Following the script

We got an excellent question from a fan in Perth, Australia, enough that I wanted to share my answer online.

A friend of mine regaled me with a tale a while back, about a theist spouting a well worn apologetic to a prominent atheist. Rather than shoot it down with a just as well worn counter, he simply replied with “did you really think that would work?” Now, I don’t know the whole story, but apparently said atheist went on to berate said theist about stupid they were for thinking that of all the things that this atheist had heard and read, it was this one guy spouting this one thing that he probably got of some website that would change his mind. While I’m not a fan of berating people, It does strike me as a valid idea, the whole “do you really think that’ll stump me” response.

However, following a lively debate with some fellow atheist friends a while back, I was on the receiving end of a sudden rush of perspective. You see, they were just saying the same old stuff as well. The usual cookies about the christian god being immoral, how many different religions there are all over the world, the nonsense of disregarding science just because it can’t explain EVERYTHING… same old crap you hear from people with an education. It got me thinking, what if the shoe was on the other foot? My girlfriend’s mother is an Anglican priest and I know for a fact that if I just spouted one of the usual chestnuts to her, she’d have an answer pretty quickly, probably one that’d get me off the script, if there is such a thing as an atheist script.

I suppose my question is, shouldn’t a skeptic be trying to come up with new responses all the time, forever? I hate to go us vs them, but the idea of stock responses to stock questions and insular self congratulation seems very, very, well… dumb. In Perth, we don’t have many fundies at all, but a lot of people are so vaguely middle class white spiritual, anti-science. The usual crap, “can’t prove everything” what the bleep do we know pseudo-spiritual nonsense, and when I try to have honest discourse with them, it just descends into stock responses and I give up. It’s very disheartening.

To condense it, my question is: As people who reject claims on the basis of logic and reason, is it enough just to have stock responses? Shouldn’t we be trying to come up with new, better and always unexpected ways to exercise our skepticism? Hope you can shed some light on my ramblings.

And my answer is: Yes and no.

It is a mistake to completely dismiss the value of having an arsenal of sound bites. The thing is, you use your stock responses exactly as long as they work well. At the point where they stop working, you either enhance them or abandon them for something that works better.

For example. My stock response to “God must have created the universe because it couldn’t have created itself” is probably always going to be some variant of asking, or leading into, the question “What created God?”

Theists don’t like this. They ridicule it. They say it’s like a question that a little child would ask. They come up with variants like the Kalam argument, in which instead of saying “Everything that exists has a cause” they say instead, “Everything that begins to exist has a cause” — thereby creating a special pleading loophole. If you’re attentive enough, then you can see where the sleight of hand occurs, much as you can look at a “proof” that your high school buddy used to produce showing that 1=2, and identify the fallacious step where he divided by zero or something.

The thing is, the fact that someone will ridicule and dismiss an argument is not, in itself, a demonstration that the argument is not working. I could enter a history class and loudly scoff: “What’s that?! You expect me to believe that Henry VIII became the King of England in 1509??? You’re so ignorant!” I don’t doubt that if I tried this against a bunch of teachers, at least a few of them would be so insecure that they wouldn’t argue with you, lapsing into embarrassed silence or changing the subject. This seems to be the disposition of many biology teachers today who would otherwise be teaching evolution.

Your atheist friend who says “Did you really think THAT would work?” is using a tactic. It is neither inherently good nor bad; it’s just potentially effective or not effective in a particular situation. The tactic is a combination of poisoning the well and psychological intimidation. He wants to give the opponent and/or the audience the emotional feeling that the opponent is ignorant and the atheist knows more. That feeling may or may not be justified, and the intimidation may or may not work.

Like any tactic, this one has its strengths and weaknesses. If you pull this trick, and your opponent stammers out some apologies and tries to talk about something else, you’ve just gained a point of data saying that it is a good tactic for you. You pulled it off. On the other hand, do this in an inappropriate way, and you look like an arrogant prick. For an example where this approach bombed, check out the historical Bush/Gore debate, where voters came away with a lasting impression of Gore loudly sighing, rolling his eyes, and getting in Bush’s personal space — which was perceived as needlessly condescending, irrespective of whether Gore’s impatience was warranted or not.

Scorning your opponent this way is like throwing a lot of money into the pot in poker. It may be that you are putting all that money in because you genuinely have a good hand — i.e., you are armed with better facts, your opponent really is ignorant, and you can prove it handily when it’s time to show your cards. On the other hand, it may be a bluff, and you’re secretly hoping that your opponent will fold under your withering gaze so that you can collect the money without a prolonged fight that you stand to lose.

And yes, religious people apply this tactic all the time. Let me throw a few book titles at you:

  • You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can’t Make Him Think (Ray Comfort)
  • I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Norman Geisler)
  • Evolution, A Fairy Tale for Grownups! (Ray again — sorry, but that guy is a walking textbook on this technique)

So as you noticed, it happens on both sides. What, then, do you do when somebody attacks you with that “I’ve already heard that argument” line while showing obvious contempt?

I think the most important rule here is to keep your cool, don’t flinch, and find a way to do a quick end-run around the brush off. The best way to do this, I think, is to highlight the person’s arrogance as their weakness rather than their strength.

This is a place where the “reductio ad absurdum” technique often comes in handy. Ask yourself: “Okay, so this guy is acting as if my argument isn’t even worthy of consideration. What implications also follow from his dismissal?” Highlighting obvious contradictions is useful, and so is the question “How do you know…?”

Here’s a sample dialogue.

Theist: “Everything has a cause. Since the chain can’t go back infinitely, there must be a God.” (Note: oversimplified, in some cases.)
Atheist: “What created God?”
Theist: “That’s a ridiculous question. It’s something a child would ask.”
Atheist: “Oh, so you don’t think everything had a cause.”

(Reversal. Instead of demanding that the theist acknowledge your point, you accept his dismissal and calmly look for
a contradiction.)

Theist: “Well I don’t mean that everything has a cause. Everything which begins to exist has a cause. But God is eternal.”
Atheist: “How do you know that?”

(The theist just tried to inject an assertion, again counting on the assumption that it’s so obvious that only a fool would challenge it. Don’t be intimidated by this.)

The conversation may go in any number of directions at this point — my money’s on “science vs. faith as a means for knowing things.” The important thing, though, is that you find a way around the theist baldly asserting a certainty that he has not earned.

As with any argument, it’s a game. If you fold, then it doesn’t matter how unsupported your opponent was in reality; you still lose. On the flip side, if your opponent calls you on your claim and you can’t back it up, you may well lose worse, because then your opponent has condescended to you and then proven that the condescension was justified. That’s the gamble you take when you are arrogant.

As you probably noticed, you very much should have an arsenal of “opening moves” that, by and large, don’t have to vary much. If you trot out a move and you see your opponent driven before you (and, of course, hear the lamentation of the women!) then you keep doing that. To someone who doesn’t argue on a regular basis, this can look easy, even lazy, and perhaps very risky.

The critical point here is that the opening is not the whole game. Good for you if you can occasionally checkmate your opponent in three moves and that’s all it takes. (Fear Edward Current!) But if your opponent doesn’t cave right away, then what is going to determine your success is your ability to defend the sound bite, to think on the fly and justify your reasoning, not just to quote it.

Developing opening moves does not necessarily have to be a solo, creative process. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you talk to a new person. You should by all means watch other people’s debates, see what works and what doesn’t, and shamelessly steal the stuff you like. That doesn’t make you a mindless parrot, it makes you a smart shopper. But if you use these arguments and then you lose, you should always be willing to take a step back. Ask yourself: Did his response win because it really is actually logically superior? Has he actually made a point? Has he uncovered a genuine flaw in my thought process?

If that turns out to be true, it may well be that you have to dump that argument from your arsenal. The unfit do not survive, it’s evolution in action. (And please note that this is intellectual Darwinism, not social Darwinism. I’m advocating the death and abandonment of ideas, not people.)

But that’s not the only outcome. You can look for other cases where people have had to deal with that same argument, and find a response that will get you a step further in your next conversation. And in that case, you will become more confident and your response will be stronger each time you face that argument.