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Why It’s So Tricky for Atheists to Debate with Believers

No win situation In conversations between atheists and believers, is there any way atheists can win?

I’ve been in a lot of discussions and debates with religious believers in the last few years. And I’m beginning to notice a pattern. I’ve been noticing the ways that believers put atheists in no-win situations: the ways that, no matter what atheists do, we’ll be seen as either acting like jerks or conceding defeat.

Like so many rhetorical gambits aimed at atheists, these “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” tactics aren’t really valid criticisms of atheism. They really only serve to deflect valid questions and criticisms about religion. But they come up often enough that I want to spend a little time pointing them out. I want to spell out the exact ways that these “no-win” situations are both unfair and inaccurate. And I want to point out the general nature of this “no-win” pattern — in hopes that in future debates with atheists, believers will be more aware of them, and will play a little more fairly.


Thus begins my new piece on AlterNet, Why It’s So Tricky for Atheists to Debate with Believers. In it, I spell out some of the ways that religious believers frame their arguments against atheists in such a way that, no matter what we do, atheists can’t win: no matter what we say or do, we’ll be seen in a negative light. To find out what some of these untrue and unfair rhetorical moves are, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!


  1. says

    Over at Pharyngula there’s a Calvinist complaining about how Richard Dawkins set up the Non-Believers Giving Aid project and PZ Myers has the effrontery to point out that There is a false perception that associates church attendance with selflessness and social responsibility, and that because non-believers do not make showy demonstrations of giving in the name of a deity, we must be uncaring. To the contrary, the godless have been quietly supporting good causes as independent agents all along….
    The nerve of those atheists, giving aid to Haitians and being public about it. It’s like we’re shaming those good goddists by showing one doesn’t have to be a goddist to give a damn about other people.

  2. says

    There are also a huge number of Jews and Muslims who have fine tuned the art of claiming that you’re a bigot if you criticize their religion at all. Some Catholics do this too but they haven’t quite gotten the hang of it yet. With Muslims it’s very very common to accuse any of Islam’s critics of being racists and and neocolonial neocon pro-zionist crusaders. In some observant Jewish circles (though I find this less common) criticisms of Judaism are greeted with accusations of antisemitism. In the case of Islam, I’m dismayed that so many secular leftists have made it their mission to defend Islam from criticism and offer apologia for all the horrific things Islam is doing to its victims (largely Muslims, by the way). I’m also dismayed that the xenophobic, vicious European far right seem to be the only ones who are seeing the threat of 8th century religious fanaticism moving in with them; queers, feminists, and leftists should be in the forefront of keeping Europe secular and tolerant, but instead they’re all too often busy saying what assholes Westergaard and Rushdie were for provoking these poor Muslims, and marching with Muslims against Israel. All because the Muslims have managed to shift the terms of debate so much that to point out any flaw within Islam automatically means to be singled out as a racist. If Christians manage to pull off the same rhetorical coup here, the atheist movement will probably be over pretty quickly.

  3. DSimon says

    Zhu-wuneng, I think that a lot of leftists get annoyed with the anti-immigration rhetoric that gets tied up in counter-theistic ideas (i.e. even in your comment, where you talk about “religious fanaticism moving in”). It’s confusing immoral beliefs with immoral people.
    It’s entirely possible for Muslims to move out of a culture that permits atrocities like FGM and honor killings and into a culture where the force of law stops these actions but does not attempt to alter their nominal religious beliefs.
    The end result is a modernized religious view like that most USian Christians have. Even though Christian religious writings are also filled with incredibly nasty and evil stuff (burn this person, stone that one, etc. etc.), the large culture these Christians live in is one where such things are just not accepted, and so holy book or no holy book, they just don’t happen.
    I don’t see why that can’t also work for integrating newer immigrants with the same issues. In fact, creating a larger moderate Islam might well have a beneficial mellowing effect on Islamic states.

  4. says

    “In some observant Jewish circles (though I find this less common) criticisms of Judaism are greeted with accusations of antisemitism.”
    That’s where its important to make clear that one is making a differentiation between Judaism the religion and the Jewish ethnicity. Or for that matter, between those and the country of Israel and its policies. The problem comes in that there really are antisemites who criticism of Israel and Zionism as a kind of “code” for what is really animus toward Jews as a people. I suppose there might be some who use criticism of Judaism in the same way.
    With Muslims it’s very very common to accuse any of Islam’s critics of being racists and and neocolonial neocon pro-zionist crusaders. […] In the case of Islam, I’m dismayed that so many secular leftists have made it their mission to defend Islam from criticism and offer apologia for all the horrific things Islam is doing to its victims (largely Muslims, by the way).
    Yep – don’t even get me started on Islamophobia Watch, a group that basically uses the figleaf of civil rights rhetoric to attack anyone who has issues with Islamic extremism, including moderate Muslims. Interestingly, this group was not started by Muslims, but by a small, opportunistic Marxist group who was looking for an issue.
    On a larger level, there is a distressing move in international politics, backed by conservative Islamic countries, to elevate what are essentially blasphemy laws to the level of civil rights legislation under the idea of “defamation of religions”. Point of Inquiry did a podcast about it last year, available here.

  5. says

    Yes, there are certainly xenophobes and racists who opportunistically use Muslims and who I know are hiding behind the threats posed by extremists. The problem is that the extremism is real. Sure, as you say, it’s possible for the fanatics to come to Europe and leave the barbarism behind, and indeed many do; however, a very significant portion do not, and religious fanaticism IS moving in; I won’t ignore that fact in order to be PC, I’m sorry.
    I would love to see a trimmed down, less crazy version of Islam, but I simply don’t think it’s in the cards in Europe. In the US and in Eastern China(where I currently live) Muslims are somewhat less radicalized and have a less militant leadership. In Europe, the biggest voices of moderation, such as Tariq Ramadan, are despised as sellouts and munafiq (mypocrites) by the average Muslim on the streets; and they’re not even particularly moderate, just slightly less militant, when you examine their actual positions.
    But, sorry if I’ve gone off topic too much here, when I wanted to talk about suppression of arguments.
    Right, look at the blasphemy law Ireland just passed. Sure it says “religion” but it’s pretty obvious which religion it was set up for. It wasn’t even set up primarily by Muslims, it was pushed through by the Irish Greens. Anything but an honest argument!
    Thanks for the podcast.
    As for Judaism, you could be pro-Judaism but anti-Israel (as the Naturei Karta are), anti-Judaism but pro-Israel (as some conservative Christians are), anti-Jewish people but pro-zionism(like some of the German Nazis were), or anti-Judaism but pro-Jewish people and pro-Israel (which is what I am). It’s a slippery area and I could see some people being a little sensitive after centuries of near-constant antisemitism.

  6. Bruce Gorton says

    Posted by: Zhu-wuneng | January 19, 2010 at 05:55 PM
    Just a point here:
    The Irish blasphemy law was set up to protect the Catholic Church – they have been getting hammered with the child abuse scandal.
    Particularly after a secret deal where the government agreed to pay the bulk of the damages came to light, even though it was clear that the Catholic Church was siphoning funds intended for caring for those children to the Vatican.
    And it used the courts to maximise the number of kids it had in order to get more welfare grant money.
    The whole thing started off as what amounts to welfare fraud, the children were collateral damage in the church’s bid to boost its welfare grant income.
    It is why I urge people to never ever give to Catholic charities – the money is not going to the people it is supposed to and the institutions the church puts in place may actually be harming the people you intend to help.
    So what this all amounts to is the Irish taxpayer having to pay for being crooked.
    And the Irish taxpayer isn’t happy about this which means more critical eyes on doctrine by a nation noted for its ability to get fairly scathing, and the Irish Government does not want the Irish way with words being applied to the religion it still supports.

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