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.

  • Nick Johnson

    Melissa’s arguments started out bad and just seemed to get worse. I think Brandon did a good job of saying what needed to be said while still being as concise as possible.

  • Jason Foreman

    Tell Brandon to tone down the snark and he might land some of his points. As it stands he’s just likely to reinforce a lot of Melissa’s beliefs because he comes off as rude and condescending. In particular he should be careful to remove the use of argument by repetition, frequently expressing surprise or indignation at having to answer a question or refute an argument yet again. Even if you have all the facts on your side, you need to present them well in order to make an effective rebuttal.

  • Brad

    I was surprised, in response to #3, that Brandon didn’t point out using his wonderful submarine example, that it would not actually be her job to prove he doesn’t have a submarine, but that it would be HIS job to prove he does. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof- or at least -some- proof. Thus, it’s not the job of the atheist to disprove God, but the job of the beliver to back up their belief with more than just “I say so”.
    I also agree with Jason, the snarkiness of the response played against it. I’ve sen it before, someone puts out all sorts of very good, well-thought out answers, but they drop in an insult or two as well- and of course, the response is to none of the facts, but to the insult. Why even give that opening? Just put the reasons and facts down. The questions weren’t presented in anywhere near the kind of “attitude” that Brandon’s reply evidenced, and I was a bit emarrrassed to read those parts of the response.
    Keep it cool and factual in debates, folks. That is where the arguement wil be won.

  • http://www.shadesthatmatter.blogspot.com asmallcontempt

    Yeah, I’d echo what Jason said. Since I was a Christian not too long ago, I can put on my Christian hat and understand some of where Melissa is coming from (even if it is irrational and maybe even silly). My world view was so divorced from reality that I had trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that people even USED reason when faith was more than enough for me; I thought atheists were people who refused to believe in a god, not that they just…well…didn’t. How could I have possibly asked the right questions when I thought atheists were people who were “mad at god?”

    There are definitely theists out there who are arrogant and annoying, and there are times and venues for snark and sarcasm, but when someone asks a serious question with the intent of LISTENING to your answer sincerely, we need to respect that.

    I went to school to be a high school teacher, and one very quick lesson that you learn is that you NEVER respond to a student’s question with a derisive tone. Ever. Sarcasm has to be implemented carefully and in small doses, or you risk destroying relationships with students. If you lambaste a student for asking a dumb question, they will, unsurprisingly, stop asking questions.

    That’s EXACTLY the opposite goal that these discussions have. A few emails back and forth will tell you pretty clearly whether or not the person is seriously interested in hearing your position or if they just want to convert you – if you don’t know, for cripes sake give them the benefit of the doubt until you do.

    Be patient. Go through things step-by-step (if you’re not willing, give them links to read on their own and summarize). Make your position clear; Brandon’s metaphors are excellent. Be compassionate. That’s it!

  • Chris

    I thought your rebuttals showed extreme patience and tact, JT. I don’t feel as “generous” with her line of questioning. FYI Melissa- You’ve missed allot of “news bulletins”, apparently. Your use of “quotation marks” to emphasise a point was both egregious, and snarky. It’s bad enough that you have to be hand-held through basic logic, without having to witness you literally, purposefully “highlighting” your “ignorance”, while feeling you have just hit a “home-run”. I agree that atheists should try to give leavened, respectful responses to legitimate questions, but I can’t help but feel you were being disingenuous. You used several of the top 20 logical fallacies, Ad ignorantiam (argument from ignorance) being the most prominent. I “humbly” suggest you read these definitions -http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx

  • Benjamin

    JT,

    I would very much be interested in debate coaching.

  • JT Eberhard

    Benjamin,

    What’s your contact info?

    JT

  • Philosophy Student

    I do not feel like Brandon has accurately answered Melissa’s questions.

    Here are a few examples:

    Melissa asked, “How is this different from what religions try to do?”
    Notice the key phrase at the end – “try to do”. She wants to know what is the difference in procedure (or evangelism)? She is NOT suggesting that Atheism IS a religion, but that it seems to behave much like one.
    Instead of answering this question, Brandon answered the question, “Isn’t Atheism just another religion?” This is lazy debating. He probably read her question too quickly and responded with a ready-made answer to a similar question.

    Another example:
    I am paraphrasing, but Melissa seems to ask: If Atheism has not been proven, why should I believe in it instead of my religion, which has also not been proven?
    Brandon’s answer to this question is very indirect. Instead of just answering this question he goes into a lengthy discourse about why it is irrational to believe a claim simply because someone says its true. This is not totally irrelevant, but it is an unnecessary sidetrack. Again, his response seems regurgitated, almost as if he had recently answered a similar question and simply copy/pasted that answer into this response. This is also lazy debating. Nuance is important. If the nuance of a question is a little different than the question you actually respond to, then you have not accurately answered the question.

    Sure, if your goal is merely to win a public debate sometimes answering a different question than the one asked yields good results (winning the debate). However, many times it comes across as presenting a Straw Man argument.
    If your goal is intellectual discourse with the hope of changing someone’s mind, then this tactic is totally out of place.

  • Duane Kilian

    I do think it would be better to avoid the snark at the beginning of responses. If you already have a specific link to your own work that answers part or all of the question, by all means refer to it and move on. On something like “The Atheist Experience” they do a pretty good job of explaining rather than referring because they are on live television and it wouldn’t be fair, generally, to refer to their Q&A rather than responding directly. Responding to point four, Brandon does begin nicely.

  • Duane Kilian

    Re: Philosophy Student. You “paraphrase” Melissa’s question and then object that Brandon didn’t answer it. That doesn’t seem fair. If Melissa doesn’t feel her question was answered she can clarify it. To refer again to The Atheist Experience (which I obviously recommend) when a caller wishes to demonstrate the existance of God, almost always the host immediately asks for a definition of God. It often seems redundant but if you don’t ask the question the caller will almost certainly eventually say ‘but that’s not what I mean by God.’

  • Brandon

    Hey all,
    I’ve been going through reading up on what people thought of the response, and I’m happy to see feedback. I’ll take the criticisms to heart and consider them next time I’m rebutting someone in a discussion. I’ve appreciated both those comments and the “well done” remarks equally. With regards to my level of sarcasm, feel I should point out that I used to be a deeply conservative Christian and one of the things that ultimately helped me snap out of it was an Atheist friend’s usage of blunt sarcasm, which is partly why I now have a tendency to use it as well(hoping it might help someone see the flaws in their thinking the same way it once helped me). However, I also realize how the “snark” factor in my response posted above can seem out of place, and I’ll keep that in mind next time.
    Again, great to hear feedback from you all.

  • Duane Kilian

    Interesting that you mention a large controversy in the blogging comunity right now. When you recall your friend, MAYBE he used sarcasm as a follow up during the discussion rather than start out with it. At some point in a discussion, sarcasm might be appropriate after the other party has completed the same circular argument a couple of times.

  • Jonathan Burnett

    Hey JT.

    I doubt you’d recognize my name; I introduced myself to you at the end of the SSA conference, when you were behind the registration table. I mentioned that I read your blog all the time and greatly appreciated it, but had never commented: so hi!

    As to eviscerating horrible arguments and receiving feedback, I would be quite interested. I’ve provided my email address as required to post this comment; I expect you have access to that. Please advise if otherwise, and I’ll mail you separately.. provided you want me, of course =P

    Addressing the post, in the interest of brevity/avoiding repetition, I will only be making points not already made. This will not be comprehensive.

    1) Melissa would appear to be advancing the line that everything is a religion, except that she seems to recognize a sort of neutral category, rendering this a less than total conflation. Still, it seems a variant only slightly removed; and one might do well to impress upon her the futility of such: if every pro-anything point of view is a religion, the term loses all meaning.

    I’d also strongly recommend the practice of swapping words around while preserving relationships; if there’s a problem with one’s logic, it should quickly become apparent. For example, (paraphrased) “how does one fight racism without becoming a racist?”–and done.

    3) Atheism is contingent only on innatism not being the case. Even if evidence substantiating the existence of god(s) was available, the term would remain an accurate descriptive for those unaware. It is not at all contingent upon our current understanding of the universe.

    There are an infinite many things that cannot be disproved. If one were to follow Melissa’s stated methodology consistently, one would have to believe all of them. Aside the impossibility introduced by the infinite, this approach would have one holding to contradictory beliefs without hope of improvement. Further, her stated methodology clearly differs from the one she actually employs; she would do well to think on this.

    As for Brandon, I have, at present, only minor complaints.

    I would emphasize distinguishing between atheism (disbelief) and atheist (personal noun); one’s personal view may be entirely compatible with atheism, while containing things that do not belong in the categorical definition. For example, in 1) we have “[atheism] just means one with no belief in god[...],” and in 3) we have “as an Atheist[sic], I believe that God is not real[...]” I find this sort of thing sufficiently clear, but I feel it can invite misreadings and misunderstandings, intentional and not.

    Related, please don’t capitalize atheism. It’s not a system; it neither pre- nor pro- scribes anything. As such, for example, rationality is not requisite, however desirable/ubiquitous, et al.

  • Benjamin

    Email: BenjCano@gmail.com
    We’re also friends on Facebook, so you can get my phone number is you want to be nice and old fashioned that way.

  • http://sucktackular.com Sucktackular

    The very first sentence has spelling and grammar errors. I wouldn’t have responded. Cheers to JT and Michael for putting up with such illiteracy. I wouldn’t have been able to do the same.


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