Brandon's rebuttal to Melissa, and debate coaching

Sometimes I respond to emails from believers.  I can’t do this all the time since my schedule is exceedingly cramped, but I enjoy it when I can.  Most recently I posted a response to Michael.  After that response, Melissa came rushing (well, emailing) to his defense.  I shared her email with a very talented unapologist named Brandon C., who wrote out a response working on his debate style that he sent me to evaluate.

This got me thinking.  In a lot of my talks I highlight the value of having this discussion in public, not in secluded nooks where there is no public accountability for making a shitty argument and then not changing your mind.  This means we have to be prepared to discuss these things well.  So what I’ve decided, along with Brandon, is to offer debate coaching through this blog.  If you’d be interested, leave your contact info in the comments.  We plan to pick up three people for starters.

Anyway, here is Melissa’s email and Brandon’s response.  Because Melissa did write asking for my answers, I will pen her a response hopefully tonight and post it.

Pick at Melissa’s arguments if you like, but also pick at Brandon’s.  The whole point of this debate exercise is to improve as argument shredders, which means we welcome the criticism.


Melissa writes:

Hey JT,

My freind posted me an interesting link to your site and I found myself struck with so many questions I wanted to ask you….
I enjoyed your logic and I don’t care if you post this because I think your answers would be very intereting…

1) I am confused as to how you’re “fighting religion tooth and claw” without becoming one.  It may be that your the format of your website is satirical but it seems very similar to that of “religious” websites, and the articles and groups talked about on your website seem to be about bringing “like minded” individuals together and spreading “the word”.
How is this different from what religions try to do?

2) Is it that you are fighting against ALL religions or just Christianity, the website did not seem to address many others?

3) Did I miss a news bulliten somewhere…. has science been able to prove that God does not exist?  Is the non-existence of God represented in science textbooks?
I find it interesting that much of your argument is based on the fact that God’s existance has not been proven but has it been disproven?  I loved biology in school and learning about Darwin’s research and about evolution, but I never felt that these things disproved the existance of God.  How is it that He could not/did not create animals to do this, evolve?  And correct me if I am out to lunch but isn’t the “big bang” theory, well just that a theory?  A belief about the origin of things?  I’m currently unsure how your website and literature is not another “I cannot prove my position, but you should believe it”.

I find nature and all animals so amazing, breathtaking, interesting, and exciting.  There is something new being discovered all the time.  I think that humans have only explored about 10% of the ocean, though an estimated 50-80% of all life is under the ocean. I was just struck by your arguments about the non-existance of God and wondered if there are sea creatures you don’t belive exist until they prove themselves somehow or “allow” themselves to be found by us.  If there is a God, what makes us so important that he needs to show or prove himself to us by making “spiritual realities as perceptible to our physical and rational senses as the rest of the world?” The tube-nosed fruit bat did not allow itself to be “officially” perceptived to our physical and rational senses until 2009 so does that mean it did not exist prior to this?  Why would marine scientists dedicate their lives to their persuit unless it was exciting, and led them to find amazing and breathtaking things?  Could all those crazy religious people not be dedicating their lives to a persuit that they find exciting, which leads them to find amazing and breathtaking things?  What makes your journey and belief system so much more “sound” or appropriate, that I should join/agree/follow?

4) This is kind of a “personal” question but it seems you like to pick apart the “personal” experiences of others, so I was wondering if it was just because you did not feel that God proved himself to you or made his existance obvious and above reproach that you are an athiest or if there is some other logic and “experiences” that led to you to believe what you do?

And finally, like you asked Michael, I am asking you… What would it take God to convince you that you are wrong? How could he “prove” himself for you? Where is the bar for Him?

And Brandon’s analysis:

“1) I am confused as to how you’re “fighting religion tooth and claw” without becoming one.  It may be that your the format of your website is satirical but it seems very similar to that of “religious” websites, and the articles and groups talked about on your website seem to be about bringing “like minded” individuals together and spreading “the word”.
How is this different from what religions try to do?”

You really have no idea how often I hear the “Atheism is a religion too!” argument, and I use the word “argument” here quite loosely. The easiest way to deal with this argument is to simply say “No, it isn’t,” and go about my day, but that doesn’t really get us anywhere, so I’ll explain…again. A religion is a formal belief system that seeks to explain the world and has an element of supernatural belief to it. This supernatural belief could be a god, gods, an afterlife, or some vague “great spirit.” Atheism is itself not a formalized belief system; the term “atheist” just means one with no belief in god or the supernatural. Now, there are atheistic belief systems, like Metaphysical Naturalism, but they also are not religions because they do not include any supernatural beliefs. If you’re going to say that any formal belief system is a religion, then you might as well also declare that the Republican and Democratic parties are both religions as well. Obviously this is silly because, when you really think about it (which I suggest you do from now on), there is a difference between a belief system and a religion.

“2) Is it that you are fighting against ALL religions or just Christianity, the website did not seem to address many others?”

We Atheists here in the Midwest hear that one a lot, too.  The answer is so painfully simple that my hands literally hurt just typing it; we seem to pick on Christianity the most because we live in the United States of America where Christianity is the statistically dominant religion and therefore the one we encounter more often. I assure you, we have nothing against Christianity specifically; we think all religions are silly, nonsensical superstition. It’s just that we encounter more Christians trying to ban books in our schools her in the U.S. than, say, Zoroastrians or Hindus.

“3) Did I miss a news bulliten somewhere…. has science been able to prove that God does not exist?  Is the non-existence of God represented in science textbooks?
I find it interesting that much of your argument is based on the fact that God’s existance has not been proven but has it been disproven?  I loved biology in school and learning about Darwin’s research and about evolution, but I never felt that these things disproved the existance of God.  How is it that He could not/did not create animals to do this, evolve?  And correct me if I am out to lunch but isn’t the “big bang” theory, well just that a theory?  A belief about the origin of things?  I’m currently unsure how your website and literature is not another “I cannot prove my position, but you should believe it”.

Here  you make your biggest error of all. The “well science didn’t prove God doesn’t exist” argument (and I again use that term perhaps too generously) is so common, and so bad, that I’m going to risk making this post too long just to address it. I ask that you please read anyway, and please try to understand what we skeptics have actually been getting at all along.

Now, the claim you are making (if put in logical argumentation format) would go something like this:
1.) Some people claim God exists
2.) There is no evidence to totally disprove this claim.
3.) Therefore, God must exist.

The error you are making quickly becomes obvious if I just change some aspects of the premises. Follow along…
1.) I am claiming that I, a Midwestern college student, own a submarine.
2.) You have no evidence that totally disproves that claim.
3.) Therefore, I must own a submarine.

Clearly, you can see that just because you don’t have hard evidence that proves I do not own a submarine, that does not immediately entail that I actually have to own a submarine. I could be wrong, I could be crazy, or I could be lying. You have no way of knowing, but that doesn’t mean I have a submarine. The same is true of God; we might not have a telescope that can “see” that there is no God, but the fact that we cannot conclusively disprove him does not prove him to be real, either.
Now, that is all fine and well but it still misses the point entirely of what we Atheists are getting at when we say we don’t believe in God. Let’s go back to my submarine example….

1.) I, a Midwestern college student, claim that I own a submarine.
2.) You have no evidence that totally disproves that claim.
3.) Therefore, I must own a submarine.

Let us say that I make this argument to you and you know nothing about me except that I’m a college student from the Midwest. Without any evidence except that, you have to rely on your reasoning ability to figure out if you should believe me or not. You reason “Well, he’s just a college student and they usually don’t have lots of money. And he lives in the Midwest and not many in the Midwest have cause to own a submarine or a place to store one. So his claim probably isn’t true, and thus I don’t believe him.” And you would be perfectly rational in your conclusion! In fact, it would be more irrational for you to just believe me at face value over such a claim than for you to be skeptical about it since it was such a outlandish claim to start with.

It’s that last bit that I want you to focus on. We Atheists acknowledge there’s no way to ultimately prove or disprove the existence of God. Then again, that was never even our goal or our message. We have simply looked at the world honestly to see if we could find a reason to believe in God or the supernatural; we looked for evidence that we could reasonably expect to be there if such things as gods or spirits existed. However, when we look for evidence of their existence, we find none that is overwhelming or compelling; none that can’t easily be explained through a natural process revealed by the process known as science. Therefore, though we cannot know with 100% certainty, it is still more rational to believe gods and spirits do not exist than to believe that they do just like even though you cannot know with 100% certainty that I do not own a submarine, it is still more rational for you to believe that I do not own one based on what you do know.

There is a difference between believing and knowing. As an Atheist, I believe that God is not real, and I believe this because much of what we do know about biology, history, sociology, psychology, physiology, philosophy, logic, and the history of religion all point to him not being real. In fact, those things point to there being no supernatural beings or “spirit realms” whatsoever. We should not believe in anything for which there is no credible evidence, and God is no exception to that rule.

“I find nature and all animals so amazing, breathtaking, interesting, and exciting.  There is something new being discovered all the time.  I think that humans have only explored about 10% of the ocean, though an estimated 50-80% of all life is under the ocean. A.) I was just struck by your arguments about the non-existance of God and wondered if there are sea creatures you don’t belive exist until they prove themselves somehow or “allow” themselves to be found by us. B.)  If there is a God, what makes us so important that he needs to show or prove himself to us by making “spiritual realities as perceptible to our physical and rational senses as the rest of the world?”  C.) The tube-nosed fruit bat did not allow itself to be “officially” perceptived to our physical and rational senses until 2009 so does that mean it did not exist prior to this?  Why would marine scientists dedicate their lives to their persuit unless it was exciting, and led them to find amazing and breathtaking things?  D.) Could all those crazy religious people not be dedicating their lives to a persuit that they find exciting, which leads them to find amazing and breathtaking things?  E.) What makes your journey and belief system so much more “sound” or appropriate, that I should join/agree/follow?”

This is a silly argument and I’m hoping that you felt embarrassed about it shortly after sending the email. I broke the paragraph down to lettered arguments so I could respond as succinctly as possible to each one.

A.) I don’t believe in any sea creatures that have not yet been documented to exists. I don’t believe in any creatures at all that have not been documented in some way! Why should I? What do you possibly want me to do; make up sea creatures and believe in them through the power of whimsy and the “what if” factor? That’s ridiculous. Stop it.

B.) If there is a God and you’re assuming he wouldn’t want us to know about him, why send this email attempting to defend his possible existence? The thought that God exists but basically just doesn’t care is Deism, and that is a separate issue from Christianity and other religions. (But, it should be mentioned, just as silly.)

C.) Obviously the tube nosed fruit bat existed. But would you have been rationally justified in believing in it before someone found it, or conclusive evidence that it existed? No, you wouldn’t. In fact, to just invent an animal or entity and believe in it on the grounds that science might someday find it is stupid. There aren’t any other words for it, I’m afraid.

D.) What do religious people discover? What? That it is possible to feel warm and fuzzy inside if you delude yourself into thinking that a cosmic super being loves you and thinks obsessively about you? What a shocker. Please, elucidate me as to just one breathtaking thing that religious thinking has lead us to that human reasoning couldn’t have led us to just as well. I won’t wait up.

E.) What makes the system of Atheism more sound, and why you should be one too, is that it is based on what is rational. It is rational to disbelieve in something until it has a preponderance of evidence in its favor. It is irrational to believe in something just because and hope that science eventually proves you right, or to ignore things like evidence all together and believe on nothing but “faith.” Those sorts of beliefs make a mockery of the human brain and its potential, and are nothing more than insults to our species, to be honest with you.

Again, as I said above, it is more rational to not believe in something until it is proven true than it is to believe in something that someday might be proven true. If I told you there might be giant yellow dugongs living at the ocean floor, you would be a fool to say “Huh…well, there might be. So I’ll believe in them!”

4) This is kind of a “personal” question but it seems you like to pick apart the “personal” experiences of others, so I was wondering if it was just because you did not feel that God proved himself to you or made his existance obvious and above reproach that you are an athiest or if there is some other logic and “experiences” that led to you to believe what you do?

In life, as human beings, all that we do, think, believe, and know is based on experience. Even you just reading a book counts as an experience: it is the experience of you reading that book! No single experience ever written or claimed that supposedly “proved God” has ever turned out to be anything other than a hoax, delusion, or ignorance-induced misunderstanding of nature.

That being said, yes I did look in vain for an experience that would conclusively show me God was real and that he was all that he’d been cracked up to be. However, I should not have to lull myself into credulity just to achieve inner peace, so I also never stopped asking questions and seeking answers, no matter how hard they were. In the end, the answers that all basically said “God’s real, and he’s behind everything,” just did not stack up against reality or reasonable expectations, so I stopped believing in him. To be honest, you really should stop as well. If these are your best claims as reasons to keep thinking God is real, then you are clearly not thinking critically enough.

“And finally, like you asked Michael, I am asking you… What would it take God to convince you that you are wrong? How could he “prove” himself for you? Where is the bar for Him?

All I’m asking from God is sufficient evidence that he’s real. Nothing more, but nothing less.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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