Following the script


We got an excellent question from a fan in Perth, Australia, enough that I wanted to share my answer online.

A friend of mine regaled me with a tale a while back, about a theist spouting a well worn apologetic to a prominent atheist. Rather than shoot it down with a just as well worn counter, he simply replied with “did you really think that would work?” Now, I don’t know the whole story, but apparently said atheist went on to berate said theist about stupid they were for thinking that of all the things that this atheist had heard and read, it was this one guy spouting this one thing that he probably got of some website that would change his mind. While I’m not a fan of berating people, It does strike me as a valid idea, the whole “do you really think that’ll stump me” response.

However, following a lively debate with some fellow atheist friends a while back, I was on the receiving end of a sudden rush of perspective. You see, they were just saying the same old stuff as well. The usual cookies about the christian god being immoral, how many different religions there are all over the world, the nonsense of disregarding science just because it can’t explain EVERYTHING… same old crap you hear from people with an education. It got me thinking, what if the shoe was on the other foot? My girlfriend’s mother is an Anglican priest and I know for a fact that if I just spouted one of the usual chestnuts to her, she’d have an answer pretty quickly, probably one that’d get me off the script, if there is such a thing as an atheist script.

I suppose my question is, shouldn’t a skeptic be trying to come up with new responses all the time, forever? I hate to go us vs them, but the idea of stock responses to stock questions and insular self congratulation seems very, very, well… dumb. In Perth, we don’t have many fundies at all, but a lot of people are so vaguely middle class white spiritual, anti-science. The usual crap, “can’t prove everything” what the bleep do we know pseudo-spiritual nonsense, and when I try to have honest discourse with them, it just descends into stock responses and I give up. It’s very disheartening.

To condense it, my question is: As people who reject claims on the basis of logic and reason, is it enough just to have stock responses? Shouldn’t we be trying to come up with new, better and always unexpected ways to exercise our skepticism? Hope you can shed some light on my ramblings.

And my answer is: Yes and no.

It is a mistake to completely dismiss the value of having an arsenal of sound bites. The thing is, you use your stock responses exactly as long as they work well. At the point where they stop working, you either enhance them or abandon them for something that works better.

For example. My stock response to “God must have created the universe because it couldn’t have created itself” is probably always going to be some variant of asking, or leading into, the question “What created God?”

Theists don’t like this. They ridicule it. They say it’s like a question that a little child would ask. They come up with variants like the Kalam argument, in which instead of saying “Everything that exists has a cause” they say instead, “Everything that begins to exist has a cause” — thereby creating a special pleading loophole. If you’re attentive enough, then you can see where the sleight of hand occurs, much as you can look at a “proof” that your high school buddy used to produce showing that 1=2, and identify the fallacious step where he divided by zero or something.

The thing is, the fact that someone will ridicule and dismiss an argument is not, in itself, a demonstration that the argument is not working. I could enter a history class and loudly scoff: “What’s that?! You expect me to believe that Henry VIII became the King of England in 1509??? You’re so ignorant!” I don’t doubt that if I tried this against a bunch of teachers, at least a few of them would be so insecure that they wouldn’t argue with you, lapsing into embarrassed silence or changing the subject. This seems to be the disposition of many biology teachers today who would otherwise be teaching evolution.

Your atheist friend who says “Did you really think THAT would work?” is using a tactic. It is neither inherently good nor bad; it’s just potentially effective or not effective in a particular situation. The tactic is a combination of poisoning the well and psychological intimidation. He wants to give the opponent and/or the audience the emotional feeling that the opponent is ignorant and the atheist knows more. That feeling may or may not be justified, and the intimidation may or may not work.

Like any tactic, this one has its strengths and weaknesses. If you pull this trick, and your opponent stammers out some apologies and tries to talk about something else, you’ve just gained a point of data saying that it is a good tactic for you. You pulled it off. On the other hand, do this in an inappropriate way, and you look like an arrogant prick. For an example where this approach bombed, check out the historical Bush/Gore debate, where voters came away with a lasting impression of Gore loudly sighing, rolling his eyes, and getting in Bush’s personal space — which was perceived as needlessly condescending, irrespective of whether Gore’s impatience was warranted or not.

Scorning your opponent this way is like throwing a lot of money into the pot in poker. It may be that you are putting all that money in because you genuinely have a good hand — i.e., you are armed with better facts, your opponent really is ignorant, and you can prove it handily when it’s time to show your cards. On the other hand, it may be a bluff, and you’re secretly hoping that your opponent will fold under your withering gaze so that you can collect the money without a prolonged fight that you stand to lose.

And yes, religious people apply this tactic all the time. Let me throw a few book titles at you:

  • You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can’t Make Him Think (Ray Comfort)
  • I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Norman Geisler)
  • Evolution, A Fairy Tale for Grownups! (Ray again — sorry, but that guy is a walking textbook on this technique)

So as you noticed, it happens on both sides. What, then, do you do when somebody attacks you with that “I’ve already heard that argument” line while showing obvious contempt?

I think the most important rule here is to keep your cool, don’t flinch, and find a way to do a quick end-run around the brush off. The best way to do this, I think, is to highlight the person’s arrogance as their weakness rather than their strength.

This is a place where the “reductio ad absurdum” technique often comes in handy. Ask yourself: “Okay, so this guy is acting as if my argument isn’t even worthy of consideration. What implications also follow from his dismissal?” Highlighting obvious contradictions is useful, and so is the question “How do you know…?”

Here’s a sample dialogue.

Theist: “Everything has a cause. Since the chain can’t go back infinitely, there must be a God.” (Note: oversimplified, in some cases.)
Atheist: “What created God?”
Theist: “That’s a ridiculous question. It’s something a child would ask.”
Atheist: “Oh, so you don’t think everything had a cause.”

(Reversal. Instead of demanding that the theist acknowledge your point, you accept his dismissal and calmly look for
a contradiction.)

Theist: “Well I don’t mean that everything has a cause. Everything which begins to exist has a cause. But God is eternal.”
Atheist: “How do you know that?”

(The theist just tried to inject an assertion, again counting on the assumption that it’s so obvious that only a fool would challenge it. Don’t be intimidated by this.)

The conversation may go in any number of directions at this point — my money’s on “science vs. faith as a means for knowing things.” The important thing, though, is that you find a way around the theist baldly asserting a certainty that he has not earned.

As with any argument, it’s a game. If you fold, then it doesn’t matter how unsupported your opponent was in reality; you still lose. On the flip side, if your opponent calls you on your claim and you can’t back it up, you may well lose worse, because then your opponent has condescended to you and then proven that the condescension was justified. That’s the gamble you take when you are arrogant.

As you probably noticed, you very much should have an arsenal of “opening moves” that, by and large, don’t have to vary much. If you trot out a move and you see your opponent driven before you (and, of course, hear the lamentation of the women!) then you keep doing that. To someone who doesn’t argue on a regular basis, this can look easy, even lazy, and perhaps very risky.

The critical point here is that the opening is not the whole game. Good for you if you can occasionally checkmate your opponent in three moves and that’s all it takes. (Fear Edward Current!) But if your opponent doesn’t cave right away, then what is going to determine your success is your ability to defend the sound bite, to think on the fly and justify your reasoning, not just to quote it.

Developing opening moves does not necessarily have to be a solo, creative process. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you talk to a new person. You should by all means watch other people’s debates, see what works and what doesn’t, and shamelessly steal the stuff you like. That doesn’t make you a mindless parrot, it makes you a smart shopper. But if you use these arguments and then you lose, you should always be willing to take a step back. Ask yourself: Did his response win because it really is actually logically superior? Has he actually made a point? Has he uncovered a genuine flaw in my thought process?

If that turns out to be true, it may well be that you have to dump that argument from your arsenal. The unfit do not survive, it’s evolution in action. (And please note that this is intellectual Darwinism, not social Darwinism. I’m advocating the death and abandonment of ideas, not people.)

But that’s not the only outcome. You can look for other cases where people have had to deal with that same argument, and find a response that will get you a step further in your next conversation. And in that case, you will become more confident and your response will be stronger each time you face that argument.

Comments

  1. says

    And here I thought the goal of debating ideas was to arrive at some measure of truth rather than honing oratorical skills. I didn't know we were just playing a game.

  2. says

    For one of us, countering a hackneyed Christian line with a well-worn response may be the thousandth instance of saying it, but for that Christian it may be the first time they'll have heard it.

  3. says

    p.s. I love how so many of your callers think they've got THE question that will trip up the arrogant atheists.So many of them have such a limited arsenal of attacks on atheism that it's likr the intellectual equivalent of a boxing match between Mohammad Ali and Woody Allen. Sure, Ali could knock him out with one punch, but how entertaining would that be?I congratulate any theist that pulls his head out of his arse, looks around, and discovers that there are people who don't think like he/she does. I'd rather shake their hand than give a hard punch to their glass jaw.

  4. says

    You may not like hearing that it's a game, Storied Muse, but if you want to arrive at a measure of truth then you'd be better off spending your time on scientific inquiry. Email discussions are not science. Courtroom face-offs are not science. Political debates really are not science.If you aren't interested in persuading people of a particular viewpoint then that's fine — to each his own. But if you do think that you can just lay out some sterile facts as you see them and win people over by default, I'd suggest that you haven't tried it much.

  5. says

    StoriedMuse wrote: "And here I thought the goal of debating ideas was to arrive at some measure of truth rather than honing oratorical skills. I didn't know we were just playing a game."Well, now you know better. While the purpose of rational discourse is indeed to arrive at truth, public debates are always on some level a game. If you think that just presenting facts will win people over, then you have another think coming.As a comment on the original post, I really like having talking points, particularly if you can adapt them and not treat them like a "script."

  6. says

    Russell, awesome blog! Going through the "ins" and "outs" of debating like this can really help us noobs (not addressing this to anyone who doesn't self label themeselves as such) get some tips and/or confidence in what can be a scary enterprise (debating).

  7. says

    Perhaps it's a character flaw, but I tend to be dismissive and condescending when it becomes obvious that a theist has not only not spent any time thinking about their position but are not interested in having an open discussion. That is, if there is no one else around to hear an alternative point of view. Arguing one on one with a dogmatic, unthinking theist isn't my idea of a good time, so I bail ASAP.

  8. says

    A good artical. i haven't herd anyone go on about the finer points of debating like that since my philosophy teacher.+++++++www.lightoutsidethecave.blogspot.com

  9. says

    I'd just like to say that there's still some room for creativity or individualism here. For one, if you don't want to sound like a stereotype, start by just using different words. You'd be amazed at how you can take an argument, replace key words with near-synonyms, and find that it encourages you (and the people you talk to) to look upon it anew, rather than having the same knee-jerk reactions all the time. Not to mention the fact that simply asking yourself what the words mean can itself give some philosophical insight.For another, we don't all use the same counter-arguments for every apologetic. For the "first cause" argument, I don't use the common "Who created God?" response, mostly because I think that theists are using God as their null hypothesis, and explaining why God is really a very low probability hypothesis is actually a very esoteric conversation. Instead, I usually counter the "first cause" argument with "What does that have to do with anything?" Even if there was a first cause, I'm not compelled to think that it was an intelligent entity. And I know that the gap between "cause" and "intelligent supernatural creator" is a difficult one for the theist to bridge. Forget getting from there to "God of the Bible". This strategy doesn't have the same memorability or ironic ring to it as "Who created God?" but I find it to be elegant, especially against those fuzzy sorta-believers who don't really have a clear idea of why they should be using the word "God" in the first place.And you don't have to engage every time. If someone asks me about abiogenesis, I might mouth a few statements I've heard about various theories, but my response is more or less going to be "I don't know, I don't think you know, and I don't know if anybody really knows, so you can't use this as proof of anything." And that's it. I don't know, so I'm not going to pretend I do, and if someone thinks that's a sign of weakness, they aren't being reasonable enough to have a productive conversation about it anyway.If they want to talk about quantum entanglement, though? I did graduate research on that. I know more about it than any layman. I will be on that like cheesy Hollywood piranhas on a helpless cow.There's a certain art to it, if you refine your ideas according to your particular interests, knowledge, and understanding (and venue). But I don't think most people can get there until they actually know all those tired old bumper-sticker arguments first. It doesn't bother me so much that those arguments are there.I think of them as, ideally, the start rather than end to a conversation. The real critical thinking comes in building upon them, thinking about how to tell whether different ideas are correct, or whether the conclusions really follow, or why something seems right or wrong, and whether that intuition is a profound insight or a total red herring.

  10. says

    One more thing. If someone really doesn't want to move beyond the script, you should just dump the conversation (or, if you're in front of an audience and you can't, just start talking past them and get to something more interesting). If you present a counter-argument, and you rephrase it in several ways, and they still don't get it, then you might not be arguing very well. But if you can't even tell if they get it, because they don't seem like they are listening? Or if you explain something, and they don't seem to have bothered thinking about the explanation? That means that they don't care what you think, and there's no point in continuing. Save yourself the frustration and bow out as soon as this is clear.

  11. says

    If the "stock response" is not only valid but, more importantly, comprehended by the responder (as opposed to using an argument they don't understand) then stock responses are fine. Why kill a deer with 2 bullets when one will do fine?

  12. says

    Another thing I find important in debates with theists is that you never should give them room to make stuff up. Do not allow them to blindly speculate and give ad hoc answers. For example, don't ask how flesh eating animals survived 40 days on the ark, ask how they know the ark existed. With the first question, they can make something up to 'explain' it, with the second they actually have to demonstrate something. Another way of avoiding the speculation is attacking them on contradictions in their own reasoning.

  13. says

    Addendum: I wrote that very long thing in a bout of insomnia, and I slightly botched what I was saying about the first cause argument. What I meant, was that the reason that some people buy that argument, is that they think it shows that some one thing has to be the primordial reason for everything else, and in their worldview, "God" is the only thing grand enough to potentially do that (so he's their null hypothesis). The "What caused God?" argument tries to undermine that by suggesting that God isn't a better candidate for what's uncaused than anything else, but it can fall flat for someone whose intuition is too strong (making it sound like a silly question) or who really likes "mystery" and thinks of this as a sort of Zen riddle rather than a serious objection. I think Russell usually pushes the issue by saying "Why can't the universe be the uncaused cause?" or something like that, which is really the logical next place to go and patches over the problem.But this is why I usually try to take the broader, "So what?" approach before getting into the details of the argument. If there's no answer to "So what?", maybe they have an idea of where I'm coming from and understand on an empathetic level why I'm pretty unshaken by apologetics.

  14. says

    I really enjoyed this article and the discussions. My only regret is I never get a chance to use this stuff. I haven't met a theist who would even discuss his/her beliefs in decades except for the occasional misguided door knocker.

  15. says

    of course the atheist's first false assumption when engaging in debate with a theist is that the theist is open to logic.it can still be good fun though, and i did once give a pastor a crisis of faith :)

  16. says

    People often criticise WLC for his script which he continuously uses. If we have our own stock answers we get from a wiki, then are we being hypocritical to criticise WLC for his script?I get a bit uneasy when I realise that I use all the same arguments that I hardly put any thought into. It seems like plagiarism.

  17. says

    I would never criticize WLC just for using a script as his launching point. He's a very smart and effective debater. He's got a Ph.D in philosophy, and he knows how to effectively pile on bullshit in a way that can run rings around unwary opponents. Among all the people that we could conceivably have on-air discussions with someday, I think WLC is hands down the one I'd be most wary of matching.Given that this is the case, I'd much rather learn what he does that works than shy away from methods just because he uses them.

  18. says

    Well… part of the reason a lot of the stock answer ARE stock answers is because they are right. It's pointless to grow tired of the fact that 2+2 always equals 4 because that just happens to be what the answer really is. So I am not down on stock answers like the original questioner seemed to be but that said of course you should understand WHY a particular response applies to a situation. It shouldn't just be something memorized from some website.As for WLC, I couldn't ever see him calling into the show because he is extremely particular about the conditions under which he will debate. For instance he wants to go first so that he can bury you with a scattershot of assertions on different topics so that you have to waste time playing firefighter rather than making your own points. Part of the reason he has a reputation as a formidable debater is because he knows how to choose and control the battlefield but I don't think he would be nearly as formidable in a more of a give and take situation because let's face it, despite presentation his arguments are the same awful stuff you see everywhere else. Resurrection of Jesus, fine tuning, first cause, etc.

  19. says

    Sean (quantheory) wrote: "If they want to talk about quantum entanglement, though? I did graduate research on that. I know more about it than any layman. I will be on that like cheesy Hollywood piranhas on a helpless cow."Off topic, but still: what book(s) would you recommend for someone who is a layman and want to learn more about this matter?Thanks in advanceBest regards,Henrik Svensson

  20. says

    Henrik,I haven't read a ton of popular science books on this (at least not since I got into the meat of my degree), but one that I think does a fairly good job is "Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics", by Amir D. Aczel (and my former advisor agrees). I think he's a bit… overenthusiastic in his description at points (as you can tell by the title), but it's a good general overview of the subject, and I don't think he introduces more math than necessary.One thing I'd say to be cautious about (in pretty much any book discussing the history of quantum mechanics), would be the ideas of John Wheeler. He seemed to enjoy a bit of speculation based on his particular interpretation of quantum mechanics, and some of his ideas are played up as support for quantum woo (which is funny, given that Wheeler himself was vehemently opposed to parapsychology). His weirdest philosophical ideas can be interesting to think about, and aren't definitively wrong, so they get a lot of enthusiasm from some popular science writers. But they are based on an interpretation that's unproven and accepted by relatively few physicists (and in my humble opinion, most are probably false).Hope that helps,Sean

  21. says

    I'm another lucky Perthite from sunny West Oz who can view fundies as an uncommon novelty. Sadly, I've been waiting over 5 weeks since my last JW visit and I'm starting to get restless. They've identified science as our common area of interest by sending a substitute teacher with some primary school science background. My last leaflets were "Is atheism on the march?" and "The Origin of Life – Five questions worth asking" which are now heavily annotated and awaiting their return.I don't expect for any of them to reach an epiphany on my doorstep but I hope to instil some doubt, challenge their methods of finding truth, and put some burden on their consciences next time they reach for one of these disingenuous pamphlets. I also have a set of definitions and 20 (deliberately leading) questions to discuss.Generally they attempt to leave 4-5 times before I allow the banter to subside to the point they can escape so I'm not surprised they don't visit as frequently as they say they will.

  22. says

    Kazim, I only have one problem with the "atheist scrip", and that is the extreme vast majority of theists whom use just "tactics" against any of my outspoken stances on various somewhat theologically entwined events is that said people are not the "intellectual" types in which do not refer to any stylistic norm of debate, aside from personal incredulity. This being a real-world situation, however. The Socratic method of further inquiry and questioning is and has been the general method of employment. Whilst not immediately revealing, the general outrage and social outcast I've faced from those arrogant and self centered individuals ruling the roost of the demographic my employed social existence currently pertains to, would indicate that for such a vociferously and personal reaction to criticism, such exposure to directly and personally evoked, ideas and critical assessment, may evoke potential self assessment and critical assessment of personal held beliefs. Chris

  23. says

    I am curious about the reader saying his mother-in-law has a response to atheist chestnuts. Is he concerned that theists do a better job debating because they pull you out of your comfort zone and make you rethink past assumptions (by pulling you off-script)?If so, then I would think that many common atheist arguments do that already. The only difference is that we may often try harder to get theists to acknowledge a point once it has been made.

  24. says

    I've never had a chance to participate in any form of debate on religion, but from the vids I've seen, a lot of theists resort to that "why don't you ever say anything new?" bit. Hitchens has dealt with this question before, though I don't remember which debate it was from. Atheists don't "come up with anything new" because theists have yet to come up with something that warrants a different response! They make the same logical fallacies over and over again, and if -they- came up with something new, we might have something new with which to respond! Theists seem to forget that they are the ones making assertions, and we are the ones responding.

  25. says

    Why should we as atheists come up with new arguments? The theists try to sell the same old story for about 2000 years!I agree with Russel, that these debates are a mere game. At least here in western europe where I live. My usual exit strategy goes like this: "Enough of those word games! Where is the tangible proof that a god isn't just a concept or a fantasy. Come back when you have it." So far in every debate I had, the theist was in the role of the salesman und I never bought into it.

  26. says

    When dealing with a closed minded theist it might not be possible to convince them of the weakness of there position.At this point instead of agreeing to disagree, why not mess with there gullible superstitious heads?Try coming down to there level and employing the Homer Simpson theory that even if there is a God unless you are lucky enough to have chosen the exact form of worship that the God likes, every time you go to church you are making the God angrier and angrier.This wont change there minds but it might make them less smug in there beliefs after all they believe in Hell and stuff.

  27. says

    The idea of a perfectly scripted argument that will always win is seductive, but not all that realistic. A long time ago I had the idea of a flowchart based on identifying logical fallacies, but quickly found that good and consistent logic cannot persuade some people on its own (even if it would always persuade me).So if your goal is to convince as many people as possible of your point of view, you have to be aware of the emotional appeal tactics that are not logical but are still persuasive. In fact, those who would be consistently swayed by good critical thinking have probably reasoned themselves out of theism already. The real goal is to go head to head with the emotional appeals that keep everyone else stuck in the bad ideas of religious thought.Have a game plan. Have the canned responses ready. Just be prepared to explain them in detail, and most definitely have as many strategies ready as possible to play towards your strengths.

  28. says

    "Theist: "Well I don't mean that everything has a cause. Everything which begins to exist has a cause. But God is eternal."Atheist: "How do you know that?""WLCraig likes to answer this with variants of "because God is by definition the eternal being that created everything that has a cause. If we'd have to ask, it wouldn't be God we're talking about."As Jeremiah and others have said, he needs to control the battlefield. One of his tricks is to fence the discussion in by simply axiomatically excluding any possibility that God can be anything other than that which fits the script. He wont talk to you if you don't submit to the presupposition.

  29. says

    Felix:Ontological argument, see Iron Chariots.Just because we can define an X such that "all X's are Y," doesn't mean that there exists at least one X which has these properties. Craig apparently thinks he can cause things to exist by talking about them.

  30. says

    What atheism needs is a non-supernatural cosmological alternative to God. You could have a multiverse of self generating universes but it's a bit of an infinite regression, it doesn't really explain a lot and there's no evidence for it.

  31. says

    Speaking as some one who only recently found the show on YouTube. I would like to say that i have enjoyed all the arguments with theists on the show,although some of the philosophical points have gone over my head. I would assume that if you are going to stock up with well worn arguments, you should tailor them to the person you are talking to because less well educated people like myself, might not understand the point being made and so be immune from it.

  32. Martin says

    Enzo: What atheism needs is a non-supernatural cosmological alternative to God.There is one. Primacy of existence.

  33. says

    @tondeb:Yes, absolutely, tailor what you're saying to the person you're talking to. We get dinged a lot in email for saying "jargon" like "Argument from ignorance," "Pascal's wager," or "Transcendental argument." These are terms that a reasonably well read atheist audience could be expected to recognize instantly, but might cause a more general audience to get lost.In fact, I'd try to avoid using the "names" of such concepts at all, instead translating it into accessible analogies that can be quickly understood. If you are talking to just one person, and you know something about their interests and hobbies, that can help a lot too.

  34. says

    Martin: I think Lawrence Krauss is hinting at this with his talk of nothingness being an unstable state and theoretical particles popping in and out of existence.Although i would not pretend to understand it.

  35. says

    Martin,Just looked up Primacy of existence.I had never heard of it but i see what you mean what i read was that Reality is Absolute and mysticism requires the Primacy of consciousness,which is silly because something has to exist before it can be conscious. I think i get that bit but philosophy does my head in. This just seems to be stating the obvious.If i wrote a thesis on the Primacy of Feet over the Primacy of socks would that be philosophy?

  36. says

    I always thought that the move Felix mentioned is kind of weird: "God is by definition the eternal being that created everything that has a cause."It's one of those games people play, that I think is maybe even dumber than the ontological argument, when you spot the trick. If you prove that there's a creator, that doesn't prove that the creator is eternal. So if God is defined as eternal, there could be a creator that's not God. If God is not defined as eternal, you can't say that it is eternal until that's proven.It's just an equivocation fallacy, where at one point "God" just means "creator", at another it means "omnipotent omniscient omnibenevolent necessarily existing creator", and at another it means "the God character in the Bible".Oh, and I did think of an atheist talking point I'm not so fond of, which used to be kind of common on the show. There's this atheist meme that, while the word "theory" in everyday usage means something like "speculative explanation" or "working hypothesis", in science it means "well-established model" or "fact" or something.Of course, that's not strictly true (look at string theory, which in principle will become testable one day, but in practice is too hard to test right now). What you see are all these things that once upon a time were theories in the conventional sense of the word, and then got proven, but didn't change their names. A lot of theories can take a decade or two to get well-established (since experimental tests don't just do themselves, and scientific consensus doesn't change overnight). At that point, something that has been a "theory" for a decade will keep on being called a "theory", even if it's become a definitely proven model in the meantime.So "theory", as used by scientists, has now become synonymous with "theoretical framework", with the name itself not really saying anything about whether it has been proven effective or not. As tempting as it is to respond to creationist nonsense with "In science, 'theory' really means 'fact'!", what you should really say is just that scientific models are often called "theories" long after they've been proven correct (like the germ theory of disease, the theory of special relativity, and so on). What people do seem to get right, however, is recognizing that simple explanations that need further testing are usually called "hypotheses". But scientists put forth competing "theories" about things too, so there's not a hard dividing line there in practice.

  37. says

    Just read:Message to American AtheistsBy CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS – AA CONFERENCE, VIA PHARYNGULA Reading it was a kick up the nuts.But then i watched: Christopher Hitchens – The Best of the Hitchslap and i thought, when the poor sod does eventually snuff it, his brilliant, articulate inspiring message will be disseminated all over the internet and on TV so perhaps there is some small consolation in that.

  38. says

    Just thought this was relevant to the thread, because it is about presenting arguments and i think he is the best debater I've seen.

  39. says

    I don't get into any theist/atheist discussions (I've had one short quip that lasted for 2 exchanges. Ever.), but I do enjoy watching other people do the discussions, such as the folks on The Atheist Experience and some of Hitchens' debates.Also, I loved the nod to Edward Current. Checkmate, Athiests!

  40. says

    Kazim,The use of a 'stock response' is good sometimes but more importantly I've loved the 'Interrogative Response' to get a better feel for where the person stands – reword and confirm for understanding. Then, unfortunately, the next question would be best designed to 'Deconstruct the Propaganda' by getting reflective responses that open the trap they are stuck in and most likely don't even know it. They've often taken sides and heaped it with very potent emotions – fear, rage, hope, jealously, greed, etc and all the while wrapped it in the noble clothing of piety, benevolent power, loyalty, etc, – The propaganda model is easily recognized when demonstrated by examples pulled from their experiences and the tricky part is to transition the view of the mechanism's use and impact inside their experiences on low-emotional content secular subjects and eventually over to religious subjects – its a game of 'see this pattern' – 'see the impact' – now lets play spot the pattern a bit more – then show them how someone, perhaps a disinterested third party, might attempt to deconstruct the subject matter that the person used to start the conversation. All the while this is going on you slowly start to pull the thread of 'If you had to use thes Tools of Propaganda (obviously for a noble cause) on another how would they react?' – Have the person try deconstructing any issue that is polarizing opinions; first secular, then religious issues. There is an outcome to the use of Propaganda: Self Perpetuating Social and Personal Changes to a target audience. The Catholic Church opened its Sacred Congregation of Propaganda in the late 1500s that consolidated and refined the tools of Propaganda for the express purpose of creating and retaining converts that would be loyal for the rest of their lives. When we deconstruct these tools we offer the person a bit of leverage in freeing themselves and they are often thankful for their regained freedom of choice. Religions almost never appeal to the intellect with Propaganda Campaigns and the counter appeal directly to the intellect may not be possible without this mental exercise of 'How does this tool work' followed by 'How would another respond?' and eventually 'Have you any experience like this?' – the Religious material is way too hot to touch without basic pattern recognition of at least several of the basic elements of propaganda as it is used in Religion. Part of the propaganda model is denial that its propaganda that is being used.

  41. says

    Maybe I didn't read the comments thoroughly enough but I feel like an important point in the article was missed. It sounds like the point the atheist was making was at least partly along the lines of: "Is this really something that you find convincing yourself? Or did you just think it was a fancy argument that would trip me up?"

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