Is there any point to debate between theists and atheists?

Anyone who has read this for a while will know that I am an atheist. To anyone who got here without knowing it, now you know too. This is written from the point of view of an atheist, and the title asks the question after spending some time debating theists online. When I started debating them, it was always with patience and thoughtfulness, always as polite and respectful to them as I could be. But I’ve found that as time went by, my respect waned, and is now almost as lacking as my patience. I often respond to them simply by naming their most obvious bad argument or fallacy, and include a link to a site like RationalWiki explaining the fallacy or bad argument they’ve made. I also respond with loads or irony and sarcasm. I’m not rude, insulting or condescending, but I think it is fair to say that that I am blunt and unsympathetic.

Recently an old friend, who happens to be a theist, asked me if I know of any forums or groups where he can debate. I told him that in all honestly, I don’t know of a forum that treats those with the opposing view respectfully. There is much bias, and many in the atheist and skeptic groups that I belong to are not only intolerant of the opposing view, they are often rude and insulting.

But there is a reason for this. I’ve tried debating theists for a while now, and it gets frustrating quickly. I don’t think that atheists start out disrespectful of theists’ arguments; it’s just that we hear the same poor arguments over and over again. It becomes tiring to hear the same invalid arguments, to make the same statements to different theists who make those arguments, only to find that they do not pay attention to the details of the arguments against their beliefs anyway. They often post the same question or statement again, making exactly the same argument phrased differently. There is neither anything learned nor an interest in learning – they want to win arguments and ignore the answers anyway. Then repeat the same debate tomorrow with a different theist. It doesn’t end. Rather we get to make the same arguments again and again, with the opposing view based on assumptions but no logic, sometimes even with the same people.

The fact is, I do not respect the opposing view, because I have learned that there is nothing in that view worthy of respect. But I do treat that opposing view fairly. It is fair to outright reject an argument that isn’t based on evidence. It may at face value appear unfair for me to say this, but there is no argument that will ever convince me that any god exists. I’ll explain why…

It may appear as if my statement that no theist’s argument will convince me is unreasonable, but it is not. The only thing that would convince me that any god exists is that god himself, or direct evidence of that god. Every apologist argument is nothing more than the words of man, and every god ever worshipped has been invented by man. Some arguments may seem better than others, but they only seem better to those who already believe in a god.

Some arguments seem sophisticated, especially when they mix logic, philosophy and pseudoscience or even genuine scientific jargon taken out of context (because bullshit baffles brains), or they include statements that do not directly state their underlying arguments but assume them implicitly instead, but all apologist arguments are essentially the same:

  1. They start with the assumption that god exists, the god that the person making the argument believes in. Then they look backwards for ways to confirm that assumption.
  2. They use circular reasoning. For example, using words in the bible to confirm your belief in god makes the assumption that the bible is the literal word of that god. (So you must start out assuming that god exists.) In other words, the belief in god is presented, indirectly, as the reason for the belief in god.
  3. They use non sequiturs. For example, a theist who presumes the existence of god and accepts their indoctrinated teachings (of their brainwashing) that their god created everything, will look at the world and see beauty or complexity, and perceive what they see as “the works of God”. They will point at a flower or a representation of the structure of DNA, and state that this is evidence of intelligent design and thus their god. It isn’t. They aren’t even aware of the assumption being made, as stated in point one. And they don’t realize that to jump from beautiful or complex, to god, requires the pre-existing belief in that god.
  4. Pascal’s Wager is another example of this same argument. To assume that it’s better to believe than to risk eternal damnation only makes sense if you assume that it’s better to believe in the god you already believe in. Why not another one of the 5000 or so other gods that man has worshipped? Furthermore, to accept this requires accepting your religion’s concept of an afterlife, for which there is no evidence.
  5. The argument from first cause is the same. It makes some assumptions about causality, and then jumps from first cause to god with no explanation of how this jump is made. Once again, it is because the apologist starts with the conclusion, that god exists, and not just any god – the one that they were taught about as children. The argument only makes sense, once again, if one starts with the conclusion, yet the argument looks reasonable to anyone else who already believes in that same god, even though there is nothing in it.
  6. The argument from morality is another example, one that I encounter all the time. This is the argument that morals come from god. To believe this, one has to assume that god exists, then assume that one’s holy book is the word of that god. (Again, circular reasoning. You believe in god because you believe in god.) After making those two assumptions, you have to read your holy book selectively (cherry-pick) so that the morals in it match the morals that you have. In the case of the Christian bible, that means ignoring all the examples of human sacrifice, slavery, incest, rape and misogyny that are condoned in the bible. You must then ignore that all people of all cultures have moral values, and they are all slightly different, even among the same religion in different locations. If morals came from god, surely they would be identical everywhere? The reality is, morals exist. There is no evidence that god exists. To give your imaginary friend credit for something that already exists is just another example of circular reasoning.
  7. And when all else fails, when a theist is confronted with facts, they will often resort to that old chestnut… You can’t prove that god doesn’t exist; therefore he does. This is an argument from ignorance, and attempts to shift the burden of proof. One cannot prove a negative. The apologist making this argument must use ad hoc reasoning to rationalize why there is no evidence for their unfalsifiable god. The late great Carl Sagan had an excellent example to illustrate this: You can’t prove that there isn’t a dragon in his garage. Try to prove him wrong, and… Why can’t I see her? The dragon is invisible. Why can’t I hear her? The dragon is inaudible. If I spread powder on the floor, why don’t I see her footprints? She floats in the air. How about I detect the heat of the dragon’s fire? It is heatless. Use echolocation, or try to spray-paint the dragon to make it visible? You can’t, because the dragon is incorporeal, so paint does not stick and waves of all sorts pass right through the dragon. The end result is that he could counter any argument and you could not prove that the dragon wasn’t there. If an hypothesis is untestable/unfalsifiable, consider the most likely explanation: It is not true.

The interesting part of the last argument is that ad hoc rationalization requires the theist, on some level, to know that their belief can never be proved. That is, the rationalization is needed to explain the dissonance in the head of the theist; the difference between their belief’s practical implication and what we see (or in this case do not see) in the real world.  One would expect a belief based on something real to have some sort of evidence. Thus they propose that we prove the unfalsifiable claim is false. Is asking us to prove that something doesn’t exist equivalent to their proving that it does? Of course not.

Sometimes the arguments for a belief in god are as above, but they are more subtle. One example I saw the other day was a question posed to an atheist group: Are all atheists nihilists or hedonists?

That’s just a rephrasing of the argument from morality. It assumes that morals come from god, thus if you don’t believe in god, you have no morals. Then it rolls further down the slippery slope and assumes that since life has no meaning for you without god, you live for pleasure alone. The number of assumptions made in such a statement is quite frightening. It’s also an attempt at making a straw man of atheism, as well as a taunt. Argue with this person about nihilism or hedonism without addressing their unstated assumptions, and you will end up defending a straw man. (Because anyone who makes such a statement already has a more powerful argument to follow it up with, albeit one that applies not to atheism but to the subject that they introduced and imposed on atheism: nihilism and hedonism. Argue and you look bad to an observer who may unconsciously accept that the nihilist straw man is a valid example of an atheist. It’s a verbal “sucker punch”.) Address only their unstated assumptions, and they can accuse you of not answering the question.

The other day I shared this meme:

Morals

My friend suggested that if god is imaginary, so is conscience. I don’t really have anything to counter that with. (To be fair he included a video to explain the context of the statement, and I haven’t watched it yet. The timing was bad, just before I went to pick up my son.) Without understanding his context, this looks like just another argument from morality. I think it’s a good meme – it is mocking the fact that people can feel fine about what they’ve done just by accepting Jesus and praying for forgiveness. But the harm, and any consequences, especially to other people, are unchanged by your confession to god. It’s a way of making yourself feel better, but you shouldn’t.

There is one more argument used against atheism all the time that I nearly forgot to include: The conflation of atheism with evolution. Theists often share memes with the text, “At first there was nothing. Then it exploded.” Atheists most probably “believe” in evolution, because it is a fact and is based on observed evidence. There is no evidence for god. Certainly science can not explain what happened before the big bang, assuming there was one (and if there was, why only one?). But to explain it by assuming an eternal god just moves the goalposts. Assuming a magical, unfalsifiable origin doesn’t solve the problem. The problem, of course, is that we don’t know why anything exists, and science can only take us so far back to what has been observed or has left detectable evidence. Ultimately we can’t explain where anything came from and don’t know how the universe started, but inventing a god who has always existed and created everything from nothing, makes no more sense than what the meme is mocking. Besides, atheism is the disbelief in theistic gods. It neither makes an attempt to explain the origin of the universe, nor is evolution a requirement for being an atheist.

To conclude, I firmly believe that theists who debate atheists will never change their minds. Most are unaware of their assumption (from point one above) and lack of logic, and will never see it. So why debate them at all? For me, it’s not about changing anybody’s mind. But I hope that if I continue to point out all the fallacies and assumptions, people who are on the fence, agnostics, or people who are indoctrinated but have their doubts (like me all those years ago), will come to see reality. It is never my intention to change the minds of the theists who debate, especially not the ones who come to troll atheists groups, but the audience is important.

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About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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5 Responses to Is there any point to debate between theists and atheists?

  1. Great post Jerome. Would like to re-blog it if OK. You are right about the futility of debating committed theists, but as you say, you might influence less committed individuals, although I suspect that most of those amenable to logic probably don’t read blogs. Still, we can but try, so keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jerome says:

      Yes, feel free…

      My next post, publishing this evening at 6:30PM SA time, changes the subject yet again to addiction, in the context of “don’t believe everything you read”, after I read an article that views meth (and the late Ayn Rand) in a positive light. It does touch on one sceptical concept though – confirmation bias…

      Like

  2. As someone that identifies as agnostic, I don’t see myself as a fence sitter, more that I don’t feel it is useful to argue about something that I don’t think we can prove. Instead, I prefer to leave the question of God out of it and put holes in the idea of organised religion itself. I find I get farther, when theist don’t feel I’m attacking their idea of God.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jerome says:

      I’m not sure why I am so anti theist. Part of the reason may be that I wasn’t responsible for bringing up my son (until recently) and hated that the choice to teach him about god was made…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m very anti-religion. My pet peeve is when one of my students is ‘saved’ and thinks that it makes up for all the shitty things they’ve done. I believe that a person’s actions allows them to redeem themselves not their beliefs. Too many people I’ve taught ‘believe’ in the religion only when it is convenient or say they believe but their actions contradict the values of their so-called religion.

        Liked by 1 person

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