Why Atheists Should Not Give Up Challenging Theism And Theists

GreenGeekGirl advises the atheist community (and she has a nice defense of the existence of an atheist community against those who do not believe one exists) that we should no longer bother arguing with theists, since this is supposedly futile, but should rather accept we have it pretty good in America and focus on protecting the separation of religion from state, school, and science.  She implies the debate over God is a counter-productive distraction from these more desirable goals.

First of all, theists can definitely be dissuaded.  In her post GreenGeekGirl asks us to ask how we came to be atheists and describes her own awakening to atheism which involved only engagement with science and no antagonistic confrontation from atheists. But there are a good many atheists who were formerly believers (myself included) and who were indeed argued out of our former beliefs.  We count too and many of us are the most optimistic about the potential for reason to make a big difference in persuading people.

Of course people will not fall down and renounce their faith at the end of any argument.  That’s for sure.  But that’s not the point.  Let’s get some perspective and have some patience.  And let’s come to understand that over time many, many people are either moderated in their beliefs, forced to develop more sophisticated and less insane understandings of the meaning of their beliefs, or even over time come to abandon their religious beliefs altogether as a result of innumerable accumulated rational challenges from more liberal religious people and from atheists alike.  It’s a long, long tug of war, in which even if we do not pull people over the line and make them fall down, we can still pull them further towards the middle and keep them from going all the way in the other direction.

But, more importantly, when we argue with the more vociferous and entrenched believers publicly, there are the silent watchers who we persuade.  The majority of people are neither passionately religious nor passionately irreligious.  The intellectual pressure we put on theism helps to inoculate the people in the middle against one day being swayed into fallacious beliefs by getting ideas into their heads about the deep problems of religious belief and practice. Giving religion a bad name is a good step for preventing future religious revivals.

And while seemingly every argumentative atheist gets fatigued with the redundant task of rebutting theism, our work is far from done. There is a long way to go before we persuade a majority of people to our side and there are plenty of theists for whom our arguments will be new, for whom the whole question is live, and for whom our efforts can be decisive in making them reject radical fundamentalism or their faith altogether.  This is a long moral, cultural struggle that has been going on for centuries.  As GreenGeekGirl indicates, atheists who came before us had it much harder.  It would be a shame if we did not speak out about the whole truth now that we have the opportunity and the opening to make significant progress.

But why should we care about any of this?  Should we not just want to be “left alone” and have science be left alone, as GreenGeekGirl suggests?  No, we should care about the truth and dissuading mass opinion away from falsehoods, fallacious habits of reasoning cultivated by religions, damaging irrational ethical codes, and presumptuous, self-serving religious institutions which claim moral, spiritual, and intellectual authorities they do not deserve.

The problems of church incursion on politics and science are a symptom of the problem of culturally acceptable religious irrationalism, bullying, and moral authority.  You will not stop the theocrats and know-nothings by meeting them only at the statehouse, the courthouse, and the schoolhouse.  You need to first empty the church house.

The religious cannot be unchallenged in their claims to be the providers of meaning, value, and spiritual answers.  We need to both vigorously impress people with the intellectual, spiritual, and moral deficiencies of what fundamentalist religions offer and to develop robust, coherent alternative ethics, spiritualities, and metaphysics which can meet people’s needs consistent with rationalism and empiricism.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://thegreengeeks.wordpress.com/ greengeekgirl

    I believe that you are somewhat taking my intentions out of the spirit in which they were written.

    Firstly, you say that one of my prescient points is that we should “accept” it that we have it pretty good in America. What I said was, “We may still be one of the most hated minorities in America, but that’s in America–there are other places where the majority of people in that country are non-theists. We are becoming grudgingly acceptable.” I don’t believe that is at all saying that we have it “pretty good” in America, but that we have it less awful than we used to.

    Secondly, my point was not to stop ANY debate about theism and its legitimacy. Please see the second paragraph where I say, ” . . . because, friends, it’s disheartening to see people become embroiled in the same old arguments with theists over and over again. It’s the philosophical equivalent of running up to a brick wall and expecting to go through it but bouncing off every time.” There are venues in which you can have a rational discussion about theism that will be helpful and enlightening, and many more where one cannot (such as flame wars on blogs, YouTube, Twitter, et cetera). I believe that engaging in THAT kind of debate is a waste of energy–especially with theists who use irrational arguments that are easily proven false, but who herald ignorance as a strength. Debating these people at all gives legitimacy to their opinions–it is as though we are saying, “You have a point of view that I think would merit me taking time to have a good discussion about.”

    I do not think that we will convince many theists by engaging them directly in debate. When you do that, anybody who already believes in a deity will side with the theist–and we become, mentally, emotionally, “the enemy.” We may get the religious version of political moderates, but there are many other ways that we can accomplish this goal than by pointlessly arguing the same illegitimate points over and over again. And there are many areas where that energy would be better focused–such as positive education.

    Also, please see the sidebar on my blog, which reads: “reproducing the contents of this blog in whole or in part is prohibited unless you obtain prior written permission.” You did not obtain permission to re-post any parts of my blog, nor do I give it now. Please remove it.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I have edited the post above to remove the quotation from your blog (though I do not think that my usage violates any fair use standard, if you do not want your words to circulate in any form without your permission, then maybe you should not publicly publish them).

      You did say here http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/02/25/why-bad-beliefs-dont-die/#comment-14958 (on my own blog, which I hope you do not object to me quoting also), that when it comes to the challenge of correcting people’s erroneous beliefs that you “personally don’t think it’s a battle we should be engaging in at all.” That sounds pretty categorically against debating theists to me!

  • http://thegreengeeks.wordpress.com/ greengeekgirl

    I also want to make the point about your sentence here, “The problems of church incursion on politics and science are a symptom of the problem of culturally acceptable religious irrationalism, bullying, and moral authority.” I could draw a parallel to racism here; cultural/racial superiority by whites took a long time to wear down, but can you imagine what would have happened if an African-American fellow tried to engage this majority in debate, how he would have looked? It took time, and hard work, and they had to use the system to beat the system–African-Americans were *forcibly* integrated, forcibly bussed to white schools, and over time, with exposure–and not even very much time in the scope of things–that heinous kind of racism is not only relegated to a minority of Americans, we were even able to elect an African-American president. So, you can see, my point is not to just stop fighting to defeat the bullying, et cetera. I simply believe that tangible goals will be more effective in the long run.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Many African-American fellows argued with the majority against racism. They looked and sounded pretty damn good in some cases. Have you not heard of WEB DuBois or Booker T. Washington or Martin Luther King, Jr.?

  • Daniel Fincke

    But, more importantly, this is not a “civil rights” struggle that atheists are predominantly in. It’s a struggle over beliefs, values, and culture. The laws which sleight us are few and not worth comparing in the SLIGHTEST to those which oppressed blacks.

    Our struggle is for a rational culture. And we won the Scope’s Monkey Trial in the twenties and still have to fight creationist legislatures in the 21st Century and still have 40% of Americans denying the existence of evolution.

    The courts are not enough. It’s the hearts that matter. It’s the minds that matter.

  • http://thegreengeeks.wordpress.com/ greengeekgirl

    Thank you for removing my quote. Although you can cry, “fair use,” I *did* have my blog policy on my sidebar, and I *do* own my words. I believe that I have the right to publish publicly and also expect people to respect my wishes as to what I would like done with my words.

    Yes, that is my personal belief–my opinion–I know it is not one that all people hold, and I wouldn’t expect to speak for every single atheist when I say that we shouldn’t be engaging in debate. What I wrote in my blog goes beyond just an off-the-cuff comment stating my opinion; it was meant to be more measured and inclusive. I also believe that you took that opinion and went to my blog looking to prove me wrong, because you have taken several things out of context.

    For example, what about this: “Sure, it would be great to live in a world where we all are on the same page when it comes to belief. And it would be fantastic to slough the more superstitious, backward, inhumane beliefs to which some religions ascribe. I think the latter is a goal that can actually be reached to some degree, through patience and education; after all, there are many Christians in America who are not anti-gay, despite the Bible laying down some pretty harsh judgments about homosexuals.” You completely discounted that I said anything of the sort, and made it seem like I did NOT want to eradicate some of the more ignorant beliefs and ideas that come out of religion. Your quote: “No, we should care about the truth and dissuading mass opinion away from falsehoods, fallacious habits of reasoning cultivated by religions, damaging irrational ethical codes, and presumptuous, self-serving religious institutions which claim moral, spiritual, and intellectual authorities they do not deserve.” That was clearly not my intention at all. But you didn’t quote that bit. I simply believe that there are OTHER ways to accomplish the SAME goal.

  • Daniel Fincke

    No, I did not go to your blog to debunk you based on that one quote, I just went there out of curiosity and was most enjoying the opening sections on community and the meanings of atheism.

    I then saw the portion I initially quoted and thought it went way too far and saying you didn’t want to worry about dissuading any one and that it would somehow to be counter-productive to try. I saw a false choice between the two endeavors where I would argue not only can both be achieved they need to be achieved in tandem since the real problem is not the legal struggles but their cause in irrationalism.

    And the education and laws are not enough—there has been decades and decades of secular law and secular education but still the theocrats mobilize worse in our time than in previous decades. All the efforts to educate within the legal and school systems but never outside them as explicit atheists are being constantly undermined by the only options most people ever get for education about morality/spirituality/metaphysics, which is in churches.

    Finally, I respected your wishes as you stated them, once I came to learn of them. That doesn’t mean they make sense.

  • http://thegreengeeks.wordpress.com/ greengeekgirl

    You speak of changing their *hearts* and their *minds.* That is a noble goal, but it is also an intangible goal. My proposal is that we expend our energy on tangible improvements–and, as with the Civil Rights movement, after they accomplished their concrete goals, many hearts and minds did follow. You say it is not the same, but there are similar points. Yes, they had leaders–we have leaders in the atheist community who often speak for us–but the majority of the movement was everyday people working hard to accomplish specific goals, not brawling in the streets or shouting each other down.

    Also, I think it is rather presumptuous to assume that it is our responsibility to change theists into atheists. I believe that people have the right to believe whatever they want, as long as it does *not* impede my life or others’ lives in any way and as long as I am *not* forced to live by the standards of their religion. I believe that it is quite arrogant to assume that everyone must agree with our beliefs; I’m a very big proponent of the Constitution, and I even agree with the freedom of religion (but also that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion).

    • Daniel Fincke

      You conflate the political and the personal to a ridiculous extent. Our legitimate legal battles are relatively few. It’s mostly holding the existing wall of separation in place and undoing filling in some bad recent cracks in it. I am not the least bit interested in making religion illegal and there is little threat in America of atheism becoming illegal.

      But yes I make no bones about wanting to persuade other people intellectually and ethically. There’s nothing so presumptuous or invasive about this. I think I have the case for a more rational and ethically ennobling and spiritually edifying approach to life that has more truth on its side. I have no interest in manipulating people to agree with me or shoving anything on anyone. But that does not mean I am allergic to the idea of actually winning the argument with them.

      For more on my account of what separates my Evangelical Atheism from less reputable forms of religious proselytization, please read this: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/02/19/evangelical-atheism/

  • http://thegreengeeks.wordpress.com greengeekgirl

    Well, this has been a great example of how becoming embroiled in an argument–not a debate, but an argument–can be relatively fruitless.

    But, this is my last comment.

    Your opinion on this issue, you’re entitled to, and that’s not what upsets me. I don’t mind that you disagree with me at all, and the original aim of my comments was not to disprove your opinion. What upsets me about this whole post is that you went to my blog, read my blog post, and then proceeded to paint an inaccurate picture of what my post was about.

    You said, “She implies the debate over God is a counter-productive distraction from these more desirable goals.” No, sir, I qualified myself several times in that post–I believe that engaging in pointless debate and arguing is a distraction. This is entirely different in nature from true debate, from exploring the ideas philosophically, logically, culturally. In fact, my first direct statement of my premise reads, “I think that the time has passed for us to be engaging in non-constructive arguments with theists.” This is quite a different matter than intellectually debating the existence of God or the ramifications of religion.

    You said, “Of course people will not fall down and renounce their faith at the end of any argument. That’s for sure. But that’s not the point. Let’s get some perspective and have some patience.” I said, “Sure, it would be great to live in a world where we all are on the same page when it comes to belief. And it would be fantastic to slough the more superstitious, backward, inhumane beliefs to which some religions ascribe. I think the latter is a goal that can actually be reached to some degree, through patience and education . . .” You presented your point as an argument to what I said, but the two passages don’t sound all that different to me. You think that through patience and–debate, I suppose–people can be moved more to our side. I believe that through patience and education, people can be moved more to our side. Pretty similar.

    You said, “But, more importantly, when we argue with the more vociferous and entrenched believers publicly, there are the silent watchers who we persuade.” I have a lot of thoughts about that, but I won’t go into them right now; however, part of what I listed that I wanted to see was, for example, complete separation of religion and school. I believe that this is another important step in garnering those “silent watchers,” most of whom have not formed a significant belief one way or the other. By giving them a chance to learn the science, learn the history, et cetera, we are bolstering our chance to gain more support from the middle-of-the-road faction. By ensuring complete separation of church and state, another point that I mentioned, we quell many of the public arguments by our leaders in favor of using religious morals to create our laws, and that means that there are fewer people whose ears hear these superstitious and ignorant points of view. Similar goal–we both want to be able to reach more of the people who are in the middle. I want to do it through reining in the grip that religion has on our culture, so that fewer and fewer generations have mass exposure to these negative and irrational ideas. You want to do it through debate. I don’t feel it’s a point that we should be in contention about, since the kind of debate that you are presumably talking about is not the kind of debate that I qualified I was talking about.

    You said, “As GreenGeekGirl indicates, atheists who came before us had it much harder. It would be a shame if we did not speak out about the whole truth now that we have the opportunity and the opening to make significant progress.” At no point did I say we should just shut up about our beliefs; my point was that trying to totally–as in 100%–eradicate belief was a misdirected goal, but I never said that we should not continue to put forth our views–except, of course, by pointless arguing.

    You said, “But why should we care about any of this? Should we not just want to be “left alone” and have science be left alone, as GreenGeekGirl suggests? No, we should care . . . ” I mentioned this passage before, but again, I never said that I did not care or that we should not care–quite the opposite. I said that we couldn’t solve it through pointless bickering, but I didn’t say it wasn’t a problem. In fact, I believe I said religious ignorance and inhumanity is a problem we COULD solve, and that the “crazy” beliefs that they have are a more pertinent problem than belief in itself. (“The universe had to come from something, somewhere–to believe that a deity put it into motion, not so crazy. To believe that a holy book written thousands of years ago by people who could barely read and write holds the ultimate truth to the universe, much crazier.”)

    Sidebar about how we don’t face that many “real” legal troubles: Of course, you are not a woman, so perhaps you aren’t as involved as I am in the constant onslaught against women and our reproductive rights. I don’t, however, just think about atheists when I talk about legal battles; we are not the only ones unfairly subjected to Christian “morality,” and I’m not the kind of person who only cares about groups that I personally belong to.

    You said, “The religious cannot be unchallenged in their claims to be the providers of meaning, value, and spiritual answers.” I never said they should go unchallenged, again. I said we shouldn’t challenge them with pointless arguing. What I mean by that is that we should be *smart* in how we challenge them, and choose our battles more wisely.

    I feel that you basically painted me as a person who thinks that atheists should just put their heads in the sand and try not to be noticed, that I think it’s a waste of time to have ANY discussion about God, and that we should just accept religious intolerance if we can just be left alone. In fact, your words: ‘[she thinks] that we should no longer bother arguing with theists, since this is supposedly futile, but should rather accept we have it pretty good in America and focus on protecting the separation of religion from state, school, and science. She implies the debate over God is a counter-productive distraction from these more desirable goals.’ I never implied most of those things in the spirit in which you wrote them; I did say we should focus on protecting separation of church and state, that’s a given, and I do think that arguing with theists is ultimately going to be fruitless–but you changed the word “arguing” from my intended context to mean “debate in general,” and that is intellectually dishonest. (When you said that you were converted from theism by “argument,” did you mean the bickering kind or the reasoned debate kind? If the latter, then your point is not relevant to my point whatsoever.) I never said we have it “pretty good in America” (I posted above, I said the opposite). I never said that we shouldn’t debate God *at all*. I have to assume that you either did not read my post carefully, did not understand the post, or that you willfully misrepresented my words, and this is what I am upset about.

    Not only did you take what I said out of context, but you did not stop to consider the implications of my ideas beyond the actual legal battles that they might smooth out for us; reinforcing our legal rights is only a small part of the issue–what is more important is ensuring that, by overtaking Christian views on these extremely controversial and widely-publicized battles, that our point of view can become more culturally acceptable and religious superstition less culturally acceptable. So, in reality, I have the same goals that you have, and I don’t even think that debate is inherently bad, so I don’t even disagree with your preferred methods. I simply wanted to lay out some tangible goals that we could work to achieve as a community, but you didn’t touch on *that* very much at all, despite it being the main point of my post. Instead, you focused on another point, misinterpreted it, and magnified it, devoting seven paragraphs to it and a mere sentence to the main directive of my post.

    I’m sad that all of this bad feeling had to be incurred between two people who have ultimately compatible ideas. Yes, I left that comment on your blog about my personal views; I am able to have a more extreme personal view and a more tempered and inclusive community view. I feel that you went to my blog already assuming what I had to say, and what I meant, based on a sentence that I wrote without a quarter of the consideration that I put into my blog. And you proved that you did this by continuing to latch onto the point that I made in my *comment*, rather than the main point of my post, which was what our goals should be moving forward (it’s stated even in the title).

    Good luck to you in your goals. I hope you succeed in converting some theists, if that is your aim.

  • http://krissthesexyatheist.blogspot.com krissthesexyatheist

    how long have you two been going out. sheez.

    K

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    greengeekgirl,

    I think some of the confusion was over semantics. You have defined “argument” to mean “bickering” but that’s not the technical meaning of the word. Dan (by default) thinks the word means something more like in the Monty Python sketch, the Argument Clinic (“Is this the right room for an argument?”) The definition of “argument” there was “a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.” http://www.mindspring.com/~mfpatton/sketch.htm

  • Anonymous-Thinker

    With regards to the civil rights movement: it bears noting that people respond to incentives. With the continued rise of industry, the “incentive” for white plantation owners to utilize slave labor was diminished and removed.

    Curiously, then the church pulpits started broadcasting messages condemning slavery, whereas before they were more often citing “righteous” excuses for slavery


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