Sometimes I think that smart people actually spend too little time responding to the dumbest forms of arguments. It takes a certain kind of hubris to think that I’m going to persuade people who adhere to strong arguments that they’re mistaken. By contrast, I really do think I can persuade people that their bad arguments are wrong. You don’t want to waste too much time dealing with straight-up dishonesty, but plenty of well-intentioned people find themselves convinced by ideas that don’t withstand much scrutiny. And so I think there’s a case to be made for a kind of “discourse triage” where we attempt to purge the political system of the very weakest ideas as the preferred means of raising the level of debate.
Though he is specifically explaining why we should spend time debunking the worst arguments in the political sphere, Matthew Yglesias’s remarks above sum up a key part of the reason that many of us atheists feel compelled to give time and attention to the arguments of fundamentalists despite constantly being told we should save all our time and energy for the more “sophisticated” arguments for religious beliefs.
It’s important that the worst ideas and weakest arguments be purged from the discourse as they deserve. Ignoring them and, especially, leaving them unchallenged in spheres where people might not recognize what’s wrong with them and be misled by them, is the path to an increasingly ignorant population which with increasing numbers means an increasingly ignorant mainstream public opinion.