13 Practical Strategies For Arguing With Religious Moderates

Richard Dawkins wants to encourage us to say the following to believers:

“I respect you too much to accept that you really believe anything so ridiculous as you claim. Please either defend those beliefs and explain why they are not ridiculous, or else declare that you do not hold them and publicly disown the church to which you claim loyalty.”

In this post, I want to focus on what to do next if after you do what Dawkins recommends above the believer admits they don’t believe in a particular implausible belief of their religion but they think that that is no reason to abandon their religion. Below are thirteen suggestions:

1. Keep going down the list of their religion’s implausible beliefs until you find one they are willing to stake a truth claim on and ask them for reasons for that claim. Stress the double standards they hold in allowing those transparently false beliefs where they would never accept comparable ones from outside their religion.

2. Figure out if they have what I am going to here dub “A Shield Belief”. A shield belief is a supposed insight or argument that someone immediately raises to deflect a wide range of criticisms. For example. “Evolution and God can go together!” is a common shield belief of moderate believers. Every time the topic of conflict of science and religion comes up they just put up that shield belief and no matter what is said they just say in their head “Tsk, tsk. This person doesn’t realize that evolution and God can go together!” They tune out all the specific arguments because clearly this person does not grasp this subtle nuance and so everything they are saying is just wrongheaded. My guess is if you can find and knock out a shield belief, you can make a lot more progress than if you don’t.

3. What if ultimately they reject all the really implausible, supernaturalistic, pulled-out-of-thin-air religious beliefs and only vaguely believe that there must be a cause for reality and that must be God? Then concede that the origin of reality is a mystery but stress that evolution and modern cosmology show entirely how all the complexity of the world around us can arise and evidently did arise by purely impersonal naturalistic processes with no designer. Stress that it is baseless to think that consciousness and personality (things which arose only billions of years into evolution on Earth) would be a part of the most basic reality (or realities) that all others depend on. We don’t think of quantum fields or fundamental laws like gravity as personal. That’s just silly. So why think of the hypothetical “source of all being” as personal? Why think that the most basic and elemental reality is a being that would have a mind when mind’s are incredibly complex and, therefore, made up of more basic realities? How does that make any sense?

4. If they do not believe their religious beliefs are literally true or they are not that actively committed to practicing their religion, do they bother to try to disuade their fellow religionists of their literal errors? Do they care about truth enough to correct people who are foolishly believing in myths as though they were factually true?

5. If they interpret their beliefs as not “literally” true but morally or spiritually true, press them on whether the morals of their religion’s myths are really actually true. We do not just accept every fictional story as “non-literally true”. Some fictional stories have poor ideas and moral recommendations. Just how good are their religions’ stories conveying even non-literal truths, when critically analyzed?

6. Talk to them about more basic principles of skepticism and critical thinking. If you know them well and do it truthfully, stress to them that you know they think excellently in areas x, y, and z, and that you are only asking them to consistently apply the same principles of reasoning they already are committed to as smart people throughout their lives. Talk about cognitive biases and all the psychological ways that we are misled into humorously anthropomorphic thinking. Tell stories about your own brain’s tendencies to recommend silly anthropocentric or statistically confused explanations of experiences and mock those in good cheer. One of the things lost in all this discussion of how horrible it is ever to mock a religious belief is that if you’re actually funny, you can make even religious believers laugh. And when we laugh, we concede a logical point sometimes. When we laugh we feel good.

7. If they still insist on sticking to their enlightened and moderate interpretation of their religion, ask them why, if it is so true and accurate, why their beliefs were not more clearly spelled out in their religious texts and was not obvious to some of their religion’s most fanatically devout people. What kind of a god would let even its most fervent believers fall into the gross scientific and moral errors that historical religions and devout modern day fundamentalists do? If they say something about god revealing himself progressively through a process throughout history, point out how convenient and unfalsifiable an ad hoc justification that is, stress how earlier (or alternate contemporary) versions of their faith are not only more primitive versions of their views but outright evil total contradictions of them. Ask why an omnipotent being had to leave us to our own devices for centuries to figure out basic moral truths like genocide, misogyny, slavery or homophobia are wrong when he made a whole trip to earth (or talked to prophets) and could have brought those things up millennia ago.

8. Ask them to look at the current and historical, well documented social and political abuses of their own religion’s clergy. Their alleged omnibenevolent omnipotent deity cannot do any better job hiring earthly representatives?

9. Ask them if they write their Congresspeople to let them know that the fundamentalists or other reactionary leaders in their religion do not speak for them so that they know that when theocrats come lobbying?

10. Ask them if it is really rational to let their children be indoctrinated by teachers in their religion who actively encourage them to believe some very false, silly, and potentially immoral things.

11. If they say that they participate in their religion with many admittedly implausible beliefs for moral reasons, ask them whether they think morality is really so irrational and foolish that without religious myths it could not reasonable persuade people to obey it? Also ask them if they actually even really base their moral decisions on religious teachings or if they actually reason using principles they don’t need any religion for—like that it is good to make the most people happy wherever possible, it is good to adhere to duties even when inconvenient, that truly virtuous people are more lovable and deserving of happiness and so they want to be a virtuous person, etc.

12. If they start asserting that they “just are” their religious identity, ask them whether it is more important that they live truthfully than that they merely claim an identity that makes their grandparents happy and follows tradition unquestioningly.

13. Recommend to them an atheist book or blog (ahem) that you think expresses a clearer picture of positive values and truths. Ask them to consider as they read it whether they actually agree more with the picture of the world presented therein than they do with their nominal faith and all its weird outdated teachings and unlikely supernaturalism.

Your Thoughts?

For more general strategies, see my top 10 tips for reaching out to religious believers.

For more of my general views on religious moderates and background arguments to make some of the cases I recommend above, see the following posts:

What I Think About How To Engage Religious Liberals, Moderates, and Fundamentalists

Against the Religiously Lazy Defenders of the Pious

The Value Of Religious Moderates And The Danger Of Isolating Religious And Political Fundamentalists

Religion is a Morally and Politically Ambivalent Force

Will The Real Atheists Please Stop Kneeling

Why Progressive Interpretations Of The Old Testament Still Do Not Justify Its God Morally

How Theistic Evolution is Nearly as much a Denial of Science as Creationism

On God as the Source of Being But Not of Evil

True And False In Adam And Eve

 

For a model of how I argued with a real live theological/political moderate, read my 3 part debate with Catholic theology graduate student Mary about the Church’s attempt to influence contraception policy, starting with the post “Should Catholic Employers Be Exempted From Paying For Health Insurance Covering Contraception?”

I have also crafted fictional dialogues that hopefully provide helpful models for debates strategies and creative lines of argument:

Hell as the Absence of God

God and Goodness

Is It Just A Mystery Whether God Exists?

Examining Some Alleged Divine Attributes

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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://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    …or you could just bypass all the theology stuff and keep the argument focused on actions. Seriously, my father was one of those moderates you speak of, and he was perfectly willing to listen, and reason, on matters of actions that affect us all, without having to natter on about his particular subjective ideas about God.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Yeah, who cares about the truth anyway?

  • ACN

    Daniel,

    I think there might be a typo/editing error (or possibly my lack of coffee is playing tricks on me…) here:

    5….Some fictional stories have poor ideas and moral recommendations. Just good are their religions’ stories conveying even non-literal truths, when critically analyzed?

    Is that “just good” supposed to be there?

    • Tony

      Could it be “Just what good is…”?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      “Just how good”

    • http://www.facebook.com/KarlEd karljennings

      Or more correctly, “Just how well are . . .”

  • Tony

    Here are some of the frustrating things I have often observed in my dialogues with moderate/liberal Christians who accept science, etc. Some are shield beliefs.

    1. They’re willing to concede that practically everything in the Bible is metaphor/midrash/embellishment/etc EXCEPT for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It doesn’t bother them in the least to accept that the resurrection was a once-in-the-history-of-mankind event. God did SOMETHING through the person of Jesus Christ. The offer no reason for their suspension of disbelief, but I suspect it’s because the resurrection is the hopeful glue that holds everything together.

    2. They’re willing (even eager) to abandon the divine attributes of omnipotence and omniscience in exchange for an omnibenevolent god who, while not ALL powerful, is MOST powerful; and though this god may not KNOW the future…it has a pretty good probabilistic idea of what will happen. This translates into a transcendent (often panentheistic), loving, personal god who guides the formation of (but didn’t necessarily “create”) an entropic cosmos, but who is not powerful enough to prevent pain and suffering. This supposedly gets god off the hook for a whole bunch of stuff.

    3. The sophisticated theologies, biblical criticisms, and historical facts which are privately accepted by the clergy are NOT what is communicated from the pulpit. Instead they nominally tow the denominational line and play word games where they re-interpret the original Greek or Aramaic, or re-evaluate ancient cultural norms so they can soften a harsh passage/dogma and say something like “Perhaps what God REALLY wants from us is…” or “Maybe what Jesus is REALLY telling here is…”

    • durham669

      Tony, your point number two reminds me of the famous quote from Epicurus:

      “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
      Then he is not omnipotent.
      Is he able, but not willing?
      Then he is malevolent.
      Is he both able and willing?
      Then whence cometh evil?
      Is he neither able nor willing?
      Then why call him God?”

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Well, I think I count as a moderate believer although I probably don’t count as “liberal” (I mean, really, I don’t think the Stoics could in any way be called liberal [grin]), so let me answer your issues here:

      1) I’m willing to consider pretty anything anything in the Bible a metaphor except for those things that absolutely cannot be metaphor or else the religion itself is defeated. For Christians, Jesus and the Resurrection counts as that. If the Resurrection did not occur as an actual event, then for me Christianity as a religion, at least, is over. Fortunately for me, I suppose, I also see absolutely no reason to think that it isn’t literally true (other than concerns over “Rising from the dead never happens!”), unlike what is the case for, say, the Garden of Eden story.

      2) I limit the omnis to “logically possible” for good philosophical reasons, but in general they can always be limited to what God actually needed to do. I’d be hesitant to simply argue that God is not powerful enough to eliminate suffering but would argue that it may not be possible for God to eliminate it and still achieve a certain goal.

      3) I’m not really sure what this one means. As some who comment here would know, I concede fully that folk theology and formal theology may not match, but that hardly means anything about which is right.

    • Tony

      @ Verbose Stoic

      1. Exactly. Without the resurrection Christianity is invalidated, pretty much by definition. You’ve picked one thing out of a mish-mash of accounts and declared it ‘true’. My larger point is that, logically speaking, there’s no intellectual merit in declaring the resurrection ‘true’, while resigning, say, the Garden of Eden, or the events of Passover to metaphor. The NT is explicit about the foundations of Jesus’ purpose being grounded in the Fall of man (He’s the new Adam) and the Passover sacrifice (He’s the passover lamb), neither of which ever happened.

      You may claim to see absolutely no reason to think that the resurrection isn’t literally true, but in fact, that’s not the case. The fact is, this whole story is couched in the context of the OT (much of which didn’t happen), and even predicated on events therein. There’s simply no convincing reason to accept the resurrection as ‘true’, other than stubbornly credulous sentimentality…and probably fear. If that’s good enough for you, then cheers. Tell me, other than the trite “God loves you” answer, what are the meanings behind Jesus’ death and resurrection?

      2. Ah, yes…a theodicy in which suffering is somehow a means to an end. I say screw that god! You do see how ridiculous that is, right? Stephen Law does such a good job at dismantling this type of nonsense, that I needn’t go into it here. I’m pretty sure CWH deals with it somewhere too.

      3. My comment about theology wasn’t about which type (folk or formal) was right or wrong. It was about sharing a frustration. My frustration is with the fact that clergy often have an entirely different understanding than they want to convey to their congregation (of both the theology and historicity of biblical events). They’re not even a little bit interested in enriching their congregation intellectually/theologically. No..they just want you to believe, believe, believe…not think; and with good reason! As a faithful churchgoer who stumbled upon certain theological and biblical criticisms (some rather damning), I was insulted to find out that my pastors knew about much of this stuff all along, they just weren’t interested in teaching us about it. Who are THEY to decide what I should learn about my faith tradition?! It’s condescending, hypocritical and unethical. Again, if that’s good enough for you, then cheers.

    • laurentweppe

      This reminds me a SF short story a bit similar to Moorcock’s Behold the Man I read in middle school:

      An atheist from the future unhappy at seeing religions surviving decides to use a newly invented time machine to go in the past and find proof to invalidate them: he starts by Christianity and decides to find the historical Jesus, expecting to find an illiterate racist frothing at the mouth fundamentalist self-proclaimed rabbi.

      What he finds is neither the insane fundie he imagined Jesus to be nor the miraculous thaumaturgist described in the new testament but a populist with little actual interest in religion: while he’s not the insane lunatic he expected, the atheist time traveler still considers it a positive discovery since Jesus is not performing any miracle and not even talking about God and faith and building a New Church. He keeps following Jesus, thinking that witnessing and filming the rotting of Jesus’ body after the crucifixion will kill Christianity once and for all.

      Except that three days after the crucifixion, when the guards posted near the tomb leave (I don’t remember the story’s convoluted explanation about why Pilate posted guard there, except that it was a way for the author to show off his knowledge of the political intricacies of first century Levant), the atheist come, and find a very weakened but very alive (and very delirious) Jesus: after examining him, he realize that Jesus must have spent most of the last three days in a cataleptic state.

      Eureka! People waking up in the morgue or during their own funerals are rae but exist. Botched executions are nothing new. Jesus did not resurect because he never died on the cross in the first place: neither the beatings before the execution, the carrying of the cross nor the crucifixion itself where lethals, and Longinus’ spear avoided any vital organ or vein, while the religious aspect of his message was caused by his post-execution nightmares and delirium. Jesus got lucky and survived his execution, then became insane from the pain and paralysis. Certain to have acquired the weapons to strike down definitely Christianity, the time traveler comes back in his time and present his evidences… and causes a massive revival of the declining Church: the idea of Jesus surviving the crucifixion seems so improbable that many people start believing that God really was on Jesus’ side.

      The result horrifies the time traveler: giant churches are built in Space, monacal orders take control of Mars, the newly empowered Christian churches ally themselves and become more powerful than the biggest states, and become the main backers of space exploration….

      Desperate, he goes back to his time machine back to Jesus’ time, decided to find him once again, kill him and this time film his body rot. The story ends up with him being arrested by the Time inquisition created during the century which followed the great Christian revival, who are dedicated to maintain the unfolding of History the time traveler unwittingly created.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Laurent, in the future, please use the blockquote tags instead of italics when quoting. You make them by putting the word “blockquote” between the symbols . So many of your comments are unreadable or feel jumbled because of your use of italics or odd breaks, etc. I just fixed the last comment which did not even have spaces between paragraphs in a block of italicized text.

    • laurentweppe

      It’s the

      If the Resurrection did not occur as an actual event, then for me Christianity as a religion, at least, is over

      sentence which reminded me the novella

    • laurentweppe

      I just fixed the last comment which did not even have spaces between paragraphs in a block of italicized text

      The thing is, I do put spaces between the paragraphs, but for some reason, they’re never registered by the site.

      Also, the text was italicized because I was not quoting the actual novella but summarizing it by memory.

  • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

    Can I just say it’s sort of creepy to begin a post, “Richard Dawkins wants to encourage us to say the following to believers…”

    Some of us don’t care what Pope Dawkins says we should do.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Some of us don’t care what Pope Dawkins says we should do.

      Sigh. Look, the point is that he made these remarks and it sparked discussion. I’m responding to that discussion. I cut down my intro to be as concise as possible to get to the point.

  • laurentweppe

    I respect you too much to accept that you really believe anything so ridiculous as you claim

    Translation:

    I respect you so much that I can’t help but accuse you of being a two-faced liar.

    Come on: everyone knows this trick: put an oxymoron in your argument in order to dumbfound and disarm the opposition who will loose precious time and energy trying to figure the hidden meaning of this senseless sentence.

    When it comes to politics or religion, especially when they mix, people start to believe that they are smart enough to play dumb convincingly.

    And This is playing dumb. There’s no way one can respect a person they already consider to be a two faced-liar: I argued several mounth ago that faked sympathy toward people you despise (the “Love the SInner, Hate the Sin, canard) was an exercice in futility since people tend to easily recognize this kind of false display of fondness.

    *

    The core problem is that there is a fraction of atheist who see themselves as ontologically superior to every religious people. There are atheists who really believe -or really want to believe- that they are morally and intellectually superior to every religious people on the planet. Now, Dawkins may himself be one of these atheists, or he may merely be pandering to the most enthusiastic fraction of his readership without necessarily sharing their views, but no matter what he is, his speech is not a way to argue with religious people:
    “I know you’re too smart to be honest” is not an invitation to debate: it’s a declaration of war: it’s claiming that the other guy is to be contemned until he submit to one’s own viewpoint.

    *

    Now, one important thing I must say is that I don’t see seeing oneself as inherently smarter and more honest that everyone coming from group X and Y as always wrong. For instance, I, for one, consider myself inherently superior to every holocaust denying antisemite, climate change denying big oil apologist, fascistic christian dominionist, etc…
    So I’m not going to hide my animus toward members of these groups, since, as I said again and again, no one is smart enough to play dumb convincingly.

    And therefore, I’m not going to pretend that I want to convince say, an holocaust denier: I’ve already concluded that he is either an idiot (waste of time) or a scoundrel (not worth his weight in toilet paper)

    *

    In the end, I affirm that before anything else, one must first express whether or not they despise the group one is about to confront, and attempt at convincing people only if spite against them is absent.
    That does not mean that people who really loathe the religious should shut up: but if you despise religious people, it’s better and more honest to openly aknowledge your spite, to argue in favor of your spite, to either openly embrace the logical implications of your spite or present an alternative conclusion to it, but to refrein to pretend you want to convince people you despise: playact is not debate.

    • Desert Son, OM

      he is either an idiot (waste of time)

      I agree with much of your post, but I would like to make the case that idiot does not necessarily mean waste of time, and maybe it’s just fine-tuning for various values of “idiot.”

      As a religious believer for many years, I was an idiot about topics like gods and souls and a caring universe and so on.

      Efforts by individuals to demonstrate my idiocies went a long way to helping me abandon my long-held idiocy of religion and faith. The same with efforts by individuals to demonstrate the idiocy of things like my privilege with regard to issues of race, gender identity and expression, sexuality, and so on.

      I’m not just talking about ignorance. Yes, I was ignorant, but I was also demonstrating idiotic behavior because even when confronted by evidence early on I remained insistent that there had to be some kind of reconciliation with god-concepts and similar nonsense (the universe has a “consciousness,” to name another. Ugh).

      I was a religious moderate. I saw scientific evidence and logical reasoning, but I also felt “good about god, yes!” I had no good arguments against the logic, reason, and scientifically parsimonious explanations for phenomena, but I held on. Even my holding on has scientific, reality-grounded explanation: psychology, fear of change, fear of different perspective, social cohesion and support, early indoctrination, socio-cultural privilege, and so on.

      I understand that the person who is shown evidence and continues to deny the reality demonstrates foolishness, obstinacy, shortsightedness, self-deception, and other manner of troublesome behaviors, especially as the evidence for reality continues to mount inexorably. I was that person about religion.

      But I’d like to suggest that not all those idiots are a waste of time, even if you have little (or no) time for them. There are always going to be those profoundly obstinate that will never change, that even insist on not changing no matter what the evidence shows.

      But some of us do change, can change, can grow, can learn. I wish I could say that I’m unlikely to be an idiot about other things for the next 40 years, but given human behavior and experience, that doesn’t seem a safe bet. So I want to try and at least not be a waste of time, even if I am occasionally an idiot.

      Still learning,

      Robert

    • karmakin

      The thing about what you say, is that all those concerns you said are created by one simple statement.

      I am an atheist.

      Everything else is gravy, basically. In that one four word phrase, everything that you talk about comes spilling out, even if you don’t mean it that way (and a lot of people don’t). But it IS what you’re saying. You’re saying that you think that you’re right, and they’re wrong, and along with that comes an automatic view of “superiority”.

      For people who don’t have that view, it’s because these think that in the end these concept do not matter. They have zero relevance on anything. They’re just…there. Entirely innocent beliefs that don’t hurt anybody in and of themselves. Now, I disagree with this. I think that they do matter. However, I’m willing to accept that argument in and of itself as a legitimate one. But here’s the point. Chances are, the person you are talking to does not share that argument, especially from the theistic side. More often than not these people do believe that these beliefs matter, and they matter a GREAT deal. So when you’re trying to make the argument that they don’t matter…well..quite frankly that’s more disrespectful than anything else, to be honest.

      You’re completely dismissing their point of view.

      The reason why “I am an atheist” is so offensive to many people (and it is), is because the opposite statement of “I am a theist (or Christian, to be more usual) has a LOT of baggage with it. And as such, it’s assumed that the opposite statement, which might just be a statement of personal belief, no baggage or superiority intended, is assumed to be an aggressive statement.

      This is where I disagreed with the post yesterday or the day before. Offense should be looked at from as unbiased a view as we possibly can. It needs to be compared to offensive statements that the other person would make. To not do this is to further enshrine religious privilege, and when it comes to religion that is the crux of the problem.

  • Beth

    Some good points, but also a few problematic ones.

    1) Running down a list of various beliefs until you find one a person actually holds so that you can then tear it down seems unconscionably rude to me. What social situation do you envision this conversation occurring in?

    2) I notice that you don’t offer any objections to this shield belief. IMO, for religious moderations, it’s a true statement. I would expect other “shield” beliefs to be similarly in line with ‘truth’ as we understand it.

    3) Some moderates (many?) agree with you regarding a ‘personal’ god. For those that do believe in a personal god, you may persuade them that a ‘personal’ god doesn’t exist without making any impact on their belief in a ‘source of all being’.

    4) Some moderates do this. Even if they don’t, it doesn’t imply they don’t care about truth. It seems to me that you are advocating the use of a false dichotomy. This is not a conscionable strategy for someone who is also wishing to stress the importance of critical thinking, as you suggest in point 6.

    Points 5 – 8 all seem good points that might lead to good discussions.

    9) I find this ridiculous. I live in a very red state and my representatives ARE the theocrats. I vote against them, but gave up writing them when it was clear that their staff didn’t even correctly note which side of an issue I wrote them about. They sent me a letter thanking me for my support on a bill I wrote asking him to vote against.

    10) This is not a good idea unless you actually know what their children are being taught in sunday school classes. Progressive christian education does not teach children to take the bible literally, instead it stresses teaching basic values like honesty and compassion for others as well as giving children a basic familiarity with bible stories. I find it likely the person will take offense at you terming that education to be “false, silly and potentially immoral”. Anyone using this argument should be ready to back that up with specific examples of what is being taught that fits that description.

    11) I don’t see this as an argument against moderate religious beliefs. Showing that something isn’t necessary for some purpose doesn’t imply that it isn’t useful in achieving that purpose.

    12) How can you say that they are not living ‘truthfully’ just because they continue to claim an identity they have always had? This argument comes across as arrogant and judgmental to me.

    13) This seems like a good idea – if they are still speaking to you at that point.

    • Patrick

      Regarding number 10: Its INCREDIBLY dangerous to use this tactic in a conversation. But…

      I’ve watched a ton of deconversion videos and a ton of coming out videos for atheist and homosexual teens. And its almost a trope at this point: the teen grows up thinking their parents believe what the church teaches, and this causes problems later in life. Sometimes the kid goes through a fundamentalist phase and can’t figure out why their parents don’t endorse it, given that they’re just being true to the same beliefs they hear their parents approve of every week at church. Sometimes the kid is terrified of coming out because they assume their parents believe the bigoted things their parents listen to every week at church.

      There’s a dozen permutations, but they all come down to the same thing. Part of being a religious moderate is maintaining this weird little line between things you actually believe, and things you ceremonially proclaim, but don’t actually believe.

      And chances are your children have no way of knowing which is which.

      And that can hurt them.

    • consciousness razor

      Running down a list of various beliefs until you find one a person actually holds so that you can then tear it down seems unconscionably rude to me.

      So you wouldn’t want to discuss reality, because it might seem rude? In that case, would you say it is a benevolent god’s fault for making reality so unbearably offensive?

      What social situation do you envision this conversation occurring in?

      I envisioned it as a situation in which their religion (or my lack of it) was being discussed. If that happens to occur in the checkout-lane in the grocery store, I will probably say there’s no evidence for a god and ask that they pencil me in to discuss it some other time if they’re interested. I wouldn’t envision chaining them down while I force them to submit to an interrogation, so they’d be free to scamper away or change the subject as soon as they are offended by reality.

      I notice that you don’t offer any objections to this shield belief. IMO, for religious moderations, it’s a true statement. I would expect other “shield” beliefs to be similarly in line with ‘truth’ as we understand it.

      I notice they can take a lot of forms, meaning this article would have to be inordinately long to address them all. And you may think it’s rude, so maybe we just say that’s off-limits. The point is that it isn’t true that religious beliefs are compatible with science, your opinion about “religious moderations” (whatever that means) notwithstanding.

      Some moderates (many?) agree with you regarding a ‘personal’ god. For those that do believe in a personal god, you may persuade them that a ‘personal’ god doesn’t exist without making any impact on their belief in a ‘source of all being’.

      Would you say this “source of all being” exists, that it is also “being”? If so, then what does it mean to say it could be the source of itself? Or did it have another source, which has a source, which has a source, which has a source, etc.? If you’ve thought it over that far, then what makes you think it’s a meaningful concept? And why is everything so inanely “moderate” with you?

      Some moderates do this. Even if they don’t, it doesn’t imply they don’t care about truth. It seems to me that you are advocating the use of a false dichotomy. This is not a conscionable strategy for someone who is also wishing to stress the importance of critical thinking, as you suggest in point 6.

      It was posed as two questions. Unlike theologians, critical thinkers don’t assume the answers in advance.

      This is not a good idea unless you actually know what their children are being taught in sunday school classes.

      Again, it was advice to ask a question, and doesn’t require any knowledge. At its most aggressive, this is provoking them to think about whether they are doing enough.

      I don’t see this as an argument against moderate religious beliefs. Showing that something isn’t necessary for some purpose doesn’t imply that it isn’t useful in achieving that purpose.

      It does apply in this case. We need to work with the best information and the best methods to make the best choices. It’s less useful and less ethical to take a worse approach (like a religious one) to solve ethical problems.

    • Beth

      @ Patrick: We seem to have a different definition of religious moderate, as I was thinking of people who are honest with their children about what they do and don’t believe. I think you are right about people who are not up front with their children about their beliefs.

      @Consciousness razor:

      So you wouldn’t want to discuss reality, because it might seem rude? In that case, would you say it is a benevolent god’s fault for making reality so unbearably offensive?

      No and No.

      The point is that it isn’t true that religious beliefs are compatible with science, your opinion about “religious moderations” (whatever that means) notwithstanding.

      “Moderations” was a misspelling of “moderates”. Sorry. While it’s true that some religious beliefs are not compatible with science, it is generally the literalist beliefs that are not compatible. Religious moderates can interpret the bible in ways that are compatible with scientific knowledge, including evolution.

      Also, I did not indicate that it was rude to address shield beliefs. My point about being rude was addressed to point #1 which was advocating a hunt for the personal beliefs of another individual solely in order to attack those beliefs. It was not meant to be applied to point #2.

      Would you say this “source of all being” exists, that it is also “being”? If so, then what does it mean to say it could be the source of itself? Or did it have another source, which has a source, which has a source, which has a source, etc.? If you’ve thought it over that far, then what makes you think it’s a meaningful concept? And why is everything so inanely “moderate” with you?

      I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not sure it is a meaningful concept. I am specifically discussing religious moderates because that is what the OP was about.

      It does apply in this case. We need to work with the best information and the best methods to make the best choices. It’s less useful and less ethical to take a worse approach (like a religious one) to solve ethical problems.

      I don’t see a religious approach as necessarily being worse than other approaches to solve ethical problems. For example, the maxim to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is not a bad heuristic for many ethical dilemmas and I would consider that a religious approach. Not everyone has the time and inclination to work out an entire ethical framework for themselves.

  • http://www.reason-being.com reasonbeing

    Great Post Daniel. Point number one only works if you know the person well enough to actually have a lengthy conversation with them. If you do not have that type of relationship, I find it unlikely that the conversation ever gets to a point two.

    I like the concept of a “shield belief” and think you are right on. If you can knock out a “shield belief” I would count that as a major step in the right direction.

    I would add to number 3 Dawkins’ argument of the “Ultimate 747″. That usually stops the theists I encounter among my friends and family in their tracks.

    Number four has been problematic for me. I have found that if they care that little about their own religion and my atheism, they usually care even less about having a conversation about it with me, let alone anyone else. I have numerous friends in this category. If they put 10 minutes of thought into it, they would probably conclude they are atheists. They just do not wan to be bothered. It is easier to keep on going the way they always have…

    All in all—great post! It really gives me something to think on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=669424433 emmarobertson

    Ha – all good points, and worth a try. I’ve had some experience of these sorts of conversation and I have to say I’ve been impressed by the average believer’s facility for obfuscation, often so highly developed as to render him or her impervious to rational argument.

    One characteristic I’ve noticed is a problem with distinguishing between, and assessing the credibility of:

    a. beliefs deduced from observable phenomena via process of logic , and

    b. beliefs derived from and informed entirely by existing beliefs.

    I’ve had lengthy and frustrating conversations with individuals who, I’ve had to conclude, simply don’t recognise a qualitative difference.

    From this compromised foundation the edifice that is the “science/atheism is just another type of faith – you are just as bad as the fundamentalists you criticise” argument soon rises, creaking and looming like the abandoned house in a horror film, where you know something bad happened.

    Before you know it you are defending your own position against various accusations, such as -
    intolerance (you think you’re right, not because you have evidence to support your position, but because you are essentially bigoted and assume that your opinion is just “better” than others),

    factual error (accompanied by links to “respected studies” showing how evolutionary theory, paleantology etc. are wrong, usually conducted or funded by some creationist organisation, but serves to hold up the debate for significant intervals),

    whitewashing (wherein the brutality of regimes such as Stalin’s in the USSR, Mao’s in China etc. are attributed to atheism, as opposed to authoritarianism, totalitarianism, political ideology, the mental state of the dictator in question etc., thus proving that non-religious societies are even more bloodthirsty and prone to human rights atrocities than their religious counterparts) and – last resort

    the “ultimate inadequacy” charge. ” (Science is quite clever, but not as clever as it thinks it is, Physicists don’t REALLY know how the universe began, Doctors still can’t cure DEATH – therefore all scientific endeavour is degraded. You need religion for those – really important – things.)

    To be honest the individuals I’m thinking of probably don’t quite fit the description “moderate” but it’s surprising how obtuse even those that do can be.
    I’ll never forget a TV documentary I saw about people making wills, and the facial expression of the wife of a “moderate” British Muslim couple as she performed the mental contortions necessary to square her beliefs about her religion – peace, justice – with the reality of sharia inheritance law.

    I’ve rarely seen a clearer demonstration of the tendency to believe what you want to, or think you should, believe regardless of unequivocal evidence to the contrary, and I think therein lies the intractable problem, people have ulterior motives for believing in things like God, the afterlife etc. – and they bitterly resent and resist any attempt to dissuade them from those beliefs.

    I think No. 10 on your list points to the way forward (that’s assuming of course that you think a move toward more rationalism in society is a move forward!). Even if you can’t argue people out of their irrational beliefs you can make a case that education, by definition, should not present phenomena which to the best of our knowledge exist only in fiction, as though they represent established knowledge in the sense that gravity or humidity or the orbit of the earth around the sun do. When presenting information the onus should be on the educator to substantiate any claims, thus the claim “Jesus died to redeem the sins of mankind, and save our souls from eternal damnation” etc. would be accompanied by an unbiased account of the available evidence.

    Not all pupils will reject religious narratives, obviously, especially if they are a prominent feature of home and family life, but it would open the subject up to question at least , and that can only be a good thing.

    • Tony

      One characteristic I’ve noticed is a problem with distinguishing between, and assessing the credibility of:

      a. beliefs deduced from observable phenomena via process of logic , and

      b. beliefs derived from and informed entirely by existing beliefs.

      -I’m starting to think that agreeing upon the definitions of words is one of the first steps in attempting to persuade theists out of their belief in mythology. Words like ‘faith’, ‘evidence’, ‘belief’, ‘knowledge’, ‘theory’, ‘fact’, etc have to be agreed up on before you can make significant headway.

    • emma robertson

      @Tony

      Yes, I think this is a crucial point, it would be interesting to see how religious leaders – for instance the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope, some high ranking bod from one of the other Christian denominations – would fare if they were called to defend their position in a hypothetical court case.

      The charge could be something like willfully misleading the public for financial and political gain (in the case of the Church of England at least, since they have Bishops sitting in the 2nd House of Parliament as an automatic right).

  • Desert Son, OM

    Do they care about truth enough

    I used to think my father was a skeptic concerned with truth and critical, scientific-method thinking. A recent psychological and emotional challenge for me has been realizing that my father does not care about truth and skeptical inquiry enough to be interested in it as a broad application.

    Dad cares about truth when it comes to, say, honesty in an auto mechanic, or the most effective surgical procedure for total hip replacement. But he also forwards, regularly, every email he gets that warns of the dangers of kidney-harvesting in foreign hotels or lauds a foolproof scheme for distributing prayer to five other people and reaping great financial windfall as result.

    I’ve tried to encourage Dad to check sites like Snopes.com before forwarding the latest screed about how your household blender is likely to launch its blade system into your grandchildren like some malevolent, Transformer-esque Osterizer ninja. I’ve also tried to talk to him about why sending misinformation is potentially dangerous and morally problematic.

    Dad’s response: “Well, if it’s not true, then there’s nothing to worry about.”

    Really, Dad? Really? Aaaarrrgghhh!

    Sorry. That one’s been building for a long time.

    Still learning,

    Robert

  • eric

    What kind of a god would let even its most fervent believers fall into the gross scientific and moral errors that historical religions and devout modern day fundamentalists do?

    I suspect that one answer you’ll get on this points is: the scripture is clear. “Poor messaging” isn’t the problem; the simplest and most rational reading is the one I’m presenting to you, and anyone who disagrees with me is just uninformed, stupid, biased, or insane.

    This is not a fault of religious people per se, you see lots of people invoking the same argument in lots of other areas. Politics is probably the most obvious example: ask a diehard liberal what policies the facts of science and history support, she’ll say they clearly support liberal ones. To them, conservatives aren’t just people with different opinions, they are poorly informed, biased, or crazy. Anyone who had all the facts and a working brain, would agree with them. Ask a diehard conservative the same question, she’ll say the same thing, only the conservative policy will be the one ‘every smart person would come to, if they had all the facts.’

    So, I think one bias you’re going to have to overcome is the very natural human one, of thinking our own opinion on some matter is always the most sensible, fact-supported one. If everyone had our data, they would believe the same thing we do. It is often very difficult for us to wrap our heads around the idea that this isn’t true.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      In all other matters it makes sense to say, “I understand that not everyone else of my group is as wise as I am, but that still does not mean my views are not right”. But this objection is not that. This objection is saying that if there really is a DIVINE communicator on the other side, how come it only got its message across to so few people properly. It makes sense that the world is opaque and most people are wrong. But the divine being cannot communicate clearly enough to compensate for people’s poor reasoning or reading skills? Or could not have given them better skills in the first place??

    • eric

      I am not sure that point will convince many believers. Sure, a divine author could presumably make their message divinely clear. But they can simply pull out the ‘willful disagreement’ variation of the argument I gave above: the message IS divinely clear, everyone DOES understand it, but those who don’t want to do what God clearly says to do intentionally misinterpret or misread his message.

      I think, however, that if one encounters someone like this, it might be best to try one of your other 12 suggestions. Or maybe take it as a sign that they aren’t as moderate as they appear. If they aren’t willing to acknowledge that the message is unclear, the nonbeliever isn’t going to get much by engaging in an “is too unclear,” “is not unclear,” loop.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    Well, as I said, I probably count as a moderate theist, so:

    1) There’s a difference between saying that you don’t believe something and that they don’t accept the comparison to other religions. Moderates are, in fact, experts at toeing this line, accepting that their beliefs aren’t necessarily any better evidenced or justified than those of others but that, nevertheless, their beliefs are the beliefs they happen to hold and so those are the ones they accept. You also have to be careful in asking for reasons because if you do so you have to be willing to accept that they might consider different reasons to have more or less validity than you do, or that different reasons are required for different propositions. This is where, for example, some questions of “faith” will arise, and may not generate any real double-standard.

    2) Actually, what you should be doing is side-stepping the shield belief, not trying to knock it out. If you are basing your argument on claiming that evolution and God don’t go together, and they believe that they do, trying to knock it out will only result in the two of you battering it out over that very complicated and detailed philosophical issue, without ever getting to whatever it was you wanted to talk about in the first place. So, basically, don’t base your arguments on major controversial philosophical arguments that they may not accept, at least if you don’t want to get into an argument over that specific belief. And if you want to go after that specific belief, don’t treat it like a “shield belief”, but as a belief in and of itself that you want to address and argue over.

    3) The problem with this one is that this works against uneducated believers, but not ones that have studied any philosophy or theology on the subject. For example, Edward Feser will certainly toss Aristotle at you if you argue this. Someone else will toss the QM theories that link it to consciousness at you. I’ll simply challenge your claim that it’s just silly to posit a personal/intentional agency, and would challenge your claim to complexity and that it must be based on smaller components, also noting that this reply misses the traditional cosmological arguments. To someone who has never thought about it, you might be able to convince them of this, but people who have thought about it have either already converted to your way of thinking or are not going to be so easily convinced.

    4) This is vague. I’m a non-ritualistic Catholic, but I certainly don’t feel the need to try to convince anyone else of it because for me the difference is unimportant. While I also do argue in all the places I argue for why I think I’m right, I’m not going out to preach it either, but I don’t preach anything, so that’s consistent. Most moderates don’t preach much, and if they do they preach their view, so if that’s what you mean the answer is “Yes”. If you are asking for more active argumentation, then the reply is to ask why we should be more vocal just because you think we should be. Can we not just to live and let live, even if you choose not to?

    5) As long as you don’t insist on judging the non-literal truths by your standards. It always amuses me that many of the things that atheists rant about as being bad moral claims of religions are things that I can see, say, the Stoics or Kant as being sympathetic to. In fact, I can see a lot of ways in which Christian morality and Stoic morality align where the empathy/Utilitarian views don’t.

    6) Remember that you — even as a skeptic — are prone to these as well, and that your skepticism may be motivated by the same sort of cognitive biases and even flaws in critical thinking that they are. If you start from a position of you being more skeptical and a better critical thinker than they, this may have things go horribly wrong if they don’t agree on what counts. Also note that moderates aren’t likely to be dyed-in-the-wool skeptics either, meaning that they will likely argue that while in some cases it is right or reasonable to be skeptical, a generally skeptical outlook isn’t necessarily desireable.

    7) Again, these are very detailed philosophical arguments, so you’re likely to be spinning on this for a long, long time. There are tons of issues here, including the obvious answer of humans themselves being flawed, and notions of intellectual progress and the idea that the beliefs were fine as far as they go but as we advance we learn more.

    8) This is an argument that most moderates will simply roll their eyes at, pointing out that that’s caused by human corruption, and also asking how much interference do you want God to do, anyway?

    9) I also don’t write my political figures who are male to tell them that they don’t speak for me, and most women don’t write to female politicians to say that. We speak with our votes, and nothing more. Again, what need have we to be more politically active than we are? Especially since we may, in fact, agree in some sense with their principles if they are based on the religion.

    10) I think most of them would reply that they already do choose Churches and the like that fit their more moderate views, and that they don’t consider the ones that are “silly” worth bothering with, if they even accept them as “silly” as opposed to a more moderate view of “shaky”, for example.

    11) This gets into the split of are things good because God says so, or does God say they’re good because they are good. You will get a variety of answers here. That being said, all moderates can reply that a moral system enforced by an all-seeing God is better than one that isn’t, because it isn’t left up to personal bias. Although some won’t. This is again a question that will leave you arguing for a long, long time and isn’t as simple an answer as you seem to imply here. For example, I personally do not base my morality on God and argue that the right morality is rationally recognizable, and so do admit that you can be moral without God. But then the question is if you really are moral or not. As stated earlier, for all its flaws when actually followed Catholic morality seems closer to my personal view than the humanist model.

    12) You leap from “This is part of my identity” to “This makes my grandparents happy”, and this is a leap too far. I may indeed identify with Catholicism for reasons of my own, and not just about keeping other people happy. For me, this isn’t the case, but for me it’s based more on “I believe X, that makes me Catholic, so that’s part of my identity”, a claim that you were trying to eliminate in earlier steps.

    13) So, other than your blog, do you have a manageable suggestion for a book to read?

  • Deepak Shetty

    +1 for the post.
    In my experience what prevents liberals believers who would be amenable to your strategies is family and/or social commitments. They don’t believe they do any harm (they neither support or accept fundamental views even if they might not be publically visible as opposing them) – so the gain to them is not much , but they stand to lose a lot. So while point 12 asks the question , I would suspect the answer would be that yes family matters quite a bit.

  • baal

    The points are good and can help someone with structuring a discussion. On the down side and as an ex-debater I’ve met very few people who can argue and follow the meta-thread of discussion at the same time. Some of the points take some skill in listening and tracking a discussion.

    I fundamentally (guess I’m actually a religious atheist eh verbal?) agree with Dawkins. I’ve had success in arguing with various religionists by figuring out what it is that they (as individuals)actually value and suggesting conflicts between their values. Merely forcing thinking goes a surprisingly long way.

  • jesse

    I wonder how many liberal/moderate believers really feel the way you’ve outlined — or rather, it seems to me that there are several problems here, largely because religious belief (or lack thereof) is complicated.

    Let me give an analogy/example: we teach children that their parents love them; we know that this is a pretty good way to make sure they don’t grow up to be sociopaths. But it’s not objectively true. We don’t ask children to test this out. I know kids don’t have a lot of experience, etc. But can you imagine telling a child to test whether their parents love them? (Like, “hey, check if your parents really love you by breaking a window,”) Ye gods.

    So it isn’t as though every belief that is false is necessarily wrong, per se.

    Or another example: if you ask my uncle and the kids and the relatives, they probably might answer that they believe in God. We celebrate Passover together, a story that is patently untrue. But picking it apart isn’t going to do anyone any good. Yeah, we’re saying prayers in a language we only barely understand to a nonexistent deity. So what? I like matzoh balls. The holiday is a time to get together and it provides cultural cohesion.

    The same applies to people in black churches, and I have brought that up before. I always get the sense reading blogs like this that you miss the point about a kind of argument from privilege.

    The upshot is that religious belief — especially the kind you seem to be describing here — is less an assertion of the way reality works than a way of organizing your life around comforting things. Just like the fact that I like to walk along the Hudson river regularly or jog has no bearing on whether I believe in the parks policy of the Bloomberg administration, or that sea-level rise is happening. (Though in the latter case it would mean I wouldn’t get in the walks anymore).

    I am not sure how to deal with it, or what to do. I’m just trying to articulate why I’m skeptical of this approach. I used to get into debates with believers all the time. It was a fun intellectual exercise, but all I ended up doing was trying to prove that I was smarter than they were. It made me a real dickhead. I was venting my own anger and despair, nothing else.

    But I don’t argue with believers much anymore. I don’t care if what you believe is false, to a point, as along as you are willing to work with me on the other stuff in life. After all, the only real thing happening to anyone is death, since as far as we’re all concerned the universe ends then. So all we can do is what seems useful, and hope we don’t cause too much damage in the process.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    Here’s one I’ve seen several self-styled counter-apologists do: If they tell you they don’t believe one of the doctrines you were planning to use in your argument, don’t turn around and insist that they should believe to be a part of their religion. They don’t care how a non-believer defines their religion. Asking them how they justify other beliefs absent that is another matter.

  • BubbaRich

    I had a long comment in mind, but Beth and jesse and Verbal Stoic said everything I wanted to say. Your argument strategy is an odd combination of rudeness and ignorance, and, as Beth said, you don’t even suggest anything to counter the “shield belief” you mention.

    I used to get updates for your blog posts on FB, before you unfriended me. I see that your arguments and your style have not improved.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      you don’t even suggest anything to counter the “shield belief” you mention.

      This post wasn’t on that topic. The shield belief could be any of a number of things. I just used one example and moved on to the next major strategy issue rather than get sidetracked into an irrelevant discussion of the specifics of the relationship between science and religion. I’ve done that plenty of other places. I have though been thinking of revisiting and developing the shield belief concept more though and I’m sure the relationships between science and religion will return soon. I don’t know who you were on Facebook but you must have done something pretty obnoxious if I was bothered enough to unfriend you, so I don’t take your charge of rudeness or ignorance seriously here.

  • BubbaRich

    “I don’t know who you were on Facebook but you must have done something pretty obnoxious if I was bothered enough to unfriend you, so I don’t take your charge of rudeness or ignorance seriously here.”

    Does that count as a shield belief? I didn’t; I just disagreed with you. After you dropped me, I even contacted you about why you had done it, because I often found your words valuable and thought-provoking, even though I often disagreed with some of your specific strategies. You said that you just didn’t think somebody who disagreed with you should be responding on your wall.

    But I think you ought to take Beth’s and jesse’s and Verbal Stoic’s criticisms seriously, and adjust the tactics you describe here, and in some cases your overall strategy.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      You said that you just didn’t think somebody who disagreed with you should be responding on your wall.

      I see who you are now. No, that’s not what I said. That’s a total oversimplification of what I said. We talked about this here on the blog.


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