13 Practical Strategies For Arguing With Religious Moderates

13 Practical Strategies For Arguing With Religious Moderates April 5, 2012

Richard Dawkins wants to encourage us to say the following to believers:

“I respect you too much to accept that you really believe anything so ridiculous as you claim. Please either defend those beliefs and explain why they are not ridiculous, or else declare that you do not hold them and publicly disown the church to which you claim loyalty.”

In this post, I want to focus on what to do next if after you do what Dawkins recommends above the believer admits they don’t believe in a particular implausible belief of their religion but they think that that is no reason to abandon their religion. Below are thirteen suggestions:

1. Keep going down the list of their religion’s implausible beliefs until you find one they are willing to stake a truth claim on and ask them for reasons for that claim. Stress the double standards they hold in allowing those transparently false beliefs where they would never accept comparable ones from outside their religion.

2. Figure out if they have what I am going to here dub “A Shield Belief”. A shield belief is a supposed insight or argument that someone immediately raises to deflect a wide range of criticisms. For example. “Evolution and God can go together!” is a common shield belief of moderate believers. Every time the topic of conflict of science and religion comes up they just put up that shield belief and no matter what is said they just say in their head “Tsk, tsk. This person doesn’t realize that evolution and God can go together!” They tune out all the specific arguments because clearly this person does not grasp this subtle nuance and so everything they are saying is just wrongheaded. My guess is if you can find and knock out a shield belief, you can make a lot more progress than if you don’t.

3. What if ultimately they reject all the really implausible, supernaturalistic, pulled-out-of-thin-air religious beliefs and only vaguely believe that there must be a cause for reality and that must be God? Then concede that the origin of reality is a mystery but stress that evolution and modern cosmology show entirely how all the complexity of the world around us can arise and evidently did arise by purely impersonal naturalistic processes with no designer. Stress that it is baseless to think that consciousness and personality (things which arose only billions of years into evolution on Earth) would be a part of the most basic reality (or realities) that all others depend on. We don’t think of quantum fields or fundamental laws like gravity as personal. That’s just silly. So why think of the hypothetical “source of all being” as personal? Why think that the most basic and elemental reality is a being that would have a mind when mind’s are incredibly complex and, therefore, made up of more basic realities? How does that make any sense?

4. If they do not believe their religious beliefs are literally true or they are not that actively committed to practicing their religion, do they bother to try to disuade their fellow religionists of their literal errors? Do they care about truth enough to correct people who are foolishly believing in myths as though they were factually true?

5. If they interpret their beliefs as not “literally” true but morally or spiritually true, press them on whether the morals of their religion’s myths are really actually true. We do not just accept every fictional story as “non-literally true”. Some fictional stories have poor ideas and moral recommendations. Just how good are their religions’ stories conveying even non-literal truths, when critically analyzed?

6. Talk to them about more basic principles of skepticism and critical thinking. If you know them well and do it truthfully, stress to them that you know they think excellently in areas x, y, and z, and that you are only asking them to consistently apply the same principles of reasoning they already are committed to as smart people throughout their lives. Talk about cognitive biases and all the psychological ways that we are misled into humorously anthropomorphic thinking. Tell stories about your own brain’s tendencies to recommend silly anthropocentric or statistically confused explanations of experiences and mock those in good cheer. One of the things lost in all this discussion of how horrible it is ever to mock a religious belief is that if you’re actually funny, you can make even religious believers laugh. And when we laugh, we concede a logical point sometimes. When we laugh we feel good.

7. If they still insist on sticking to their enlightened and moderate interpretation of their religion, ask them why, if it is so true and accurate, why their beliefs were not more clearly spelled out in their religious texts and was not obvious to some of their religion’s most fanatically devout people. What kind of a god would let even its most fervent believers fall into the gross scientific and moral errors that historical religions and devout modern day fundamentalists do? If they say something about god revealing himself progressively through a process throughout history, point out how convenient and unfalsifiable an ad hoc justification that is, stress how earlier (or alternate contemporary) versions of their faith are not only more primitive versions of their views but outright evil total contradictions of them. Ask why an omnipotent being had to leave us to our own devices for centuries to figure out basic moral truths like genocide, misogyny, slavery or homophobia are wrong when he made a whole trip to earth (or talked to prophets) and could have brought those things up millennia ago.

8. Ask them to look at the current and historical, well documented social and political abuses of their own religion’s clergy. Their alleged omnibenevolent omnipotent deity cannot do any better job hiring earthly representatives?

9. Ask them if they write their Congresspeople to let them know that the fundamentalists or other reactionary leaders in their religion do not speak for them so that they know that when theocrats come lobbying?

10. Ask them if it is really rational to let their children be indoctrinated by teachers in their religion who actively encourage them to believe some very false, silly, and potentially immoral things.

11. If they say that they participate in their religion with many admittedly implausible beliefs for moral reasons, ask them whether they think morality is really so irrational and foolish that without religious myths it could not reasonable persuade people to obey it? Also ask them if they actually even really base their moral decisions on religious teachings or if they actually reason using principles they don’t need any religion for—like that it is good to make the most people happy wherever possible, it is good to adhere to duties even when inconvenient, that truly virtuous people are more lovable and deserving of happiness and so they want to be a virtuous person, etc.

12. If they start asserting that they “just are” their religious identity, ask them whether it is more important that they live truthfully than that they merely claim an identity that makes their grandparents happy and follows tradition unquestioningly.

13. Recommend to them an atheist book or blog (ahem) that you think expresses a clearer picture of positive values and truths. Ask them to consider as they read it whether they actually agree more with the picture of the world presented therein than they do with their nominal faith and all its weird outdated teachings and unlikely supernaturalism.

Your Thoughts?

For more general strategies, see my top 10 tips for reaching out to religious believers.

For more of my general views on religious moderates and background arguments to make some of the cases I recommend above, see the following posts:

What I Think About How To Engage Religious Liberals, Moderates, and Fundamentalists

Against the Religiously Lazy Defenders of the Pious

The Value Of Religious Moderates And The Danger Of Isolating Religious And Political Fundamentalists

Religion is a Morally and Politically Ambivalent Force

Will The Real Atheists Please Stop Kneeling

Why Progressive Interpretations Of The Old Testament Still Do Not Justify Its God Morally

How Theistic Evolution is Nearly as much a Denial of Science as Creationism

On God as the Source of Being But Not of Evil

True And False In Adam And Eve


For a model of how I argued with a real live theological/political moderate, read my 3 part debate with Catholic theology graduate student Mary about the Church’s attempt to influence contraception policy, starting with the post “Should Catholic Employers Be Exempted From Paying For Health Insurance Covering Contraception?”

I have also crafted fictional dialogues that hopefully provide helpful models for debates strategies and creative lines of argument:

Hell as the Absence of God

God and Goodness

Is It Just A Mystery Whether God Exists?

Examining Some Alleged Divine Attributes

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