Lately I’m starting to wonder if being open about my atheism all the time is really worthwhile. Four acquaintances recently decided to “debate” me… And the reason the word debate is quoted is, well, they have no idea how to debate. It was more like being ganged up on.
Theists, when they approach me with their arguments, just don’t seem to get this: I have heard all the arguments before. I’ve often heard them or read them articulated well. (Thus how I respond to a familiar argument articulated badly varies only according to my mood.) I debate when there are people present who may be undecided. I don’t argue with people who are indoctrinated such that they cannot think for themselves when there isn’t an audience, because it is a complete waste of time.
I had three arguments made against me that I intended writing about, but to keep this post short, I’ll only present one of them…
Argument from personal incredulity, about a credulously accepted second-hand anecdote that’s no better than an urban legend
Here’s the man’s argument: What if you heard of a couple, who tried for more than twenty years and did not have a child? Doctors told them they could not have a child, and then one day, she became pregnant, and the doctors could not explain it? That was it. That was his whole “argument”.
Firstly, that’s an argument from incredulity. “I don’t understand; therefore God.” Or, “I don’t know how; therefore GodDidIt.” He would not see that there is a gap between “I don’t understand” and “therefore God”. It’s a case where he doesn’t understand, and… Hey… Guess what? I already have a magical explanation for all things. Let me just accept that, so I don’t have to think and consider what an actual explanation might be.
Also see my sub-heading above. It’s an anecdote, but it’s not even a personal anecdote. It’s something that he heard, like the story I heard about the old lady who used to wash her dog, Fifi, and then dry her in the oven, until the day she bought a microwave oven. (Poor Fifi – she is no more.) We love anecdotes… First hand accounts of stuff that teach us something. I heard the one about the microwaved dog from my grade 9 biology teacher back in my school days when I was fourteen years old, and he told it like he knew the old woman personally or at least a friend of a friend did, because that’s how anecdotes work. But almost thirty later, I read the same urban legend, and it was written by a journalist in a foreign country, who’d heard it in a similar manner to myself.
Someone with a different religious background could very well use the same anecdote as “proof” of a completely different god, a god that, if believed in by my acquaintance, according to his religion, would land him in Hell. But he, and this theoretical other person who believes in some other god, will latch onto the anecdote because it takes only a small leap of faith (that they have already made) to confirm what they already believe.
Unlike the other people in the group, this acquaintance is quite stupid, and slow. But the others, who are quite intelligent, were only too keen to accept his story. They didn’t think of asking the obvious questions which would reveal the anecdote was not something he knew to be true, questions about the couple such as: How old are they? How long have they been married? Were they divorced and remarried, and if so, did either have a child before? What are their names? Where do they live? Do you have the names of the doctors who were baffled by their case? What is the medical reason that the doctors have, if any, that pregnancy could not occur?
They didn’t ask those questions because it is easier to accept a story that conforms what you already believe, even if that story is brought to you by an idiot.
I feel bad for calling my acquaintance stupid, but when somebody passes on such an anecdote without even the slightest hint of skepticism, it is difficult to call him anything else. (And I really do feel bad. He’s a good guy, a likeable guy – he just isn’t too bright.) I don’t know where he heard the anecdote… Maybe it was from someone in his church… maybe the pastor. But it doesn’t matter… The story is too vague. Maybe it is based on truth, but there is no way of knowing what’s true and what’s embellished. Even if a man had an exceptionally low sperm count but was not infertile, and he and his wife tried to have a child, the probability of success would increase every time they tried. Also, the probability of success would increase if she was unfaithful… When someone tells me a story and it includes unnamed doctors who have no explanation for some fucking miracle, of course I will not believe it, and of course I will question the intelligence of the person telling me the story. What leaves me bemused is that the other people in the room were only too keen to accept the story too, in spite of their intelligence.