Why you should argue in public and private

Greta asks a question of the FTB community today: Atheist Arguments — Public or Private?  My answer is: both.

There’s no pat answer to how you should conduct yourself in an argument, any more than you can encapsulate morality in a set of ten laws that are followed unfailingly without question.  Obviously, I’m a big fan of taking arguments public, which is why I love being on a TV show with lots of callers.  (Well, that, and I’m a big old narcissist.)  But what I generally say as a rule of thumb is that you should only have an argument if the argument is beneficial to you and your position in some way.

Argument is a performance, and a performance only has an audience.  But there are three different kinds of audience you might want to entertain, so there are basically three styles of argument you may wind up having.

  1. The audience is… someone else.  This is what happens when Greta posts an argument on her blog, or we do one of those cute “we get email” posts, or we take calls on TV, or there’s a public debate happening in an auditorium.
  2. The audience is the theist.  Bear in mind that you do not have to enter such arguments with the expectation of completely changing the theist’s mind and making him an atheist.  If a theist drifts across the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal theist to agnostic to atheist to outspoken atheist, then you’ve done a good job.
  3. The audience is… yourself.  And that’s the most likely motivation for keeping an argument private.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the third audience, because atheists aren’t omniscient.  There are some difficult arguments that people butt up against as they learn to explore the philosophical implications of their beliefs, and sometimes you’re going to lose.  Seriously, it happens to everyone, because unless you are the single best debater in the whole world, tautologically there is somebody better than you.  So don’t fall into trap of thinking that “only stupid people disagree with me,” because that’s really not the case.

Never forget that arguing with somebody is essentially a game, and there are good players and bad players — or rather, there are better players and worse players.  You may be a pretty good chess player against your friends, but I don’t see you beating either Deep Blue or Garry Kasparov.  But the great thing about losing is that it’s a learning opportunity.  When you lose an argument, you’ve discovered a weak spot in your understanding of the issues.  Then one of two things is true: either you were wrong, in which case — hooray! — you can change your mind and now you’ll be right!  Or else, it turns out that you lost with a winning argument.

In this second case, now you have some direction to take your reading.  You should read more about this argument that beat you.  Find out what other people would say against it; find out what philosophers have said about it; find out whether it butts up against some important scientific principle that we know about.  The overall tournament doesn’t end just because you lost the game.  And once you learn exactly where you made the mistake, then the next time you run into this argument, you’re going to nail it.  That’s what arguing for yourself really does for you.

So really, there’s nothing wrong with taking an argument private.  There is always that chance that the theist is a reasonable person who will actually soften his position on some of his misconceptions.  Don’t tell me it never happens; it happens all the time.  And there’s also an equal chance that by practicing an argument in private, you will become a better player, which in turn will help you out with future public arguments.

And then those public arguments will help you sway more people who don’t have a vested interest in picking one answer… but only if you get good at it.  Don’t be so arrogant that you think you’ve won when you’ve actually lost.  That way lies victims of Dunning-Kruger.  If you’ve honed your abilities through practice, then by all means show off and win some souls.

On changing minds

In a previous thread, someone wrote: “While debating with a theist can be as invigorating as playing chess, one should bear in mind that it’s doing them harm. It’s driving them deeper into their psychosis.”

This is simply not true, and yet it’s unfortunately a very common meme among the “Don’t be a dick” crowd. As a counterpoint, I’d like to share a letter we received a few months ago. I don’t post stuff like this often, as it would come across as too self-congratulatory, but I do want to remind everyone that people sometimes change their minds.


For context: This guy originally wrote to us in January. He wrote that seeing the show was causing serious doubts in his own Christian beliefs. He then went on to say:

I was wondering, if there is no higher power, how you would justify morality in an atheist at all? Please don’t misunderstand, as a young person on the verge of apostasy, I’m not saying that atheists have no morals, although I have met ‘christians’ who have claimed as much. After all, if there is no higher power, then there is no objective truth, ergo no objective morality, meaning all morality is subjective. If that is the case, then to say that a murderer is immoral is surely a fallacy, as he no doubt acted as his morals saw fit. If morality is subjective, then he is as moral for acting out the murder he saw as moral as you are for not acting out a murder you saw as immoral.



I wrote back and we discussed the morality issue for a while. The angle I took on this was the Euthyphro Dilemma, though I usually don’t refer to it by name. I like to explore the concept that a God-given morality is somehow objective in a way that human consensus-derived morality is not. In the course of three more exchanges between us, and some messages from Tracie thrown in, we discussed slavery; we discussed the story of Jephthah; we talked about what kind of commands God could issue that would be considered by this person to be immoral.

After a while he said that they were hard questions but he still felt like there must be a god. The conversation petered out.

In September I received this:



Hi, Mr. Glasser,


I doubt you remember me, but we had a discussion about religion and so on just under a year ago. I have since become an atheist and I thought I’d drop you an e-mail to thank you. The video I e-mailed about in the first place was the first real faith-shaking material I had come into contact with, and from there I kept investigating my religion scientifically, historically and morally. Obviously, I found it wanting and, as I said earlier, have since renounced it. I thought I’d let you know a few of the final arguments in convincing me that the bible, at least, is wrong, not really in case you hadn’t heard them (I’m sure you have), but rather because, since our discussion must have been frustrating for you, I’d like you to know. One is that the God of the bible forced us into sin, and therefore knowingly and willingly condemned literally billions of people to hell by creating the Eden situation in the first place, for he knew what would happen but did nothing to change it. This is an act of incredible cruelty, and is unjustifiable, giving trouble even to my own father (a minister). That’s a moral argument, I suppose, but also shows a biblical contradiction (if God is all loving and unchanging then this act (among dozens of notable others) should be impossible). The second is the fallibility of the bible. I wonder if you knew that Luke, in his gospel, lists 28 generations between Joseph, Jesus’ father, and David, whereas Matthew gives 41. On top of that, the census Luke wrote about never happened, and the local census upon which it may have been based happened long after Herod’s death.

Those are just a few, but anyway, thanks again for showing me another way of thinking, and it’s thanks in part to you guys and what you’re doing that I am being fascinated and amazed every day by the way that the world works without resorting to the ‘Don’t ask questions, God did it’ train of thought.





So. I have been asked, on a few occasions, whether arguing with people about atheism ever changes people’s minds. My answer is always “Very rarely, and the changes are usually minor but positive.” This is what I would consider a happy exception.

Not quite the double standard you were thinking

Hey, kids. Yes, I’m back. Been back a few days in fact. And I’m finally ready to post again, so here’s my first, in reply to a letter received responding to the conversation with Behe fan “Garry” on the last show I did with Matt. Our correspondent begins:

I am an undergraduate student at the University of Florida, and I am a friendly/open-minded agnostic theist. So with my introduction out of the way, here is my email:

In the Problem of Evil debate, skeptics and/or non-believers of God’s existence formulate their argumentation as follows:

(1) If there were an all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful God, then (due to His unlimited knowledge and unlimited power) He would be able to prevent gratuitous/pointless evil and suffering that is not necessary for an adequately compensating good.

(2) Because God would have such a capability, and because He is supposedly all-good, he would act on that capability and prevent the gratuitous/pointless suffering and evil that is not necessary for an adequately compensating good.

(3) But, there is lots of evils and sufferings that occur in the world (which have not been prevented by the supposed all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God), and much of it is not logically necessary for any adequately compensating good (and therefore seems to be gratuitous/pointless).

(4) Therefore, the conclusion is that there does not exist a God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, or all-good.

Now, many theists argue against the argument of ‘The Problem of Evil’ presented above by way of refuting premise (3) and saying that there is no evil that is gratuitous/pointless, and that all evil is logically necessary for adequately compensating goods. One of the ways in which they do this is by presenting ‘The Contrast Response,’ which basically says that if there were no evil in the world, we would not be aware of the good. God then allows evil to make us aware of goodness, since this awareness in itself is a good.

But, many skeptics and/or non-believers of God’s existence do not accept ‘The Contrast Response’ because they claim that it is not necessarily the case that our minds work this way. Essentially, they believe that we would still be aware of goodness even if there were less (or even no) evil to contrast it. So they say that ‘The Contrast Response’ is logically invalid.

That being said, I am assuming that you (Matt and Martin) are not exceptions (and have the same point of contention in regards to ‘The Contrast Response’).

So if I am actually correct about my assumption and your point of contention and belief that our minds don’t need contrasting things in order to be aware of (or recognize) non-contrasting things, why then (in episode # 660, which occurred on Sunday, 6/06/2010 and while responding to Garry from Manhattan, NY and his example of irreducibly complex systems) did you (Matt and Martin) flip the contrast response (which you do not accept as being valid in the problem of evil argument) around in order to claim (within the context of the argument of creationism) that in order to know if something was created, we have to first have an example of something that wasn’t created to compare it with (or contrast it to)? To me, this seems like a logically fallacious contradiction???

Our correspondent is wrong in his assumption of where I stand on “The Contrast Response.” I don’t reject the notion that a knowledge of the difference between good and evil is a vital element of ascertaining one’s moral positions. What I reject is the notion that an omnibenevolent God is necessary for such an understanding, especially one who would continue to allow gratuitous evils to occur long after the human race had well and truly understood those differences and had established laws to punish them. Why, in this day and age, would God allow (to use the most button-mashing of examples) the continued sexual abuse of children? Are there significant pockets of human civilization (apart from the Vatican) who still do not understand this is a deplorable act, and therefore, children must still be put through the anguish of sexual abuse in order to make those people aware of its evil, and of the goodness of not abusing children in contrast?

Another objection would be that, even if one accepts the notion of God’s allowing acts of evil in the world for the sake of “compensating goods” (and I don’t know that I accept the idea of non-victims of evil realizing how lucky they are to be a “compensating good”), this would still not absolve God of the moral responsibility to stop such acts of evil when he can. Honestly, in what way would God’s refusal to prevent the sexual abuse of a child — thereby presumably allowing us to experience the horror of the act so as to better appreciate it when children aren’t raped — constitute a better “compensating good” than for him simply to blast the assailant to smithereens with a well-aimed lightning bolt? Who would be sitting around thinking, “Gosh, I don’t understand, why did God do that to that poor man?”

Why establish good and evil as concepts if not to enforce them? A common argument in theodicy is that God must allow evil for an understanding of good. But how are we mere mortals expected to reach such an understanding if God doesn’t explain which is which and punish the evil when it happens? Instead, it seems we are meant to work it out for ourselves which are good and evil acts, as God apparently cannot interfere in the interests of not undermining our supposed free will.

The great irony of this form of theodicy is that it ends up rendering God irrelevant. Atheists and secular moralists do argue that we are the ones responsible for determining the differences between good and evil…but that we are perfectly capable of doing this by using our intellects and our empathy to evaluate the consequences of human actions, rejecting those which are destructive.

Any theodicy that proposes a God as the architect of moral precepts, only to immediately take Him out of the picture, leaving humanity to deal with good and evil on our own, pragmatic terms, might as well concede the argument and pack it in. A God who refuses to prevent gratuitous destructive acts for any reason is one who has, if He exists, surrendered His moral authority and is deserving of no thanks from us.

Additionally, even if I am wrong about my assumption [and you guys actually DO accept the contrast response as a good response to the problem of evil—or reject it for another reason that I have not presented above—(and therefore have not contradicted yourselves)], why do you even find the merit in asking a theist to provide an example of something that was not created, anyways? Essentially, asking a theist to provide an example of something that wasn’t created is unfair, because if he/she is a common theist and believes that God exists, he/she also believes that EVERYTHING [including natural things] in our physical universe was created by Him (which would mean that to the theist there would be no example of an uncreated thing that he/she could provide, because no such example would exist).

As such, the theist’s lack of ability to provide such an example does not prove (or even serve to insinuate) that there was no creator (or God). Moreover, it only further begs the question. So essentially, I think that asking Garry to provide such an example was an invalid (and therefore unnecessary) form of argumentation.

This is because, like Garry, you fail to understand that a key component of any scientific hypothesis — which is what ID wants to be — is falsifiability. In order to determine if your hypothesis is even valid in its basic premises, you have to be able to answer this question: “If what I am proposing is not true, what conditions would I expect to find existing today?” Therefore someone insisting that life was intelligently designed must be able to answer, “If life were not designed, what would it look like?” It’s hardly unfair or invalid. It’s basic science.

And y
es, this question has been answered in regards to evolution, and very simply. When asked what he thought would falsify evolution, biologist J.B.S. Haldane answered simply, “Fossil rabbits in the pre-Cambrian.” If anything in the fossil record were not where it was supposed to be in the timeline, this would be a problem. But it has not been a problem. Indeed, evolutionary theory has been validated many times in its predictive power, another important factor establishing scientific validity. Tiktaalik was found right where paleontologists were sure a certain transitional fossil of its type would have to be found if it existed at all.

If insisting that Garry state the way in which ID or any other design hypothesis was falsifiable was “unfair,” it can only be in the way a scientifically illiterate fellow set himself up to be humiliated in his ignorance on live television. But that’s hardly our fault. If some creationist calls us, trying to peddle an inferior product, and proceeds to lecture authoritatively on a subject about which he is in fact ignorant, a little humiliation is the least he has coming.

A Zacharias follow-up

Because there was no indication Matt had done it, I thought it would be interesting to email the link to his post answering Ravi Zacharias’ “Six Questions to Ask an Atheist” to the contact address I found at the RZIM website. Monday afternoon I received this response, not from Zacharias himself, but the ministry staffer who posted the actual “Six Questions” article to the site.

Dear Martin,

Thank you for your recent email to RZIM in response to the article “Six Questions to Ask an Atheist” in our “Engaging Conversations” section of the website. I want you to know that I read the posted response in its entirety including the comments. On the whole, I found these responses to be very helpful and challenging. I am the author of this essay, and I borrowed heavily from a framework used in Brian McLaren’s book “Finding Faith.” I can completely understand how since you do not know me, the “tone” of this article seemed to be antagonistic rather than genuinely interested in either conversation or learning from your perspective. I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. I am seeking to learn, just as I assume you are, and I have learned a great deal from this post and the responses.

If you would permit me some time to more carefully reflect on what has been written, I would like to respond to you. While I know that what I may write will likely end up as “public domain,” I would appreciate it if we could exchange emails initially that are between the two of us. If you find something useful – either to critique or to stimulate further conversation, you are welcome to post it. But, let me do some thinking first, and then respond.

Again, thank you for sending this to me and for the very thoughtful
interaction that was presented in this post.

Sincerely,

Margaret Manning

Speaking Team/Associate Writer

So there. I replied that I would be delighted to continue a dialogue (which I’ll bring Matt in on, as he wrote the original post, of course), while assuring Margaret that I wouldn’t post any of it here without securing her permission. But I thought there’d be no harm in letting you guys know there was a response, and a polite and receptive one at that. It does appear as though Margaret had not in fact field-tested Ravi’s Six Questions among any actual atheists before. So hopefully there will be an eye-opening series of exchanges to come.

We get creationist email #2

This is a follow-up to this dialogue. Martin has politely asked me if I would increase my blogging activity over the next few weeks, so that we can make up for the lack of new shows. Since I enjoy writing posts that react to something else, I’ll probably carry on with this sort of thing as long as I can. Besides, it’s good to stay in practice.

This email will be abridged so you don’t have to see increasingly wide quote boxes.


From: thelambstruth

Hola :)

[Regarding Kazim's statement that "neo-Darwinian evolution is the most widely accepted explanation for how the diversity of life came into existence"]

Majority is correct? That’s extremely flawed. I’m sure you perhaps meant something differently?

Nope. This is not an argument from popularity, although you might regard it as an argument from authority. In brief, I am not a scientist, but I understand the scientific method and recognize that it relies on results that are repeatable and can be independently verified. I also recognize that among the people who devote themselves to the serious study of biology, i.e. published biologists, only a vanishingly small number of them have any beef with the claim that biological evolution occurred.

Science is based on converging consensus based on common repeatable observations. If you’d like me to explain the scientific method in more depth then I will.

[Responding to Kazim's statement that fossilization is a rare event]

However that was not my question. I was stating that in order for fossilization to occur, some pretty drastic things had to happen. So, what was this (these) process (processes) basically?

I’m sure you’re fully capable of doing your own research. But here, let me google that for you.

[Regarding Kazim's remarks about the temporal proximity of pyramid building to the flood]

Well there is: ” The building of the first temple can be dated to 950 B.C. +/- some small delta, placing the Flood around 2250 B.C. Unfortunately, the Egyptians (among others) have written records dating well back before 2250 B.C. (the Great Pyramid, for example dates to the 26th century B.C., 300 years before the Biblical date for the Flood). No sign in Egyptian inscriptions of this global flood around 2250 B.C.” However the Flood occurred 4400.

Reference, please? Where are you getting these numbers? As I understand it, there are two perspectives. The young earth creationist view is based on numbers cooked up by Bishop Ussher, who concluded that the flood occurred in 2348 BC.

The position of the scientific community, on the other hand, is that there is no indication whatsoever that a global flood ever occurred.


[When called out for posting long lists of objections to science from web sites, without providing detail]

Haha, my bad. I admit, I was in a bit of a hurry, which caused me to get some points from book/site. I’ll elaborate in a future message.

Okay. I’ve got time to wait.


[Further pressing for a reaction to the web site ostensibly showing ancient pictures of dinosaurs]

Yes it is subjective, however if you want to deny how amazingly (try to think objectively) accurate the paintings/carvings/etc looked, then whatever. How can someone do so with such accuracy? Has there been any other examples such as these? If it would’ve been a drawing of some random monster, then yea, so what? This is significant because they didn’t know anything about the dinosaurs (supposedly), so how can they just so happen to draw such pictures?

As I already said, I don’t think that they are amazingly close to dinosaurs. Although I will also note a couple of other points:

1. There is actually good reason to believe that people found dinosaur bones in ancient times…
http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/dinosaurs/dinofossils/First.shtml
http://www.amazon.com/First-Fossil-Hunters-Paleontology-Times/dp/0691058636

2. There is nothing inherent in evolution that says that the dinosaurs could not have survived past the presumed extinction event. It’s unlikely, but wouldn’t fundamentally change the scientific understanding of how evolution works.

We get creationist email

I’ve alerted the author that I will be posting this, and even obtained his consent, so… everybody wave hello!

From: thelambstruth
I’m a creationist fundie first off, and I was wondering how one could be an evolutionists.

Hello, creationist fundie, nice to meet you.

The reason someone would accept evolution is pretty straightforward: It’s because neo-Darwinian evolution is the most widely accepted explanation for how the diversity of life came into existence. If one wanted to change the mainstream science, the most direct way to do that would be to study the topic and write papers proposing a scientifically reasonable alternative; request that the papers be peer-reviewed and published in a mainstream scientific journal; and then hope that your work would be persuasive enough to change the prevailing understanding of biology. It’s a tall order, sure, but it’s the way that scientific inquiry generally proceeds these days, and it’s been very useful at developing a body of knowledge that has resulted in the technology you enjoy today, such as that computer that you are typing on.

I could go into many topics, however I feel the need to just touch up on a few, being the geologic strata, the fossils, and anything else pertaining to that.

Firstly, the geologic strata are completely vague and arbitrary, the transition imperceptibly. A scientist cannot just go out and dig to a certain depth and know right then which stata it was. As said, they cannot even tale when they’ve transitioned into another strata until they run into fossils (will cover later) or conduct ‘radiometric dating’. Also within this vague and arbitrary strata, it is extremely variable and the stratas are only accepted when they coincide with the presumed fossil age; which the fossils are dated by the rocks and the rocks are dated by the fossils for some nice circular reasoning. So, say, if the scientist ‘knows’ the age of the strata and finds a fossil within that very arbitrary and undistinguished strata, then the fossil is the same age, while if the fossils are presumed to be a certain age and they find one in another strata then they date the strata accordingly along side the fossils. What is this? If a fossil is in the wrong spot, then they attribute that fact not to the flaw of evolution, however something cataclysmic, that no one knows what, moved it there. I thought science was supposed to be based off evidence and fact, not wishful thinking that some great event might have caused something to happen.

Jeff Dee has already pointed out to you an invaluable resource in the Talk Origins Archive. However, I would like to draw your special attention to a subsection of that site known as the Index to Creationist Claims.

If you do a word search on that page for “strata” you will find numerous articles, including one which directly addresses your question. There is a brief response on this page. There is also a longer explanation of the science of dating fossils, on this page.

If you read these articles, what you discover is that there are actually a variety of separate methods for dating a fossil, all of which tend to produce similar answers, and therefore are used to independently verify the age of a fossil. The geologic eras were thus determined after various dating techniques were already common, and after observing that similar fossils tend to fall in similar orders within layers of rock. The reason it’s now additionally possible to date fossils by the layer in which they appear, is because the strata have been so well established by other dating methods.

How come there are so many fossils? They would not formed over natural causes because in order for an animal to become fossilized, it must occur very rapid and a quick death. Surely not ALL of these fossils died like that. If they did, why doesn’t that happen anymore? We do not have anything close to that happening today.

Of course not all dead organisms form fossils. Only a very small fraction of the animals that ever lived are fossilized. Multi-cellular life spans over a period of about 3-3.5 billion years, and as you rightly pointed out, the vast majority of those organisms do not leave fossils.

So what caused it? Well the Flood did of course!

Unfortunately for your hypothesis, the idea that there was a worldwide flood is not taken even a little bit seriously in mainstream science. There are a multitude of problems with the flood idea, which you can brush up on here.

In particular, I think my favorite example of such problems is the fact that other cultures, such as Egypt and Sumeria, had thriving cultures which lasted right through the supposed dates of the flood. For example, the Egyptians were building pyramids both before and immediately after the supposed flood dates. That would be a neat trick — I wonder if the new Pharaohs were Noah’s grandchildren? And how many of their cousins were enslaved to do the work?

Here’s some quick little proofs for it (I could go into many biblical accounts, however I know that you atheists folk aren’t to keen to accepting it):
1. World-wide distribution of flood distributions
2. Origin of civilization near Ararat-Babylon region in post-flood time.
3. Convergence of population growth statistics on date of flood
4. Dating of oldest living things at post-flood time
5. Worldwide occurrence of water-laid sediments and sedimentary rocks
6. Recent uplift of major mountain ranges
7. Marine fossils on crests of mountains
8. Evidence of former worldwide warm climate
9. Necessity of catastrophic burial and rapid lithification of fossil deposits
10. Recent origin of many datable geological processes
11. Worldwide distribution of all types of fossils
12. Uniform physical appearance of rocks from different “ages”
13. Frequent mixing of fossils from different “ages”
14. Near-random deposition of formational sequences
15. Equivalence of total organic material in present world and fossil world.
16. Wide distribution of recent volcanic rocks
17. Evidence of recent water bodies in present desert areas
18. Worldwide occurrence of raised shore lines and river terraces
19. Evidence of recent drastic rise in sea level
20. Universal occurrence of rivers in valleys too large for the present stream
21. Sudden extinction of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals
22. Rapid onset of glacial period
23. Existence of polystrate fossils.
24. Preservation of tracks and other ephemeral markings throughout the geologic column
25. Worldwide occurrence of sedimentary fossil “graveyards” in rocks of all “ages”
26. Absence of any physical evidence of chronological boundary between rocks of successive “ages”
27. Occurrence of all rock types (shale, limestone, granite, etc.) in all “ages”
28. Parallel of supposed evolutionary sequence through different “ages” with modern ecological zonation in the one present age
29. Lack of correlation of most radiometric “ages” with assumed paleontological “ages”
30. Absence of meteorites in geologic column
31. Absence of hail imprints in geologic column, despite abundance of fossil ripple-marks and raindrop imprints
32. Evidence of man’s existence during earliest of geologic “ages” (e.g., human footprints in Cambrian, Carboniferous, and Cretaceous formations)

It looks to me like you’re just grabbing long lists of items that you found on web sites, but can’t be bothered to back them up with any detail. Hence, I can’t be bothered to respond to each one individually. If you would care to read more of the Index to Creationist Claims, you will find a lot of responses to these canards there. If you would like to pick out one or two of your bullet points that you find particularly persuasive, then I would be happy to discuss them in detail after you expand on them.

Finally, what about the dinosaur drawings in places like Arizona and Rhodesia and many others? In those times, they didn’t have a concept of a dinosaur, they supposedly didn’t know anything about those. So, how did they know what they looked like? Some are phenomenal at their accuracy.
http://www.genesispark.com/genpark/ancient/ancient.htm

Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing back from you. Thanks:
TheLambsTruth

Whether they’re phenomenal or not is a matter of opinion, I suppose — I’m not all that impressed myself. Short answer: people imagine all kinds of cool monsters. Longer answer: here and here.


Russell Glasser
The Atheist Experience

On keeping your cool

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:

  1. Convincing the other person.
  2. Convincing an audience.
  3. Entertaining an audience (if the opponent is too big a crackpot to be taken seriously).
  4. Practice.

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.

Last Muslim email, I’m done. Your turn.

All right, seriously, we’re going around in circles. I’m bored. You can talk to Muhammad if you want.

Parts 1 , 2, 3.

Why do you think your god just existed without anything happening that caused the god?

Because it makes sense to say that god led to the creation of something then to say things JUST HAPPENED by itself. The same way you guys are saying that the burden is on me to prove the existence of god, the burden is also on you guys to prove that whatever is out there actually led to the creation of the universe and you guys still havent found out.

Why don’t you give me a good reason why I SHOULD go around killing strangers?

The fact that you kill all sorts of animals etc via pollution what makes it different then your own species? They are all bunch of interacting atoms so why does it make it right to kill insects birds fish or even dangerous lethal species but not your own species? Im sure if you ever see a bee hive on top of your doorway the first thing you would do is kill it you wouldnt think about “HEY ITS NOT BENEFITING ME IN THE FIRST PLACE SO WHY NOT JUST LEAVE IT THERE”

Many apologies, but I don’t believe you. If you make up a story using conversational Arabic, you can even write it in English. All you need is a translator who understands both English and conversational Arabic. It sounds like you’re asking me to believe that Muhammad didn’t know any people who could translate between conversational and written Arabic. You want me to accept your claim that Muhammad had no believable earthly means for committing his thoughts to paper, but as an alternative you want me to believe that it was accomplished by magic.

I see where it is going. You can’t find a valid response so you have to say “I DONT BELIEVE YOU” Well its the truth and thats how arabic works. You can translate conversational to english and write it down sure. YOu can also translate written arabic to english even though its going to sometimes distort the meaning but if you were to translate conversational arabic to written arabic it would also disort meaning and looking at the perfection of the quran in its meaning etc there is no way it was translated it like that.

Another thing that doesn’t seem to add up about your story: If Muhammad was illiterate, how was he able to know what it was that he wrote?

I think you’re a bit confused. Muhammad did not write the story. Allah reveals it to Muhammad, Muhammad memorizes the revelations. Muhammad recites it to a group of people the group of people write it on a book. The fact that the writting of the quran into a book happened shortly after the Prophet’s death makes it impossible for any deviation.

Oh, I see how it works now. All I have to do is make some kind of claim, and then it becomes “history,” and then it is undeniably true. There is no need to verify anything at all.

Well, in that case, I’ve got a claim for you. I am illiterate. I have no means of writing this email to you right now. But I’ll tell you how I do it: I have magical supernatural powers, thanks to the angel that I am channeling right now. And you know what the angel just told me? He says Muhammad — both of you — are full of shit.

No but the claim needs to be logical and based on true observation. I obviously know you are literate because I’ve read your background and you’ve read on TV so thats a fail on your part. Muhammad was a loner back the and it was confirmed via counts in poems etc. There couldnt have been another person comming up with a story and then reciting it to Muhammad. THink of the logic here. If there was a person who came up with a story and gave it to Muhammad, why would he come up with something that would disprove his religion? It just doesnt make sense. People back then did not believe in god and now all of a sudden youre telling me that there could have been a person who did not believe in god help someone deny his religin?

Have at it. I’ll let Muhammad know you’re discussing his masterful arguments.

We get Muslim email (part 3)

Yep, I went another round with Muhammad. He sent two emails and here’s the resulting response.

This was part 1 and part 2.

Muhammad’s first reply:

What additional information do you get from calling it “God?” Even assuming that “dimensions interacting with each other” made sense as something other than a bunch of words strung together, why wouldn’t you just keep calling them dimensions? Do the units of measurement become conscious when you apply this label? I don’t get it.

Because if it were JUST dimensions and nothing else, what made it shit out the universe?You cant say it just happened because for all I care it could have just sat there and just existed without anything happening but the fact is something did happen and it was the fact that it shat out the universe. IT cannot do something by itself without another thing acting upon it.

You’re making a bunch of statements that are not supported by any observation. We don’t know whether it’s in some way more likely for energy to “sit on its ass” than “shit,” because we have nothing outside of this universe to compare it to. Science doesn’t currently have any definite position on whether there is some kind of metaverse, containing more energy which either sits or shits. We don’t have any statistical data. For all you know, free floating energy has no alternative but to shit universes. Or whatever you’re trying to say.

What im trying to say is sciences says that energy just existed and has always existed. If that was true all it could have done is just exist without anything happening but some how some way it didnt just exist without anything happening it led to universe what caused it to lead to the universe?

There are two uninhabited patches of land. On one of them, it rains. On the other, it does not rain. Does this require somebody to “intelligently” choose to make it rain in one place and not another? Must everything be uniform, all the time, unless there is divine intervention picking between two places? If so, what is your justification for this claim?

It rains as a result of evaporation and this evaporation happens because there is water and water is there because of the interaction of atoms and the atoms came from energy and energy like I said is from god. Without god you wouldnt be arguing about these two uninhabited patches of land. What Im trying to say is there is something behind everything that is happening. And if that first happening was something by itself without existence then nothing would have happened.

You can’t measure god and say he exists or not using natural physical laws. God is super natural therefore no physical laws or nature or quantum mechanics apply to him. This is where the quran revelation comes in handy and explains the only proof of his existence.

Why would I want to do that exactly? Austin has an excellent police force which solves murder cases with a fairly high rate of success. It may not be a guarantee that I would be caught, but I think it’s pretty likely that I would wind up sent to jail or executed myself. And even if I did wind up getting away with it, many of my friends would probably have awkward questions for me, probably even fear me. As a result, I would certainly lose contact with many people whose love and friendship I value highly.

So are you saying you’re not going to kill random people because of the fact that you would be jailed? So if there was enforcement order you would kill people at will?

So instead I’d like to ask: what is your god’s purpose for existing? Why does the god do the things that it does? What drives it? Why does it do whatever you think it is doing?

He exists because he created everything therefore he must exist. He has a reward of heaven and hell in which the believers will go heaven and the non believers will go to hell. He deserves every respect and worship to him because without him you wouldnt exist so the least we can do is respect him and bare witness his existence.

Second email:

That makes very little sense to me (are you saying that you can’t make up a story and then dictate it?) but okay, we’ll move on.

If you make up a story using the arabic language in which you would use when engaging in a conversation then no you cant write it down. But if you make up a story using the language in which can be written then yes you can write it down. For you to be able to that though you must learn how to read arabic first.

Imagine yourself in my shoes for a minute. You are merely a poor benighted atheist, without any belief in God or supernatural magical powers whatsoever. I come to you and say “Look here, I know for a certainty that there is a magical being who lives in the sky and listens to every one of the seven billion people on this planet, every minute of every day. And the reason why I know this is that 1,500 years ago, an illiterate man wrote a book about him.”

So you’re saying that you would much rather believe it if you were actually alive during that moment? Too bad thats when it happened and it is history that doesnt mean you can deny it. Do you think 3000 years from now people are going to deny all the science discovered now just because its too old?

1. This being you’ve described really exists, despite a complete absence of other corroborating evidence.
2. I am somehow mistaken, and the author of this book either wasn’t illiterate or somehow found SOMEBODY who was willing to listen to this story and write it down.

Again you cannot come up with a story that is in readable form unless you know how to read arabic. Thats just the way it is. So the prophet could not have made up that story unless he knew how to read which he didnt. There are many arabic poems in the past the confirm Prophet Muhammad‘s illiteracy.

Before you answer, stop and ask yourself if your answer would be the same if the book was not the Koran but say, the book of Mormon, or a book about Scientology or something.

Bible book and others have been proven to be edited through out the year.The old and new testament is from god himself but they have been changed and edited through out the years the Koran was never changed….

And now, my reply to both. Sorry, but editing is becoming a pain so I’m not going to even try snipping for clarity this time.

Because if it were JUST dimensions and nothing else, what made it shit out the universe?You cant say it just happened because for all I care it could have just sat there and just existed without anything happening but the fact is something did happen and it was the fact that it shat out the universe. IT cannot do something by itself without another thing acting upon it.

This rule that you’ve made up seemingly doesn’t get applied to your god. After all, you believe that the god just sat on its ass before shitting out the universe. All you’ve done is answer a question you don’t understand, by making up additional stuff which you still don’t understand. Again I’m asking what reason you have for believing this addition god-thing exists.

What im trying to say is sciences says that energy just existed and has always existed. If that was true all it could have done is just exist without anything happening but some how some way it didnt just exist without anything happening it led to universe what caused it to lead to the universe?

Why do you think your god just existed without anything happening that caused the god?
It rains as a result of evaporation and this evaporation happens because there is water and water is there because of the interaction of atoms and the atoms came from energy and energy like I said is from god. Without god you wouldnt be arguing about these two uninhabited patches of land. What Im trying to say is there is something behind everything that is happening. And if that first happening was something by itself without existence then nothing would have happened.

And around we go in a circular argument. You want me to accept your assertion that god exists, and your argument for this is that “Things don’t just happen without intelligence.” Then when I suggest an example of something that doesn’t have an intelligent cause behind it, and you say “God did that.” But God is the thing that you are trying to prove to me, so all you are doing is repeating your assertion, not making an argument. When are you going to justify the belief that your god exists?

So are you saying you’re not going to kill random people because of the fact that you would be jailed? So if there was enforcement order you would kill people at will?

Incarceration is one of many reasons. Maintaining relationships with other people is another. Yet another is that I have no motivation to kill strangers; it wouldn’t get me anything useful. And if there were no formal law enforcement, that stranger quite likely would still have friends and relatives who would wish vengeance.

You asked me why I don’t kill strangers, and I gave you several reasons why I would not do it. You focused on one reason and then asked if that was the only one. I get the feeling that you’re not really looking for a serious discussion, but you just like to hear yourself talk. Why don’t you give me a good reason why I SHOULD go around killing strangers?

Moving on to your second letter:

If you make up a story using the arabic language in which you would use when engaging in a conversation then no you cant write it down. But if you make up a story using the language in which can be written then yes you can write it down. For you to be able to that though you must learn how to read arabic first.

Many apologies, but I don’t believe you. If you make up a story using conversational Arabic, you can even write it in English. All you need is a translator who understands both English and conversational Arabic. It sounds like you’re asking me to believe that Muhammad didn’t know any people who could translate between conversational and written Arabic. You want me to accept your claim that Muhammad had no believable earthly means for committing his thoughts to paper, but as an alternative you want me to believe that it was accomplished by magic.

Sorry, but I just don’t believe you. I still find all the other alternatives much more plausible.

Another thing that doesn’t seem to add up about your story: If Muhammad was illiterate, how was he able to know what it was that he wrote?

So you’re saying that you would much rather believe it if you were actually alive during that moment? Too bad thats when it happened and it is history that doesnt mean you can deny it. Do you think 3000 years from now people are going to deny all the science discovered now just because its too old?

Oh, I see how it works now. All I have to do is make some kind of claim, and then it becomes “history,” and then it is undeniably true. There is no need to verify anything at all.

Well, in that case, I’ve got a claim for you. I am illiterate. I have no means of writing this email to you right now. But I’ll tell you how I do it: I have magical supernatural powers, thanks to the angel that I am channeling right now. And you know what the angel just told me? He says Muhammad — both of you — are full of shit.

I guess you’ll be abandoning Islam now. I wrote it down, after all, so it’s history now.

That’s all for now! If I get another reply, I’ll mention it in comments until there’s another full round to post.

We get Muslim email (part 2)

Here’s part 1 in case you missed it.

Muhammad’s second message to me:

Hey thanks for reply I forgot to mention one more proof of why god exists and it has to do with Prophet Muhammad. Please look at this and then I will go back and make a comment on all the comments you made previously

Before I start I need to mention one thing. Arabic is not like English. You can come up with a story in english and write it down simply. The language you see in a textbook you can use in normal conversations. In arabic you cant. Meaning there is a way to talk arabic in normal conversations and there is a way to read arabic. You cant write down what you normally talk in arabic because it wouldnt make sense. In other words for something in arabic to be written, it must be in the language of readable material. If you cannot read arabic, you will not be able to make up readable material. You may be able to talk arabic normal in conversation but you wont be able to make up stories that can be written down UNLESS you know how to read arabic. Now that I cleard this up we move to my argument.

The fact that Prophet Muhammad did not know how to read or write and was illiterate means he couldn’t have possibly come up with the Koran (which is in readable material) It was revealed to him by God and the prophet Muhammad memorized it and which he then recited to many people. Notice how I said it was recited to many people. There couldn’t have possibly been a change or edit because any deviation in writting it would be easily detected by the people who memorized it at the time. The quran was written in book form within a few years after the prophet’s death. Now back to the original argument, there was no way that the prophet himself could have come up with the quran when he was illiterate. You may say, well someone who knew how to read came up with the story and told Muhammad. Saying that wouldnt make sense in 2 ways. First the people back then did not believe in a god so why would a non believer help someone come up with a story to disprove his religion? Another thing, if there was someone capable of comming up with something so great like the Quran, what would he be doing hanging out with an uneducated illiterate Prophet Muhammad? He would be in much higher rankings.

My reply (again with some repeated text truncated):

Muhammad,


…Please look at this and then I will go back and make a comment on all the comments you made previously

Okay, but it feels to me suspiciously like you are trying to change the subject. If you thought that all this quasi-scientific talk about energy and universe shitting was supposed to be persuasive proof of God in the first place, then why would you break off a half-finished conversation in order to bring up a wholly unrelated point about a supposedly illiterate person in the seventh century? It’s a bit of a roundabout way to make a point, don’t you think? If your entire belief in God is based on the literacy status of one guy, why didn’t you just say so in the first place?

…You may be able to talk arabic normal in conversation but you wont be able to make up stories that can be written down UNLESS you know how to read arabic. Now that I cleard this up we move to my argument.

That makes very little sense to me (are you saying that you can’t make up a story and then dictate it?) but okay, we’ll move on.

[Argues that Muhammad, being illiterate, could not have written the Koran without a miracle.]

It all strikes me as an incredibly flimsy foundation on which to base believe in an infinitely powerful supernatural being living outside the universe. And I bet if you give it some thought, you can understand why.

Imagine yourself in my shoes for a minute. You are merely a poor benighted atheist, without any belief in God or supernatural magical powers whatsoever. I come to you and say “Look here, I know for a certainty that there is a magical being who lives in the sky and listens to every one of the seven billion people on this planet, every minute of every day. And the reason why I know this is that 1,500 years ago, an illiterate man wrote a book about him.”

Thinking outside your religion for a moment, which do you honestly find easier to believe?

1. This being you’ve described really exists, despite a complete absence of other corroborating evidence.
2. I am somehow mistaken, and the author of this book either wasn’t illiterate or somehow found SOMEBODY who was willing to listen to this story and write it down.

Before you answer, stop and ask yourself if your answer would be the same if the book was not the Koran but say, the book of Mormon, or a book about Scientology or something.

I think you know what my answer is.

Just curious, does anyone know what he talking about regarding the supposed impossibility of writing down spoken Arabic? Because Muhammad is really trying to hammer on this point in his latest message, and it doesn’t make any sense to me at all. I mean, you could presumably speak conversational Arabic to a translator who spoke English, and then you could write down an English version of what he said. Why wouldn’t you be able to write an Arabic version?