Wednesday, August 31, 2016

How to talk to an atheist

Actually, this is a list of what you should not say to an atheist. These are common mistakes Christians make when talking to atheists. (Note that I was inspired by this video.)

1)  Don't tell me what I think.

Instead, tell me what you think. Obviously, you don't know what I think, and pretending otherwise isn't going to advance the discussion at all. If you want to know what I think, ask me.

Note that we atheists aren't united by our beliefs, but only by our disbelief (and only when it comes to a very specific issue, at that). You don't know what I think, so why pretend that you do? When you do that, it's obvious that you're just creating a straw man to argue against (presumably because it's easier than arguing with an actual atheist).

2)  Don't define "atheist" for us.

This is very similar to the previous mistake on this list - and made for the same reasons, often enough. Like most words in the English language, "atheist" can be defined in somewhat different ways. (So can "agnostic," but even more so!)

Even atheists don't necessarily agree on the definition of the label, while Christians often try to shift the burden of proof by defining it as a positive belief (i.e. the belief that there is no god). But what's the point? It's just a label. Why argue about labels?

Anyway, if you don't want me defining "Christian" for you - and trust me, you don't - then don't try to define "atheist" for me. Instead, just ask me what I mean by the word. Then you can argue against what I actually think, if you want.

3)  Don't try to shift the burden of proof.

If you believe that a god exists, let along a particular 'God,' you have the burden of proof. I don't mean that you must literally prove that your god exists, of course. But you have the responsibility to demonstrate evidence to back up your belief.

You might find this easier to understand if you think of leprechauns. I don't believe that leprechauns exist. That's not a claim. It's just that I don't accept assertions that leprechauns do exist, since I've never seen any evidence backing up those claims.

If you do think that leprechauns exist, you have the burden of proof to demonstrate that. I don't have a responsibility to disprove it, because without good evidence, belief isn't warranted. Maybe leprechauns exist; maybe they don't. But nonbelief is the default.

4)  Don't quote scripture.

After all, why bother? Your holy book, whatever it might be, isn't anything special to me. The Bible, the Quran, the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, the Book of the Dead, and every other 'holy text' that's ever existed mean no more to me than any random collection of myths and fables.

In order to convince me otherwise, you'd have to demonstrate (a) that a god exists, (b) that it's your particular god, (c) that your particular holy text is an accurate reflection of what that god thinks and wants from human beings, and (d) that your own particular interpretation of that text is the correct one.

Obviously, if you could accomplish even the first of those things, I'd no longer be an atheist. And as long as I am an atheist, quoting the Bible means nothing at all to me.

Maybe this is how you win arguments with your fellow Christians, I don't know. (Given that Christians can't agree even among themselves about much of anything, it doesn't seem to be very effective, though, even with them.) But it's certainly foolish when talking to atheists.

5)  Don't try to disprove evolution.

If you want to debate evolution, that's fine, but talk to a biologist, not to me. Evolution is science, not religion. Even if you could disprove evolution (which you can't), it wouldn't demonstrate that your god is real.

In fact, even if you could prove that biologists are wrong about everything they believe about biology, that wouldn't get you anywhere at all when it comes to religion. At that point, the most you'd be able to say is "I don't know."

I'm not a biologist. I'm not a scientist at all. I know enough about the scientific method to know why it works (and certainly enough to know that it does work), which means that I know enough to accept the worldwide scientific consensus, where there is one. But evolution has no direct connection with atheism, so don't argue about evolution and think that you're arguing for your religion.

6)  If you claim to have evidence backing up your beliefs, don't then refuse to present any.

If you claim to have evidence, we're going to ask you to demonstrate it. If you can't do that, don't make the claim in the first place. That just makes you seem dishonest, and it certainly doesn't help your side of the discussion.

And please know what "evidence" means, too, before you make that claim. Feelings aren't evidence. Generally speaking, if it's indistinguishable from delusion and wishful-thinking, it's not evidence. And that brings us to:

7)  If you claim to have evidence backing up your beliefs, don't try to present "logic," instead. (In particular, don't do that and then use known logical fallacies!)

Logic is a good thing, but it isn't evidence. Things can seem logical without being true (and other things can be true while seeming to violate common sense). Evidence is how we tell the difference.

Evidence is how we compare our thinking with reality. If you can't fact-check your beliefs with evidence, you can have little confidence in them. I certainly won't have any confidence in them.

8)  Don't say that Christianity isn't a religion, but a 'relationship.'

That just makes you seem silly. We atheists don't give a crap what you call it. We just want to know if there are any good reasons to think that it's true.

You might think that you have a 'relationship' with Harvey, the giant invisible rabbit. But if you can't demonstrate that Harvey actually exists outside of your imagination, then who cares? After all, lots of children have a 'relationship' with an imaginary friend. It's not particularly unusual.

9) If your argument is based on philosophy or cosmology or some other specialized field of knowledge, be prepared to explain why most of the experts in that field disagree with you.

Typically, those kinds of arguments are used by people who know little about a field of knowledge in order to convince people who know even less about it. If most of the experts don't agree with you, what does that tell you?

I'm not a scientist, and no one is an expert in every field of knowledge. So I don't expect to be able to conclusively refute every claim you make. But if you use cosmology to demonstrate that your god exists, please explain why the majority of cosmologists are atheists. If you use philosophical arguments to 'prove' the existence of a god, be prepared to explain why most professional philosophers are atheists.

Experts aren't necessarily right, of course, though neither is anyone else. If your argument depends on a specialized field of knowledge, but the experts in that field generally don't buy it, why should we?

10)  Don't use Pascal's Wager.

I ended up with nine tips here, so for aesthetic purposes, I thought I'd make it an even ten. But this is a good one, nonetheless. There are many bad arguments for belief in a god, but none this bad and yet this common.

Typically, Christians will express it as, "What if you're wrong?" The obvious reply is, "What if you're wrong?" Obviously, no one is infallible. Being wrong is a possibility we all face.

And religion isn't an either/or, yes-or-no issue. Depending on your beliefs - and even Christians are all over the place in what they believe - you can't just believe that a god or gods exist. You have to believe in the right god or gods, you have to worship them in the right way, and you have to think and do what they want, while not thinking or doing what they prohibit.

No matter what you believe, some people will think you're going to spend eternity in torment. You simply can't agree with everyone. As I say, there are a lot of bad arguments for God (I talk about some of them here), but most atheists will simply laugh at you if you try to use this one.

What should you do, instead? That's easy. Tell me what you think and why you think it, and then listen to what I say in return.

You have the right to believe anything you want. That's undeniable. But if you actually care about the truth of your beliefs,... well, so do I. That's why I like to discuss these things with people who disagree with me.


jeff725 said...

When all else fails, use a baseball bat. It's my favorite WWE wrestling hold...I call it the "Louisville Sleeper." :)

Did you see where Sarah Palin fell and cracked her head and tried to blame Hillary? (eye-roll) The real cause of her head injury:

1 tequila
2 tequila
3 tequila

Bill Garthright said...

Yeah, Stephen Colbert had something about that here. What would we do without Sarah? :)

Gregg Garthright said...

Excellent post, Bill.

Regarding the burden of proof - it's virtually impossible to prove a negative. How can you prove that leprechauns don't exist? In such a case, your "proof" would be the complete lack of evidence - very convincing, but not conclusive proof. Proving a god or gods don't exist runs into the same issue - clearly, nothing you can present would be adequate to convince a believer. Of course, your point regarding the reason the theist bears the burden of proof is also accurate.

jeff725 said...

Bill, I'll see your Stephen Colbert and raise you someone who can really relate to Snow Snookie's head trauma:

Bill Garthright said...

Heh, heh. I don't know how you keep finding those, Jeff. :)

Bill Garthright said...

Thanks, Gregg.

When it comes to proving a negative, I would say that you can't "prove" anything in the real world, not to the extent that you couldn't possibly be mistaken. (Of course, we use "prove" differently in ordinary usage.)

I can't demonstrate that a god or gods don't exist, true. But I think I can demonstrate that the Christian God doesn't exist (as most Christians imagine him, at least). That's because a lack of evidence is evidence of nonexistence if we should expect evidence.

I've been thinking about writing a blog post about that, since it's hard to describe succinctly in a comment. Certainly, it wouldn't be "proof" (and equally certainly, it wouldn't convince a true believer). But I could make that claim and back it up, I think.

Of course, there's no real reason for me to make such a claim. If there's no reason to believe something, there's no point to demonstrating that it doesn't exist.

And obviously, it makes no sense to switch the burden of proof unnecessarily. If someone believes in leprechauns, let them struggle to back up their claim with evidence.

Still, I think I could demonstrate that the Christian God (as most Christians imagine him) doesn't exist. We'll see. Maybe I'll write a post about that sometime.

jeff725 said...

It's a gift I have; they come to me in my sleep.

Our family is fortunate to not have to put up with the crazy right-wing uncle ranting at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Instead, my brother-in-law and I will trade Monty Python lines. The rest of the family can barely keep up with us.

Bill Garthright said...

"The rest of the family can barely keep up with us."

I don't doubt that. :)