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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.

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When atheists focus our critiques on ordinary religious beliefs held by the majority of people, we are accused of ignoring advanced modern theology and focusing on outdated beliefs that nobody takes seriously anymore. But when atheists do argue against modern theology, we are accused of elitism. What's more, when we argue against Modern Theologian A, we're accused of ignoring Modern Theologian B... and when we argue against Modern Theologian B, we're accused of ignoring Modern Theologian C... in an infinite regress of movable goalposts.

Why this is untrue and unfair: Most atheist activists don't care very much about religion as it's practiced by a handful of modern theology scholars. If all religion were the religion of modern theology scholars... well, we still wouldn't agree with it, but we probably wouldn't bother putting much energy into arguing with it.

We care about religion as it's believed and practiced by the overwhelming majority of people who believe it. By definition, those beliefs are not outdated. A belief in a personal interventionist creator god who answers prayers and doles out punishment and reward in the afterlife...that is not an outdated belief. It's what most believers believe in. Even belief in faith healing, demonic possession, magical objects and substances...these are still widespread, around the country and around the world. Heck, nearly half of all Americans believe in young-earth Creationism. When atheists battle these beliefs, we are not fighting straw men. We are fighting real beliefs and practices, with real effects on people's lives. And as it happens, many atheists are familiar with modern theology. And we're really not impressed. How much of it do we have to read before we're allowed to conclude that it makes no sense?

When atheists attempt to present an organized, unified front, we are accused of being Stalinist group-think robots. But when we're honest about disagreements among us, we are derided and dismissed for the supposed 'schisms' that are supposedly dooming our movement to failure.

Why this is untrue and unfair: I am so tired of hearing about the "schisms" in the atheist movement, I could plotz. Look. We don't have a central dogma or organization to split away from. We're a diverse movement with lots of differences among us...and we don't view that as a weakness. We view it as a great strength.

Besides...how does this make us different from any other movement for social change? In all of history, I can't think of any other social change movement that hasn't had internal disagreements; disagreements large and small, disagreements over minor tactics and over major values and goals. Sometimes movements set aside these differences to focus on what everyone agrees on; sometimes they focus on these differences and try to hammer them out. And sure, sometimes that hammering-out process results in pointless in-fighting...but sometimes it results in real progress.

And in particular, the difference between firebrand confrontationalists and polite diplomacists (the supposed "schism" in the atheist movement that the news media has been pissing itself over) has existed in every single social change movement I can think of. And while it can be a source of tension, it can also very much work in our favor—for the same reasons that every other social change movement in history has been able to play "good cop, bad cop" to its advantage.

When atheists say we don't believe in God, we're told we can't possibly be moral people. But when we make our morality clear in word and deed, many believers insist that we must be spiritual or religious or following God unconsciously—even if we deny it.

 
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