Top Ten Tips For Reaching Out To Religious Believers
4. Clarify What Kinds of Evidence Warrant What Kinds of Beliefs.
Many theists love to argue for the necessity of a generic “source of all being” principle and think that this proves there this not only a personal god but the distinct personal god of their own religion. They jump from “something must explain existence itself!” to (wildly anthropomorphically saying) “hey, I know, it’s a person that explains existence!” to “hey, I know that not only did a person do this but it was Larry!” (Or it was Yahweh or Allah, etc.)
They also waver on what counts as a standard of evidence and what they know by evidence. So even though they may have philosophical or scientific arguments related to a deist god they conflate this with having arguments for a personal god. If they don’t grasp how evolution refutes the idea of a designer god by showing that guidance from intelligence would be completely superfluous to, and counter-indicated by, the process of natural selection, they may think that complexity and design in the universe require a personal designer. Otherwise, or if you can disabuse them of that false inference, belief in a personal god is usually an unexamined matter of faith crudely stuck on top the rationally plausible deistic arguments for a source of all being.
So, it is helpful to distinguish on what points they think they have reasons to believe and on what points they are explicitly and self-consciously asserting propositions by faith. And it is important for you to clarify whether you claim to know there is no personal god or merely lack belief in gods. It is also important to clarify, if you claim to know there are no gods, that that does not mean you have absolute certainty but that absolute certainty is not the standard of knowledge about a great many things and so should not be the standard here either. There is nothing especially presumptuous in believing you know something that you are 75-99% sure about. You are not holding a “faith” belief or being arrogant or dogmatic when you say you know there is no Spider-Man. Same for other mythical beliefs, including Jesus and Yahweh and Allah.
And, on the flip side, faith beliefs are not permissible, as many believers want them to be, just because they are not 100% disproven but are only 99.999999% likely false and yet still .000001% likely true. Do not let them hold you to a standard of 100% certainty (or accuse you of claiming you have 100%) certainty and accuse you of arrogance for being an atheist without that 100% certainty, while hypocritically they take the merest, vaguest possibility of truth as justification for not only for belief but for full religious life commitment based on that belief. Don’t let them get away with such ridiculous and self-serving evidential double standards. Just because they admit they have faith and not certainty is not a license for them to believe so recklessly and just because you claim to have knowledge and not faith does not mean you are a dogmatist for not having certainty.
So, with this in mind, keep the following distinctions straight:
Theism is the belief in a personal god. Arguments for a metaphysical principle which is the “source of all being which explains why there is something rather than nothing” have nothing directly to do with proving a personal god.
If you think that there is no way to know whether or not all reality is caused by some metaphysical source of all being that some call god that means you are open to deism, but not necessarily to theism. You are only open to theism as a possibility only if you think there are plausible arguments to be made that there can be a personal God, i.e, that the metaphysical source of all being (if we intelligibly and provably can say that there is one) has a mind like our personal minds. If you are very confident, like 75%-99% confident that there is no personal god, then you should call yourself a gnostic atheist, an atheist who feels like she knows there is no god, given the preponderance of the evidence.
This does not make you dogmatic or presumptuous or someone who claims certainty where none is possible. It just makes you someone who follows the preponderance of philosophical and scientific evidence to make knowledge claims based on what is most highly likely. This does not make you anything like those believers who assert belief in God on faith, while acknowledging the evidence is against them. It does not make you wildly speculative about dogmatic matters as religious believers are when they claim knowledge of fantastic supernatural entities. Denying an unsupported and outright refuted hypothesis is hardly as fallacious or intellectually presumptuous as believing in the beings and metaphysical orders of religious imaginations is.
You should call yourself an agnostic atheist only if you believe that there really, quite plausibly could be a personal god or gods, but that on principle you should suspend assent to the proposition that there is one because the evidence is insufficient and one should never believe on insufficient evidence.
Even as such an agnostic, you are still an atheist just for not believing in gods, and you are an agnostic for not outright denying they exist as a matter of knowledge.
You are an agnostic for holding a standard of evidence that on principle precludes knowledge claims where there is not sufficient evidence and for believing that in the case of personal gods there is no preponderance of evidence for or against believing they exist. You are an atheist for simply not believing in any gods.
If you think the idea of a single metaphysical being as the logically necessary principle upon which all other beings depend sounds likely true, but that this being is obviously no more personal than any other metaphysical or scientific abstractions (like numbers or the law of gravity) then you are some sort of a deist.
If you believe there likely is such a metaphysical principle which explains the existence of all other beings, according to the preponderance of the evidence, then you may be a gnostic deist, i.e., someone who claims to know there must be an impersonal unified principle of existence. But that still makes you reject all personal god claims and makes you still an atheist.
So, if this is your position, insist that the theists specifically prove, or even just explain the plausibility of, the idea that the metaphysical source of all being is personal even though other abstractions and metaphysical principles and basic scientific forces are all immediately and utterly justifiably assumed to be impersonal.
If you think the idea of a deist god is quite plausible, but is also quite unsupported and unrefuted by any decisive philosophical or scientific reasoning, and if as a result you refrain from claiming there is or is not a deist god, then you are an agnostic adeist (like me!). This is compatible with gnostic atheism (also my view!)—which is the position that you know that there are no personal gods. You can both accept that there may be a deist metaphysical principle and that the metaphysical and scientific evidence is deeply inconclusive on the question, while also thinking that all personal gods are impossible or extraordinarily unlikely and so known not to be real.
Have all these distinctions down, clarify in advance the state of your positions on epistemology and metaphysics, and try to get religious people to explicitly defend the plausibility and likelihood of personal gods, and to defend why one should believe in their specific personal god or gods in particular. I would even recommend you wave away the debate over whether there is a deist god or at least stress that for as long as you spend time debating that kind of being’s possible existence, the theist is evading the more fundamental (and only religiously salient) question, which is why one should believe in their personal god or gods.
Finally, on this topic, a related piece of advice—most religious believers in my experience are very muddled as to which of their beliefs they hold because they seem rationally to be the most plausible and which ones they are holding by faith in spite of a lack of evidence. Often they will start out defending propositions for as long as they can and then appeal to faith as only a back up, last ditch strategy to avoid having to change their minds. They tend to want to defend as much as they can rationally even though ultimately they are committed in advance of evidence, by faith, to believe in either case. Try to make this explicit to them. Try to get them to clarify which of their beliefs are based on evidence and which on faith alone.
They typically start out thinking God is a pretty well-evidenced belief even if they might admit trust in the Bible requires faith. Challenge them by asking for clarifying, is this something you believe on faith or on evidence on each point and then point out to them specifically when you catch them caring about evidence when they think it serves them and then abandoning it and citing faith the moment it does not. Point that out. It is a clear point of evidence that faith is merely an excuse to deliberately believe whatever one already has decided to believe, even when it is refuted, and therefore antithetical to good reasoning, rather than in some way complementary to reason. Good reasoning alters rationally formed beliefs when their rational supports are undermined, it does not switch to just accepting them arbitrarily instead.
If you ask them early on which of their points they think are rationally defensible then when they switch to just claiming they are matters of faith, then you can gain a victory at least in making them concede they have lost their rational confidence in the proposition, even if they are deciding to still hold it by faith. I cannot help but think this affects them later on, in their own reflections and future debates, to have to admit their views are less rational.
Clarifications to the Tips, Based on Objections: