Belaboring the Obvious

When it comes to theist-atheist debates, one sentiment I hear frequently is that there’s no point arguing either side of the controversy, because no one’s mind is ever changed by such arguments. Last summer, in “Be Hot or Cold“, I pointed out two reviewers who both dragged out exactly this same assertion in response to two different atheist books.

There’s no doubt that conversions are rare, on both sides. And I also don’t think there’s any doubt that rational persuasion is usually ineffective. As anyone who’s debated a fundamentalist can testify, it’s all too often the case that even the most persuasive evidence and reason simply run off a sloping roof of blind faith. So, is there any point in debating believers at all? Are all our books and websites just belaboring the obvious, repeating ourselves to no avail putting forward arguments that are as true as they are ineffective? Are human beings, as a whole, too irrational for rational argument to ever make a difference?

Bearing in mind all I’ve said in the past about human irrationality, I still don’t think the situation is as dire as that. When it comes to matters of personal belief and identity, reason is often not a deciding factor on the individual level, it’s true. But on the societal level, it can and does have an impact. It’s like continental drift: on small scales it’s too slow to be noticeable, but over many generations, it builds up to more noticeable results.

To the atheists who feel frustration at the seeming ineffectiveness of rational argument in changing people’s minds, I answer that we have to keep in mind the novelty of the endeavor we’re pursuing. Science has been around for a few hundred years, but other than the small minority who make their living at it, most human beings are not used to making decisions on these matters through rational debate and persuasion. Tribal and national loyalty, familial upbringing, culture, local superstition, and youthful indoctrination have traditionally been the means by which people select their religious beliefs, and for most people, they still are.

We atheists are doing something fundamentally new: we’re not just introducing one more faith position, we’re fighting for a complete reshaping of the underlying basis by which people make these decisions. Compared to what’s come before in history, this is indeed a radical change: the idea that people should make decisions about their religious affiliation based on evidence and not on faith. We can’t expect such an ambitious project to show results overnight, and we’re just getting started in any case. (We have a few bestsellers; they have ministries that churn out apologetics twenty-four hours a day.) But the change, although slow, is real – as we can see from the steadily increasing numbers of unaffiliated in each new generation. To those pessimists who say that rational argument never changed anyone’s mind, that people make decisions based purely on emotion and tribe loyalty, I say – just wait and watch. You may be surprised.

I’m not saying that everyone is reachable. Most certainly, there are obstinate believers who will never be budged by rational argument. And my advice, when you encounter such a person, is: Why waste your time? If you can answer their arguments to your satisfaction, and if they’re not listening to yours, then there’s no good reason to further spend your time and effort. Whenever you enter into debate with a believer, do so with a clear understanding of what you hope to accomplish, and once you’ve made your points, don’t let it drag on. Be aware when your adversary is talking to The Atheist and not to you, and take that as your cue to exit the conversation.

The temptation to keep arguing, even when it’s abundantly obvious that no one is going to change their mind, is ever present. I admit, I’ve done this as much as anyone. Whether it’s personal pride, or a determination to break through to the other person, or a mere obstinate stubbornness which refuses to give them the satisfaction of thinking they stumped you – or, most likely, some combination of the three – it’s always tempting to fight it out to the bitter end. I’ve done my best to change this tendency in myself. I’d rather focus my efforts on the people who may be reachable, and spend my time and energy where it’s more likely to make a difference. When a person tells me that they’ll never change their mind, when they declare their immunity to rational persuasion, that’s when I give up on talking to them. But there are those that can be reached, and we would be better served spending our effort on finding them.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Colin M

    While public arguments are unlikely to convert those who are arguing, I will claim that the combined effect of many public arguments are likely to convert those who *aren’t* arguing — the numerous fence-sitters and “cultural theists” out there.

  • Stacey Melissa

    Normally, I do follow your concluding advice, but I recently came across and exception. An extremely belligerent fundie imposed himself on a thread I was already in, and immediately started attacking anyone and everyone with insults flying all over the place. As usual, I tried several normally successful methods of persuasion to get him to chill out, all to no avail. After awhile, I realized the guy was completely impervious to reason and evidence. Not only that, but he made sure to include loads of insults in every post he made. So I knew I wouldn’t be able to get through to him. But I kept going – and am still going – figuring that his belligerence is bad publicity for his religion. I figure that anyone who stumbles upon his lunatic ravings will be seriously turned off. And that may be enough to nudge some people away from Christianity, where logical arguments and evidence might not be. So I continue on, for the benefit of the lurkers.

  • http://www.skepchick.com writerdd

    There are other ways to communicate with believers in addition to logical argument. Personal testimony, or storytelling, is perhaps the most effective, because it is something believers can relate to directly, and because it touches the emotions as well as the intellect. Debate is not really an effective way to communicate. Discussion is much more fruitful.

    This post by Mike the Mad Biologist is specifically about fighting creationism, but the points also apply to arguing against religion in general. Definitely worth reading:

    http://scienceblogs.com/mikethemadbiologist/2008/03/another_fight_about_framing_an.php

  • Steve Bowen

    When a person tells me that they’ll never change their mind, when they declare their immunity to rational persuasion, that’s when I give up on talking to them.

    But you’ve got to admit it can be fun sometimes, keeping a couple of J.W’s freezing on the doorstep like I did last xmas :0)

  • tfrancov

    I’m beginning to think that arguing/explaining/educating may not be as effective (at least as a breakthrough technique) as marketing. Perhaps (of all things) irrational, emotional appeals can work better. Mottos and slogans work for breakfast cereals, why not rational thought? There’s a push in schools to make math and science “cool” for kids. Believers are more receptive to that mode anyway.
    Examples:
    “Do you *really* believe there’s an invisible old man in the sky? How quaint!”
    “Jesus? Isn’t he like that that Thor dude?”
    “Religion is for suckers. Look at all those rich evangelist leaders. You don’t give *your* money, do you?!”
    “The Bible? That’s the one with Hobbits, right?”
    “This is the 21st century – science works – get real.”

    In other words, make them *feel SILLY* and out of date. That could filter down the 50% non-fanatical group and leave the remainder as an outside “lunatic fringe”.

    Just a thought…

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  • dutch

    “most human beings are not used to making decisions on these matters through rational debate and persuasion.”

    I suppose atheists are the only ones capable of “rational debate.” I am a Christian therefore stupid and incapable of rational debate. Yes atheists must be smarter because 80 to 90 percent of scientists are either agnostic or atheist – the other 10 percent must be stupid. Isn’t it interesting though that among nuclear physicists the percentage of theists is much higher. As one physicist said “it isn’t a question if The Big Bang happened, but why it happened at all?” I look forward to operations at Cern commencing this year, it is a very exciting time in physics.

    I look at you in a different light, I consider you a doubting Thomas who must touch and feel God in order to believe. This is OK, you will get your chance. Enjoy your atheist rise for a season – it is temporary.

    By the way, the Vatican has affirmed the Catholic Church’s acceptance of natural selection and Big Bang as a valid theories.

  • mikespeir

    One thing I think we often forget in all our stress on rationality is that there’s always an emotional element to our opinions. It’s been pointed out by many people that if you shoot at somebody, the first thing he’s going to do is find a rock to hide behind. Then you may never see him again.

    What we have to ask ourselves is this, “Am I interested in the person, or just in changing his opinion?” I think if we’d concentrate more on the former, we’d find ourselves a lot more successful in the latter.

  • 2-D Man

    Come off it, Dutch. No one is capable of rational debate when it comes to their religion. I won’t hesitate to say that theists are capable of rational debate in other areas, but there is nothing rational about believing in a talking snake – no matter what plane you put it on.

    None of these physicists that you’ve mentioned have put forward scientific papers for the “why” the big bang happened. Until I see some evidence for one answer, I’ll treat all answers to this question as equally valid.

  • Karen

    When a person tells me that they’ll never change their mind, when they declare their immunity to rational persuasion, that’s when I give up on talking to them. But there are those that can be reached, and we would be better served spending our effort on finding them.

  • http://www.blakeclan.org/jon/greenoasis/ Jonathan Blake

    As one convert from theism who was persuaded largely on the basis of reasoning, please don’t stop.

  • http://endhereditaryreligion.blogspot.com Rich Collins

    Thanks for this insightful article. After some years of banging my head against a wall I came to your exact same position. In addition to helping me maintain my sanity the realization sent me off for better answers.

    I cannot say exactly where or how I reached the decision to change focus and talk to parents about the practice of childhood religious indoctrination, but I know reading DDHH played a big part. For the last six months I have worked hard to understand what is called hereditary religion like you allude to in your article, but do not fully develop. Then came the realization that apostates could hold the key to swaying our opposition. This is because in every family I am convinced there is an apostate that created great sorrow when he/she “walked away”. You see grandmother will not be able to count on meeting them in heaven. This is the most pernicious dogma in their bag of psychological dirty tricks and this is exactly what we tell people. The self examining ones with any insight into their psyche, realize this is true.

    My first trial with this approach has been running now for three weeks at the Amazon.com Parenting Forum. Now, this is a forum that usually has parents discussing where the best price of disposable diapers can be obtained. Little did they suspect I was about to focus them on far more serious matters. An earlier attempt in an A vs R forum quickly bogged down into stale arguments we have all heard before. Just like you point out.

    Interested parties can come to Amazon.com and join in. We now have over 50 people in the discussion and are up to 400 posts. We try to answer the question for believers “what is it like to raise kids as an atheist” and such related questions about teaching moral behavior. We do this by telling our personal stories, family histories and brushes with religion.

  • Karen

    Yikes – inadvertently posted that quote before I entered a response. Sorry!

    I am a person who was substantially influenced away from religion by reading and researching online, and particularly by noticing how poorly Christian apologetics held up to scrutiny and logical debate. I know of many others like me, who are now either much more moderate believers, deists or agnostics/atheists. So it does happen, and I think probably far more frequently than we realize in the Internet age.

    That’s one reason to keep debating and discussing. Another is that even when you are debating someone who is stubbornly resisting and clinging to illogical faith, I think it’s quite likely that something is penetrating their consciousness but to admit it would be to lose face, and so you rarely hear them admit it. (Sam Harris has a good quote on this topic but I can’t find it.)

    I’ve seen very strong fundamentalists soften a lot of their views during protracted but civil discussion with nonbelievers. Most importantly, their view of atheists as monstrous caricatures of evil (promoted by their pastors and the bible) is radically altered if the discussion stays reasonably civil. That’s a least a good start.

    Finally, as others have mentioned, there’s the “peanut gallery” of lurkers who will never enter a debate but are reading avidly and weighing the evidence. I was one of these and watching logic demolish faith was very influential in my deconversion – though admittedly I was already at a place in my personal life where I was questioning all my presumptions.

  • jack

    The debating, our books and our websites (especially this one!) are important and worthwhile, despite the fact that most believers will not be deconverted by them. A few will. Young people are more open to unconventional ideas, and so are more likely to be reached. When I deconverted, it was extremely helpful to me just knowing that other people had been through the process, and that there are good and honorable people who discarded their religious beliefs for lack of evidence.

    dutch,

    The percentage of scientists who believe in God is much greater than the 10% you cite. The percentage is lowest for biologists, among whom about 40% believe in God (in the USA). Your 10% number is about right for the most distinguished scientists, where “distinguished” is defined as membership in the National Academy of Sciences.

    No one here (certainly not Ebon) means to suggest that believers are stupid, or that they believe because they are stupid. Religious belief has a powerful grip on the human mind, one that tends to make the beliefs resistant to rational argument.

  • Steve Bowen

    You know, it’s not so bad that theists won’t budge on the big question of whether there is a creator god or not. After all given that we are part of and within the universe we inhabit it is likely that there will always be a fundemental “why” and maybe even a “how” question left hanging no matter how close physicists get to the big bang origins. We may never demonstrate that no intelligence lies beyond the first singularity or whatever. What does irk me is when people deny the things we can prove;age of the universe, evolution by natural selection, the actual rather than biblical history of the middle east,continental drift etc etc. How do you stop yourself from labouring the obvious on that level?

  • dutch

    2DMan,

    Talking snake indeed, and maybe you are not aware of the talking trees mentioned in Judges9.

    No, these physicists have not produced these papers, perhaps they are coming…it is not important for my knowledge(faith), but nevertheless is fascinating. I still find it awesome how we evolved from nothing, just quarks, leptons, gluons and who knows what else. Time didn’t exist matter didn’t exist, and for some unknown reason, Bang!
    Atheists will never ever prove of God’s nonexistance, likewise, theists will not be able to prove God’s existance untill that time comes when the power of God manifests in this plane which will be happen in less than a thousand years, but at that time there will be no atheists.

  • Steve Bowen

    but at that time there will be no atheists.

    Hopefully because by then there’ll be no belief in gods to argue against. (I know Iknow, I shouldn’t encourage him)

  • TJ

    I have to agree with Colin M and others who said similar things.

    While you can’t change the minds of the irrational believers, you can give encouragement to those who are trying to find a rational path away from supernatural belief. In part, being brave enough to shout your beliefs in public encourages others to coherently and explicitly hold those beliefs, even if only in private. In part, getting your religious opponents to publicly admit that their beliefs are immune to rational argumentation encourages the fence sitter to recognize such beliefs as irrational.

    Dawkins and Harris came along at just the right time in my life to help me switch from apatheist agnostic to clearly defined atheist. Honestly, I always thought Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a lone loony growing up, because that’s how she was always portrayed in the media. I never knew there was a real atheist community out there, because it was sure well-hidden in the South, where I grew up.

    In helping me clarify my own beliefs, Dawkins and Harris also helped change my approach to my children, who I had previously been willing to raise as apatheists or “cultural theists”; now they are explicit, though still very quiet, atheists who very infrequently attend certain cultural religious functions with family members. The small change in me has made a real, specific difference in the next generation: the chance they will end up believers has gone way, way down. They don’t distinguish between Jehova, Allah, Thor, or Zeus. (And to my surprise, despite our Christian familial background (we still celebrate all the good Christian holidays – the ones they stole from the Pagans), I don’t think they really know who Jesus is.)

    I’m never going to rock the boat in public. I’m going to stay in the closet as much as I can. But my beliefs are clear to me, and I don’t feel like I am alone and a complete outsider because I get encouragement from Daylight Atheism and Dangerous Intersection almost every day.

    Yell at them. Fight them. Debate them. Try to win! You can’t change their minds, but you can help someone else by making the effort.

  • Alex Weaver

    This ties in with my expansion on Robert Ingersoll’s observation that “Arguing with a man who has renounced his reason is like giving medicine to the dead.” This is truer than he may have realized. Performing medical procedures on a corpse doesn’t do the corpse any good, but it does help one practice to perform them on people that can be helped, and can be instructive for third parties watching.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Hey, we do our best. It is all you can ask of someone. Still, there is hope: if you look at history you remember that for all the atheists there were, almost none of them were brought up that way. For them at least reason prevailed.

    I happen to like Dutch’s “I am rational- I just happen to believe in something that is unfalsible”. Dutch, do you really understand what the word rational means?

  • Brock

    I’m another deconvert from Christianity, who felt like TJ’s “lone loony” until I discovered the atheist community through books and the Council for Secular Humanism. Since discovering the Internet ten years ago, I have been strengthened by blogs like this. I also have found places on the Internet, like Ex-Christian, where I discovered that lots and lots of people are deconverting. I think our efforts are not in vain.
    Dutch and his talking trees: Do you know what a fable is? Do you really think that Jotham, who told this story, was relating true facts?

  • James B

    I think we have to use reasoned arguments to persuade people. Getting atheists to suicide bomb the world into agreement is never going to take off! “No, you don’t understand! I don’t care how many virgins you promise me, I’d be dead and thus unable to appreciate them!” ;-P

    But seriously, I think it’s fair to say that many atheists may have arrived at their beliefs for less than perfectly logical reasons… “The priest in our town is a hypocritical kiddie-fiddler”, “There have been lots of religious wars”, “It all seems a bit far-fetched” or “Some people I respect are atheists”. Some stop there and are unable or uninterested in giving more detailed arguments for their beliefs, which is fair enough, I suppose. But others of us read up and find out that atheism actually makes a lot of sense. As atheism becomes more popular you may find more people thinking the right thing for the wrong reasons (mostly popularism).

    I originally found this site useful for understanding and countering the theistic arguments. Theists are taught their beliefs, even if they’re not training in apologetics, they have a few common arguments. No one teaches atheism in the same way, so Internet resources are really helpful. Many times I’ve heard theists say something and thought, “There’s something fishy about that”, but been unable to say exactly what it is. That’s what pushed me to find out more.

    Now I know a bit more about atheism and religion I almost can’t resist challenging theists whenever they make an unreasonable claim. I explain this to my puzzled friends as, “Well if someone said they believed Elvis was alive or the Earth is flat or the Holocaust didn’t happen, you couldn’t just let a lie like that pass, could you?”

    A Christian in our office recently sent out an Easter greeting offering to pray for anyone’s sick relatives. He was friendly about it, but where I live this kind of thing is unusual and a makes most people roll their eyes. I probably should’ve ignored it, but I couldn’t resist replying (to all) asking him to pray for Heather Mills to regrow her left leg below the knee. He was slightly annoyed when he realised I was taking the mickey, but most of the rest of the office thought it was funny. I think he’s forgiven me and we’re planning to go for a drink and chat about it.

    I also have regular chats with our local Jehovah’s Witnesses. I know you’ll probably all tell me I’m definitely wasting my time there, but I’m not sure yet. At least one of them does take my questions seriously (we’re currently on original sin and whether God has free will). They also seemed genuinely curious and surprised when I explained a few things about evolution. Perhaps I’m over-optimistic, but part of me wonders if they’re really happy as JWs as when I invite them in and give them a cup of tea they’re never in any hurry to start talking religion. Perhaps I should just chat about the weather etc, to give them a break from all the witnessing work they’re required to do!

    Of course our patience will vary and convincing theists that you’re right isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. Many of us find the most annoying thing about religion is the constant preaching, so would feel uneasy doing the same for any cause. I only tend to talk about atheism when “provoked” as above! For those who do enjoy it however, I do think it’s important and helpful.

    I’d like to know more about changing people’s minds. Can anyone suggest any resources? Gotta stop now but have so much more to say! :)

  • Nurse Ingrid

    Hear, hear to Colin M, Stacey, Karen, and others who made similar points:

    Atheists and rationalists must try to model good communication and reasoning skills, and to respond to shrill apologetics with civility and rationality, and, okay, the occasional well placed barb. Our actions as well as our words are what can persuade those who have not yet made up their minds. That said, there comes a point when troll feeding is truly counterproductive. I’ve fallen into that trap myself but I’m trying to quit!

    I know that when I was younger and more confused about what I believed, I realized something about my fundamentalist relatives: I disagreed with a lot of their basic values, even those that were not specifically religious. I knew they were wrong about Ronald Reagan being a great president, I knew their Deep South racism was repugnant to me, and I knew they were silly to think that there was something horribly wrong with my parents because they occasionally had wine with dinner. At some point I had to ask myself the question, if I disagree with them about all those things, why should I trust their opinion about matters as big as the existence of God and hell, and the origin of the Universe?

  • Don

    Hullo!

    Agreed with the first part of your article about the difficulty in debating points with someone of an opposite view to you. Using a political example – I have several friends who are conservatives, and lovely people as they are, I’ll never win them over to the left in a million years. In fact, maybe I value their friendship, company and respect too much to call their belief system into doubt. It’s not the sort of thing that keeps you friends.

    Found the second part of your email a little creepy – rubbing your hands together over the possible demise of a group of people.

    In fact, reading your article has crystallized a thought in my head why I find some aspects of atheism odd. There is an awful lot of talk about it, which I find strange for a position of non-belief – it’s up to others to justify their position. So why so much hot air about it? It’s like having a friend who has become vegetarian, and who won’t shut up about how great it is or disgusting she/he finds it that people could eat dead animals. It’s not that you disagree with them in principle, it’s more that you just want them to change the record – it’s not that interesting a subject, and won’t make us all much better people if we do become vegetarian anyway. Instead of being mean to the animals, we’ll just be mean to each other more instead.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    James B, I like the cut of your jib.

    Personally, I don’t have the stomach to take on the god-botherers in person these days, but your tactics sound great to me. (the office email story is hilarious — well played!)

    I did have the experience once in college of taking on a fundie classmate who was evangelizing to me about how he thought atheists were taking the easy way out. I asked him, “do you really think it’s easier to think for yourself how you feel about something, instead of just doing what the bible or the church tells you?” He looked positively thunderstruck and didn’t really have an answer. I always like to think maybe I planted a little seed of doubt that day…

  • lpetrich

    Dutch posted:

    Isn’t it interesting though that among nuclear physicists the percentage of theists is much higher. As one physicist said “it isn’t a question if The Big Bang happened, but why it happened at all?

    Where did you get that idea from? I’ve yet to see any evidence of such an unusually high proportion.

    And as to where the Big Bang came from, the most that your “goddidit!” argument justifies is a rather distant sort of deism.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    My next door neighbor gets regular visits from a pair of Mormon missionaries, and if I’m out on the porch with a beer and a cigarette, we’ll have a good chat about whatever, including religion or atheism. I’ve learned quite a bit about their religion, and they get to see that atheists aren’t the gibbering ecoterrorist Commie pinko pigs we’re made out to be.

    Dutch –

    I find your conflation of “knowledge” and faith to be revealing. Additionally, I couldn’t help but note the condescension with which you speak of atheists (“I look at you in a different light, I consider you a doubting Thomas who must touch and feel God in order to believe. This is OK, you will get your chance. Enjoy your atheist rise for a season – it is temporary.”) while your tone decries EbonMuse’s supposed treament of Christians in this very same manner. I get no “enjoyment” from my atheism, only the confidence borne of the knowledge that every thought in my head must be subject to rigorous examination and will not be permitted to exist in the absence of reason.

    Or, to quote the Bard, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

  • NgeliMwenu

    While public arguments are unlikely to convert those who are arguing, I will claim that the combined effect of many public arguments are likely to convert those who *aren’t* arguing — the numerous fence-sitters and “cultural theists” out there.

    And Ebonmuse can claim to have converted at least one person. /me points to self

    BTW: I think this Planck-quote fits quite nice here: Eine neue wissenschaftliche Wahrheit pflegt sich nicht in der Weise durchzusetzen, daß ihre Gegner überzeugt werden und sich als belehrt erklären, sondern vielmehr dadurch, daß ihre Gegner allmählich aussterben und daß die heranwachsende Generation von vornherein mit der Wahrheit vertraut geworden ist.

    * Translation: A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

  • konrad_arflane

    Tribal and national loyalty, familial upbringing, culture, local superstition, and youthful indoctrination have traditionally been the means by which people select their religious beliefs, and for most people, they still are.

    Incidentally, all of those (except maybe, by definition, local superstition) can also be reasons for people to adopt atheism. Call me a cynic, but I think they may very well become the dominant reasons in the future.

  • shirker

    Hi,

    If it weren’t for the information on the Internet, I probably wouldn’t have left islam. Please continue discussing and debating, it helped me, and I can’t be the only one.

    My deconversion took about 2 years from first doubts to deconversion. I debated with some people near the beginning of my doubting period who thought that they didn’t get anywhere with me. But in fact those discussions were instrumental in starting the thought process which led to my deconversion.

  • OMGF

    Don,

    There is an awful lot of talk about it, which I find strange for a position of non-belief – it’s up to others to justify their position.

    I can’t imagine why there would be an awful lot of talk about atheism on an atheist blog. Or, did you mean in the culture in general? If you think there is lots of talk about atheism, then what word could you possibly use to describe the talk about theism that is pervasive throughout our culture? The reason we must speak out is because if we don’t we run the risk of having others run roughshod over our rights, more wars of aggression based on faith, more denial of rights to gays, women, etc.

  • Tess

    I can say that I was raised in a religious family and all the atheist writings on the internet were amazing at the time when I began to question my faith. My parents tried to quash it by sending me to speak to religious counsellors, but it was so helpful to know that I wasn’t alone or insane.

    So thank you.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    I’ve found that reason and logic aren’t enough by themselves. Sometimes the encounter ends win complete disagreement, but then you meet the same person down the line and it turns out they decided to become atheist. I think that’s why we’re so different from theists. You can’t expect to be rewarded for your efforts or be able to take credit for it. You can’t just expect them to join your church and look towards you for the answers to the rest of their life’s problems. You can’t even expect to know if you really influenced them in any way. The fact is that if someone de-converts from religion and becomes an atheist, it’s because they started thinking for themselves. Even if they heard all the facts and logic from you, it’s still up to them to actually think.

  • 2-D Man

    No, these physicists have not produced these papers, perhaps they are coming…it is not important for my knowledge(faith), but nevertheless is fascinating. I still find it awesome how we evolved from nothing, just quarks, leptons, gluons and who knows what else. Time didn’t exist matter didn’t exist, and for some unknown reason, Bang!

    Atheists will never ever prove of God’s nonexistance, likewise, theists will not be able to prove God’s existance untill that time comes when the power of God manifests in this plane which will be happen in less than a thousand years, but at that time there will be no atheists.

    Dutch, perhaps these papers are not coming. Perhaps they will come, saying something you disagree with (or force you to push your god to yet another plane). In any event, your statement is non-falsifiable and carries no weight.

    You call your faith knowlege, because it is, just…without the evidence part, which is apparently okay with you. I can’t even tell what you’re trying to say in the rest of that first paragraph.

    It is true, however, that atheists will never disprove the existence of your god; the declaration of which is also non-falsifiable. You believe something that you can’t support with evidence, and expect the non-exitence of this evidence to sway us too.

    These things are why we call you irrational.

  • Doy

    As a former JW that was expelled I belived I would be judged to eternal death by the bible god for many years. Thanks to books about evolution I discovered that the biblical storys was not so true after all. Thanks to books about reality I found out after many years of worries that I could have a good life after all. Now, 15 years after my awakening, I have a good life. I think that webpages and books about atheism, science, evolution, etc. is helping many people to understand what religions really is about. But of course, it would help a lot with more scientists like Richard Dawkins.

    It will probably take hundred of years, and real education without religious fantasies to see most people abandon religions.

    Sometimes I like to discuss religion with catholics, since I live in a very catholic country, but they really don’t have much to come up with when they should use the same logic/proof/evidence on their own religion as they do on most all other things/religions.

  • dutch

    To all the commentators,

    You are going to think I am mad, but I have my evidence. It is very personal, and didn’t come about untill I attended a Bible study at a very different church. I was nearly an atheist myself, the chief stumbling block for me was The Big Bang Theory. It was not untill I attended a few Bible studies that I received several dreams from The Holy Spirit. These were way out dreams, there is no way of mistaking them for your own spirit. I guess you’d have to take my word on that. The words dream and vision appear 153 times in The Bible. I haven’t been to church for several months, and the dreams quit coming. Working on my book is time consuming. By the way, the title is “The Death of Peter Klein.”

    For you atheists this isn’t evidence and I understand that. I do however know this will spread, albeit slowly. The following is an interview with Iraqi General Sada. Note the importance of dream. It begins.

    “Rosenberg says Sada told him moving stories about what God is doing in Iraq today. Sada said that “Some 5,000 Iraqis have publicly identified themselves as new followers of Christ since Iraq was liberated, and that an estimated 8 out of 10 Iraqi believers say they converted because Jesus appeared to them in dreams or visions.”

    I can hear you all laughing :)

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    I agree that questioning and debating religion is useful, for all the reasons mentioned here and more. And for me, one of the strongest reasons is that the defense mechanisms religion has built around it largely depend on it not being questioned. The mere act of questioning religion, and of treating it as just another hypothesis about the world instead of handling it with kid gloves, in the long run weakens religion more than almost anything else we can do. Even if the arguments don’t sway a lot of people right away, they act in the long run to strip away the armor, the “get out of jail free” cards, that religion has traditionally had. A new generation is coming of age knowing that religion has some serious problems and that atheism is a valid option… and I think that’s huge.

    (More on this here — sorry for the self-linkage, but it really is relevant.)

    James B.: “I’d like to know more about changing people’s minds. Can anyone suggest any resources?”

    Yes. I realize I’ve been gassing on about this book ad nauseum, but I’d like to recommend “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.” An excellent book on cognitive dissonance, and the ways that our minds continue to defend and justify false beliefs even in the face of evidence. Some good ideas on how to approach people when you’re trying to change their minds… and some excellent ideas on how not to approach them.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    “It was not untill I attended a few Bible studies that I received several dreams from The Holy Spirit.”

    And it wasn’t until I’d re-read the last Harry Potter book that I dreamed that J.K. Rowling had written an eighth book in the series; an erotic Harry Potter novel, inspired by erotic fanfic. (The Harry/ Draco theme was prominently featured.)

    A very intense, way-out dream. There is no way of thinking that it came from my own spirit and my own mind. Except by using rational thought, that is.

    I expect to see that book listed on Amazon by Monday. And if it doesn’t… well, my faith is strong.

  • Ellwood

    Great combeback, Greta.

    I think the hardest people to have an argument with on the topic of atheism and faith and religion (etc.) are the ones who have “experienced the power of the holy spirit”, as some would say. I’ve had friends who’ve claimed to have been possessed and then exorcised…how can you respond to that and still keep them as friends? “Oh, well you may think that Satan was inside you, controlling your thoughts and actions, making you wicked and vile, but really it was just your overactive imagination and possibly signs of a debilitating mental disease…hey, where are you going?” The only way I’ve ever been able to counter such claims is to go on and say that I’ve never felt anything that I could attribute to a god or sacred spirit or whatever. I have, however, marveled at the miracle of reality, of existence, of thought and freedom. Every once in a while, I must bow in awe at the beauty of nature, in its simplicity and profundity. That’s when the theists think that I’m the one gone crazy….

  • mikespeir

    I had some profound spiritual experiences as a Christian, one of which was my conversion at age 14. I can understand well enough how Christians look back on such events and tell themselves, “All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, it’s real.”

    At some point along the way, though, we’ve endured enough real-world knocks that the emotions that bind us to faith are overwhelmed by turmoils that can’t be accounted for by faith. That causes some of us to start wondering, “Maybe there are other ways to explain those experiences.” That’s the beginning of the end of faith. Slowly, we begin thinking in another way: “Although it makes me feel oh so good to believe little green men inhabit Mars, I know darn well there are no little green men there. The feeling, the sense–the experience–must spring from another source.”

  • Valhar2000

    [...]how can you respond to that and still keep them as friends?[...]

    Yeah, it’s like doctors who try to treat people afflicted with delusional parasitosis with antipsychotic medication. As soon as the patients realize that the medicine is not actually “meant” to kill the bugs that supposedly afflict them, they want nothing more to do with those doctor.

  • dutch

    Your responses to my last post were so predictable – I opened the door and you didn’t disappoint.

    Nice thing time is – in time we will see who is right. I hope you so-called “freethinkers” keep up with events in the world. The premise of this article is the conversion of theists to atheists using “logic,” and “rational argument.” Those who have said they converted from Christianity to atheism never prayed and studied The Bible in any systematic way, and if you read The Bible at all, you read it with a “carnal” mind, you weren’t Christians at all. Since arriving at this site, I began to realize that you will unwittingly strengthen the Christian faith.

    “Freethinkers,” now if that isn’t an oxymoron. You aren’t free at all, you are in bondage. You are bonded to the carnal, temporal world – for you that is all there is. Perhaps people of faith should be called deepthinkers. Like Christians, I would think there are many of you who aren’t strong in your beliefs, some of you may well look at The Bible in a new light. If The Bible doesn’t fit into the carnal world, then where does it fit – big question.

  • dutch

    to you Mike Speir,

    Did you follow your “profound religious experiences” with dilligent Bible study – I can assure you, you did not – it’s too much work – stony ground. I can also practically guarantee that shortly after your “religious experiences” you received some horrible nightmares.

  • mikespeir

    On the contrary, Dutch, I gained quite a reputation as a student of the Bible. I taught it for years. In fact, it wasn’t until I was 48 that I finally had to admit to myself that I just wasn’t buying it anymore. Frankly, I grew tired of trying to make excuses for it.

  • heliobates

    Those who have said they converted from Christianity to atheism never prayed and studied The Bible in any systematic way, and if you read The Bible at all, you read it with a “carnal” mind, you weren’t Christians at all. Since arriving at this site, I began to realize that you will unwittingly strengthen the Christian faith.

    Textbook aura of infallability.

    Nice thing time is – in time we will see who is right.

    “That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.”

  • Karen

    mikespeir

    I had some profound spiritual experiences as a Christian, one of which was my conversion at age 14. I can understand well enough how Christians look back on such events and tell themselves, “All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, it’s real.”

    I agree – and I bet most former Christians/religious believers here could say the same.

    At some point along the way, though, we’ve endured enough real-world knocks that the emotions that bind us to faith are overwhelmed by turmoils that can’t be accounted for by faith. That causes some of us to start wondering, “Maybe there are other ways to explain those experiences.” That’s the beginning of the end of faith. Slowly, we begin thinking in another way: “Although it makes me feel oh so good to believe little green men inhabit Mars, I know darn well there are no little green men there. The feeling, the sense–the experience–must spring from another source.”

    Exactly: This is an excellent summation of what typically happens in the latter stage of the deconversion journey. For me, it was those half dozen “spiritual experiences” that I hung onto for as long as possible, until logic started overwhelming those, too.

    Dutch

    Nice thing time is – in time we will see who is right.

    What is it with the constant not-so-subtle threats from theists? Y’know what, Dutch – this kind of bullying may make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but we don’t believe in hell, so threats like this just don’t do anything for us. You might want to look for another tactic.

    Those who have said they converted from Christianity to atheism never prayed and studied The Bible in any systematic way, and if you read The Bible at all, you read it with a “carnal” mind, you weren’t Christians at all.

    Ding, ding, ding!! You’ve just hit a trifecta on the Convenient Categories Theists Use to Explain Deconversion, which we are compiling lately over at the deconversion blog. Congratulations. :-)

  • dutch

    Mike,

    What about the nightmares…Come on. By the way I am 59. 5 kids and 4 grandkids.
    Never brought my kids up on religion. Like Thomas Paine, faith is personal, organized religion is not where I am at.

    Heliobates,
    Yes, the wait is long, but well worth it. In the unseen, spiritual realm, time doesn’t exist. Whatever happened has happened, whatever will happen has happened.

    Ecc 1:9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

  • mikespeir

    So, what’s your obsession with nightmares, Dutch? Never been given to them much myself. ‘Splain yourself.

    Say, you wouldn’t be a member of Landover Baptist, would you? Come on! Fess up.

  • Ingersoll’s Revenge

    James B said:

    “No, you don’t understand! I don’t care how many virgins you promise me, I’d be dead and thus unable to appreciate them!” ;-P

    Sorry for being so vulgar, but I never understood the appeal of the virgins. From a strictly male perspective, having sex with a virgin is like trying to screw a brick wall.

  • heliobates

    Yes, the wait is long, but well worth it.

    “you make me…
    promises promises
    You know you’ll never keeeep!”

  • LindaJoy

    2-D man- just for your interest (and maybe Dutch’s too), there is a new article in Discover Magazine on the Big Bang theory; maybe some new thinking on it and on what existed before that moment of “explosion”, the nature of time, etc. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I have to say that my movement from religious belief to none started with asking questions in a Bible study class. The answers just didn’t make sense, so I asked some more. It just got worse from there. Then I decided to read the Bible myself (eye-opening, headache producing experience); then I heard about the Gnostic gospels, read them and wondered why they got left out. Then I read about how and why they got left out and learned about the history of the early church and Christianity in general. As my knowledge grew, my belief dwindled down until God was like “the old man sitting by the door with his bags packed” described so sweetly by Julia Sweeney in her CD “Letting Go of God”. My point here is that is was the exercise of asking questions that helped me move out of the box of religion. So, when I blog in the local newspaper on religious topics, I ask questions. For example, an editorial writer wrote that if God is behind Obama, then no one can stop him from getting the Presidency. I asked whether we should all bother to vote if God had already decided. Well, that brought on a huge online discussion…
    I have seen Dutch post here before and I have the distinct impresssion that he is like many other bloggers I have encountered. He feigns being strong in his beliefs, but keeps coming on to this site because many of us are expressing the questions that are nagging on his subconciousness.

  • Wedge

    Sorry for being so vulgar, but I never understood the appeal of the virgins. From a strictly male perspective, having sex with a virgin is like trying to screw a brick wall.

    Agree with you on the whole really bad sex aspect…from a female perspective as well as male. The first time is not something most people want to repeat!

    The whole 72 virgins thing is one of the creepiest parts of a very creepy book. Where do these virgins come from? Does it mean that Allah made women simply as property, more of which will be provided in heaven? Were they virgins on earth, whose big reward is to be one of 72 sex toys given to a man? What happens to the non-virgins?

    It’s like the Stepford Wives in arabic.

  • heliobates

    Where do these virgins come from?

    From 72 white grapes.

  • Wedge

    From 72 white grapes.

    Heretic. Olives are the only truly virginal plant life.

  • MisterDomino

    “Freethinkers,” now if that isn’t an oxymoron. You aren’t free at all, you are in bondage. You are bonded to the carnal, temporal world – for you that is all there is.

    Thank you, Dutch. You just proved that you live in a perpetual delusion. “Bonded to the temporal world” here can be read as “aware of reality.”

    There is a clearly defined line between rational thinking and contrived fantasy (for atheists, anyway).

  • dutch

    Linda, I really can’t say why I come here. Initially it was to argue against a temporal explanation of a Bible verse(s). That you have helped me in writing my book, which is a murder mystery involving a Christian conspiracy, is appreciated, albeit unintended.
    You wrongfully assume my knowledge(faith) is weak – wrong! My faith is founded on rock; pardon the allegory.
    I submit to you that perhaps a few “atheists” who come here are not so strong in their beliefs. They come here to help stay an atheist. Belief in God, belief in no god, both have their weak followers.

  • Ric

    I think arguing with theists may plant a seed of rationality in some minds that may eventually bear atheistic fruit.

  • heliobates

    Heretic. Olives are the only truly virginal plant life.

    1 2 3 4, I declare a fatwah war!

  • Wedge

    1 2 3 4, I declare a fatwah war!

    I suggest a more scientific means of exploring the theology: I’ll throw a party with lots of fermented grape juice, you throw one with olive oil, and we’ll see who has the most virgins around them at the end of the night.

  • LindaJoy

    Dutch- I hate to tell you this, but your rock (also known as Peter’s rock), upon which the Vatican was built is actually a part of the temple of Mithras. The foundation of your faith, so to speak, comes from the roots of pagan worship of the Sun. God is an imaginary concept. If you surveyed all people who profess a belief in God, you will find as many descriptions of God as there are imaginations. So, for you to make proclamations about what God will visit upon us atheists in the future is just plain silly(or your imagination working in overtime!). I really don’t think the burden of dis-proving God is nearly as large as your burden of proving God. I think Hitchens said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. An atheist points to no evidence of God as his/her evidence against God. That’s on much firmer ground that your claims. Of course there are atheists who are wavering. The change from one state to the other is a journey, not a “leap” like it is for faith, which needs to “leap” over reason to be accomplished. Which is more likely- that your dreams come into your head from an outside spirit source OR from subconcious brain activity? What is there more evidence of? Think Occam’s Razor….

  • heliobates

    we’ll see who has the most virgins around them at the end of the night

    “Drink, sir, is a great provoker… Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.”

    Methinks I’ll catch more virgins with olive oil. They find it harder to run when the ground’s all slippery-d. And all those glistening bodies…

    Why don’t we combine our parties and then each claim victory for our sect?

  • Wedge

    Why don’t we combine our parties and then each claim victory for our sect?

    Sounds like a plan, Macduff.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I think I’ve just about had my fill of preaching from Dutch.

    To everyone else who’s commented in this thread, thank you! This has been one of the most consistently enlightening comment threads so far this year. I hope it’s obvious by now that, although there are some believers who are immune to reason, rational persuasion can and does make a meaningful difference. It doesn’t spur widespread changes in allegiance overnight, because human psychology doesn’t work that way. Instead, it works more like a gradual, steady erosion. Some theists, as we’ve seen in this thread, congratulate themselves on their church being a “rock”. But given enough time, the steady drip of water can wear away even the hardest rock.

  • Samuel Skinner

    It appears Greta took the feat “Craft Disturbing Image”. I’m going to need to get that out of my head….
    This ought to do it:
    http://www.johnl.org/articles/comics/stalinvshitler.php

  • LindaJoy

    Come to think of it, worshipping the Sun makes more sense than worshipping “God”. At least you can see the sun and how it affects our world… how about it Dutch?

  • Samuel Skinner

    Sun worship- so that the sun doesn;t go into a red giany and consume use all. Come on people! Pray those helium bonds apart!

  • Ellwood

    If you’re going to worship the sun, just make sure you pray to Joe Pesci. Mr. Carlin is a freakin’ genius!

  • shifty

    It has always made me a little uneasy when people trot out the “not strong enough in your beliefs” canard. It’s that kind of narrow mindedness that leads to the intolerance with which we live. One should never be so strong in their beliefs that they are not willing to change them.

    “A faith that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets.”
    Arthur C. Clarke

    Heliobates: Have you never stepped on the grapes that fall to the floor in the supermarket? I say line the floor with grapes, apply the oil for a good massage, sheen and lube and drink wine when all is said and done. It is an Olympic year after all. Go big.

  • heliobates

    I say line the floor with grapes, apply the oil for a good massage, sheen and lube and drink wine when all is said and done.

    … and each claim victory for his sect. You must not miss the whole point of the exercise! This is an article of faith. There is no getting laid without getting righteous about it.

  • lpetrich

    Dutch:

    Those who have said they converted from Christianity to atheism never prayed and studied The Bible in any systematic way, and if you read The Bible at all, you read it with a “carnal” mind, you weren’t Christians at all. Since arriving at this site, I began to realize that you will unwittingly strengthen the Christian faith.

    How much counterevidence would change your mind about that?

    For my part, my assessment of the Bible went down upon reading it. Jesus Christ’s cursing a certain fig tree I found appallingly immature. And the Book of Revelation? Was its author on drugs?

    “Freethinkers,” now if that isn’t an oxymoron. You aren’t free at all, you are in bondage. You are bonded to the carnal, temporal world – for you that is all there is.

    If living in a fantasy world makes you happy, go ahead. But don’t whine about how misunderstood you are.

  • Karen

    I think Hitchens said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    Actually, it was Carl Sagan, just to give the dear man his due. ;-)

  • Jim Coufal

    This is a thought provoking thread with many interesting ideas. Since no one else has brought up an issue that has bothered me since I started reading and contributing to the atheosphere just a couple of years ago, I will.
    That is, argumentation is a communicative process providing evidence to listeners to make rational decisions. It presumes courtesy and professionalism. Over just the last few weeks I jotted down items from atheists to and/or about theists. Theists are “pricks of the year,” “evolution denying goofballs,” “self-righteous piss ants,” “christofascists,” “bible thumping theistards,” “filthy, lying, deluded hypocritical fucktard,” “anti-science freaks,” “cretan/theistard/stupid shits,” “douche bag idiots,” “assholes” (ah, an old, simple standby!), “theistard ignoramus,” “clueless bumbling cretans,” and “parasites.” They suffer a “form of mental illness,” produce “crockumentaries,” use arguments that are “unarguably retarded,” do “real shoddy work,” and produce “goddamned pathetic misery.”

    Except to make the writer feel good, I don’t understand how these crude ad hominem attacks contribute to the process of argumentation, other than to anger the one or ones being attacked, creating bad feelings all around. It disapoints me greatly to see such language from those who claim to rely on rational, empirical, scientific, logical, etc. thought processes. Maybe I’m being simple and too idealistic, but so be it.

  • mikespeir

    You forgot “IDiots, Jim.”

    Let’s face it, people are going to be offended by any presentation of a world view diametrically opposed to their core, foundational beliefs. That can’t be helped. What we can help is going out of our way to offend just to be offensive.

  • exrelayman

    The devil is in the details. Wedge, heliobates. Have your contest. Change the results to: Let both proclaim victory for their sects.

  • http://asolis.net/ Alex

    I don’t think anyone is “unreachable”. Some people are simply stubborn, but I doubt their minds can never be changed.

  • Wedge

    exrelayman:

    On another thread, someone proposed a religion which anoints with motor oil, Valvolinism. I say we establish sister sects, so that all can enjoy olive oil massages, good wine, and fast cars. I have no problems with ecumenical approaches to these things, do you, heliobates?

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com jimspeiser

    My name is Jim and I am a reformed Christian-debater. [Hi, Jim!] I used to troll Christian chat rooms with relish, mentally rubbing my hands together and slobbering over the idea of “putting it to them.” After a few years of this, I realized I was engaging in mental masturbation. At first, I genuinely thought I might accomplish something constructive, perhaps a convert or two, perhaps honing my skills (but for what? Further useless debates?) I have long since ceased and desisted from the practice, both online and in person, for several reasons.

    First, as noted here, one-on-one debates are largely hopeless, given the Teflon-coating of Christian theology (“The wisdom of the world is but foolishness unto God”) and the sheer numbers involved. Second, I realize that the rank-and-file, run-of-the-mill Christian usually has a large emotional investment in their belief system. I’m not talking about the fire-breathers, whom I actually rarely encounter in real life, but the everyday practicing Christians I meet. For some of these people, their religion is as necessary as the air that they breathe, and I get a bad taste in my mouth at the thought of knocking the wind out of their lungs.

    The other night I was watching “Twist of Fate,” the Matt Lauer piece about the two Minnesota girls involved in a traffic accident that killed one of them; the other girl was hospitalized, but wrongly identified as the dead girl. For weeks the dead girl’s family cared for the surviving girl, thinking she was their daughter. When the truth was finally revealed, it had to be emotionally the seventh circle of hell for them. What kept them going in the aftermath was their religious faith. Never mind that a truly good God would never let these things happen in the first place. Would I, if I had the chance, remind them of that point in an attempt to “convert” them? Even if they finally agreed with me, it would be a Pyrrhic victory indeed, for I would have robbed them of the one comfort they had left.

    Furthermore, I just don’t see much cost-benefit ratio in one-on-one debating; rather, I think we should concentrate our efforts on finding a really good public debate champion, someone to go toe-to-toe with the likes of William Lane Craig. I’ve had the misfortune of arranging a debate between Craig and a champion provided by the Internet Infidels; it was a rout for the other side. I think we should be looking for someone who can handle Craig easily, then go on to become a talking head for the cable news shows. Right now we seem to be providing them with Christopher Hitchens, who comes off as a pompous jackass, and Ellen Johnson, who is personable but misses on key debating points. Being able to succinctly and personably present our point of view in the mass media seems to me to afford a lot more opportunity for reaching the “lurkers” and fence-sitters who might be out there.

    As for me, while I don’t shirk away from a good debate, these days I have taken to starting off by telling my would-be opponent, “I’d be glad to debate you, but these things always end in one of three ways: ‘I don’t pretend to have all the answers’, ‘It all comes down to faith’, or ‘The Lord works in mysterious ways.’ I’ll consider any of those three answers a cry of ‘uncle’ and the debate will be over.” Things rarely move beyond that stage, and my time is the better for it.

  • Jim Speiser
    I think Hitchens said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    Actually, it was Carl Sagan, just to give the dear man his due. ;-)

    Actually, to be really accurate, the expression originated with Nobel Physicist Murray Gell-Mann.

  • David

    Just to add to the count… I deconverted from Orthodox Judaism in 1996, culminating what my crystal-clear 20/20 hindsight says was about a five-year process.