So, what’s the point?

I expect that everyone who gets involved in science and religion debates from a skeptical point of view occasionally asks themselves what the point of all this effort is. After all, religion is one of those areas in life where it’s notoriously difficult to either say something really new or to change anyone’s mind. To get through to many believers, the hurdle is not so much to present an argument as to persuade them that reasons and evidence are relevant in the first place. And that persuasion will not happen as a result of arguments, naturally.

It’s not true that arguing about supernatural claims is completely useless. Personally, I get a lot of fun out of it, and I learn a good deal about things that fascinate me. There are other people who are interested in this sort of thing, and within that community, you can hope to advance the debate, and maybe get somewhere.

But outside of a fairly small intellectual community, well, what we say about science and religion might not often have much of a point. I even wonder if whatever skeptical conclusions we might reach from a scientific point of view are not necessarily even all that relevant to nonbelievers in general. After all, if you’re ineffective in reaching many people, you’re also not of much use to people who oppose the social role of supernatural belief. If you dislike religion for moral and political reasons, you want something that works to reduce the influence of faith. Arguments that might have purchase only after someone agrees that reason and evidence is relevant don’t do the job.

This doesn’t bother me. But I suspect it might be a source of tension between science-minded nonbelievers who are not interested in moral critiques of religion, and those who think that religion is first and foremost morally dubious.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • exapologist

    Interesting post. I think it’s worth the effort to debate these issues. For, first, such debates partially helped me to “see the light” and deconvert. So debate changes the minds of even the most entrenched believers (as I was once one of them). Second, debating the issues often move people on the sidelines onto the side of reality, for they don’t have firm convictions either way. In this way, debate “rescues” the undecided from potential conversion to delusion and increases the population of people on our side. And as you know, the mere popularity of a view in one’s culture has the effect of weakening the conviction and resolve of the opposition.

  • exapologist

    …or if not the resolve, then at least the conviction. ;-)

  • Hallq

    I personally find the distinction you draw here rather odd–I find it equally important to say that religion is empirically false and morally pernicious. Plenty of people feel the same way.

  • Taner Edis

    Hallq: “I find it equally important to say that religion is empirically false and morally pernicious.”

    Fine. But these are independent considerations. Many people agree with one but not another. And many put a lot more emphasis on one type of criticism than the other. So there is room for some tension here.

  • Interested

    I am rather new to this scene, so from that standpoint, I need all the information I can get. I started a blog in order to work out some of my own questions and the many debates have given me much food for thought.

    I have a problem with people who purposefully set out to insult and hurt other people…and there are many on both sides of the argument.

  • PhillyChief

    I think there are many points to debating these topics, even if it seems like we’re just treading over the same ground. I have been a skeptic most of my life, was an Atheist at an early age and am fairly well read on Atheism and related topics but I felt lost in my initial discussions online with theists. I think actually getting your hands dirty in a debate helps you organize your thoughts and better understand your views and the oppositions to them.

    Writing blogs and engaging in online or other forms of public discussion serve more than just yourself though. I believe others engaged in similar debates or who have in the past and felt they might have floundered a bit may benefit from viewing your goes at the subjects. How you handle a topic and an opponent may very well help others trying to do the same.

    For the casual observer, maybe your posts of the same old subjects are new to them. Maybe you’re the one that opens someone’s eyes. I’ve also found that this is another reason for debating ardent believers, which is not so much to try and win them over but to win over the observers of the debate. Perhaps what you say, how you say it and how well you deliver that against another’s arguments brings some people around.

    I think we can’t be sure how far a reach anything we say or do may have.

  • Rourke

    In my opinion, the appropriateness of such debate also depends on context and personal bravery as much as it does on sheer intellectual prowess. I am one out of very few atheists at my Catholic school, and I used to love debate–except, alas, I personally do not excel in verbal debate, and every time I made an obvious logical fallacy my opponents would only feel that much stronger. Nowadays I try very hard not to debate if I can, even though I want to quite frequently, because the resultant conflict would not change anyone’s opinion and reflect negatively on myself in the eyes of my theist peers.

  • Wencke Braathen

    Is the question weather we accept the belief demanded by organized religion or not? Or is the question weather we demand provable scientific facts before we accept anything?

    Belief, as in religion, falls under a different category than claiming something to be true, but being unable to verify it scientifically. Belief requires a leap of faith. On the other hand, there are lots of everyday things that happen, that cannot be backed by raw facts. Science can verify the result, without being able to say how we got there.

    So, are we throwing out love, reiki, the existence of thoughts, all forms of intuition, the effects of the moon, why sex with a loving partner feels better than a one night stand, etc. in our fervent conviction that we don’t believe in anything?

    Ok, you can argue about each of these items. Are they religion, requiring belief and should therefore be thrown out, with the baby I might add? Or are these things falling into a category of things unseen and hard to prove, but still claimed wholeheartedly by people every day?

    I think we have to show finer discernment in the definition of what we actually are against.

    Organized religion as a package might be a little much, but lets keep love and intuition. Besides, I like the effects of the moon. Ever made love when her fertile time coincides with the full moon?


  • Rourke

    @Wencke: Well, there is a difference between scientific fact, everyday intuition, and mysticism. However, although atheism certainly doesn’t require that one let go of often-irrational emotions, it does make one skeptical of “the effects of the moon” or reiki. Don’t confuse the three.

  • PhillyChief

    The “weather” where you are must be stormy Wencke, because I believe you’re all wet.

    Belief is a loaded word because it’s almost exclusively used in connection with religion, but it’s a mistake to say non-religious “don’t believe in anything”. Certainly we believe in the effectiveness of the scientific method with its emphasis on empirical evidence and experience as the means by which we can know the world around us and certainly we believe in the power of our reasoning to take such knowledge and make proper decisions.

    As for “the existence of thoughts”, they’re demonstrable. Participating in this discussion is evidence of that, or let’s hook you up to an MRI and observe your brain activity as you think through some subjects. Stranger things like intuition are also demonstrable, or I should say the things we label as intuition are, and therefore we can’t ignore them. What is doubtful is the magical essence we think is inherent in intuition, whereas it’s far more likely that what we label as intuition is an unconscious function of the brain working to correlate observed evidence and past experience to form a decision. We could delve psychologically into you Wencke to try to understand why you prefer sex with a committed partner over a one night stand (or study those who feel the opposite way) as well, just as we can explore whether there’s anything to moon effects.

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