Atheism and Patience


SoapboxSo how often do atheists have to keep making the same points, and keep countering the same old arguments?

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.

Atheist booksMost 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.

ClassroomIngrid 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.

Water on rockPlus, 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.

PatienceI’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.

Comments

  1. says

    Pascal’s Wager – *shudder*
    I think you’re correct and it is something we have to remind one another every once in a while – these people aren’t idiots who keep asking the same questions over and over, they’re different people asking the same questions because those are the questions that a religious mind is obviously most likely to ask. We’re not going to help anyone by being elitist jerks about it even though it is easy to slip into that mindset when we have to explain over and over why it is we believe what we believe. There’s what…12% of the American population that’s ‘godless’, something like that – there is bound to be some repetition going on when you’re trying to make a point to an overwhelming and historically unquestioned majority.

  2. Moxiequz says

    I’m really sorry to harp on this but I’ve been scrolling down your wall and I still can’t find this note. I went as far back as the beginning of June. Can you give the date/time stamp of the note? Or the posts/notes/status updates that immediately precede it?

  3. says

    Nicely stated, Greta. I got frustrated with Pascal’s Wager myself about two weeks ago and hammered out my own version – I called it a corollary to Pascal’s Wager, but the fact is that it’s more of a reformulation.
    But I think you’re right, I think we still have a long way to go before our work starts to show a genuine effect on the average, middle-of-the-road soft-believer. I guess it’s just a question of keeping our chins up…

  4. Maria says

    Aside from having been discussing a lot on-line before (and talked with many believers mainly from the USA) I live in a country that is supposedly one of the most atheistic countries in the world (Sweden). But the truth is that even if people are not very religious here they are not really particularly atheistic or skeptical minded either, not in general. Newage and woo ideas are extremely common, and people are in general not very familiar with any atheistic arguments either, even if they are not believers. Many are not atheists as much as mainly secular in lifestyle, non-believers in the Christian god, who still believes in “something out there”. You’ll get plenty of opportunities to hit your head on a brick wall discussing with people here. So, yeah, sometimes I do feel tired about the whole thing. A country becoming around 80% atheists does not help, then there’s all the other woo to counter… It does feel like a hopeless sisyphos-work sometimes. And me personally I am usually just not up to it anymore. (And now, I couldn’t stand working as a teacher either :-))
    But that’s the good thing, we are not alone. I guess all atheists together are patient as a whole. Even if all individuals do not have the strenght to be so at all times, there will always be someone who are. Hopefully the believers with the same old argument that is still new to them will run into Greta’s blog instead of me on a bad day :-)

  5. says

    1) Whoo-hoo! Quoted by Greta! My life is complete!
    2) As a corollary, though, we do need to realize when our arguments are wasted. Greta’s friend is 100% committed to the “100% certainty” argument. I threw a ridiculous situation at him and he simply went along with it. With that in mind, what argument can you make? He had explicitly rejected logic as tool. You’re not going to then use logic to convince him of anything.

  6. says

    I’m really sorry to harp on this but I’ve been scrolling down your wall and I still can’t find this note.
    The note was posted yesterday, Sept. 3, at 9:55 am. It’s titled “Response to a believer who doesn’t think atheists should criticize religion.” Sorry if this is hard to find — FB does suck sometimes.

  7. says

    All true, but I will also say that people have a responsibility to inform themselves.
    I try to be patient, but there are many people in the world who, coming from a position of “the norm,” make no effort at all to understand other points of view.
    It may be the first time people are hearing things, but for some it is the first time because they have remained willfully insulated and ignorant.

  8. says

    I am logged in to FB. I can’t see *any* notes on your wall, and in particular the one you’re talking about here is definitely not visible to me. Are you absolutely sure you’ve got it set up so that notes are — or this particular note is — visible to everyone, not just (e.g.) your friends?

  9. says

    Sadly, isn’t this the case with any marginalised group faced with the privileged, dominant and willfully ignorant?
    I sometimes think I should just tape record my arguments against homophobia and why homosexuality isn’t a bad thing – they’re always the same just repeated infinitely
    I know PoC who feel the same about the anti-racism arguments. Same basic education, repeated yet again for the clueless
    The sad thing is it is a defining fact of the privileged, dominant group (whatever the reason for their privilege/dominance) that they do not have to examine these issues/argument/thought processes unless they go out of their way to do so. For the marginalised, these arguments are essential and oft repeated.
    I think you have to strike a balance – between arguing yet again and occasionally saying “y’know what? Here’s a link, check the damn archives/FAQ” or even (depending on how silly or how lazy/ignorant the question/argument is “do your own damn research, I’m not your info monkey”

  10. Eclectic says

    Tommy: it’s been a problem that great minds have wrestled with for some time. Thomas Paine expressed his frustration thus:
    “Attempting to debate with a person who has abandoned reason is like giving medicine to the dead.”
    There probably is a way using more emotional techniques to make an impact, but it’s not easy.

  11. Ramel says

    I always find the hardest part is when you need to go through the very basic concepts, things like explaining what a logical fallacy is, and why they mean an argument is bad. I know we all needed to learn at some point but it can be frustrating, its a bit like getting stuck behind a learner driver, we were all in that position once but sometimes when you just want to get home its hard to be nice.

  12. Skepacabra says

    Great blog. It reminds me of when I debate street preachers in Union Square Park in NYC. Like, for instance, a few Saturdays ago, I was single-handedly debating a half-dozen evangelicals at once like they were nothing. I was already refuting their arguments before they even finished their sentences. I felt a little like Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen. I already knew exactly how the entire situation was going to play out and exactly what was going to be said before I even began the discussion, and I was kinda just going through the motions as the one puppet in the conversation who could see the strings. No wonder Dr. Manhattan decided to go to Mars. Even he didn’t have enough patience!

  13. says

    The big problem, for me, are the cases where the same person does make the same tired, old, refuted arguments, over and over and over again. These people don’t listen, don’t accept any evidence, don’t read any references other than AiG and similar material. But there they are, trotting out the arguments again. In their own twisted logic, they’re saying, “Here come the atheists, with their tired bogus refutations, over and over again! Don’t they know they’re wrong by now?” You hope there are other people reading the argument who benefit from seeing the refutations, but you may never know, and it’s very frustrating.

  14. Leo says

    Greta, is there an entry on your site that addresses the “religion is a separate domain” argument?
    Thanks

  15. says

    I can’t be so cock sure that there isn’t a god and judging by the reality of the massive human suffering and the religious texts that god needs to die.
    If there is evil that evil is god.

  16. says

    Excellent points all very well made. It really is all about having a teacher’s temperament. As a teacher myself I think what makes it easy for me to explain some of the same ideas to each class year after year is that when I’m teaching what’s important to me is not learning something new but teaching itself and engaging the specific people in front of me. It’s a different kind of mental and emotional satisfaction than discovering new ideas. It’s a relational endeavor, not just an intellectual one, and it has to be appreciated for what it is and for the particular kinds of pleasures it brings accordingly.

  17. Jo says

    Greta, there are three tabs in your Facebook profile: Wall, Info, and Photos. It is possible to add a new tab for your notes. Hope that helped.

  18. CroMagna says

    So in other words, you’re an atheist missionary? You’ve made it your mission to go around trying to force people to become atheists by constantly making the same arguments over and over? What if people like being in their religions? What if their religions make them happy? What if it gives them a sense of purpose, duty, morality, and helps them succeed? What if it keeps them from become depressed or suicidal? Why not just leave people to have whatever religions they want? The US is founded on religious freedom and tolerance. Badgering people and then becoming rude about it makes atheists look horrible and it runs counter to religious freedom. It reminds me of communism.
    Religion is not all negative. Religion gives you a sense of truth in a mysterious world, it makes order out of chaos. It gives you rules to live by that are usually worthy. It brings people together. It comforts people when life gets hard. And it’s fun! The rituals are fun, the holidays are fun, the songs are enjoyable, the books are interesting, the art is amazing, and the beliefs are very interesting. Atheists enjoy talking about religion more than anyone.
    Ethnic conflict isn’t about religion. Religion is just an excuse. It would occur based on something else if religion didn’t exist. It’s probably all about money. There are 800,000 gang members in the US fighting for money and respect, and none of these gangs are predicated on a religious message.
    I thought atheists just wanted to be tolerated. Now they want to be accepted, because they’re sheep. Now not only that, they want people to become like them! What are they getting out of that? Missionaries think they’re helping people same as atheists do. But I bet you don’t like when missionaries come to your door to try to convert you.
    What is the atheist movement about? Why is there a movement? Whay does everything have to turn into a political cause? I just don’t get the point of the atheist movement at all.

  19. Ramel says

    Wow, here we go again….

    What if people like being in their religions? What if their religions make them happy?

    Would you make the same argument in favour of leaving heroin addicts to just do their thing?

    Badgering people and then becoming rude about it makes atheists look horrible and it runs counter to religious freedom.

    Sorry but have you been living under a rock?

    It reminds me of communism.

    Ok that is just stupid. Really, really stupid.

    Religion is not all negative. Religion gives you a sense of truth in a mysterious world, it makes order out of chaos. It gives you rules to live by that are usually worthy.

    No, it gives comforting lies that slow the advancment of humanity by distracing from studying and attempting to understand the actual truth of the world. And those usually worthy rules? Stone gay people, oppress women, feel free to take slaves, and worshiping the wrong god is worse than murder? Are you serious?

    Ethnic conflict isn’t about religion. Religion is just an excuse. It would occur based on something else if religion didn’t exist. It’s probably all about money. There are 800,000 gang members in the US fighting for money and respect, and none of these gangs are predicated on a religious message.

    No one said religion was the only problem in the world. Just the biggest and most self rightous problem that always seems to get a free pass as it’s somehow wrong to disagree with it in public, regardless of what it is being used to justify.
    As to the rest, when was the last time an atheist knocked on your door? We had Jehova’s wittnesses here just this morning. I think we’ll just skip to the end here:

    I just don’t get the point of the atheist movement at all.

    We noticed.

  20. CroMagna says

    Wow, here we go again….
    “Would you make the same argument in favour of leaving heroin addicts to just do their thing?”
    Yes unless I know them. I’m a libertarian. People have a fundamental right to ruin their lives.
    “Ok that is just stupid. Really, really stupid.”
    This is a perfect example of the rudeness of atheists which is what makes them seem so repulsive.
    “No, it gives comforting lies that slow the advancment of humanity by distracing from studying and attempting to understand the actual truth of the world. And those usually worthy rules? Stone gay people, oppress women, feel free to take slaves, and worshiping the wrong god is worse than murder? Are you serious?”
    You think people wouldn’t stone gay people, oppress women, or have slaves if their weren’t religion? Boy are you naive. What about the religious values that Buddhists have? Or Wiccans? It’s at worst harmless and at best worthy. People have every right to “comforting lies”, it’s their mind not yours. And religion has been around all this time yet people have still advanced, so it can’t be that detrimental. Gregor Mendel the father of genetics was a Franciscan monk.
    “No one said religion was the only problem in the world. Just the biggest and most self rightous problem that always seems to get a free pass as it’s somehow wrong to disagree with it in public, regardless of what it is being used to justify.”
    Before looking at the thorn in your neighbor’s eye, look at the log in your own. Atheist people come across as highly arrogant and condescending.
    “As to the rest, when was the last time an atheist knocked on your door? We had Jehova’s wittnesses here just this morning.”
    That’s because the “atheist movement” is largely internet-based. They knock on people’s cyber doors and you said yourself that you express these opinions publicly.
    Again:
    I just don’t get the point of the atheist movement at all.

  21. says

    Atheist people come across as highly arrogant and condescending.

    Atheists come across to you as arrogant and condescending. Some religious people come across to us as arrogant and condescending. You might wish to consider the possibility that if atheists look worse to you, that’s at least partly the effect of perspective.

    They knock on people’s cyber doors

    Surely that would mean sending unsolicited emails or something of the kind. I suppose there must be atheists who do that, but I’ve seen a lot more of it from Christians as an atheist than I ever did from atheists as a Christian.

  22. says

    So in other words, you’re an atheist missionary? You’ve made it your mission to go around trying to force people to become atheists by constantly making the same arguments over and over?

    CroMagna, you pretty much proved my point right here. Can you really not distinguish between “forcing” people to become atheists, and atheists simply making our case?
    If you can’t make this distinction? If you can’t tell the difference between people forcing their religious views on others by use of guns and laws and so on… and people voluntarily, on both sides, engaging in debate and conversation about religion? If you’re going to come into atheist blogs and argue why atheists are mistaken– because they’re somehow “forcing” their opinions on others by saying that those views are mistaken — and you can’t see the contradiction?
    Then I see no reason to take anything at all that you say seriously.

  23. Maria says

    That’s because the “atheist movement” is largely internet-based. They knock on people’s cyber doors and you said yourself that you express these opinions publicly.
    You are so clueless about the whole irony in your comments that I am just… :-))
    Knock on people’s cyber doors?? So, OK, this blog is Greta Christina’s cyber home right? Who are here knocking on HER door with his/her arguments? (Arguments that we, yes, have seen ONE MILLION times before and that didn’t impress us the first time we saw them, and impress us even less now, which is why I laughed so hard at your first comment.)
    We generally do not knock on people’s doors, cyber or hardwood! In all my years on line I have never spoken a word on any religious forum or blog. I’ve commented on atheist blogs and forums, and so why have I still been discussing so often with religious people? Because they come there to discuss! Just like YOU did now!
    We don’t see the log in our own eyes? Dear, you seem to miss the freaking redwood tree lodged in yours!
    Even so, just like Greta says, we all have the right to express our views publicly, and if you can’t see the difference between that and shoving and forcing ideas on people…

  24. Ramel says

    We only really come accross as arrogant and condesending when talking to complete idiots, like the kind of idiot that says that atheists explaining their beliefs in public is anti freedom and reminds them of communism. A statment that shows a complete ignorance of what freedom, atheism, and communism are as well as failing at the most basic logical level.

  25. JL says

    “Sadly, isn’t this the case with any marginalised group faced with the privileged, dominant and willfully ignorant?”
    I don’t think it’s quite comparable.
    The comparable situation to other marginalized groups trying to counter bigotry by the dominant group would be (in the US) atheists trying to counter anti-atheist bigotry by Christians, or perhaps by theists in general.
    This post, though, is about atheists engaging in debate over a worldview with theists who are new to such debates, rather than about anti-oppression work. I’d say that a more accurate analogy, would be a liberal arguing politics with a conservative who grew up in a conservative bubble and has never engaged with liberal arguments before.

  26. Tully says

    Christine,
    Thanks, I needed that. Having spent a significant portion of my adult life in the education field, I just slapped myself in the head for not recognizing that this concept is no different than any other.
    Again, thanks!

  27. says

    Yeah, that’s one of the hardest things to genuinely accept. I enjoy playing at a cantankerous bitch, but that’s mainly so I have an outlet. Ranting and raving to the internet is just fun.
    But sometimes I get into discussions with coworkers about this sort of thing, and it’s hard to remember that I’ve devoted way more hours to this issue than they have. I can’t just say, “That’s the most retarded thing I’ve ever heard,” and then expect to have a constructive discussion. Unfair as it is, we need to be almost supernaturally patient here, because God makes sense to these people. You really hit the nail on the head with this one!

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