Okay, that came out a little snarky. And I actually don’t mean it that way. I’m quite sincere. This is my question of the day, a question I’m genuinely pondering: How often do we have to make the same points, and countering the same old arguments?
As some of you know, I’ve been engaged in a debate with a believer, an old friend of mine, on Facebook.* And one of the things that’s been frustrating about this debate has been how many of the same old arguments — arguments I’ve countered a hundred times or more, arguments I could counter in my sleep — have kept coming up.
“Neither side can prove their case with 100% certainty, therefore both atheism and religion are just matters of faith, not based on evidence or reason.” “Science doesn’t understand everything, therefore it’s reasonable to conclude that God exists.” “Religion operates in a separate realm from the physical world, and it shouldn’t have to stand up to standards of reason and evidence.” “It’s intolerant for atheists to make a case for why religion is probably wrong and atheism is probably right.”
I’ve been seeing these same arguments for over three years now. It gets a little old. As one of the commenters said in the FB thread, “Is it too much to ask for *new* bad arguments?”
But here’s the thing: the thing I have to remind myself of, the thing I want to remind other atheists of:
These arguments are old to most of us.
But they’re not necessarily old to believers.
Most believers haven’t been hanging around in atheist blogs for years. Most believers haven’t read a half dozen books about atheism, or indeed any. For many believers, these arguments and ideas are brand new. Many believers have never had a serious challenge to their beliefs before. And they’ve never had a serious challenge to the notion that religious beliefs should go unchallenged. The idea that it’s rude and intolerant to point out the problems with religion — even in a public forum — is very deeply ingrained. As a result, many believers have never had to ponder hard questions about their belief — the kind of hard questions that only people who flatly don’t agree with you are going to ask. And their preconceptions about what atheists think and why have never had to run the reality- check gauntlet of actual atheists.
So the answer to the question, “How often do we have to keep making these points? How often to we have to keep countering the same bad arguments?”… the answer to that question is, Often.
Ingrid made a good point when we were talking about this the other day. She said, “Imagine what it must be like to be a schoolteacher. You have to teach the same ideas, year after year after year. At some point you must just want to scream, ‘Do I have to explain this again? Don’t you know this already?’ But of course, they don’t. It’s a new crop of students every year. It’s old to you — but it’s new to them.”
These arguments are old to us. But they’re new to them. As long as there are people who haven’t heard our case — and who haven’t heard it more than once — we have to keep making that case. And we have to make it patiently. It doesn’t make sense for a teacher to get annoyed and impatient with their students for not already knowing the material. And it doesn’t make sense for us to get annoyed and impatient with believers for not being familiar with our case.
Plus, there’s a whole ‘nother reason for making the same arguments again and again. And that’s the “water on rock” principle. When I did my survey of atheists a while back, asking, “What finally convinced you? What finally made you decide that religion didn’t make sense and atheism was a lot more plausible?”, a theme that came up a lot was, “It wasn’t just one thing. There wasn’t one argument. It was a lot of ideas, a lot of arguments, adding up over time.” That was certainly true for me. If I’d only heard these arguments once or twice, they would have been a lot easier for me to ignore or dismiss. Hearing them more than once forced them on my attention, and forced me to take them seriously and really think about them.
So we have to keep making these arguments. And making them, and making them, and making them. I know it gets tiresome. Boy, howdy, do I know. I am deeply familiar with the temptation to get snippy and snarky, the temptation to unleash the claws. I have even succumbed to that temptation, more than once.
But it’s not going to help our cause. And maybe more importantly: It’s not fair. It’s not fair to treat people like they’re stupid just because they’re not familiar with the things we’re so intimately familiar with.
I’m not arguing for accomodationism. I’m not even necessarily arguing for polite diplomacy. I think it’s fine for us to make our case, and I think it’s fine for us to make it strongly, and unapologetically.
I’m just saying that we also have to make it patiently. We have to remember that the whole reason we’re making our case is that people don’t know much about it. Atheism is old, but the newly visible, newly vocal, newly activist atheist movement is… well, it’s new. People aren’t familiar with it. It’s not fair to get pissy with people because they’re not familiar with it. It’s our job to get them familiar.
In twenty or thirty years, maybe we can start getting bitchy with people who still make the “100% certainty” argument, or the “Science doesn’t know everything” argument, or, for fuck’s sake, Pascal’s Wager. But for now — yes, we have to keep making the same arguments. And making them, and making them, and making them.
Until we get through.
*Sorry if the link doesn’t work. Facebook is fun, but it’s buggy about some things, and external links to specific threads is one of them. If the link doesn’t work, try just going to my wall and scrolling down to the “Response to a believer” note. You do have to be a member of FB to see it, though.