Christians take the Debunking Christianity Challenge.
One of the next books on my list of books to read is "Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity" by John W. Loftus.
If there is one thing the "new atheists" cannot deal with, it's that fact that none of them were ever apologists for a faith and lost it, so they do not really understand the other point of view.