On Debating With Theists….

Posted on April 18, 2011. Filed under: Apologetics, Atheism, Atheist Ethics, Religion |

Today I read (and watched) two posts that deal with what happens when atheists and theists discuss religious claims.  One is a video from “The Atheist Experience” that was brought to my attention by my good friend Dan of Camels With Hammers.  The other is a post by Christian friend of this blog John Barron Jr. of Truth in Religion and Politics, where he waxes nostalgic about a debate he had with an atheist on the subject of the burden of proof in debates.  Both are worth checking out for entirely different reasons.

The “Atheist Experience” clip shows what happens when theists make unsubstantiated claims and then honestly follow their own logic.   A weaker man would have resorted to changing the subject, or getting angry, or hanging up, but the caller honestly listens to the host and eventually concedes the point.

In the other post, John argues that if someone wants to claim that any statement is false, they must come prepared with evidence- that to take a stand against a proposition, you must first prove that proposition false.  Though I agree that we ought to be willing to back up our claims, I still hold that all propositions are not created equal:

From “Win By Default” by John Barron Jr:

In any discussion there is no default position, since once a proposition is offered, there are only three options, and two of them must be defended:

  • Affirm the proposition.

If someone offers “P is true”, and you concede P is true, there is nothing more to discuss.  The debate is over.

  • Deny the proposition.

If someone offers “P is true”, and you deny the truth of P, your position if skepticism does not protect you from defending your position.  Neither the one affirming, or the one denying the existence of the plane is correct by default.  Since before the claim is made, there is no position at all, there is nothing to defend.  But once P is offered in either direction, no one is correct by default.  A denial is in fact a position.

  • Withhold judgement for further information.

Here you are neither affirming or denying P, and thus are offering no position, and have a burden of proof.  It is only this soft-Agnosticism which bears no burden.  But this is not what GOD or the skeptic argues.  Like affirming P, this also ends the discussion.

It is important to realize no one sits in a position of privilege in any discussion.  Everyone has an opinion, and every opinion requires justification.

Anyhow, the video is 12 minutes of pure genius, and John’s post will leave you with something to think about…even if it is a bit convoluted.

Follow the links, and I welcome discussion.

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19 Responses to “On Debating With Theists….”

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Agreed, George, she does a great job and role models perfectly what must be done to win an argument with a theist—you have to patiently keep them on the same topic long enough to get them to concede the point. Let them hop around at the first sign of challenge to each point and they never feel thoroughly refuted. You have to make them defend a position until they realize they have nothing or they will evade forever.

I have not debated much with theists. Here in Finland religion is seen as a very private matter. That is the result of the marriage of state and the lutheran church, wich derives from the medieval times, when a swedish king needed the money of the church to run his wars. When the state and church are in unison, most people are christians, but never even think about it. So, they have no grounds from wich to argue for their alledged faith, since they have never given it a second thought. That makes people very uneasy to speak about religion. It is simply a generally accepted cultural tradition.

There are of course the religious conservatives. A small minority, but I think one has to recognize them as first and foremost conservatives, and only secondly as christians. What Jesus said is actually secondary to the conservative values these people hold. Christianity is just a symbol for the “good old days” for them. If the religion holds some values that fit the mindset of the “lost golden age” (like seeing homosexuality as a perversion, or only men as priests), those are defended vigorously, but more radical values a religion might present (like actually taking care of the poor, or virtue of poverty), are not so popular within the conservative community. Conservative mind set grows from the fear of loosing all the good you allready hold.

There was no Lutheran church in the Middle Ages

Oh, I am sorry. This is totally oftopic, but since Camels With Hammers brought it up, I suppose this has to be cleared up. Renneisance was a cultural shift that started in Italy during the middle ages allready in the 13th century by Dante Allighieri and such people. In the late 15th century it was strongly affecting Germany where one of renneisances cultural impacts was the demands of reformation of church by Martin Luther. Finland was a duchy of Sweden and they were both part of political alliance led by Denmark – the Kalmar Union. By the early 16th century Sweden broke away from the Union (once again) and the leader of the rebels Gustav Vasa was elected king (in Sweden kings were elected through the middle ages). Historians say that this crowning in 1523 marks the end of middle ages in Sweden, and the beginning of an era called rennaisance, but the culture did not change overnight.

Incidentally it was the same king who demolished the Roman catholic church from Sweden and let the new Lutheran church to be initiated by appointing a Lutheran archibishop Laurentius Petri in 1531. The pope had supported an archibishop who was in collaboration with the danes. At the time Sweden was at war with Denmark in Skåne and with Russia in Finland. The realm was in desperate need of funds and catholic church had plenty. The king confiscated most of these and even demolished the proud castles of the former catholic bishops who in many ways had acted as warlords. The king made a choise between two religious sects, and chose the one that was more appealing in political and economical terms. We do not know how king Gustav thought about gods, but he certainly was a man of the renneisance, in that he did not fear to act against the church. On the other hand his realm was thoroughly medieval in essence. So maybe I was hasty to claim this happened in medieval times, but I could not see the relevance of the detail to the conversation. Possibly you find it in your hearts to forgive me, now that you see what I meant.

Very interesting. You’re forgiven.

I love the phone call video – damn that epistemological argument! What I love about this video is that she does not go all “New Atheist” and intolerant on this person. She utilizes the Socratic method, and comes from an almost empathetic stand point.

I haven’t really argued with Theists off the internet because I like my job, and my job happens to exist in a very conservative culture where Religion is shoved down our throats.

Unfortunately, anything that I say will be like preaching to the converted.

I already agree with you, and I know how you came to Atheism because it was similar to my own logical path.

Hey K!
What surprised me is that the caller didn’t hang up, or get angry, or fall into Bible verses, or other such silliness. It doesn’t happen often, believe me, most people can’t let good logic get in the way of a bad idea. If only every conversation went like that….

I wouldn’t argue with theists if I thought my job was at stake either. I can tell you that it was some of these internet dialogues that brought me from soft theism to atheism, so it does some good to keep talking. I definitely didn’t turn 180 degrees based on just these conversations, but they can help people to pull back the curtain if they already suspect that there is nothing substantial behind it.

Your blog rocks, by the way. I’d recommend it to anyone.

I just wanted to respond to the question posed in the video, “…how do you differentiate between a rare event you don’t think miraculous and a miraculous rare event?”

Answer: If the event occurs ONLY ONE TIME, and never repeats itself, I suppose that would qualify as being a miraculous rare event. An example might be virgin birth…or Jesus Christ catching the fish with Peter and the gang…or the resurrection of Jesus Christ…

Albeit rumors, these rumored events are said to have occurred at one point in human history…and have not since been repeated.

Of course, in light of this, things could get messy, as it appears that the appearance of a planet like Earth which is capable of producing and sustaining life upon it, was a ONE TIME EVENT, and a very fortunate one, for we humans…and of this event and the chain of resulting events, good night! this leads to EVERYTHING in existence in this universe originating from some miraculous rare event…to the tune of having only happening once, which is currently known by man.

Christ was also rumored to have been quite a balanced, as well as intelligent man, and for some reason he had assessed the human heart and declared that, “an adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign…”

What if God’s logic has designated faith (meaning “to believe”)…as opposed to science (which means “to know”)…as the only means to finding God? What would this mean, if it were to one day prove to be TRUTH? Could there be some wisdom in the designation of faith.

If so, then no theist will ever be able to logically prove, via argument or otherwise, that God actually exists…for, this would be an arrogant thing to do…and antithetical to “the logic of God.”

A better line to argue would be to argue the wisdom in designating faith…the wisdom of a God allowing us the dignity, of our own volition, to seek God out if and when we are ready to do so and so forth??

Of course, if all the other humans are anything like myself, they would all have to be at their “nadir” before they would turn and seek out God…only when all else had (has) failed him, does man truly seek God out with all of the earnestness he possesses within him.

Anyway, good post…the video was great.

Katie.

I just wanted to respond to the question posed in the video, “…how do you differentiate between a rare event you don’t think miraculous and a miraculous rare event?”

Answer: If the event occurs ONLY ONE TIME, and never repeats itself, I suppose that would qualify as being a miraculous rare event. An example might be virgin birth…or Jesus Christ catching the fish with Peter and the gang…or the resurrection of Jesus Christ…

Albeit rumors, these rumored events are said to have occurred at one point in human history…and have not since been repeated.

Resurrection stories were fairly common throughout the ancient world. Even in the Bible there are several. Off the top of my head, either Elijah or Elisha (or both) resurrect people, Jesus resurrects Lazarus, in the Old Testament there is one guy risen by a medium who complains about it. And of course there is the allegation that the holy people all rose from the dead after the crucifixion.

Of course, in this case, they’re all fictional stories, which is beside the point Tracie makes in the video. But still, even by the Bible’s own standard, being a “one time only thing” is not at all the mark of a miracle.

I once had a personally close person to me suffering from serious paranoia, and the symptoms of a “true believer” are freighteningly similar. A debate will most often lead to nowhere. Their reality is based on imaginary events and characters, whose existance or actions are not verifiable by any means. If you try to reason with a person suffering from paranoia or faith, their delusions will only get confimation from your doubt. They are very faithfull to the construction of their own mind, but also alter it to fit any new angle you might present, or they simply dismis your proposal and evidence as not fitting their paranoia/faith.

There simply is not enough proof you can present to have a paranoid or faithfull person to accept something that does not fit into their delusion. They are willing to take any old prophesies and fairytales as true, if they support their delusions. The flipside of faith is dissbelief. Even the results of natural sciences are dissbelieved, if they do not fit the picture with paranoia/faith.

The only major difference between faith and paranoia is that religion is a historical and cultural phenomenon that indoctrinates children and supports this kind of paranoia, by providing an “equal opportunity” group, for the victims. Most people drawn into religions are not actual “true believers”. They are just people living normal lives, and going through some rites of their particular cultural sphere. Religion provides economically for a legion of priests, ministers and other personnel, who act like they had a cure for the illness. Like they actually had a cure for the discontent and fears the faithfull are suffering. All the while they are only strenghtening the sickness. So, when the blind lead the blind – Get out of the way!

Religion is a disease of the society while the faith is a disease of the mind. They act to prevent people from taking action for a more tolerant and just culture and society. The few who govern us and own most of the property on Earth are often very able to use this to their benefit. People awaiting for a better world in the next life, do not see this one as valuable as we do, who expect no afterlife.

Many of the theists also hold sacred that morality is a set of rules given by gods. As if there were no causal reasons for doing right or wrong, other than a reward or punishment in the afterlife. To me this reminds of psychopates and narcists, who do things only for their own personal benefit. As if other people and the envarioment were just consumption items. If you claim to a theist, that doing good is a reward in it self, he/she is sure to answer that without divine punisment or reward people would have no morality. If you say, you see yourself as a moral person, even if you do not expect to be rewarded or punished in the afterlife, they reply you are not a moral person because you have no faith. But where does a person conjur faith for something he/she sees is totally fancifull? For something that has no valid evidence.

How can any sane person think it is a work of a righteous god to save only those who worship the correct deity (of the thousands of alledged gods) in a particular way, from an eternal pain? This kind of morality is so twisted and selfrighteous. Perhaps it is simply tribal thinking making non sect members seem as less human? How can you debate with a paranoid psychopat or nacist? Not by emphaty, nor with reason.

These people do not need debates. What they need, is professional help.

Religion is a disease of the society while the faith is a disease of the mind.

Wow. Hyperbole, much?

“Disease”? Really?

Certainly, people of faith (and angry people and people of no faith and, well, people) make bad decisions, get caught up in their own agendas and preconceptions, but they are not alone in that.

This sort of demonization is not unlike the sort of demonization done by some religious types. “If they disagree with me, they must be evil.” says one group. “If they disagree with me, they must be diseased or mentally ill,” says another group.

We might all benefit by taking the rhetoric down a notch or two, seems to me.

On this blog, I fully encourage everyone to “say what they mean and mean what they say”, there is no moderation, and I don’t ban people or close threads. If people can’t take a dissenting opinion, they ought to find a different blog. What I will do is insist that people stand behind their comments or be prepared to retract them. I do not tolerate drive by hatred or charged hyperbole, and if you won’t defend your ideas, I might take action. Expect that if I disagree, I will put you to task. I don’t want “tone trolls” here, so if you have a different point of view, present it. Please don’t whine that others are being mean.
If rautakyy makes a comment, he will defend it. I trust him to do this. He is no drive-by.

That said, I think rautakyy (who really needs to get a more English friendly name) is making a valid, if slightly too generalized, observation. The line between sane Christianity and sociopathic fundamentalism is clearly visible. Those Christians who pray for every little thing (OCD), live in constant fear of Hell or a vengeful God (paranoid), believe in Young Earth Creationism (ADD/Fantasy world), believe that transgressors need to die (functionally psychopathic), or believe that God is Omnibenevolent, full of Grace yet wants to punish people eternally in HELL (multiple personality disorder)-really do give one the impression that faith has a mental illness bent to it. Granted, not all Christians think or feel this way, but those that do help to make functional, sane, Christians express some pretty insane ideas from time to time.
I wonder if one can truly express faith without some degree of compartmentalization or appeal to fantasy, though rautakyy’s comments appeal to stereotyping and excess hyperbole.
So he has a point, and he doesn’t have a point.

George…

Those Christians who pray for every little thing (OCD), live in constant fear of Hell or a vengeful God (paranoid), believe in Young Earth Creationism (ADD/Fantasy world), believe that transgressors need to die (functionally psychopathic), or believe that God is Omnibenevolent, full of Grace yet wants to punish people eternally in HELL (multiple personality disorder)-really do give one the impression that faith has a mental illness bent to it.

Of course they do.

My only point is that I’d think we would do better to talk about specific behaviors, not generalize about groups.

Many people “infected” with religion are quite sane and rational and calling all belief systems “diseased” seems to be as over-the-top and problematic for common cultural interaction as those religious folk who call “the gays” demonic, evil or perverse or who say that those who disagree with them are infidels or heretics, simply because they disagree, or that the Democrats are “socialists…’

I’m just saying that in general, a more toned down, less rhetorical approach is the best way to hold communal conversations.

I’m glad you’re not of the camp that bans comments. I’m not either.

Off the topic, but on that note, why is it, do you think, that this “banning” and “moderating” thing seems to be a religious right phenomenon in Blogsville? I’m not talking about moderating or deleting outright trolls or spam, but just deleting or not posting folk for expressing the wrong opinion? I see this over and over on the Religious Right blogs and no where else (although I’m sure it exists).

Is that a phenomena that only I’ve noticed or have you seen this to be true, too?

First,
Be careful to re-read rautakyy’s comments. He couches his generalization in paragraph 2:

The only major difference between faith and paranoia is that religion is a historical and cultural phenomenon that indoctrinates children and supports this kind of paranoia, by providing an “equal opportunity” group, for the victims. Most people drawn into religions are not actual “true believers”. They are just people living normal lives, and going through some rites of their particular cultural sphere. Religion provides economically for a legion of priests, ministers and other personnel, who act like they had a cure for the illness. Like they actually had a cure for the discontent and fears the faithfull are suffering. All the while they are only strenghtening the sickness.

Emphasis mine.

I believe sometimes we read more into a comment than is necessary- because our minds perceive what we want them to say instead of what they do say. I agree that the tone is harsh, and the language barrier that R. faces makes his comments sometimes less clear, but he clearly says that he is not talking about all Christians but a particular subset.

I agree that rhetoric can be a stumbling point on the path to meaningful conversation, but so can assigning ideas to people that they never expressed. True dialogue is a give and take proposition, we must all strive for humility, nobility, and clarity.

To your question about moderation, banning, and editing. I have said here and elsewhere that it is a predominantly religious phenomenon. I can count on one hand the number of non-religious bloggers who have a moderation policy. If you cut off my arm at the elbow, I could still count on the bloody stump the amount of people I know to be “banned” from comment on atheist blogs. I consider it to be an admission of fear that your ideas could be wrong, or that you fear dissent in general. I have warned one visitor about link dumping, and would warn someone if I felt that they were not forwarding a position. I am not a stickler for “on-topic” comments, as you can see by my threads. I don’t force my friends to stick to a single topic in person, and I won’t do it here unless I find it disruptive to the rest of my readers.
I always, 100% of the time, publish comments that I disagree with. Most religious sites do not. Many will allow just enough comments to appear to be addressing dissenters and then ban further discussion once they make their point. To me, I see it as a microcosm of the competing worldviews. When someone is after truth, they want to listen, question, assert, repeat. When someone feels they have the truth, they just want to be heard, sympathized, congratulated, and agreed with.
I will caution that I believe this behavior to be more ingenuous than allowing ideas but not addressing them. At least those who moderate and ban are honest enough to say “I don’t really give two licks what you think, I am right by fiat“, instead of saying they listen when they have “no ears to hear”. At least as far as they are forthcoming with their admission of closing the door to dissent.

I wonder how many of these people feel that they are forwarding the “Great Commission” by refusing to speak to people where they are.

George…

I always, 100% of the time, publish comments that I disagree with. Most religious sites do not.

I’m assuming you have not done a statistical analysis, and that you mean “most religious sites that I have been to…”?

I’ve never run across a progressive religious site that does this, but I’ve seen it on, I’d guess, 90-95% of the conservative religious blogs I’ve been to, and maybe 50-75% of the conservative non-religious sites I’ve visited.

That is only anecdotal, though. I’d be interested in a serious survey of blogs – I’d bet you’d find that this is more or a conservative thing than a liberal thing, and much more of a religious right thing than anything else.

Just a guess.

Touche.
Yes, I am referring to my anecdotal experience. I don’t frequent too many liberal religious blogs, and maybe that is why I am surprised to meet accommodating Christians. I have only been to three religiously themed blogs that do not moderate comments, and one is a close personal friend.

RE: I agree that rhetoric can be a stumbling point on the path to meaningful conversation, but so can assigning ideas to people that they never expressed.

True, true. And my apologies if I jumped the gun on the fella with the difficult name. Still, I’d contend that he’d have been better off in couching his point right from the start, rather than making a blanket-sounding statement.

I appologize my harsh tone. The trouble about internet conversation is, that when you try to convey a thought in a short message, you easily end up to overly simplyfy. And my message was rather long even as it was. My tone was also a result of a shock from a realization I just had about the similarity of the symptoms I described.

I am a socialist (not at all a liberal democrat like you understand that in the US). I do not take Karl Marx as some sort of prophet, but it really struck me when I suddenly realized what he said about religion held so much truth. It was his evaluation of the position of church in his day. Even though, much has changed, it still holds freighteningly true in some respects. I have grown in an atheist family. Most people I have ever dealt with are secular christians. I have a couple of friends who are very religious, and I did not say they were “evil” in any particular way. What I mean is, that in my view they have a personal problem. That said, I must emphasize that I do not think the word normal is normally correctly used. It usually refers to the majority of people who supposedly have nothing wrong or are totally healthy and functioning parts of society. Most of us may be functioning parts of society, but all of us have our histories, and perks. That is what makes us individuals. Many have personal problems or irrational fears. Most will learn to live with their problems. Maybe it is over medicalization to call faith or racism clinical, but they are the kind of perks that do cause problems and are not bound in logic by any ties. This is the trouble with debating many theists, as their claims made no logical sense in the first place, how can one converse logically. What I mean with professional help, is a person who has the patience to go through all the aspects and hideouts, a paranoid/faithfull mind has created.

A fact is that evolution is never “ready”, so anomalies are a natural state of things. Even though, faith is an unhealthy state of mind, it is a personal problem most often not even recognized, because like with alcoholism, recognition of the problem is the first step on a path to healing. In a society where most people are alcoholics, it is the sober person who has the problem. It his/her problem to explain why he/she does not drink, and surely he/she will be looked upon as a suspect, for thinking him/herself as a moral superior to others. Only when faith is organized into a religion it may become a cultural problem. Personal faith is not something most people assume, it is the religious cultural indoctrination process, which binds even smart people into the machine. When people are unified under one religious (or political) culture and “truth”, they will be lead by powerhungry demagogues. When morality is drawn from the “supreme authority” of tribal thinking of some ancient culture, not in any way relevant in the modern world, it may be used to do some real damage. That said I still think we have much to learn from ancient civilizations and philosophers like Jesus, Aristoteles, Hypatia or Christin de Pisan, just to name few. It is however important not to start worshipping them as deities, so that what they actually said could be heard. Otherwise we end up building fabrications on top of their ideals, and creating personal cults. No one has ever been infallible. This is the most important thing we have to understand.

One of the biggest problems the world today is facing is overpopulation. Now, people of sound reasoning and mind, who themselves use contraception, support a religious system where an old man, wearing skirts and believed to be infallible representative of a god on earth, denies millions of people, in the countries most voulnerable to the effects of overpopulation, any form of contraception on religious reasons. This is just one example, but maybe it clarifies my point.

The fanatic christians seem to have a completely different perspective to the bible than the moderate ones. It is a completely different ideology. A fanatic is a fanatic, even if he/she is a fanatic atheist. It propably is mostly the fanaticism, that is behind what seems like an ilness of the mind within religion. However, the fundamentalists have read the bible, and found some really nasty parts of it that they choose to emphasize. The problem is, that those parts about stoning homosexuals and genosides god ordered for the israelites to perform are there. Even if the christians with otherwise modern morality have discarded the slavery, it still is admonished in the bible. So, is the bible a true word of a god or is it just an old book?

I am not expecting the fanatic religious people to come to their senses. I am hoping the secular and reasonable believers, stop granting the small fanatic minority the political power they weild, by supporting an outdated system of morals.

Thank you George W for defending me while it was night on this side of the planet. I will not relinguish my name, since it is a part of my cultural identity, but if you wish, you may call me R or whatever suits you better.

you can just not accept a proposition because the support for it is lacking, you don’t have to have a replacement to reject a claim

something that theists are confused about

not accepting their claim does not mean that we are asking them to accept anything, we’re just not accepting their claims

and they are the ones out to convert people


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