Abilene talk: Intro to Atheism

Recently, I gave a talk in Abilene that was intended to be an introduction to atheism for an audience of theists. Although only a few Christians showed up to argue, I’m proud of having written this speech and intend to use it again. Unfortunately the recording didn’t turn out well enough to share, so I’m just posting the text instead. Enjoy.

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On maintaining passionate intensity

I want to say something witty and interesting on the subject of confidently presenting your point of view… but I’m not sure I have the confidence in this view, so I’m just going to throw some stream of consciousness at you.

It’s no big secret that I think “Faith” in general is a problem. By “Faith” I mean the religious variety, where you fervently believe in things which you have no reason to accept as true. I don’t think one set of doctrines is necessarily more problematic than another — i.e., I don’t think Mormons or Muslims are inherently more scary than Christians, but I do think that believers become scarier as you slide from the “vague spiritualist” end of the spectrum to the “ardent fundamentalist” end of the spectrum. That’s why I don’t object to atheist churches and atheist rituals. But I do object to what I call “arrogant certainty” of all stripes — the practice of bluntly asserting a position and sticking to it in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

But there’s an inverse problem, which is the problem of being too timid about things that you pretty clearly do know. I like people who understand that all knowledge is tentative, and recognize that they could be wrong, but all the same… good grief. There is a certain style of presentation that I struggle to avoid, which is to make every point of view you hold sound like an apology.

Sye Ten Bruggencate likes to play on this trait with his signature question: “Can you be wrong about everything you claim to know?” An intellectually honest person would say “Yes, but it’s extremely unlikely.” Sye takes any “yes” answer as an opportunity to say that since you are uncertain and he is certain, he must be right. You see what Sye did there?

Ray Comfort uses a similar approach, saying “Do you know for certain that you are right? No? Well I do.”

Being certain doesn’t mean that you are right in reality. In fact, often it can simply demonstrate that you are not intellectually honest. But sometimes, faking certainty can be a shortcut to gaining an audience’s trust without actually earning it. People aren’t inclined to look things up in a spoken argument, so they may just think to themselves, “Well, that one guy sounded like he knew what he was talking about, so I guess he was more convincing.”

There’s a fine line to walk here. I don’t necessarily want to say that atheists should present that same kind of fake certainty that evangelicals seem to be so good at. On the other hand, there is a kind of confidence in your own point of view that you should be willing to present when you state your positions, because it is a good tool.

There’s a poem by William Butler Yeats called “The Second Coming,” and yes, it is a Christian narrative, so it may not necessarily be the ideal model for atheist discussions. Nevertheless, these lines have always struck me as significant:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

This is a real problem. If people give weight to the opinions they hear based partly on the passionate intensity of the speaker, then someone who is right, but boring and apologetic, will generally lose to someone who is just making stuff up, but blustery about it.

So this is a fine line to walk. Not only is unjustified arrogant certainty annoying to people who care about the truth, but also, being certain of your own opinions can actually make you, yourself, more likely to be wrongThe more confident you feel about what you think, the less likely you are to catch genuine errors in your own thinking.

Nevertheless, I feel like people standing up for the truth should strive to err a little more on the side of sounding authoritative and not apologizing for it. Yes, it can be an uncomfortable place to stand, stating that you are right when you know that you “could be wrong.” But listen to people like Ray and Sye, remind yourself: “I am damn sure that I know more than they do.” With that in mind, it should be easier to aggressively push back on their certainty.”