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

Debates over faith often leave non-believers holding the bag: look like a jerk or leave the debate unfinished and apparently concede defeat.

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. Believers put atheists in no-win situations, so 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.

When atheists focus our critiques on conservative or extremist religions, we get accused of ignoring the tolerant progressive ones and lumping all religions together. But when we do criticize progressive or moderate religions, we're accused of mean-spirited overkill, of alienating people who could be our allies.

Why this is untrue and unfair: It doesn't make much sense to assume that the atheist critique of religion you're reading that moment is the only atheist critique of religion this writer has ever come up with. Most atheist writers who criticize religion do so many times, and from many angles. We critique extremist fundamentalism, and moderate ecumenicalism. We critique specific religious beliefs and practices, and the general belief in the supernatural. It's not "lumping all religions together" to point out the flaws and hypocrisies and evils committed by one in particular.

So if we're writing about the harm done by gay-hating fundamentalism or the pedophile-enabling Catholic Church, please don't complain that we're "lumping all religions together." We're not talking about your religion. We did that last week.

And yes, we can criticize progressive religions and still be their allies on issues we agree on. Just like any movement can be critical of other movements and still work with them as allies.

When atheists criticize Christianity, we get accused of being cowards for not criticizing Islam. But when we criticize Islam, we get accused of cultural insensitivity.

Why this is untrue and unfair: And I say yet again: It's neither fair nor reasonable to assume that the atheist critique you're reading right that second is the only one this atheist has ever written. If an atheist is criticizing Christianity today, it doesn't mean they didn't criticize Islam last week.

Most American atheists do focus our attentions largely on Christianity—mainly because it's the religion that's most in our face on a daily basis. But I don't know of any serious atheist writer who hasn't criticized Islam. I certainly have. I've criticized Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, fundamentalist Christianity, progressive Christianity, Hinduism, Wicca, Baha'i, and that religion that worships a blue peacock. To name but a few.

As for cultural insensitivity in criticizing Islam... well, given how Islam and Islamic theocracies have historically treated women and gays, I'd call it culturally insensitive not to criticize it. I agree that some atheists can be racist, xenophobic jerks (especially on the Internet—the Internet does seem to bring the racist, xenophobic jerks out of the woodwork, from every group). But to slam as "culturally insensitive" any criticism of Islam as it's widely and commonly practiced...that's pretty freaking insensitive to the people who are victimized by it.

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