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It seems to me there is a wide (and widening) gap between what counts as a decent argument between many Theists and Non-Theists. This may just be me, and it may just be anecdotal, but I still think this difference merits at least a brief discussion.
I’m a debate-seeker. I actively seek out Theists who are interested in discussing the philosophical notions underpinning religious belief, the religious systems themselves, and the properness or improperness of various beliefs. Are these conversations frequently head-bangingly frustrating? You bet. But, I think they’re also of great importance for, in my opinion, the bridge between Theists and Atheists needs to be built, one laborious, frustrating plank at a time. That being said, I love the idea of such discussions when they’re good, which is to say when both the other person and I are interested in sussing out why we should believe what we do and in reaching a genuine understanding of the truth. I wish more of my conversations with Theists went like this…
Sadly, that sort of chat remains, more often than not, a illusory goal. I have plenty of chats, but never do they seem to be going anywhere. Sure, the people are polite and attentive; sometimes, they even seem really interested in what I have to say and in learning more about our differences. Still, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen horrible arguments brought out time and time again despite my plainly spelling out why they’re utterly unconvincing.
Consider a conversation I had with my old pastor just several weeks ago. We had decided to meet and discuss my views as an Atheist. One of the arguments he threw at me was the (predictable) argument from design. “The apparent design and intelligence behind what we see,” he excitedly exclaimed, “is utter proof of a supreme designer!” I quietly listened and waited my turn, and when it came I began to explain for him the problem with “begging the question” style arguments like that one. I told him that if A.) his experience based “evidence” tells him that all complexity and design requires a designer, then B.) the even more complex designer itself would have to “bear evidence” to a yet more complex designer, and so on and so on into infinity. In essence, saying that “God made everything,” merely begs the justified next question of “Well, who made God then?”
My old friend tried to say that God was eternal and beyond our realm of adequate understanding. I then told him that what he was saying was merely an explanation, not a reliable observation; he was merely postulating a “what if” scenario that could maybe excuse the paradoxes of his God. I told him that if he can just arbitrarily draw a line and say that causation goes back no further than his god, then Atheist could just as justifiably draw a line and say that causation goes back no further than matter/energy. The difference at that point, I said, was in degrees, not in kind. He stopped for a brief moment, then just insisted even louder that my position was unfounded and that I was clearly just denying the “obvious truth…that there is a supreme God.”
Moving on, we began to talk about morality. I perked up; this was my sort of thing, my specialty. He asked me how morals could have ever arisen naturally. I began to eagerly explain, but he cut me off and agitatedly insisted that I had failed to provide evidence earlier that blind nature could even produce life (though I actually had provided evidence to that end), so I was automatically barred from discussing a natural rise to morality. I tried to explain that I had provided reasons to doubt the need for divine creation and had also given current alternative, naturalistic theories as to how the universe came about, but at each stage he just kept interrupting and insisting I was failing without really listening to what I had to say.
By this point, it had become very clear to me what was really happening. He had decided going in to the conversation that there was no way I’d find his arguments not to be convincing; an attitude I feel is probably born from a life spent looking at skin-deep analyses of naturalistic explanations compared to lengthy analyses in favor of the Bible (arguments which, more often than not in my experience, are already held by the person doing the reading). Honestly, it seemed to me as though he felt that I really hadn’t considered my decision to leave Christianity and become an open Atheist; it felt as though he thought his common, first-level arguments would be new and profoundly convincing to me. (The supposition that Atheists just haven’t thought about things clearly is a very common one) Who knows? Maybe he simply honestly isn’t aware how thoroughly naturalistic philosophy and science has dealt with objections like Paley’s Watchmaker or the First Cause? Then again, maybe he (as I’m told others from my old church have) actually suspects that I’m just “choosing” to be an Atheist so I can “get away with sins.”
The rest of my conversation with my old friend proved as equally fruitless. Whether he was unable or unwilling to see the slight turn of thought necessary to understand the distinction between not believing a thing exists versus believing a thing does not exist, I do not know. There were many other such occasions where I tried to explain a crucial bit of Atheistic philosophy or logic to him, but he interrupted me halfway and insisted that I was going off topic. For my part, I suspect that his misgivings were, again, a result of a lifetime spent focusing almost exclusively on books written to support his ideas; books that paint an overly simplistic view of non-theistic philosophical arguments.
The height of annoyance and hypocrisy came towards the end though, when he told me “Brandon, it’s plain to see what you’re doing. You’re blinding yourself to obvious truth because of your misgivings about God stemming from your negative views on human suffering.” I responded, “Friend, it’s easy to see that you are blinding yourself to hearing what I’m trying to say because you’ve spent your whole life immersed in a culture that…” and that’s where it threw his hand up and interrupted me again. “You can’t do that!” he exclaimed. “You’re impugning my motives!”
“No, friend,” I responded. “I’m merely showing you how what you say can easily be cross applied to you as well, from my point of view. It seems to me that you are willfully blind because of years of indoctrination.”
We went back and forth on this for several minutes, and all the while he steadfastly refused to see my point; that his accusations of me worked just as well against him, so he’d better find new ammunition to talk about or admit he was being less than critical in his thinking. To this point he could not concede, and so our conversation stymied and went nowhere, fast. In the end, I simply decided that I’d rather go home and watch a movie with my family than continue listening to him chase his own tail while calling me a fool. At the end of our talk, my friend told me “I’m glad you came over tonight, and I hope I didn’t offend you. It’s just that I am firmly convinced you are wrong, and I want to make you see that for your own good.”
And there it was. The key; the key to why that whole talk that evening was so fruitless. It was his uncompromising estimation of his position…
Is it wrong to be convicted in your beliefs? I don’t think so. I know I am very convicted in what I believe. However, to let that conviction utterly blind you to hearing and trying to understand someone else’s thoughts, let alone blind you to the humble acknowledgement that you may be wrong, is a problem. It stifles conversations and it drives away understanding with its sharp, uncompromising edges. I’m not saying be wishy-washy, I’m simply saying that honest conviction acknowledges that even its most earnestly held beliefs have their cracks.
And this, I think, is the great divide between most of the Theists I talk to and myself. My discussion with my old pastor was one long episode of him politely shouting “I KNOW I AM RIGHT! UNDENIABLY RIGHT! NOW AGREE WITH ME OR ADMIT YOU’RE A FOOL!” Just the other day, I had another conversation with two other friends who happen to be Theists. I asked them what it would theoretically take to change their mind about God and they both said “Nothing. Nothing can ever change my mind.” This close minded attitude and hostility towards the genuine conceptualization of being wrong is a fissure between Theists and Atheists that I feel more often than not hinders our religious friends from understanding the “gist” of what we Atheists are actually trying to say, which is that our Atheism is fueled by very reasonable doubts and skepticisms founded upon well thought out logical and philosophical underpinnings. If they can’t see that, then it is no wonder that some are not able to clearly see our historical criticisms of the Bible, the vast evidences for a naturalistic universe, or our ethical criticisms of the morality the Bible prescribes.
So what’s the remedy for this? Patience. Patience and an uncompromising and honest appraisal of reality. Keep engaging in these conversations and debates because, bit by bit, we are helping them start to understand what we’ve been trying to say all along. Will there be scores of Atheist converts as our Theistic friends start genuinely considering our arguments? Probably not; but then again, that shouldn’t be our primary focus anyway. Rather, we ought to be striving towards the much more attainable goal of getting them to see that we aren’t irrational God-haters or amoral hedonists.
(So, this is my first post here at SASHA, and I’m thrilled to have made it. I’m sure some typos missed my re-reads, but you’ll just have to forgive me that; I’m new to blogging in general. I look forward to posting more in the future though!)
Brandon Christen was born and raised right here in Missouri. He grew up in a religious family, and joined a far-right conservative church when he was a senior in college. For almost six years, the church dominated all facets of his life and thinking until, in early 2010, he began to openly question its steadfast rejection of science and philosophy. After a protracted struggle with his convictions, Brandon became an Atheist in September of that year. These days Brandon remains intensely interested in religion, though now he views it from a secular perspective. One of the chief problems he sees between Secular Society and Religious Society is the presumption that religion takes the high ground on moral and ethical issues. To combat this problem, Brandon frequently engages in conversations with as many religious individuals as he can in a “grass roots” effort to spread awareness about secular morality. He also acts as a strong voice in the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Central Missouri. While he still sees debunking religious falsehoods as important, Brandon’s ultimate focus is on becoming a professional philosopher and emphasizing in ethics so as to lend his voice to the attempt to heal the moral divide between believers and non-believers.
and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!