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

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.

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.

Why this is untrue and unfair: Talk about an unfalsifiable hypothesis! If any act of morality is seen as an act of spirituality by definition, is there any possible way atheists can prove we genuinely don't believe in God? Do we have to eat babies or push little old ladies in front of buses to prove that we're not religious?

To say that ethical atheists must be motivated by religion is a classic case of assuming the thing you're trying to prove. And it's completely unfalsifiable: no possible evidence could show that it's wrong. If atheists behave ethically, that somehow proves that we're really religious; if we behave badly, it somehow proves that atheism is inherently bad and leads people away from morality. It couldn't possibly be that atheists are just human beings—a mix of good and bad, some tilted more in one direction than others. And it couldn't possibly be that our lack of belief in any sort of god is entirely sincere.

As long as we don't know exactly how organic life began from non-life, then atheists' conclusion that life almost certainly began as physical cause and effect will be called blind faith in materialism. But if we can replicate abiogenesis (the origins of life from non-life) in the laboratory—something that's expected to happen in the next few years—this will be seen as proof that life had to be intentionally created. After all, it required people working in a lab for decades to make it happen!

Why this is untrue and unfair: This one drives me up a tree. The conclusion that life almost certainly began as a chemical process is not blind faith. It's a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence. The overwhelming body of evidence supports the conclusion that life is a physical, biochemical process, developed into its current state of complexity and diversity by the natural process of evolution. It is reasonable to conclude that this phenomenon began as a physical, proto-biochemical process.

And when/if abiogenesis does get replicated in the lab, that's hardly proof that life had to be designed. I'm sorry, but that's just silly. Natural processes get replicated in the lab all the time. We grow mold in Petri dishes—does that mean mold can't occur naturally?

If atheists don't offer specific arguments and evidence supporting atheism, we are told, 'See? Atheism is just as much a matter of faith as religion.' But when we do provide evidence and arguments for our position, we are accused of proselytizing.

Why this is untrue and unfair: Sometimes when atheists write about atheism, we take God's non-existence as a given. Like pretty much everyone else in the world, we don't always want to discuss first principles; we sometimes want to move on to other topics, such as movement strategy, or the dissemination of critical thinking skills, or who's the sexiest atheist. We've made the "God doesn't exist" argument elsewhere, and we don't want to recap it every single time. That doesn't make atheism an article of faith. It makes it a conclusion that we've reached and are moving on from. (If you really want to know what our evidence and our arguments are for our non-belief, we can usually point you toward something.)

As for the accusation that we're proselytizing: All too often, the word "proselytizing" gets tossed around when what's really meant is, "Attempted persuasion by people I don't agree with." Persuasion is not proselytizing. And if you insist that it is, you'll have a hard time explaining what's so bad about it.

Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride?

If atheists admit they can't be 100 percent certain of God's non-existence, believers pounce on that fragment of uncertainty, and atheism is accused of being as much a matter of faith as religion. But if atheists insist they are 100 percent certain that God does not exist (or as close to 100 percent certain as anyone can be), then believers pounce on that certainty...and atheism is accused of being as much a matter of faith as religion.

Why this is untrue and unfair: This is one of my pet peeves. It's just so transparently unfair. We don't apply the "absolute 100 percent certainty" standard to any other type of conclusion. If we conclude that the cat is somewhere in the house even though we can't see it, or that there isn't a pink pony behind our sofa that teleports to Guam the minute we look back there, or that the earth is orbiting the sun, nobody insists that these conclusions are articles of faith just because there's an infinitesimal hypothetical possibility we might be wrong. These are seen as reasonable conclusions, based on the available evidence.

So when atheists say, "No, I'm not 100 percent sure that there is no God, there's almost nothing that we can be 100 percent sure of—but so what, we can still make reasonable conclusions about what's probable and plausible based on the available evidence, and all the evidence we have now points to God not existing, so I feel confident in rejecting the God hypothesis unless I see better evidence"... that doesn't make our atheism an article of faith. And when other atheists say, "Yes, I'm 100 percent sure that there is no God: the fragment of hypothetical possibility that God exists is so insignificant that it's not even worth considering, I'm 100 percent certain that there are no leprechauns or unicorns—or as close to 100 percent as anyone could reasonably expect—and I see no reason to treat God any differently"... then again, that doesn't make their atheism an article of faith.

The only thing that would make atheism a true article of faith would be if atheists said, "Nothing you could possibly say, nothing I could possibly see or experience, no evidence you could possibly provide me, could ever convince me that my atheism was wrong. My belief in the non-existence of God is an a priori assumption; it is unshakable, as constant as the Northern Star." And I have yet to encounter an atheist who says that.

Finally—and maybe most crucially of all:

When we speak out in any way about our atheism—and when we continue to organize, and to make ourselves and our ideas more visible and vocal, and to generally turn ourselves into a serious movement for social change—we are accused of being hostile, fanatical, rude, evangelical, bigoted and extremist.

But if we don't speak out, if we don't organize, if we don't forge ourselves into a powerful and visible movement...then the bigotry and misinformation and discrimination against us will continue unabated.

Why this is untrue and unfair: We really can't win on this one. Even the most mild forms of atheist activism and visibility result in believers accusing us of disrespect, intolerance and forcing our beliefs on others. If we do something as mild and unthreatening as putting up bus ads saying "You can be good without God" or "Don't believe in God? You are not alone," you can bet good money that plenty of believers will get worked up about how those terrible atheists are insulting Christians and other believers. The purest act of visibility—the simple act of standing up and saying out loud, "Atheists exist and are good people"—is treated as another example of the offensive, dogmatic, in-your-face extremism of the atheist movement.

But here's the skinny:

There has never once been a marginalized group that has won recognition and rights by sitting back and waiting politely for it to happen. There has never once been a marginalized group that has won recognition and rights by doing anything other than speaking out, organizing, making itself visible and vocal. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

So you'll have to forgive us if we take the accusations of our offensive, dogmatic, in-your-face extremism with something of a grain of salt. You'll have to forgive us if we listen to the concerned advice from believers about how our confrontational tactics are alienating people and we need to dial it back...and respond by giving it the horse laugh, and continuing to do what we've so successfully been doing. You'll have to forgive us if we treat the attempts to quiet us down as attempts to shut us up.

If you have a valid critique of a particular atheist or atheist idea, by all means, speak up. And if you have what you think is a valid critique of the atheist movement as a whole, we'd be interested to hear about it. We're not perfect, and we don't claim to be.

But please make sure your criticisms are fair. Please make sure your criticisms don't just put us into a rhetorical box, where we can't win no matter what we do. Please make sure your criticisms are a genuine attempt to engage with atheists and the atheist movement...and not just an attempt to stop the conversation and make us go away.

Thanks to Jesse, Jennifer, Tom, Tinna, Other Tom, Other Jennifer, Aaron, Shawn, Jon, Justin, James, Liz and Robert for their help with this piece.


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