Low-hanging fruit

Whenever I post a rebuttal, friends and fans alike often wonder aloud if I think the arguments to which I’m responding are low-hanging fruit.

The answer is simple: yes.  Yes they are.  The arguments made by the theists I respond to are beneath me.  They’re beneath the people reading the blog (who are generally quick to exclaim that those arguments are not worth their time).  It’s not that I or any of the readers of my blog are just so damn good, it’s that the arguments I rebut here are all horrible and easy to dissect.

So why do I use a portion of my dwindling, precious time kicking over the intellectual equivalent of garden gnomes?  Because low-hanging though they are, they’re the only fruit on the tree.

If you don’t think that the champions of apologetics frequently use ghastly excuses like the cosmological argument, you are mistaken.  Think arguments from ignorance are reserved for only the bottom of the theological barrel?  Listen to the PhD-wielding advocates of the Discovery Institute sometime – it’s all they do.  Yes, the layman doesn’t use as much polysyllabic language and jargon, but the arguments are precisely the same.

In fact, do you know why your everyday church-goers all use the same set of bad arguments?  Because they dredge them from all the same people – the noble and grand apologists for religion, most of which are separated from the people in the pews only by their greater dexterity at moving the goalposts or playing ‘hide the point’.  Sure, most believers come up with Pascal’s Wager on their own, but the moral argument (gag), the fine-tuning argument (yak), the argument from purpose (hurl), and all the others are being fed to them from the pulpit and/or the books of their prominent theists.  In fact, I’ve done this long enough that, based on the language theists use, I can generally tell from which high profile apologist they took the argument.

In 2010 I went to church regularly for a year.  I made a point of not standing to sing or pray.  I just sat there and took notes.  After the service, like white blood cells to an infection, the church regulars came.  Each time I quickly identified myself as an atheist and asked why I should believe any of it.  The arguments I got each and every time were the same ones I get in emails and in comments.  These are the arguments normal people use, and so they are the ones that get shredded on this blog.  Try going to a church some Sunday morning and asking those in the pews, or even the pastor, why you should accept the claims they make.  See if you don’t get the same nonsense.  Hope you’re ready for the argument from complexity because you’re gonna get it almost every, single time (and almost always the Lee Strobel version).

And do you know why they continue to make the same bad arguments?  Because most of the atheists who are aware of how torpid those arguments are think that responding to them would be a waste of time or because ‘those arguments have been rebutted already’.  Awesome and true!  But it’s not enough.  Religious people don’t generally go out looking for rebuttals to their position (otherwise most of them would drop their arguments after five minutes on google).  More often than not (by far) they go to apologetics websites and lift out arguments they rarely understand, but that they think confirm their belief.  And then, like a mother bird returning to the wrong nest, they rush to regurgitate them to us.  This means that even though their arguments have already been demolished into their fundamental particles, the theist is generally unaware of it.  It is our job to make them, and anybody else watching, aware of it.

Ignoring theological arguments, no matter how rancid, removes the social penalties that could be bearing down for firing those lousy arguments off whenever they please.  As a result, few believers wind up thinking to themselves, “hrm, I got my fanny handed to me in a sling the last time I used this argument, maybe I shouldn’t make it in public again or maybe I should try a different approach.”  In a world where reason receives the primacy it’s due, believers would double-think themselves every time they consider opening their mouths to tell someone about Jesus.  Sadly, they don’t.  But god dammit they should.

As I have written before:

Part of why people stay religious is because it is easy to do.  I seek to make it less easy.  I seek to create a world where people cannot open their mouths to tell someone about Jesus without wondering if, without the obligatory respect to which religion has grown accustomed, the target of their evangelism will make a public fool of them.  I dream of a world where irrationality knows no sanctuary and no quarter outside the cathedral.

Responding to this nonsense in public not only sets a precedent that bad arguments will not be suffered kindly (regardless of how loudly they cry ‘meanie!’), but it also serves another purpose.  All reliable polling, without exception, confirms that atheists are the fastest growing ‘religious’ (pbbbbbbt!) demographic in the country by far – by far.  That means we’re having a huge influx of people who have not heard the rebuttals to the standard menu of pro-god arguments.  I know that personally almost all of my arguments and rebuttals, distilled to their purest form, are taken from other thinkers.  The same is likely true of all of us, including the people who are new to them.

It all boils down to our need to be visible.  For centuries we have hoped that people would just come around to the realization that the arguments of theists suck all by themselves.  But most often they don’t manage that, and a public, consistent record of religious people getting their intellectual derrières kicked so hard that diarrhea comes out their metaphorical faces is a fantastic way to make the case for god’s existence truly obsolete in our society.

So the next time you think it’s not worth your time to publicly dissect a religious assertion, remember that you are being an enabler for them.  They’re going to gain confidence and go dump that argument on other people.  Then the next time an apologist or their priest is feeding them that line, they won’t have the antidote percolating inside their head.  And the next target of the argument may not have the response ready to rock like you or I.  There is a tremendous utility, and a tremendous good to be had in responding to these arguments.

And if you don’t want to hurt their feelings, just remember that by not explaining why they’re wrong you’re setting them up with a strong impudence to go charging in with that argument to do battle with real meanies like me.  :P   Be the gentle atheist and get to them first.  ;)

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.

  • fastlane

    No no, now they’ve got this newfangled thang they call Sophistimicated Theology. ;)

    few believers wind up thinking to themselves, “hrm, I got my fanny handed to me in a sling the last time I used this argument, maybe I shouldn’t make it in public again or maybe I should try a different approach.”

    Shit, most walk away from those encounters thinking they’ve won. That’s the problem, the capacity for self delusion. It works to get them believing in the first place, and it makes most of them immune to even basic, straightforward rebuttals.

    Not that I think we should give up trying. We are slowly, but surely ‘winning’ the numbers game.

  • Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach

    All very true, I agree 100%, but still it gets so gorram frustrating going over the same ground time and time again. Still, as the saying (almost) goes, the reward for work well done is more fucking work.

    Off-topic, am I the only one who thinks “testicles” whenever someone says “low-hangin’ fruit”?

    PS: Happy b-day JT! Its mine this week too. Mid-August birthdays FTW!

    • http://www.nobelief.net Jasper of Maine (I feel safe and welcome at FTB)

      Off-topic, am I the only one who thinks “testicles” whenever someone says “low-hangin’ fruit”?

      I wasn’t going to say anything

  • Loqi

    I know that personally almost all of my arguments and rebuttals, when distilled to their purest form, were taken from other thinkers. The same is likely true of all of us…

    Minor objection here. Just because someone uses a common argument doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t come up with the argument themselves. I’ve been an atheists since at least my early teens, probably closer to 12, but didn’t discover the atheist community until recently. When I finally discovered the atheist community, I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of the arguments I had formulated were also being used by the likes of Christopher Hitchens in formal debates (admittedly, my versions lack Hitch’s wit and eloquence, but whose don’t?). That I came up with some of the same arguments as some of history’s great critics of religion was pretty fucking cool. I didn’t go out to some website, find a script that I didn’t understand but apparently was the “correct” response to a certain argument and then memorize it the same way as the amateur apologists do. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who was throwing out the problem of evil argument before I knew that was even a thing :)

    • piegasm

      I concur. I’ve never really been a believer but I didn’t really identify as an atheist until the last year or so. The discovery that a lot of the best arguments against god/religion were the same things I’d always considered problematic was what solidified my position into full-blown atheism from a kind of very wishy-washy agnosticism.

      But that, I think, kind of supports JT’s point in a way. Seeing these low-hanging fruit dealt with will bring a lot of fence sitters down on the right side.

  • http://www.improbablejoe.blogspot.com Improbable Joe

    Something that I’ve tried to remind some of the atheists I talk to who are sort of wanting prominent atheists to move on from the sort of “Rebuttal 101″ talk, is that they are bored of it because they saw it 4-5 years ago or whatever when they were new to atheism. Other people who are new to atheism are just as excited about the 101 stuff as they were 4-5 years ago, and they are as much of a valid audience as the more experienced folks.

    • brianpansky

      and “Rebuttal 101″ tends to be the front-line of progress/deconversion.

  • http://www.nobelief.net Jasper of Maine (I feel safe and welcome at FTB)

    The Non-Prophets were talking about this last night, actually. Apparently the Atheist Experience crew gets accused a lot of screening out all but the dumbest theist callers.

    Nope – that’s just the general state of affairs.

  • http://yetanotheratheist.com TerranRich

    To the honest skeptic and critical thinker, it’s ALL low-hanging fruit. All of it.

  • http://fengardice.wordpress.com Fabio García

    What denomination was the church that you went to for a year, JT?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      I never went to the same one.

  • IslandBrewer

    Ah, see, you can only attack the simple theistic arguments.

    You are absolutely powerless against the super-duper sophistamacated theology like that espoused by … um, St. Somedeadguy. No one has been able to counter his super sophisticated arguments.

    Now, you go and read all 50+ volumes of his obscure works that you won’t find in any library, and then come to me and talk!

    Ha! Checkmate!

  • http://dailydouq.wordpress.com dailydouq

    So the next time you think it’s not worth your time to publicly dissect a religious assertion, remember that you are being an enabler for them. They’re going to gain confidence and go dump that argument on other people.

    Are you arguing that all religion arguments (posts) should be challenged?

    Recently I was trying to check if my posts, tagged with ‘religion’ were showing up (they were awfully far down the list). In the process I saw a few provocative post titles that were not obvious whether they were for or against (most titles quickly reveal rah-rah religious, I skipped those entirely). I did engage a theistic evolutionist but never challenged any of his/her/??? (no identity) core beliefs, esp. as the theistic evolutionists was advocating against any mention of creationism in science classes. But there was a lot of other issues that could be challenged.

    I’m essentially new at this so unsure how to support the cause I’m finding in FtB.

    • piegasm

      Those “rah-rah religious” ones are exactly what need to be challenged so that those people don’t go on thinking they’ve made a good case for their beliefs.

      I had a guy on my facebook who is constantly posting obnoxious, banal religious memes and he always gets comments like “wow so true!!” on them. He’s constantly getting positive reinforcement from his fellow fundies. Finally I responded to one re: abortion and explained how it was a completely invalid analogy, etc. After maybe a half-dozen posts back and forth he un-friended me. Maybe he put what I’d said out of his mind and went right back to posting his lame memes. But maybe not. Maybe someone else on his friends list read our exchange and reconsidered their views. If nothing else, he now knows that arguments he thought were water-tight are not and maybe he thinks for an extra second before tossing them out so blithely.