An email friend, whom I’ll call “Carl,” (he can identify himself in the comments if he feels like it) sent me a message with the subject “Could you help?” It contained a few letters exchanged with a pastor named Jesse. It seems that some of Carl’s well-meaning friends don’t care for his atheism, and therefore sent Jesse after him to change his mind.
I won’t quote the entire exchange. Carl started off well but then after a couple of rounds said this:
Jesse, anyone that believes in any “Man Made” religion is not only superstitious, but harmful to society and has a serious moral dilemma to deal with. All religions are hurtful to the progress of all science and mankind in general, the sooner people learn this and think for themselves the better off everyone will be.
It’s a shame what you do for a living really. Taking advantage of innocent people with lies and false promises of eternal punishment and damnation if they fail to believe as you do.
Are you truly happy in your chosen line of work? I don’t know how you sleep at night knowing that you preying on people’s insecurities and lack of knowledge.
Jesse got extremely huffy and basically accused Carl of being an intellectual lightweight, concluding:
Unfortunately, further discussions will take viable witnessing time away from those who are seeking our Savior rather than those who have clearly rejected Him after 25 years of holding the title “Christian”.
Again, that the burden of proof that God does not exist falls solely on you.
Carl came away from this exchange feeling annoyed and wondering how he could have gotten across to the Christian about how burden of proof works. I have a lot more thoughts about the way this conversation went though, so here’s what I wrote back.
I hate to say it, but in a small way I agree with Jesse. It was kind of rude of you come at him with a personal attack, accusing him of taking advantage of people and deliberately lying. It may have been cathartic for you to be able to tell him what you really feel, but it’s no way to start a mutually respectful debate where he might be willing to listen to your opinions.
It sounds to me as if he contacted you unsolicited, but I imagine that you WANT something from this guy. If all you wanted was to be left alone, then hey — mission accomplished. He just essentially told you that he’s moving on to fresher targets, and shan’t pester you again. Great! But the fact that you wrote to me indicates that you are bothered by this response and wish the exchange had gone differently.
What do you want out of the discussion? I can’t answer that. Do you want to justify yourself to the pastor? Do you want to beat him soundly and then show whichever friend sicced him on you that he has no leg to stand on? Or do you just want to have a practice discussion so that you can hone your own arguments?
Whichever one it is, keep this in mind: People are more inclined to give you what you want if you’re not mean to them. On the internet, conversations only happen between two consenting parties. You have the right not to talk to him, and he has the right not to talk to you. Be honest: if somebody tried to open a dialogue with you by saying “You’re an atheist? I despise you and everything you stand for, and think you are luring innocent people to hell every day.” Would you want to continue a discussion with this person, or would you tell them to take a hike?
I’m in that situation all the time, receiving email directed at the TV show, and I’ll tell you what I do with those kinds of messages. Either I ignore them intentionally, or I keep them on the line for a few rounds just to return their scorn and abuse with even higher levels of sarcasm and mockery. Just for fun. Eventually I drop it.
So I don’t blame Jesse for answering an attack with an attack. If I were you, I think at this point I’d either apologize if I wanted to keep talking, or drop the subject and learn a lesson for the next conversation.
When I say “apologize” I of course don’t mean you have any need to apologize for not believing in God. As atheists, we already come into this dialogue at a disadvantage, because (1) Christianity is popular, so we’re defending a minority position, and (2) Christians are told that atheists are immoral, so they already assume that they are descending into a pit of vipers by even talking to you. So basically, they are looking for any hint of bad behavior as an excuse to dismiss you entirely. If you don’t want them to have that excuse, then don’t give them an opportunity by deliberately insulting them.
As for the burden of proof: What we generally say is that the person who is making a positive claim is the one who has a burden of proof. Or to put it another way, if you want to convince somebody of something then you should be prepared to prove it.
This means that if the other guy is making the claim “There is definitely a God” and you are simply saying “I don’t believe you have enough evidence for that” then yeah, he has to bring his proof or scram. But if you come at HIM and say “There is absolutely no God, and you are LYING to people!” then you’ve actively managed to transfer that burden to yourself.
My final point would be that even if he says things that are not true, he is probably not lying. “Lying” implies that he has an awareness of a truth that negates his claims. It implies that not only is he wrong, but he knows he’s wrong. I don’t see how you can assume that that’s the case. If you had simply accused him of being incorrect, it might defuse a lot of that messy interpersonal stuff.
I wanted to share this because I think it’s important that atheists learn how to communicate effectively. When I discuss evangelical atheism, I try to emphasize that every exchange you get into should have a clear goal. If at any time you do not know how to answer the question “Why am I still writing to this guy?” then you should stop writing. Goals can include:
- Convincing the other person.
- Convincing an audience.
- Entertaining an audience (if the opponent is too big a crackpot to be taken seriously).
That’s part of the reason why if a theist who is a stranger writes to the TV list, my first instinct is to redirect it to a blog post or other venue where more people are listening. If there’s little chance that either of us will be persuaded, there’s not much point to arguing unless there’s someone else paying attention. If it’s a friend whose opinions I care about, I might have the discussion just out of a desire to be social or maybe try to soften their position.