Don’t Hand Weapons to Your Enemies

It didn’t take very long into the comment thread of my post critiquing nasty atheists for someone to lob the ‘accommodationist’ charge at me.  So let’s get a few things straight: I don’t think religion and atheism are compatible (with the exeptions of some extremely boring religions)..  And, on either side, the stakes of being wrong are high enough that there’s little use in papering over the differences or agreeing to disagree.  If you want to sort out the truth, I think that goal is best served by respectful rhetoric.

That doesn’t mean bending over backwards or avoiding stating how strongly you disagree, but it does require you couch your very potent arguments in milder language.  One ought to avoid insulting and needlessly inflammatory phrases or stunts.  If you want to learn from and convince your interlocutor, you need to actually address them with respect.

But suppose you’re not interested in any of that.  You know you’re right, so your conversation isn’t meant to be an open discussion; it’s a no-holds barred battle for dominance.  The only goal is to win.  Atheists do end up in these debates as well as the more pleasant/productive conversations like the ones I seek out on my blog.  My contention is, even when you’re settling down for a knockdown, drag-out fight, it’s still better to be respectful.

I’ve done a fair amount of debating at school, and one of my guidelines when writing a speech is “Don’t hand weapons to the enemy.”  Most of my opponent’s strength will come from capitalizing on my mistakes, so I can’t afford to make any.  If you think, as John Loftus does, that believers will look for any excuse to avoid giving up their false beliefs, why would you give them an easy out?  Why would you let your opponent think that your behavior didn’t merit a response or that your feelings stemmed from spleen instead of logic?  Nastiness and contempt are self-defeating in debate.

There’s almost always an audience beyond your sparring partner, especially on the internet.  When Andy went toe-to-toe with JoAnna in the comment thread, his choice of language shaped the impression everyone got of him and his ideas.  Labeling JoAnna’s choice to raise her children Catholic as child abuse in your first comment, as Andy did, is a terrible way to begin a conversation.

Plenty of the Catholics who were visiting these posts from Jen’s blog at Conversion Diary had clearly been turned off from discussions with atheists after exposure to people like PZ Meyers of Pharyngula.  His aggressive behavior gave them license to avoid debates with nonbelievers.  Poor conduct by some atheists means all the rest of us get treated with suspicion when we try to engage in discussions or debates.

If you want, you can complain about how unfair it is that I would expect atheists to unilaterally behave better no matter how rude or foolish the other side.  But atheists should relish the power we have in our choice of language.  In a debate, my opponent might come up with any number of facts or tricks to wrong-foot me; I can’t perfectly control or predict their maneuvers.  The only thing I can use to hem them in is my own speech and conduct.  I can’t do anything that will discredit my arguments in the eyes of my opponent or the broader audience.  If my goal is to win, I shouldn’t do my enemy any favors.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Iota

    If Andy the Anonymous truly (really, truly, really) believes raising children as Catholic is child abuse then I suspect he won't *want* to say it any other way and I actually understand that. After all, if I – for example – believe that "liquidating" someone is simply murder, I further believe that Mr. Smith who advocates "liquidations of politically unstable individuals" will not concede my point (because he is a "true believer of Liquidationsim" and, therefore, a hopeless case) I may still think it's imperative to call him out on what he is doing (to shock his undecided audience, to spotlight my vehement disagreement, etc.)That, of course, means that Mr. Smith, in my opinion, either a (possibly dishonest) monster a half-wit, or so devoid of normal sensibility that he needs to be badly shaken up. It further means that I think I can't be wrong…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    I think that's a fair point, Iota. But most of the time, when you think your opposite number is monstrous (whether through malice or unshakable ignorance), you're usually not pitching your argument at them. You're using them to put on a show for whomever your audience is, and if you use a nasty tone, your unreasonable opponent can score points and win sympathy by calling you out on it instead of being forced to respond to your case.

  • Iota

    "your unreasonable opponent can score points and win sympathy by calling you out on it"I think the extent to which this defence will be successful depends on whether the listeners believe that's a genuine and reasonable complaint. If they think it's not, he actually looses extra points (pleading for politeness in debate when you routinely hold executions of innocent people looks kind of silly). I'd say usually when people resort to this kind of language because they genuinely think they need to (as opposed to just liking it or letting their aggression take over), they think the audience will/should side with them because they are on the side of objective good and their adversary is on the side of objective evil.Whether I agree with their assessment of "objective good" in a given case (e.g. atheist claiming I'm perpetuating child abuse based on delusions) is a different problem…

  • Anonymous

    I believe raising children Catholic is abusive, and I base it off my own upbringing inside the Catholic church. I did involve quite a bit of malice in my arguments, but it is something that is very troublesome to me. I do feel sorry for Joanna's children, like I feel sorry for all children raised in the church. I believe it is very wrong on many levels.If this is considered "nasty", imagine how I feel about Joanna's parenting. Nonetheless, Leah, if you felt as I did, how would you convey it? Or should I just keep my mouth shut?-Andy

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04644525459910973391 Kevin

    I was raised Catholic, and I have nothing but pleasant memories of my early childhood in the Church. And when I was a little older, and my parents quite appropriately gave me more leeway in such matters, I found myself drawn quite on my own to greater practice and study of the faith.But I may just be a glutton for punishment.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00769117142960558423 Northlander

    Hi, Andy. You wrote, I believe raising children Catholic is abusive, and I base it off my own upbringing inside the Catholic church. I suspected from your previous comments that something like this was the case.No, I don't think you need to keep your mouth shut. What I would recommend instead is that, when you raise the "child abuse" charge, you need to substantiate it by making reference, to the extent you can without violating privacy or confidentiality, to abuse that you or people close to you might have suffered, and the effect that it had on you. Tell us your "deconversion story."

  • http://exultet.blogspot.com Roz

    Leah, let me lead off by telling you how delighted I am to have found your blog. I asked my atheist daughter for some suggestions of bloggers who deal with these issues via dialogue and exchange of ideas, and all she could do was warn me off PZ Myers. Well that, at least, was a good call.My impression (I'm just speaking for myself, now) of many or most atheists on the web is that they're expounding for the sake of themselves and like minded folks. That's fine, but what they write ranges from unpersuasive and irrelevant (to me) on one end of the scale to distorted, self-indulgent, and delusional at the other. If atheists are more concerned with making jokes at the expense of what they believe fundamentalism to believe, okay. But if they hope it advances the cause of making Atheism more credible and noteworthy as a life principle, they should expect disappointment.Do atheists want me to adopt their point of view? Insulting me isn't a good start. Telling me that reason had no part in my decision but that I'm a victim of emotion and wishful thinking will often generate a thought that it's a case of the pot calling the kettle black. A primary way of handing weapons to your enemies, though, is to be mistaken in what you think I believe or how I weigh evidence. Leah, from other things I've read here, you know a lot about Catholic beliefs, so if you were to take issue with one of them, it would start a conversation that I'd be honored to be part of. If, on the other hand, someone were to state broadly that the Catholic faith rules through guilt, that it's obsessed with preventing sexual pleasure, that it thinks all non-Catholics are going to hell, or that the sex abuse scandal proves that Catholic doctrines are nonsense, I'm going to snort, laugh, and change the channel, figuratively speaking.But don't worry, they'd have company. A lot of fundamentalist Christians think I'm going to hell because I worship Mary and drink. (The right answers there, by the way are "False" and "True" respectively.) But in that case, I fully expect to run into them in heaven eventually where we'll have a good laugh about it.

  • Anonymous

    "But in that case, I fully expect to run into them in heaven eventually where we'll have a good laugh about it."This is the line that basically makes me believe all conversation theists and atheists is essentially meaningless. If someone truly believes in a sort of soteriology that is unreproduceable, unproveable and non-universal, there's really not much you can do. Get them while they are young!

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

    Without delving into the details of that thread (which, I confess, I've only skimmed), I think there is a time and a place for uncompromising language, and it's this: Many religious people, even thoughtful and well-meaning ones, begin the debate with the presupposition that their beliefs are the only authoritative source of moral truth or guidance. And why wouldn't they, since they've heard their whole lives from preachers and theologians whom they trust that atheists have no morality, no purpose in life, etc., etc.Starting the debate with a forceful challenge is, I think, a good way to directly confront these presuppositions and make people consider the implications of a view they may never have seriously thought about or questioned from that angle. I probably wouldn't direct it at a specific individual, but at the belief in general: "The idea that God will torture any human being eternally for failing to obey his will is a wicked and vicious belief, and putting children in a state of terror by indoctrinating them to believe this is the moral equivalent of child abuse."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    "But if they hope it advances the cause of making Atheism more credible and noteworthy as a life principle, they should expect disappointment."1. Atheism shouldn't be capitalised (except at the start of a sentence).2. Atheism is NOT a life principle. There is nothing to be taken from the fact that someone is an atheist – there are conservative atheists, liberal atheists, libertarian atheists (hello!), horoscope believing atheists etc. etc.Atheists simply look at your religion the way followers of most other religions look at it, we just don't have a revealed truth to prove that your religion is wrong.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05868095335395368227 vjack

    Ah, now I get what you were talking about in the previous post. All cleared up.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18065529769651450157 Brian

    "I probably wouldn't direct it at a specific individual, but at the belief in general: 'The idea that God will torture any human being eternally for failing to obey his will is a wicked and vicious belief, and putting children in a state of terror by indoctrinating them to believe this is the moral equivalent of child abuse.'"I would agree. And so would the Pope. (Hint: That is the not the "idea" on Hell.)This got me thinking, though. Take a look at this review of The God Delusion:http://www.bede.org.uk/goddelusion.htmThe reviewer makes a fascinating point about this. Hope you read it.

  • Anonymous

    Brian, fair point, however I did explain why I think it's abusive and quoted catechisms to back it up. Ebonmuse phrased it more diplomatically, lesson learned. In that thread it was argued that that my claims are not in line with Catholicism due to invincible ignorance, which is weak, because 1) It's not guaranteed that all ignorance is "invincible". Eternal torture is still quite likely. 2) Invincible ignorance is very unlikely to apply to children raised in the church, they've been taught the rules, if they later find themselves disagreeing, they have the fear instilled in them.Brian, not as simple as you make it sound (I assume you're referring to the "Gahenna" vision of hell, nonetheless the catechisms are clear that if you go to hell (and most humans do, again completely ripping apart Joanna's claims in the previous thread), you will suffer the torture of hellfire in addition to the separation from "God's love"Lastly I did not find any fascinating point in that article, fear of death is a natural fear, and most certainly arisen from the evolutionary will to survive. Adding the threat of eternal torture in addition to that is overwhelmingly abusive-Andy

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10845051786114528609 Julie Robison

    Great post Leah, well-said.

  • http://dissonanceminimalist.tiddlyspot.com Blamer ..

    Very sensible.I see a need for the famously anti-religious, the diligent accommodationists, and the respectful non-accommodationists such as yourself.Maybe the better word is courteous (Showing regard or thought for others). A lack of respect for particular ideas seems defensible. Less so a lack of respect for particular (groups of) people.Worth repeating March Hare:>>Atheists simply look at your religion the way followers of most other religions look at it, we just don't have a revealed truth to prove that your religion is wrong.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18065529769651450157 Brian

    The point is that there is no "torture." There is only the pain of the loss of God (i.e., hellfire) which the damn forever and ever will for themselves in an eternal act of rebellion (and this follows logically from the nature of an immortal soul, which is always in "act" and cannot change lest there be some un-actualized "potency"). A soul cannot feel physical pain. And if one finds themselves in Hell, it is because they knowingly and foolishly chose not-God. Hell, then, is a rational fear. And non-existence is worse than existence, even if that existence is without God

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    It always strikes me as interesting how so many believers know so much about what happens in the afterlife.Some don't like the idea of an eternity of actual torture so separation from God is sufficient, some get real excited by the prospect of fire and brimstone and demons with hot pokers, all based off the same 'evidence'.Similarly the disparity of what they believe about heaven is equally confusing with some having us happy worshiping slaves of God, others having us serene beings, and yet others having us join with God in some weird symbiosis.I have a question: if someone with pedophile tendencies recognizes this and, with the help of prayer and the Church, managers to repress those feelings and never act upon them and devotes his life to good works within the Church, does that person go to heaven? What happens to him in heaven? Does God supply fake children? Does God take away that compulsion? The last one seems likely, but then why not do that while he was alive, surely it was torture for him to struggle with that particular demon all his life? Maybe at some point, after he had proved himself God could have removed it while he was praying for strength. Just one of the mysteries I'll never understand I guess.

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

    The point is that there is no "torture…"It's always interested me how Catholics claim to know that the biblical verses about throwing the damned into furnaces of fire, torment without end, etc., etc. are all just metaphorical, while Jesus' saying "This is my body, this is my blood," is not metaphorical but is meant to signify some kind of literal transmutation. Of course, the problematic part is that Protestant evangelicals also know that exactly the opposite interpretations are true for both sets of verses!In both cases, I'd be more convinced if either side had demonstrated anything like a consistent heuristic for deciding which passages are meant to be read literally and which ones aren't.

  • Iota

    In both cases, I'd be more convinced if either side had demonstrated anything like a consistent heuristic for deciding which passages are meant to be read literally and which ones aren't. I suppose it may make sense to read a few good books on Scripture interpretation (I don't know if you've done that).There is a practical limit to what one individual person can explain in depth if they are not a professional apologist (since other obligations, like raising children or working, interfere and their age is a factor in their overall learning). Furthermore it is usually easier to ask questions than to answer them. Bonus points to confusion when you are talking to many different people who may use slightly different angles and words to explain things (depending on their own knowledge are preference for using jargon).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10523307255698594696 Dale

    lota, if I may, I don't think Ebonmuse was saying that *he* is lacking a consistent method for reading Bible verses. Rather, he is saying that Christianity as a whole lacks a consistent method. Christians have had ~2,000 years to sort out the creed's tenets and yet the disputes that created schisms and dead bodies 1500, 1000, and 500 years ago are no closer to resolution. The game is up. There is no method, because there's no systematic, unified intelligence behind it. It's just an anthology of writings made by people.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07779414156250200057 Heather Spoonheim

    Very well stated and I find it all very applicable to ongoing debates regarding the American Atheists billboard strategy. When your goal is to entreat rational thought there simply isn't any room for hateful rhetoric that incites only greater hatred in return.

  • Iota

    Dale – haven't noticed your post earlier.Just a quick note – the existence of a method does not automatically mean that all the people who should apply it, do so. If that were the case, there'd be no research with horrid methodology. In roughly the same way, heresy is no proof of lack of method in theology. Similarly, the existence of method does not imply all people who ought to know it (for their own good) do so. If that were the case, everyone would understand the rough basics of everyday science (also, regardless of whether they have had a proper education). In roughly the same way, persisting religious divisions don't prove that there is no single truth.Finally, the existence of method does not mean that purely human factors don't influence what and how gets done. There, after all, are scientists with personal agendas (whether they are *good* scientists is a different problem). Do I need to spell out the analogy? :-)In sum, I'd suggest that – in any endeavour – to assume that dissent means there is no proper method of doing things is jumping to conclusions not warranted by the stated premises. You are free to disagree, of course. :-) Or you may have not stated some extra premises.

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