Ask Richard: Atheist’s Christian Father Poses Challenging Questions

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Hemant and Richard,

My dad is a fundamentalist Christian who has only recently discovered I’ve become an atheist. Luckily, he has a very logical/curious intellect which I know has been clouded by his own religious upbringing, and now he’s interested in engaging in a decent, sincere discussion with me. I know we have a potential “convert” here…

He’s given me a list of starting points. I’ve come to realize that the hardest questions are the simplest, so I’m reaching out to see if you can give me your two cents on each of these:

(1) What is truth?
(2) What is faith?
(3) What is evidence?
(4) Does evidence equal proof?
(5) What roles do faith and evidence play in order to reach the truth? How do they relate?

Clearly he thinks faith is a valid pathway to truth…
I know you’re busy as ever, but I’d appreciate any input!
You rock. Thank you.

Your fan,
Raphael

Dear Raphael,

In every conversation there is what relationship counselors call the “content,” and what they call the “process.” The content is whatever is the surface topic being discussed, such as where to go to dinner, what to do about the leak in the roof, or what is truth, faith, and evidence.

The process is the relationship between the two people that is being acted out under the surface during the conversation. Perhaps they are meeting as equals. Maybe one is dominating or trying to dominate the other. It might be an adversarial competition. It could be a cooperative effort to decide something. A completely unrelated problem might be what’s really on one of their minds. There can be all sorts of roles that the two people might be playing, and they can experience all sorts of feelings, from very mild to very intense.

Yet they often think they’re just talking about the content, such as dinner, or the roof, or what is truth. Realizing what the process is can help people to make their interactions more positive and productive.

Take a couple of steps back from this whole scene, look for the process, and question whether or not you really want to play these roles with your dad.

For instance, you said,

…and now he’s interested in engaging in a decent, sincere discussion with me. I know we have a potential “convert” here…

Most of the atheists whom I know find believers’ efforts to convert us to be annoying at the very least, all the way up to infuriating. If you have a similar reaction when it’s done to you, then don’t do it to him.

In the meantime, your dad’s underlying intention might be to convert you, but if you don’t get sucked into countering that with your own conversion effort, you can turn the whole interaction toward something far more valuable, something precious.

He wants to have a “decent, sincere discussion.” This is a rare opportunity to make your relationship with your dad more intimate and mutually satisfying. For too many families, discovering a member’s atheism results in a catastrophic collapse of the relationship. Winning agreement is a trivial distraction here; building mutual understanding is what is important. Your dad will come to his own conclusions about his own beliefs of his own accord and in his own time. If you handle this wisely, you can both have more love and respect for each other regardless of where either of your opinions go.

The other process that you should stand back and look at is the role that your dad is trying to set up here. He’s probably a decent fellow, but I get the impression that he likes to be in control of things. He has given you “a list of starting points.” Why should he decide what the starting points should be? This is an attempt to lay down his rules for his game, to have a debate framed by him with his criteria. It’s a manipulation called one-upmanship, where he has cast himself in the role of the boss or the professor, and you are expected to play the employee or the student who must come and stand before him with your (probably inadequate) attempt to answer his questions.

Don’t fall for that. Speak as respectful equals, or not at all.

You don’t have to answer his list of questions like it’s a Philosophy 101 midterm exam. The way he has presented them, they’re clearly rhetorical questions anyway. These are issues that he has brought up, and it’s clear that he has something to say about them, so tell him he should answer his own questions. You’ll listen and think about it, and then you can gradually discuss where you agree and disagree.

All your life, he has presented religious assertions and claims to you. Now he has discovered that you are not convinced. I emphasize that phrase because that is how you should describe your position. An atheist is a person who is simply not convinced of the existence of gods. You need more than some other people do to be convinced. Quaint fables, soaring sermons, impassioned testimonials, the endless repetition of reassuring clichés, and a pervasive system of social rewards for believing and social penalties for doubting have not been sufficient to convince you.

That’s not your fault. It’s the fault of a presentation that is inadequate for your needs.

This is not about being superior or inferior; it’s just a difference. Some people need more of certain vitamins than others to be healthy. Some people need more calories per day than others to maintain their weight. Some people need more than hearing words to convince them of invisible, intangible things.

This stance of being unconvinced puts the work back where it ought to be, on the shoulders of your dad, the person who has been making the assertions and claims. Do not be put on the defensive for being unconvinced. He should have to defend and support the assertions and claims that he had hoped you would easily accept.

Keep your responses to his remarks cordial, simple, and personal. You don’t need to present eloquent and masterful arguments of epistemology. Just describe in simple terms the kind of things that have convinced you of something, and the kind of things that have failed to convince you.

For example, perhaps you heard someone claim something sounding a little strange, and so instead of simply believing it, you went and looked for yourself. Whatever your conclusion was, seeing for yourself was far more convincing than hearing someone claim it. This is how you are different from others who are convinced just by hearing a claim. It’s part of your deeply-rooted individual personality. You need to look and see it rather than just hear about it. That’s what “skeptical” means: To look, to investigate.

A series of brief chats with lots of “think about it” time in between will probably be better than a long, heavy discussion. Both of you can gradually discover in each other an interesting, thoughtful person neither of you had fully appreciated. Let humor, affection, and the simple enjoyment of each other’s company be at least as important as the content that you talk about, and better yet, let them be much more important.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond to them all.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://twitter.com/MaryWakulik Mary

    ” In the meantime, your dad’s underlying intention might be to convert you…”
    That fact jumps right out at most adults.
    I hope this kid keeps your response and refers to it.

  • http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/ Garren

    “These are issues that he has brought up, and it’s clear that he has
    something to say about them, so tell him he should answer his own
    questions. You’ll listen and think about it, and then you can gradually
    discuss where you agree and disagree.”

    This was particularly good advice. If you try to answer the questions straight away without context, you may not be responding to the reasons behind the questions at all.

    • Gringa

       Agreed, don’t fall into a trap and put the burden where it belongs.  I found this to be great advice that I’ll try to use during all sorts of conversations.

  • curtcameron

    Although I think the son would do well to consider the answers to his dad’s questions, even if he doesn’t respond like a homework assignment.

    (1) What is truth?
    Let’s agree that there is an objective reality external to us. “The Truth” is a statement that says something correct about that reality. Note that morals and other opinion statements can’t be “truth.”

    (2) What is faith?
    Faith has two definitions. One is trust, as I have faith that my wife will remember my anniversary. The other definition is “belief without evidence,” and that’s the one that pertains to religious questions. How many times have we heard “well, you just have to have faith”? That’s said when the evidence isn’t there, and what’s meant is that you just need to believe without relying on evidence.(3) What is evidence?
    Information we can use to help us reach a conclusion about something. It needs to be objective, accessible to everyone. A personal gut-feeling is not evidence.(4) Does evidence equal proof?
    No, proof doesn’t exist except in mathematics and formal logic. In science, we use evidence to reach tentative conclusions, but there is never formal proof.(5) What roles do faith and evidence play in order to reach the truth? How do they relate?
    Faith should play no role. If you use faith to reach a conclusion about reality, then you’re doing it wrong. Humans are really good at fooling themselves, and science has worked out a set of methods to help us avoid those fallacies. Using faith is an almost certain way of reaching the wrong conclusion.

    • http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/ Garren

       Yes, dad, come over to Atheism where morality is pure opinion! …that’ll work well.

      • curtcameron

        If his dad doesn’t already understand that morality is just opinion, then the son should explain that to him.

    • brianmacker

      “Note that morals and other opinion statements can’t be ‘truth’”

      I don’t think you’ve thought through the implications of such an opinion. If true then wouldn’t it be false? Also moral statements can be true. For example, “If you wish people to reciprocate in not murdering you and your loved ones then you shouldn’t murder others.” is a moral truth. Moral statements can be both objective and subjective. Some philosophers get confused in thinking morality is either purely objective or purely subjective. Both positions can be falsified by example, so morality is neither. Thing is that individual moral statements and morality are not identical. So individual moral statements can be either. An example of a subjective moral statement would be “You should marry the opposite sex and have kids”. That’s only true for some people. The “should” here depends on subjective factors.

      My opinion is the moral systems are always structured with a world view in which the moral rules are purportedly in your own enlightened self interest. The “should” is always with regards to what is best for you. The error usually in the world view that is accepted or in reasoning about how that world view relates to ones interests.

      In Christianity the world view is that there is an afterlife and a god. Both claims are false and that is why it falls apart. Not because one cannot construct a world view which is accurate and includes self interested actions that represent a morality. It all depends on what the self is and the true nature of man. Is self defined narrowly or broadly? I think an enlightened view defines the self broadly. The self includes culture, belief, friends, family, community, etc. Who you are is not separate from these things.

      • curtcameron

        Getting back to this…

        “I don’t think you’ve thought through the implications of such an opinion. If true then wouldn’t it be false?”

        No, why do you say that?

        “Also moral statements can be true. For example, ‘If you wish people to reciprocate in not murdering you and your loved ones then you shouldn’t murder others.’ is a moral truth. “

        That’s not an example of morals, it’s a statement about morals. A moral is an opinion about what you should do. It’s an opinion. Those can’t be “Truth,” which I’ve already defined as a statement that says something correct about reality.

        Morals should ideally be based in facts, such as the fact you note about being better off if you don’t murder people. The moral that comes out of this fact is that, in my opinion, you shouldn’t murder people. But don’t confuse the fact with the opinion.

        Sam Harris says that morality can be objective, with the view that the moral thing to do is to increase the well-being of sentient creatures. But to be pedantic about it, you have to first have the opinion that you should increase well-being, then the better choice can be based on facts. 

        • brianmacker

          With any moral code the moral statements assume some world view. The statement, “You should not murder” has an implicit reason. It may be a false reason like “or you will burn in hell”, but there is still an unstated reason, and assumed common set of goals.

          Reciprocation is an objective goal everyone else even if you don’t value it because you don’t value your own life. People who don’t value their own lives tend to be weeded out of the gene pool so they don’t really count, anymore than the behavior of the insane would count towards determining this. Of course you cannot appeal to the self destructive with morality, but that does not ruin the objectivity of such moral statements for individuals who aren’t defective.

          “You shouldn’t murder” isn’t purely subjective, nor is it mere opinion as you seem to be arguing. Maybe we are miscommunicating, because I don’t get why you thought my statement was about morals, not a moral statement. Do you think that moral statements must drop context to be true moral statements? Do you think they must apply to the insane, and dogs and cats too?

  • Glasofruix

    1)

    truth   [trooth] Show IPA
    noun, plural truths  [troothz, trooths] Show IPA. 1. the true  or actual state of a matter: He tried to find out the truth.
    2. conformity with fact or reality; verity: the truth of a statement.
    3. a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like: mathematical truths.
    4. the state or character of being true.
    5. actuality or actual existence.

    In other words not faith and not religion

    2)
    belief that is not based on proof
    Or wanting something to be true vewy vewy hard…

    3)
    that which tends to prove or disprove something 
    Not belief either

    4) Yep, evidence can either prove or disprove a hypothesis.

    5) Faith is not necessary to reach the truth, i don’t have faith that 1 +1 = 2, i have evidence that proves it.

    Those questions are far from being challenging, it’s just a set of “gotcha!” questions to which you “lose” when you hesitate or think too long.

  • http://profiles.google.com/charliekilian Charlie Kilian

    I continue to learn so much about how to conduct healthy relationships just reading your column. Oftentimes it is something I’ve vaguely felt already, but have never been able to verbalize. Thank you.

  • mike

    This is where Atheism+ comes in.  You should know these.  I would answer these questions as if I were answering a child.
    1. A positive boolean evaluation of a statement.
    2. A positive boolean value of a statement without evaluation.
    3. Facts for the purpose of evaluating.
    4. Sometimes yes “The sky is blue”. Often no “The sky is 70% N2″.
    5. They are mutually exclusive paths, and evidence sometimes does not reach the truth.

    Or in math, for a statement S and evidence E
    S = E->S AND (E AND True); S = True; E = E AND True; ES when E==S; (E AND True) != null

    This understanding of truth and facts and evidence may seem simple but it gets us to the moon.  What has faith done lately?

    • http://www.facebook.com/mieke.kuppen Mieke Kuppen

      How old is the child you´re talking to here? 50?
      It´s not that I necessarily disagree with your answers, you just don´t sound anything like you´re talking to a child.

  • Gus Snarp

    It’s definitely an attempt to set his rules for the discussion, but at the same time, this is a discussion that is often hampered by not having an agreed upon set of definitions at the outset. It’s OK to propose your definitions for his terms, but you should also have your own set of terms for him to define.

    My answers to his questions:
    (1) Truth is often a philosophical abstraction, and it may not really make sense to define the term, or even use it. Certainly for religious people “Truth” is often a capitalized words, it’s a thing that exists. For rationalists, it’s not about truth, it’s about what things are true, or the truth value of a particular claim. In other words, Truth is not a thing, truth is an aspect of some other thing, it has no independent existence. And something is true if it accords with what we observe about the world. You want to stay focused on the claim and it’s truth value, not on some higher level abstract ideal of Truth.(2) Faith is belief without evidence.(3) Evidence is observations about the world. These can be made with our senses directly, or with instruments of various kinds. Evidence is stronger when it is corroborated with multiple measurements and observers and it must be evaluate with an understanding of the fallibility of human senses and memory. The best evidence is repeated accurate measurements by multiple people in a double blinded experimental scenario, that is, scientific evidence.(4) Proof belongs to mathematics, outside of that there is no scientific “proof”. But in colloquial terms, substantial, high quality evidence is close enough to proof.(5) Faith has nothing whatsoever to do with ascertaining the truth value of a claim. Evidence is the only thing we have to evaluate the truth value of a claim.

    My questions to set my ground rules for this debate:
    (1) Can logic, reason, and evidence be applied to discussions of God, or does “personal religious experience” trump all? (A lot of times people don’t want to answer this question, but I have seen too many arguments in which, when  the religious advocate finally has the decency to admit defeat on some point, they say that it simply doesn’t matter, that you can’t argue someone into faith, that it must come from within from a personal revelation. There can’t be a discussion with someone who believes that, because they aren’t an honest participant in the discussion.)
    (2) Is God exclusively the God of the Bible?
    (3) Is the Bible literally true in it’s entirety? If not, how much is true, and how do we determine which parts are true?
    (4) Is God some kind of active consciousness, not just the sum of the energy in the Universe, or Nature, or something abstract?
    (5) Is God all powerful?
    (6) Is God all knowing?
    (7) Is God all good?

  • Kate Donovan

    What a beautiful and lovely response.

  • Randomfactor

    “(1) What is truth?”

    I think even Jesus passed on answering that one.

    • Pisk_A_Dausen

      “I am the truth”
      – Jesus

      • http://www.holytape.etsy.com Holytape

        “I am your father”
         – Darth Vader

        • Pisk_A_Dausen

          “I am the Doctor.”
          – The Doctor

          • CelticWhisper

             “I am Iron Man.”
            – Ozzy Osbourne

            • http://www.zazzle.com/godless_monsters The Godless Monster

               “I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.

              I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.”
              – JOHN LENNON

            • http://www.zazzle.com/godless_monsters The Godless Monster

               “I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.

              I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.”
              – JOHN LENNON

              • Piet Puk

                “I am Hungry”
                – My cat

                • Ssddss

                  And This is SPARTA!!!!

            • Gus Snarp

              “I am Spartacus”
              – Not Spartacus

          • Proxer

            “I am the Walrus”
            - John Lennon

  • Timo

    Richard, I find your advice to be excellent and refreshing. Thank you.

  • Michael

    “This is not about being superior or inferior; it’s just a difference. Some people need more of certain vitamins than others to be healthy. Some people need more calories per day than others to maintain their weight. **Some people need more than hearing words to convince them of invisible, intangible things.** ” 

    Man, am I going to use that one.  What a perfect way to describe to others why I’m incapable of believing in a god.  I just don’t have it in me.

    • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

      I was slightly worried that that part smacked a little of “I’m not convinced, yet”, which might read as an invitation to keep trying, rather than, “I’ve looked at the evidence, and I’m convinced the other way”. You can be convinced of something without being closed-minded about it.

  • SpontOrder

    It also occurs to me that the questions are a fairly standard paint by number approach used by some apologists (Frank Turek for example), which makes me doubt the sincerity and openness of the father.  If you aren’t in agreement with their definitions, it essentially becomes a word trap where logically they appear to win (0r at least claim) victory either way.

    I agree, this is particularly good advice:

    “These are issues that he has brought up, and it’s clear that he has
    something to say about them, so tell him he should answer his own
    questions. You’ll listen and think about it, and then you can gradually
    discuss where you agree and disagree.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LJ3YWZEE6A46RUDHWPGYVSK4DI david e

    “Note that morals and other opinion statements can’t be “truth.””

    It’s my opinion that 2+2=4.  It’s also true.  So let’s disregard the statement about opinions since it’s obviously false.  I’ll assume you meant something more like personal preferences.

    But are moral claims really just personal preferences?  It’s far from clear that this is so.  A reasonable case can be made that morality comes down to those values that a rational, well-informed person would be inclined to hold.  That seems to me like something that’s more than an arbitrary personal preference. 

    • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

      Except by definition, you’re *not* expressing an opinion when you say that 2+2=4.  You’re citing a demonstrable fact.

      o·pin·ion
      noun
      1. a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.
      2. a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LJ3YWZEE6A46RUDHWPGYVSK4DI david e

        o·pin·ionsPluralNOUN 
        1. 
        personal view: the view somebody takes about an issue, especially when it is based solely on personal judgment “In my opinion it’s all a waste of time.” 2. 
        estimation: a view regarding the worth of somebody or something “They had a pretty low opinion of me.” 3. 
        expert view: an expert assessment of something “I told the doctor I wanted a second opinion.” 4. 
        body of generally held views: the view or views held by most people or by a large number of people “pundits and other opinion formers” 5. law conclusion of fact: a conclusion drawn from observation of the factsSynonyms: view, estimation, belief, judgment, attitude, outlook
        It’s my personal view/belief/judgment (opinion) that the mathematical statement above is a demonstrable fact.  But the more important issue than semantics is whether the claim that there are no moral facts is true.  Any thoughts on that topic. 

  • Thegoodman

    What is wrong with him trying to un-brainwash his dad? Perhaps he has a terrific relationship with his father and is not really interested in putting aside his lack of belief in order to improve that relationship. Perhaps his dad has suffered at the hand of his own religion and could benefit from some cold hard facts.

    Not all of us are a part of the “live and let live” corner of atheism. Religion is the bane of our society. If a person offers me their ear on this topic, I do my best to cleanse their thoughts of the lies and misinformation that have been spoon-fed them for the better part of their lives.

    • Coyotenose

       Apart from the ethics of it (The Golden Rule is useful here), that is the game his father wants to play. His father WANTS a duel, because he knows his son doesn’t yet have the experience to win. There’s no reason to charge at a sniper on a hill.

      • Thegoodman

         Everyone is assuming subterfuge from the father. I don’t see why. It may be a logical assumption, but an assumption non-the-less.

        What is up with “The Golden Rule” being thrown around all over the place. If I hold a belief that is illogical, unfounded, and overall damaging to society; I would appreciate it if someone could show me the flaws of my thinking. We are not talking about a Muslim and a Mormon going head-to-head, winner take all, pink slips on the line battle here. We are talking about a father who holds ridiculous beliefs, and a son who does not share them.

  • http://www.alexpfeffer.net Alex Pfeffer

    I found some questions and points very important in such discussions:

    - if god is all mighty and all knowing, why didn’t he get rid of the thought of e.g. Satan the moment before he created the universe?

    - if god is all knowing, there can’t be any free will, since he already knew how e.g. Eve/Abraham/any other will decide. He already seen the moment after the decision even before person X was born etc.

    - if god is all loving and all powerful. Why did he create stuff like cancer etc.

    Sooner or later the discussion will end up in just a few directions:

    - god is having a plan for us
    - god gave us free will
    - god didn’t create bad stuff, Satan did.

    My answers to these questions are always:

    - god can’t have a plan because he is acting NOT rational. An all knowing and powerful being created a world which left 30.000 children dead in Africa each day! Usually people would say, that WE (humans) are responsible for that, … but this is not the point. The point it, that an all knowing and all powerful being, did see that before creation … was aware of it, .. and created in anyway ON PURPOSE!

    - the same goes for free will. There can’t be free will, since a decision and its outcome has already been seen by god before he even considered creating earth! Therefore no free will!

    - As for the last point. Satan did. But god created Satan and he was fully aware of what he will do.

    Finally it ends up with god not being rational at all, but completely irrational. Therefore if god is irrational, he doesn’t have a plan or a concept at all!

    I am not sure if you shouldn mention the very last point, but if god really exists and he got a rational plan for us, then it is just sadistic and extreme pervert behavior!

    However, the last thing could offend your father, but it is what it is. If someone watches a girl getting raped, a child bleeding to death on the street, a soldier getting tortured for weeks and not only interfering but creating ALL this on purpose, then it is just sadistic behavior!

    • Xeon2000

      Usually if I attempt an approach like this, the person responds by putting their fingers in their ears and shouting, “la la la not listening!”. That or they’ll change the subject and ask, “why do you hate me and God so much?”. The later more often it seems…

  • Coyotenose

    Yeahhh, no. The father’s questions are a setup. I’ve seen this before. I bet a lot of us have. He has plausible-SOUNDING responses lined up for any major direction his target, er, son could go in, but they’re really just pseudo-philosophy. He’s counting on experience to help him confuse his son into agreement. It’s obnoxious and alienating.

  • Peter K

    Richard, I like your insight on this. Can I say that it’s a very mature approach to very difficult set of circumstances.

  • Michael

    No, evidence is not proof. Proof contains evidence.

  • LaMaria

    Thank you for this intelligent, careful and caring response. If I were the babymaking kind I´d be wanting to have your babies right now :-)

  • Philo Vaihinger

    Personally, I’ve always been partial to the correspondence theory of truth.

    A proposition is true just in case the way it says things are is indeed the way they are. A sentence is true just in case it expresses a true proposition.

    I think it’s up to believer Dad to define faith, that being his schtick.

    And, anyway, why does he get to give out homework assignments?

    Shoe is on the wrong foot, methinks.

  • Thomas Farrell

    Richard, for once, I think you’ve given a bit of truly horrible advice.

    “Now he has discovered that you are not convinced. I
    emphasize that phrase because that is how you should describe your
    position. An atheist is a person who is simply not convinced of the
    existence of gods. You need more than some other people do to be
    convinced.”

    No. Absolutely no. I would advise any young atheist discussing it with a religious parent to run screaming from this advice. Saying “I am not convinced” is, to a strongly religious person, instantly translated to “I am ready to be convinced now, so pretty please shove religion down my throat as forcefully as you can!” It’s an invitation for abuse.

    If anything, you need to make clear that you are firmly convinced that religion is wrong, and that the discussion is intended to exchange viewpoints to improve understanding, but that it should be clear from the outset that he should not expect to change your mind as you know you should not expect to change his.

    For that matter, the father has had the kid’s entire life to convince him of the father’s religion. If anything, it’s his turn to stop talking about his religion for once and listen.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LJ3YWZEE6A46RUDHWPGYVSK4DI david e

    His list sounds like a prelude to a tactic many of us who debate religion have seen regularly:

    When you fail to demonstrate that you’ve solved all the fundamental philosophical conundrums of the ages, the religious apologist declares your views as much articles of faith as his religious beliefs.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, who listens

      this. 

      and i am siding with Thomas F above. i’m not sure Richard’s advice is the most sound. the father needs to listen, not try to teach a set-up style “philosophy” class. if he’s in any way sincere about his thinking, he’ll listen to what his child believes, and why. the child already knows what and why the father believes. 

  • http://flyingdingo.com/ Rick Roberts

    You lost me at the biz-speak-y “reaching out”. Blech. Where do people learn to write and speak like this?

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    Raphael,

    It seems to me that your father probably has rationalized his religious beliefs according to a pseudo-scientific multi-step argument (which he probably read somewhere) that he would like to share with you to bring you back in the fold. As others speculate, there is probably a definition that he will use for one of the terms that pre-supposes God where he can then build a sequence of arguments in which you have to conclude that there is a God. Another possible trick is to have fairly straight-forward definitions but faulty inferences that pre-suppose God.

    Just remember, that after he has gone through his “proof”, you are always free to say that you are still not convinced. If he asks you exactly where you are free to say you are not sure but it is either a definition or inference that is causing you troubles. You have your whole life to figure these things out and don’t feel any pressure to have all the right answers right away.   Most people probably never figure these things out and that is OK too.  Remember that just because someone doesn’t have an answer for something, doesn’t mean that they have to adopt the God hypothesis by default.  You can always adopt the non-God hypothesis by default.  That is all an atheist really is – someone who adopts the non-God hypothesis by default until convincing evidence comes along.  Religious people are typically people that adopt the God-hypothesis by default until someone can prove to them that there isn’t a God.  The problem with the God-hypothesis is that God can then take on any definition whatsoever – thus we have so many world religions that are only limited by the human imagination.

  • trich

    It’s all a matter of semantics and the religious are good at it. They are taught
    from a very early age how to manipulate semantics by interpreting meaning into
    the words they read and hear, and deflect any literal meaning in those words, in
    order to inflect truth. The religious apply this method of thinking to every
    aspect of their lives which makes it so ingrained as to warp their ability to
    know any form of object truth. Instead the only truth they know is subjective,
    the product of said method. Any one who attempts to have a rational discussion
    based on evidentiary propositions will find it utterly impossible to reach
    agreement. It’s all a play on words for them and they, the religious, don’t even
    know it. It’s semantics which make
    the religious and the atheist diametrically opposed and only the atheist
    considers the semantics of any religious proposition objectively.

  • HA2

    Definitely seconding the advice NOT to get involved in a discussion where your dad gets to frame all the terms. But if you want to anyway, here’s my answers:

    (1) What is truth?
    Accurate descriptions of the world around us (and including us!)

    (2) What is faith?

    Every religion defines ‘faith’ in their own way, for themselves. Commonly used to describe believing things for reasons of loyalty and trust – having faith ‘in something’ as an expression of trust or veneration for that something.

    (3) What is evidence?

    In general, any piece of information that indicates that something else is true. Typically used to mean the sort of thing that is more verifiable than a gut feeling.

    (4) Does evidence equal proof?

    Careful – this one is a horrible, horrible trick question! “Evidence” and “Proof” are two different concepts and so no, “Evidence” does not equal  “Proof”, they’re two different things,  and the relationship between them depends on how exactly the words are being used. This is a trick question which seems like it’s a lead-in to say “see, evidence doesn’t matter because it’s not proof”.

    “Proof” in a mathematical sense is an irrefutable argument composed of perfectly sound logical steps. In a more general sense, it’s used to refer to anytime when there is extremely strong evidence for something.

    Of course, this then leads in to a discussion of what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘strong’ evidence. In general, good evidence is the sort of thing that on average, will lead you towards the truth. Stuff that can be replicated by other people, stuff that will give you the ‘true’ answer regardless if it’s the one you expect, and so on.

    Bad evidence is evidence that leads you to a particular conclusion regardless of whether that conclusion is true or not, and depends on other factors. Stuff that leads you to strengthen your current belief (whatever it is, regardless of what it is), like ‘trusting your gut’ after you’ve already made up your mind. Something of the ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ variety, where no matter what the truth is, the experiment will give you the same conclusion, like being asked to ‘pray for’ something, and if you get it then great, you’ve proven God exists, and if you don’t then you’re being unreasonable and need to try harder.

    (5) What roles do faith and evidence play in order to reach the truth? How do they relate?
     
    Good evidence gets you to the truth. Faith is what you have once you have enough good evidence to decide what to believe! Or, alternatively, it’s what you rely on when you’re not actually worried about truth, but want to show loyalty to a particular belief for non-truth reasons. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/fader2011 Alex Harman

    My advice to Raphael (any anyone else, really): if you’re less than clear about your own answers to these questions, I’d highly recommend spending some time on the blog Less Wrong, and in particular that you peruse the Core SequencesMap and TerritoryMysterious Answers to Mysterious QuestionsReductionism, and How To Actually Change Your Mind.  Note that the amount of reading hear adds up to a moderately long book, but it’s broken down into fairly short essays, making it easy to digest.

    • Bo Tait

      Less Wrong is such a fantastic site.  Good recommendation. 

  • http://twitter.com/WendyRussell Wendy Thomas Russell

    “Most of the atheists whom I know find believers’ efforts to convert us to be annoying at the very least, all the way up to infuriating. If you have a similar reaction when it’s done to you, then don’t do it to him.”
    “You don’t have to answer his list of questions like it’s a Philosophy 101 midterm exam. The way he has presented them, they’re clearly rhetorical questions anyway. These are issues that he has brought up, and it’s clear that he has something to say about them, so tell him he should answer his own questions.”You. Are. Awesome. As usual. Keep up the great work, Richard.


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