Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Conversing with believers: 15 things to NOT let them get away with.

Some call me a glutton for punishment, others tell me I must have been born with some type of martyr complex. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Baha'is, Mormons, New Agers, whatever, once invited I just get in there and engage in the verbal jousting.

People don't understand why, but I usually enjoy it. I like listening to people who bring different faith angles to me, even if it is just to learn a little bit more about another irrational way of thinking. Sometimes people see my engagement as an opening to get me to their brand of belief. On the contrary, I regard a chance to bring my doubt and skepticism as an opportunity to chip away at some of those 'eye of a needle' sized cracks that may be hiding somewhere in the crevices of their faith armour.

Whatever the nature of the exchange, inevitably there are some 'sleight of hand' techniques that the believer tries to slip past my logic shield. Many times I am able to spot these and deal with them before they cause trouble later on, but little morsels of irrationally get through here and there.

Whenever I leave after having discussions with believers, I do a post mortem.

'Why didn't I challenge him on that?'

'How could I let her get away with that?'

Yes, there is always something I could have said, would have said, should have said even if I have outplayed an opponent.  When I am debating with a theist I don't take comfort from a victory. The battle is primarily against myself. I am trying to just do a better job than I did last time. Learn from any mistakes until I successfully hone my craft.

Still, the idea of practising until perfect is not always enough. In a discussion you can get distracted, go down an unnecessary rabbit hole that obscures the issue, or simply succumb to raw fatigue, because theists can easily wear you down by talking around in never ending circles. Sometimes the fallacies they spout are coming at you as fast as the water that gushed from the rivers here in Calgary last week and you just can't keep up with all the nonsense.

After all the hours of talking with these believers of all stripes, I thought it was about time I produced something useful to other non believers that occasionally try to engage theists in debate. I wanted to develop a resource for those brave secular warriors who take the challenge of boldly going forth into frontiers where reason may never have gone before.

That's what this post is all about. Yes, the blog today is designed as a support for atheists.  In some ways it is a note to self, a reference document to glance at during a debate to make sure I don't miss any of the contradictory, illogical or downright silliness that may be presented when I am trying to wrap up a marathon conversation at 1:00 in the morning, or terminate a discussion over an early breakfast that has morphed into lunch.

It's by no means exhaustive, but below is a list of 15 major things that I want to urge you atheists out there to NOT let believers get away with.

15 things to NOT let them get away with

1. Don't let them get away with saying their holy book has no contradictions.

The way I intend to deal with this one in the future is to ask them if their 'holy book' has any gods in it.  If the answer is 'yes' then their claim dies right there. For gods by nature are contradictory. Once the god of the text has powers to act in nature yet can't be established by investigating nature, he is a contradiction. Once he can give you free will while still having full control of what you can do through an unalterable plan, he is a contradiction. No need for further investigation,

2. Don't let them get away with saying you haven't brought any new arguments. 

The validity of an argument has nothing to do with how long it has been tossed around. They keep bowling the same balls at us over and over again, so it is unsurprising that we play the same strokes time after time. The arguments we make are as poignant today as there were 100 or 1000 years ago.  Arguments do not have expiry dates like cartons of milk nor do they become obsolete like last years laptops or smartphones. Arguments remain valid for as long as there has been no successful defence against them.

3. Don't let them get away with making up their own definitions. 

There is nothing that theists like to play with more than definitions. It's like a slinky that they roll, twist, slide, press and pull to get whatever shape they want. Almost every word in the world of faith has an unclear definition, 'spirit', 'faith', 'worship', 'holy','transcendent', 'metaphysical', even 'God'. The definitions slip around continuously.

Consider that in Islam, a Muslim is defined as 'someone who submits to God.'  Muslims will go on to point out that we know from the bible that Jesus submitted to God. Therefore Jesus was a Muslim. QED.

Yes just like that, the Christian's saviour gets sacrificed to Islam through a definition with whom only Muslims have a personal relationship. We have to let Muslims and other religionists understand that they can't go off in the corner and make up their own definitions. If they persist we'll just join them in the game too.

Since by atheists' definition, there is no such thing as a 'true god', everyone who believes in a God is not believing in the 'true God.' Therefore all Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and other believers  are  atheists. They are all like us, non followers of the 'true God'. Wow! That was easy. I think it's time to re-evaluate  and inflate our numbers.

4. Don't let them get away with saying that the people who wrote their holy book were 'righteous' or 'noble' men or women whose word can be trusted.

This is laughable, but you wouldn't believe how many times that believers in different religions have told me this with a straight face. 'Righteous' and 'noble' people are indeed usually less trustworthy than the masses they represent. Reputations often don't reflect reality, especially when the claims come from their own followers who have something significant to gain from being loyal.

Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Hitler were well respected as 'righteous' and 'noble' by those who followed them at the time. For those on the other side, not so much. Today Mother Theresa is still regarded as a paragon of virtue and goodness by many all over the world. How much is this reputation fairly earned?

5. Don't let them get away with telling you they believe with 100% certainty even though there are things within their religion that they are not sure about.

They say that they are sure about God and then talk to you for half an hour on all the things about God they are not sure about. Contradictions anyone? Refer to item one on this list. Enough said.

6. Don't let them get away with saying they have a faith that's based on evidence and logic.

Oh boy, contradictions they keep a coming. If faith was based on evidence and logic then we wouldn't have to call it faith. To promote 'knowing by faith' as a virtue is to say that the best way to gain knowledge is through absence of knowledge. It is no less absurd than saying that you should pluck out both your eyes in order to attain 20/20 vision or that the best way to became a virtuoso violinist is to go through life making sure you never commit the 'sin' of picking up a bow or plucking on a string.

7. Don't let them get away with assuming that because you accept a claim they make for 'the sake of argument' that you are agreeing to the truth of that claim.

You always have to be careful with this one.  There are so many things wrong with theistic claims, that if you addressed every one during the course of a debate, discussions would probably end up lasting  40 days and 40 nights. So if you are to be effective you have to quickly recognise what points are critical to your objections and which are not. For the sake of argument, you go along with some assumptions because you know even if those patently false assumptions were true their argument would fall flat.

A lot of time theists don't get this and interpret your lack of argument as if it was acceptance. That's why they fool themselves into thinking that atheists en masse accept things like a historical Jesus. Many atheists do not, it's just that whether there was a 'real Jesus' or not is not central to the most important point, which is whether the miracles happened or not. We have to remind them that silence is not consent otherwise they will go away thinking we have conceded far more ground than we actually have.

8. Don't let them get away with saying you can't judge any claims made in their holy book unless you have read the entire book.

This is a classic move by theists. They try to make you feel that your atheism is not really stemming from a lack of belief in God, but rather from  problems you encountered from the specific version of God you grew up with. If only you were exposed to their faith you would be still in the fold of belief.  It is akin to telling somebody you don't like ice cream and they respond by telling you that you just haven't found the right flavour yet. Of course it always happens that they have five or six tubs of this elusive heavenly brand sitting in their refrigerator.

Well, unless you want to end up bumbling about weighing about 800 pounds, you can't spend your life going around the world tasting every ice cream until one titillates your pallet. What the people trying to sell you the faith sweetness don't understand is that it is the principle of faith you're rejecting not any individual belief system.  It wouldn't make sense to keep trying to sell ice cream to someone who has a violent reaction to having a cold tongue. Changing out chocolate for strawberry, banana or 'tootsie frootsie royale' is not going to relieve the suffering.

9. Don't let them get away with claiming that your refusal to consider living by faith is close minded.

It is not. Faith is accepting something without having a reason to do so. It is not difficult to realise that if you accept an answer before you even look at the problem you are far less likely to be right than if you actually look at the problem and work towards an answer. Refusing to accept a proposition through faith is not closed mindedness it's making a decision to actually use your mind.

10. Don't let them get away with saying that depending on reason 100% of the time is just as bad as depending on faith 100% of the time.

Is trying to be good 100% of the time the same as trying to be evil 100% of the time? Again, enough said.

11. Don't let them get away with claiming that the fact you don't reject what they are saying means you accept what they are saying.

This is the old burden of proof mixed with the argument from ignorance fallacy that believers like to exploit. Yes, there are many claims believers make in arguments that I don't outright reject. I don't reject the possibility of the supernatural or an after life, but I am extremely far away from accepting either of these propositions.

12. Don't let them get away with saying you are not like 'all the other atheists'.

This is an underhanded compliment that anybody who is part of a marginalised group can identify with.  It's the 'I Like you' but 'I still want to discriminate the group you belong to' tactic.

Many theists that I have had discussions with have complimented me on my rational discourse but try to maintain that I am some sort of anomaly among non believers.

They claim that unlike me, most of my counterparts are rabid, foaming at the mouth militants ready to pounce on theists due to some childhood trauma they endured for which they are blaming God.We have to let the theists know that for the vast majority of us atheists, reason has been the sole guide to non belief.

13. Don't let them get away with dismissing an argument as irrelevant because they don't understand it.

I often during exchanges with believers point out instances where they have used circular reasoning, tautologies, arguments from ignorance or special pleading. They look back at me blankly. It is clear they have no idea what I am talking about.

This is a frustration. Trying to argue logic without an understanding of logic, is as pointless as going into a workshop without bringing a single tool and expecting to construct a bookshelf a cupboard and a complete dining room set.

I have explained to people that they have manufactured a God whose existence is unfalsifiable and they grin from ear to ear thinking that this is a concession that their God is real. I don't have time to suspend an argument to teach the other person in the conversation the rules of logic. Training needs to be done before you run out on to the field of play.

Often theists use their lack of knowledge to their advantage, just ignoring the arguments that go over their heads. You are required to follow rules of logic in a discussion just as you need to follow the road traffic laws when you drive. In logic just like driving, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

14. Don't let them get away after you debunk a reason they believe in their God by allowing them to say 'well that's not the only reason I believe'.

This is another slippery tactic. As soon as they realize a reason for why they believe in a God doesn't hold water, they quickly shift to the next one on what is always a long list. They can always come up with another reason for believing and they never acknowledge the weakness of the one that you just knocked out of the park.

Invariably the next argument up is just as bad as its predecessor, but for them it doesn't matter, once they can keep spitting out another one and another one and another one into the debate, they think they are holding their own.

Don't let them move on without acknowledging the failure of their previous attempt. Let them know that a string of bad arguments lined up together doesn't get them anywhere. One thousand times zero is still zero.

And finally,

15. Don't let them get away without reminding them that their 'Truth' should have absolutely nothing to fear from your continuing investigation.


  1. I found your blog while I was searching the Web for posts by atheists about God as a metaphor. I very much liked your idea of a Church of the Metaphorical God.

    In the light of that, I'm wondering if you've critically examined the way you're conceiving your purposes in engaging with theists. Reading some of your posts, it looks to me like you conceive of your purpose, in practice, as opposed to any concept of God, indiscriminately, regardless of how someone uses the word "God." I'm not imagining that you were serious about starting a Church of the Metaphorical God, but it did seem to me that you saw metaphorical uses of "God" as not necessarily harmful in themselves. Your efforts might be more fruitful if you consider possible harmless uses of theistic language, and how to turn people away from harmful beliefs without needlessly contending against harmless uses of the theistic language.

    Also, it seems to me that your focus on belief in God is too narrow. As I see it, "all" beliefs are harmful. If that isn't obvious to you, consider what distinguishes beliefs, in practice, from the "points of view," "conceptual models," "ways of thinking," "hypotheses" and "theories" which characterize the physical sciences. Also consider the harm that has been done in the name of other beliefs besides belief in God.

  2. I mean, consider the feelings involved in people saying "I *believe* ..." as opposed to saying "in my current view," "as I currently see it," or "I'm imagining that ..." for example. Then consider what those feelings inevitably lead to.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Jim. I do find that 'God' has some merit as a metaphor and that was why I put forward the tongue in cheek idea of ' Church of the Metaphorical God'. I also wanted to emphasise that a metaphorical God is the only one I could possibly ascribe to.

    However, I don't personally support the idea of encouraging people to use 'God' to define things that don't refer to a being that exists in reality because it leads to confusion and muddying of the waters. If you use the word 'god' when you don't believe in a literal being you can provide validation for those out there who do. When they hear you use that word they think of God as THEY perceive it and this only reinforces their belief in an entity which has no basis in reality. And beliefs in such entities are NOT harmless. When you believe in a God whose existence can't be proven but who you are convinced is telling you to behave in a certain way, you can commit atrocities in that God's name and you have no checks and balances to regulate you.

    That;'s what makes this God concept so dangerous. So, better keep God language out of metaphorical discourse as much as possible. Keep the language clear and unambiguous. Maybe there will come a time when belief in God is so rare that any reference to god would be assumed to be non literal. At that time we can return to using 'god' to enrich the language, It would be like when people say 'I thank my lucky stars;. Nobody assumes that a person who says that believes in astrology, but that's just because belief in astrology is not mainstream. So if religion drops out of the mainstream we can start using terms metaphorically. Until then, better leave them out.

    You say that all beliefs are harmful. I think beliefs are harmful when they are not based on the weight if the evidence.

  4. Sorry it took me so long to get back to this. Thank you for your reply!