Stop arguing with atheists!

(Actually that should probably read ‘Let’s stop arguing…’ as it’s addressed partly to me, and probably doesn’t apply to a lot of my readers!).

I’ve been on more than a few blog comments forums where Christians and atheists have squared up to one another and engaged in full pitched battle. In these fights no-one dies of course, but no-one wins either. And what generally does die is respect, reasonableness, kindness, humanity and mutual understanding.

I just don’t see what’s usefully achieved by these kinds of debates. There’s generally little or no genuine dialogue or engagement with other people’s views. Instead there is attack and insult, accusation and counter-accusation, mutual misunderstanding and misrepresentation. At the end of them we all still believe what we believed at the start, we all just feel scarred, and we all think that everyone else is an idiot or worse.

This is particularly tragic when what we’re engaging about is Christianity, the entire point of which (whether you accept its premises or not) is goodness, love, forgiveness, kindness, hope, restored humanity.

So I say to my fellow believers – stop trying to beat atheists in debates. It doesn’t work. It’s pointless and fruitless and above all deeply counter-productive. Even if you win a point, you gain nothing for Christ or for goodness or for humanity.

Talking past one another

Firstly, argument doesn’t work because in these debates we’re usually talking different languages and so just end up talking past each other. Our arguments are based on fundamentally different, even mutually incompatible, worldviews and assumptions and basic premises. We sometimes mean different things by the same words. Small wonder then that we fail to understand each other.

And furthermore, our beliefs are generally not founded on intellect and reason in the first place, however much we like to think they are. Our beliefs may well have rational grounds, but we tend to gather that after the fact. We believe first, based on a complex mix of emotion and intuition, of personal and psychological and cultural reasons that we have little awareness of. And then we look to justify those beliefs intellectually and rationally. So when we argue, it’s never just reason and logic that’s involved – it’s personal.

Arguing achieves nothing

Arguing also doesn’t work because Christianity has never been primarily a matter of the intellect, of mathematical logic or scientific proof. It is rather primarily a matter of personal knowledge – of knowing Christ and being known by him – and of changed hearts, changed attitudes, changed lives. It is a matter of love and hope and redemption. It is about being free to be fully the people we were always meant to be, free to love and be loved, forgive and be forgiven; free to truly live.

Yes, it is about truth too, but not the kind of truth you can set down in a formula or reduce to a physical law. It is about the kind of truth that is inexpressible in logic or numbers. It is the truth that can only be expressed in stories and songs, in poetry and paradox, and above all in transformed lives and relationships.

So if you want to ‘beat’ atheists in debate I would firstly suggest – cautiously – that you may have significantly misunderstood the heart of the Christian message in the first place. It’s not about winning or being vindicated or proving ourselves right. It’s not about defending ourselves and certainly not about attacking others. What does any of that achieve?

Defending the faith?

Of course, some genuinely feel that in taking on atheists they are defending Christianity or even Christ. I understand this but believe it to be deeply misguided.

Christianity does not need defending; it needs living. Neither does Christ need defending in this way. When the Bible talks about not denying or being ashamed of Christ, it’s not a license for gung-ho attack on anyone who insults or attacks Christianity – even anyone who insults or attacks Christ. (It’s a bit like Peter chopping off the ear of the High Priest’s servant when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus – a genuine attempt to support Jesus perhaps, but probably not the kind that Jesus was looking for.)

If you must argue, then please do it with respect. Listen. Seek to understand the other person – where they’re coming from, why they think what they do, and more importantly why they feel how they do. And try to understand yourself too. Examine your own assumptions; be aware of the flaws in your own arguments. And look honestly at why you feel the need to defend Christ, and whether it’s actually just your own identity and ego you’re protecting.

But if you really want to defend Christ or Christianity, if you really want to confound atheists’ rhetoric, if you really want to show that your beliefs are more than just delusions without evidential backing, then I’d suggest there is a better way to do it than by arguing with non-believers.

Show it works

The only way to truly ‘win’ is to live such obviously Christ-transformed lives that your intellectual opponents will have to acknowledge that your faith has some reality and is not just a matter of words. They may still not believe of course; it’s not your job to make them (indeed, you can’t). Your job is simply to be ever more Christlike and ever more truly yourself.

I’m not talking about being perfect of course; certainly not about being holier-than-thou do-gooders (hell, no). The attempt just to be ‘good Christians’ and to hide our flaws inevitably ends up in deeply unattractive self-righteousness. I’m talking about the kind of real transformation and redemption that can only come from Christ, from within, and with much time and work. And this involves radical honesty – facing up to our inner darkness and not trying to pretend that now we’re Christians we’re all just sweetness and light.

And to our atheist and unbelieving friends I say this – if you want to show Christians and religious people that they are wrong, do the same. Set aside the intellectual arguments and rhetoric, and get on with demonstrating that you can live lives full of meaning and hope and humanity, of goodness and forgiveness and self-giving love without any gods. Show you’re better than these hypocritical religious people.

Or if you’re (say) a libertarian and don’t particularly believe in Christian-style ideals of goodness or forgiveness, show that living your way leads you to truer freedom and greater happiness than the kind Christians proclaim. Whatever you believe or don’t believe, show that it works, that it really makes your life better or the world better. And if you can do that, you won’t need arguments.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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67 Responses to Stop arguing with atheists!

  1. It is absolutely necessary for Christians to meet the atheist in the arena of ideas in all times and places.

    Our society is disintegrating in real time right before our eyes because Christians have simply walked away from their duty to preach the Gospel.

    Saint Paul took it to the pagans in the arena of ideas and so must we. Otherwise we lose our civilization.

    If we don’t do our duty as Christians and speak out against wicked malignancies like atheism God will not win the battle for us.

    I don’t debate atheists to win an argument, for that is tawdry.

    But if lies are not put next to truth, then lies become the truth in people’s minds.

    The barbarism of atheism must be engaged by Christians everywhere and every time it shows its murderous face.

    • Thanks for your comment. All I can say is that I profoundly disagree on almost all levels – but you have to walk your path according to your conscience, your understanding and the light you’ve been given, and I have to walk mine.

      I do not believe that our society is disintegrating before our eyes. Nor do I believe that if it is, it’s because Christians have failed to preach the gospel – though it rather depends on what you mean by that, as I suspect we both have quite different views on what it means to ‘preach the gospel’.

      I also don’t view atheism as inherently barbarous, murderous or a ‘wicked malignancy’. Nor do I think that Christian/atheist discussions can ever helpfully be reduced to binary polarities of ‘truth’ and ‘lies’.

      I’ve had a look at your blog and I can see that we espouse very different, in some ways almost opposite, theologies. Yet we both love Christ and look to him for redemption. I pray God’s blessing for you in your very different journey to mine.

    • Hi Si.

      I don’t think Paul was much into arguing with unbelievers or ‘defending’ the gospel. Instead, he presented the gospel. Even in Athens, after he publicly presented the gospel once, he then spoke with those who wanted to hear more. He did not defend the gospel against those who did not accept it. In fact, he did not beat them up about their religion.

  2. Andy Schueler says:

    Our society is disintegrating in real time right before our eyes because Christians have simply walked away from their duty to preach the Gospel.

    Well, if the “disintegration” of society looks like this:
    “The happiest of countries — many of which are in Scandinavia according the latest World Happiness Report — have a robust combination of higher life expectancy, gross domestic product per capita, social support, generosity, freedom to make life choices and lower perceptions of corruption.”

    http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/20/travel/happiest-countries-to-visit/

    - then I very much look forward to more “disintegration” :-)

    The barbarism of atheism must be engaged by Christians everywhere and every time it shows its murderous face.

    So you honestly believe that atheism per se, not any particular ideology that happens to be atheistic, but just the mere absence of belief in Gods, is “barbaric” and “murderous”? If that is the case, then you might want to look those words up in the dictionary, they don´t mean what you think they mean.

  3. Andy Schueler says:

    Hello again Harvey,
    I replied to some parts of this post on Lothar´s blog.
    Just to add one thing, you say:

    And to our atheist and unbelieving friends I say this – if you want to show Christians and religious people that they are wrong, do the same. Set aside the intellectual arguments and rhetoric, and get on with demonstrating that you can live lives full of meaning and hope and humanity, of goodness and forgiveness and self-giving love without any gods. Show you’re better than these hypocritical religious people.

    I think there is a lot of truth to this, but I disagree with the last sentence – I don´t think that your beliefs (or lack thereof) about metaphysics can make you better or worse than someone else, everything else being equal. It´s just too far detached from the everyday reality we live in. What can make you better or worse is, I think, what you believe about people, not what you believe about God, ontology, epistemology etc.pp.

    cheers,
    Andy

    • Hi Andy, thanks for commenting, and yes, point taken! That wasn’t very well worded on my part. I think I meant it in response to the fairly common perception that Christians think they’re ‘better’ than other people. So I really meant ‘show these bigots/hypocrites that they’re not better than you!’ But it might have been more helpful to say ‘show that your belief system works better…’ or something along those lines.

      I don’t really think that someone’s metaphysical beliefs can make them better or worse as people. What I do think (and where we will probably disagree!) is that someone’s faith in (say) Christ, or Buddha, can potentially bring about changes in their attitudes and thinking and so ultimately in their practical living, as they seek to emulate the example set by the one they follow. And of course as a Christian I believe that Christ is a living spirit who can work in relationship with people to bring about transformation… but of course I don’t expect you to accept that! :)

      Cheers,
      Harvey

  4. Well said Evan! I believe dialog is useful; warfare is not. I enjoy interacting with atheists, but I refuse to get caught up in back-and-forth arguments that lead nowhere. This doesn’t help anyone.

    My favorite line from this post is: “Christianity does not need defending; it needs living.”

  5. dsholland says:

    I think there is a reason why Christians and Atheists argue, and I think it is inescapable.

    In the opening chapter of Huston Smith’s “The Worlds Religions” he says:
    “This book is about religion that exists, in William James’s contrast, not as a dull habit but as an acute fever. It is about religion alive. And when religion jumps to life it displays a startling quality. It takes over. All else, while not silenced, becomes subdued and thrown into a supporting role.”

    From that passion, where fundamental conflicts are exposed, there is no peace. If the Christian claims Christ brings the sword (Matt 10:34), the Atheist as fervently claims the “delusion” is dangerous.

    I assert that Atheism is itself a religion, possibly (as you mention) equally passionate and stubbornly unyielding. How can it be otherwise? It is as much a belief wrapped in rationality as any other.

    Smith goes on to quote Justice Holmes, “…religion, however small its successes, is at least at work on the things that matter most.”

    I don’t think any fervent Atheist would argue they were not at work on “the things that matter most”.

    Is this passion dangerous? Yes, but I believe it is still essential. I seem to remember someone long ago claiming something about the unexamined life and its merits.

    • David, it’s lovely to hear from you! You’ve been silent for so long I thought you’d gone away never to return…

      “The unexamined life is not worth living…” – I absolutely agree. But I don’t quite follow how this ties in with your point – could you explain more?

      I certainly take your point that religion can be a passionate thing, like a love affair. And that passion can of course lead us into conflict with others whose passion opposes, dismisses or denigrates ours (or denigrates the object of our passion). Yet for me religion is not quite like this, not any longer. It is a deep inner conviction – even a deep love – but not a wild or violent passion. At least, not most of the time. ;)

      So I don’t see conflict as so inherently inevitable as you do. I think we can believe very deeply and strongly but not necessarily violently, nor in ways that lead to strife with others of different beliefs and none. I do think it’s possible – though difficult – to disagree and debate with mutual understanding, compassion, kindness and respect. That’s certainly what I want to see, at any rate.

      All the very best,
      Harvey

  6. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings.

  7. jimpgrave says:

    “Christianity does not need defending; it needs living.”
    I agreee with TIm at jesuswithoutbaggage, it’s a great line; more than likely one that i’ll use repeatedly when I’m speaking in church! – more than that, it’s a huge challenge too!

    This post caught me whllst in the midst of ongoing discussions in my home church around words like ‘missional’ and ‘intentional’ I’m thinking that the idea and expereince of trying to actually live my faith – warts and all – in relationship with others (both those who share my faith and those who don’t) is a more eloquent apologetic than any argument, however cultured and informed.

    Great post … thank you!

    • Thanks Jim!

      Bother, now I’ve laid down the challenge to ‘live Christianity’ I guess I need to take it up myself – hoist with my own petard… ;)

      I completely support your idea of trying to live your faith, warts and all, amongst and in relationship with those around and regardless of their faith. I do think this is the only apologetic that’s truly worthwhile – it’s just much more difficult than the other kinds!

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  9. Slow Learner says:

    “And to our atheist and unbelieving friends I say this – if you want to show Christians and religious people that they are wrong, do the same. Set aside the intellectual arguments and rhetoric, and get on with demonstrating that you can live lives full of meaning and hope and humanity, of goodness and forgiveness and self-giving love without any gods. Show you’re better than these hypocritical religious people.”

    The problem with this is that many Christians won’t let us just get on with living lives full of meaning and hope and humanity – they will insist on forcing their religion on us, and on our societies. Persuading them and their supporters (or at least some of them) that there are no gods is the most direct way to address this problem. Yes, it would be nice if we could just bring about a secular society, and there are a lot of people working on that. The more secular society gets, the easier it is to just step out of the arguments and get on with living well; but we aren’t there yet, we might never be all the way there (for a couple of examples in the UK, members of our state religion are still seated automatically in the legislature, and schools are required to hold Christian worship daily), and in the meantime a lot of people, myself definitely included, have had it up to the eyeballs with Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, ranting street preachers and all the other pestering breeds of Christian proselytisers, as well as Prime MInisters who declare that we “are a Christian country”, Government ministers who are proud of instating prayers before council meetings, visiting paedophile-harbourers who attack secularism as evil and dangerous, and all the rest of it. Standing by and doing nothing is not an adequate response to that; using the freedom of expression that we have to articulate how and why religion is wrong is an adequate response, not least because it does work. Do you have any idea how many atheists I know who say that reading the God Delusion was an important part of their journey out of faith? Argument alone is never enough, but amongst a lot of religious people just saying “I’m an atheist” is enough to start an argument, so…

    • Hi Slow Learner, thanks very much for your comment. I want to do what you say justice, so this is just a quick initial response and I hope if possible to reply more fully when I’ve had time to think through all that you’re saying here.

      I actually agree with you in large part. I generally don’t like Christian proselytisers either, and I don’t agree with David Cameron that Britain is (or even should be) a ‘Christian country’. I’ve argued elsewhere that we should consign ‘Christendom’ to the dustbin of history: https://evangelicaliberal.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/consigning-christendom-to-history/

      I also don’t think that we should all stand by and do nothing in the face of what we believe to be wrong or evil or unjust – far from it. I just think that arguing with our ideological opponents isn’t generally the most constructive or effective way to bring about change. The best response to the bad is the practice of the better, as someone wiser than me put it.

      As an aside, I enjoyed ‘The God Delusion’ and agreed with quite a lot of Dawkins’ points. I think his overall arguments against religion are a bit patchy and seem to me to miss the point a little – in my view he’s a brilliant biologist but not a fantastic philosopher – but it’s a good and thought-provoking read.

      • Slow Learner says:

        Thanks for the reply; feel free to respond at whatever length feels appropriate.

        I agree that Dawkins is no philosopher, and I wouldn’t point someone interested in atheism to his writing any more, where once I would have – then again I am now much more familiar with atheist thought and would point people to different places depending on their interests. I now direct the philosophically inclined towards Dan Fincke’s blog Camels With Hammers, for example.

        • Hi again, thanks for your patience!

          I’ll try and have a look at Camels with Hammers – sounds interesting.

          I do hear you about being sick of pestering Christian proselytisers. I’m tired of Jehovah’s Witnesses and nutty street preachers too. But for myself I think that this is an irritation worth putting up with for the sake of living in a multicultural society with freedom of expression and mutual tolerance.

          And of course as part of that we’re all allowed to argue with each other, to put forward our case and oppose what we see as harmful, wrong or stupid. I’m just trying to make the case for doing this with a degree of humility and self-awareness, and some attempt to understand the other side. I don’t think all-out warfare ever helps anyone very much. And not everyone who disagrees with us is an idiot or wicked. Even if they’re religious ;)

          And of course I don’t think that all religion is necessarily inherently harmful and evil, or a societal scourge that needs eradicating. I think it can sometimes be those things, but my view is that religion needs reforming, not removing. Indeed I don’t believe that it’s possible to rid society of religion long-term – it always comes back in some form or other. In my view religion is an innate part of the human psyche – one which can either be good or bad or more commonly both, and one which we can choose to ignore but which cannot ever be fully eradicated.

          All the best,
          Harvey

    • Chas says:

      This raises the question of what is appropriate, because I argued with Christians before I came to believe, trying to convince them that they were wrong, even asking them: ‘if God made everything why did he make the devil (neither answered satisfactorily). However, it was part of God’s plan to rescue me. The point is how do we know when we should argue and when we should avoid doing so. The answer probably concerns friendship, because both of these people who engaged in arguments with me were close friends, whereas the atheists whom one meets on blogs tend to be unfriendly and aggressive. The conclusion is that true discernment is probably necessary, and that can only come from God.

      • Yes, I too had some good and fruitful arguments with Christian friends before I took the plunge into faith. I agree that argument and debate within the context of friendship is very different to argument that’s just meant to attack and destroy.

  10. Arkenaten says:

    The problem lies in the fact that there really is no ”reasonable Christianity” as its entire basis, as you so rightly state has little or nothing to do with intellect and because of this it is wide open to all sorts of interpretation…and abuse.
    And let’s be honest, if the Christian is going to berate his Christian brother over something like Creationism or even ID then he/she must be able to stand up and defend with the same amount of honesty , the Resurrection, The Virgin Birth, Walking on water and every other supernatural occurrence in the bible and every other religious text for that matter.

    Sadly, this is impossible. If believers ( in all faiths) were to keep it to themselves and proselytizing did not occur then providing religion was available only to adults it is nobody else’s business what an adult believes.
    But to survive , religion needs to be indoctrinated into children and this is not right, on any level and is one of the prime reasons atheists and the religious bump heads.
    When believers are prepared to acknowledge that a child has rights – the right to choose his or her own / faith/religion as an adult then a large measure of tolerance will be extended.

    • Hi Arkenaten, thanks very much for your thought-provoking comment. You make a lot of interesting and challenging points, some of which I agree with, others not, but which I want to respond to properly. Unfortunately that won’t be straight away, so this is really just to acknowledge your comment and promise to reply more fully as soon as I can!

      One small thing – as you saw, I don’t consider Christianity to be primarily a matter of the intellect. However, I didn’t mean to say that it has nothing to do with the intellect, nor that it is entirely illogical, irrational, unreasonable, evidentially unfounded etc. I wouldn’t be a Christian if I really thought that was the case! :)

      All the best,
      Harvey

      • Arkenaten says:

        I fully understand. One can be fully functional; in a day to day scenario yet still believe in the supernatural. I don’t, but that’s just me.
        The thrust of the comment is that faith, not fact underpins Christianity, rather than the other way around.

        But I must stress, I have no quibbles with adults believing what they wish to believe. )providing it cause no harm to others, of course.
        I believe Jimi Hendrix was the greatest rock guitarist in history.
        I wont knock on your door and try to convince you, nor insist children be obliged to listen his music. And I certainly wont condemn anyone to hell if they think Hendrix is nothing but a perishing ugly noise.

        • Hi Arkenaten,
          Each of the points you’ve raised really deserves a full comment – if not a whole post – in reply.

          When you say that faith, not fact, is what underpins Christianity I’d slightly query that – I think it partly depends on what you mean by those terms. For me, the ‘faith’ element of Christianity means trust in the person of Jesus Christ, who is at least partly a historical figure and therefore to some degree factual.

          That’s not of course to say that everything in Christianity is ‘fact’, or fact-based in a scientific sense. Christianity, in my understanding, is primarily a matter of relationship, of believing in a person (Jesus) and following their lead. It does I think have quite a strong intellectual and rational component, but that isn’t the only or chief element.

          You make the interesting – and fair – point that if Christians are going to berate creationists (as I do) then we need to account for belief in the resurrection. However, it’s not belief in miracles that I berate creationists for, but rather for ignoring the findings of science and for misunderstanding the relationship between science and faith. Creationists see the Bible as making rival claims to evolution; I see the two as complementary, as different perspectives on the same phenomena.

          I have no theoretical problem with miracles or the supernatural – depending rather on what we mean by these things. I can’t see any compelling reason why Jesus couldn’t have risen from the dead, or been born to a virgin; these things would simply belong to a different order of nature from the one we’re currently able to investigate. But this is a much longer discussion…

          On indoctrination, I take your point but I’m not sure whether what you wish for is humanly possible. Parents (regardless of their faith) will inevitably pass on their views, values and beliefs to their children – I don’t see how this can be avoided. And if you do happen to believe in something which is of immense importance to you, then I suspect most parents would naturally share that with their children – whether it be faith, science, politics or supporting Man Utd.

          Of course, that doesn’t mean parents should hammer their beliefs into their children, nor threaten them with dire consequences for not believing. I suspect that such active indoctrination is often counter-productive anyway, merely leading to rebellion later.

          What I think we can usefully do as parents is introduce our children to other ways of thinking about the world than our own, and not as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ or ‘stupid’. We can also give them the skills to think critically, to ask questions and challenge their own assumptions.

          Finally, I do think there’s a qualitative difference between a belief in Jimi Hendrix as the greatest guitarist and the belief in Christ as saviour. Believing in Hendrix may change some aspects of your life, but it’s unlikely to underpin everything you are and do and think. Whereas I think the belief in Christ can do that – admittedly for some in unhealthy and unhelpful ways, but for others in liberating and life-changing ways. That’s certainly been my experience. :)

          All the best,
          Harvey

          • Arkenaten says:

            When you say that faith, not fact, is what underpins Christianity I’d slightly query that – I think it partly depends on what you mean by those terms. For me, the ‘faith’ element of Christianity means trust in the person of Jesus Christ, who is at least partly a historical figure and therefore to some degree factual

            I have no real issue acknowledging that Jesus was an historical figure, although the biblical character Jesus of Nazareth is a narrative construct, of that there is little doubt.
            It has been said that Christianity stands or falls on the Resurrection, a view upheld by almost every Christian despite the fact there are one or two very, liberal theological movements who think it is possible to be Christian and not believe in Resurrection – or so I have read – and it is the Resurrection that faith is built upon. The supposed ‘facts’ are there simply to ‘flesh’ out the character.

            You make the interesting – and fair – point that if Christians are going to berate creationists (as I do) then we need to account for belief in the resurrection. However, it’s not belief in miracles that I berate creationists for, but rather for ignoring the findings of science and for misunderstanding the relationship between science and faith. Creationists see the Bible as making rival claims to evolution; I see the two as complementary, as different perspectives on the same phenomena.

            Sadly you expect one to make allowances for miracles as if these are possible yet consider such acts outside of nature,while at the same time hope to hold on to your integrity by aligning your worldview with evolution – something that would have been considered anathema not to long ago.
            And you still claim this in the face of some of the most erroneous texts in the bible; not least the ridiculous nativity passages, the slaughter of the innocents and the resurrection of the dead during the Crucifixion;
            the rejection of which by Mike Licona which cost him his position.
            As for the Virgin Birth, the Catholic church do not consider it necessarily refers to a physical birth. And they should know, as they were the ones responsible for the canon and its inclusion in doctrine

            And, besides, everyone knows ( or should do by now) the writer of Matthew simply took Isaiah and plagiarized it for his own religio-political ends.

            It seems that you are trying to have your cake and eat it and I’m afraid this only comes across as somewhat hypocritical.

            Rather just stick to faith, at least this is honest.
            Still nonsense , but honest nonetheless.

            Indoctrination can be avoided quite simply if those in positions of religious authority decreed it was unnecessary to indoctrinate children as your god will see to it that he will call ”his own” when the time arrives, correct?
            I mean you do believe in an omnipotent deity, yes?

            Furthermore, barbaric practices such a circumcision should be outlawed for religious reasons across the board.
            You may be aware that a move was instituted last year at the Hague(?) but failed. But at least the attempt was made, which indicates that there are plenty of people who believe this disgusting practice should be considered a human rights violation and be legislated against.
            Once upon a time the death penalty was in force simple for reading the bible in English.
            So, slowly slowly…..

            One, maybe two generations of allowing our children the right to choose their own religious beliefs as >em>adults will see a dramatic drop off in god belief.

            As for any contest between Hendrix and god-belief…well, nobody went to war because of Voodoo Chile or Purple haze, nobody was burned at the stake or had explosives strapped to them, or flew into a high rise or claimed Jimi made them kill their children.

            Is god belief beneficial? Ask a deconvertee – of any religion.

            • Hi again Arkenaten,

              I think we may be starting to misunderstand or misread each other somewhat. And given that the title of my post is ‘Stop arguing with atheists!’ it would be ironic indeed if I now started arguing with you… ;)

              I’m keen to engage in dialogue – but my blog, my ground rules. If we’re going to talk to each other about our very different understandings of the world, it has to be with grace, willingness to listen, and some attempt to understand the other, and as far as possible without antagonism. We can disagree without being disagreeable.

              So I will do my best to respond to each your points in that spirit, as soon as I’ve had time to think through them properly.

              Thanks
              Harvey

            • Arkenaten says:

              Maybe you might find this interesting; before you set out a reply?

              http://attaleuntold.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/how-the-church-made-jesus-god/

            • Arkenaten says:

              This also is well worth a read and underscores my overriding objection to religion – ALL religion, in case you think may be singling out Christianity.

              http://thesuperstitiousnakedape.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/just-how-confident-are-yahwehists-in-the-durability-of-their-religion-3/

            • Gaah, now you’ve sent me even more stuff to respond to! ;) It does help me understand a bit more where you’re coming from though, which is helpful.

              It’s fairly clear we’re coming from deeply incompatible worldviews based on fundamentally different premises – to the extent that it feels like we’re coming from different planets and speaking different languages.

              This does present us with huge challenges in cross-cultural communication – which was what I was getting at in my original post. Nonetheless, we still share a common humanity and I hope we can talk with each other on that basis. :)

              Firstly, our use of terms. Unfortunately words are notoriously imprecise and slippery, except when used in highly formalised technical contexts. In my experience, debates such as ours often founder on the inherent imprecision of language.

              So many of the terms we’re using – ‘faith’, ‘fact’, ‘truth’, ‘miracle’, ‘indoctrination’, ‘religion’ etc – are not absolutely precise technical terms. And it’s clear from the discussion so far that you and I have quite different understandings of what these terms mean. As a result, we’re in constant danger of leaping to wrong conclusions about what each other are saying, which makes conversation hard.

              Secondly (forgive me if I’m misrepresenting) it seems to me that you prefer to deal in certainties, absolutes and either/or polarities. You seem to be setting up various such all-or-nothing dilemmas – either I believe in miracles, or I accept science; either I take the whole Bible literally or none of it; either we indoctrinate our kids or we share nothing of our religion with them; religion is either good or bad; etc. Any other option, you seem to suggest, is dishonest or hypocritical, ‘having your cake and eating it’.

              I don’t share this approach at all. In perhaps post-modern fashion I view truth and reality as complex, messy, nuanced, multi-faceted, both/and, paradoxical, and often deeply counter-intuitive. So again, it’s hard to see how we can dialogue across this huge divide. But I’d still like to try.

              And now I’m going to try to reply one by one to your points, but it will take a while… :)

            • Arkenaten says:

              Let me start here…
              Miracles as you understand them are the result of direct intervention from a deity….YOUR deity.
              You have absolutely no evidence to back this claim in any shape or form. None.
              Religion is bad, as it is built upon false premise. Period. All religion cannot possibly be right but it can all be wrong…and this has proved to be the case.
              Thus, indoctrination of children should cease. You agree with laws restricting child access to cigarettes, alcohol, pornography yet you feel no compunction to apply the same criteria to religion. This is hypocrisy. All parents should acknowledge the moral responsibility that a child has as much right to choose his or her religion as an adult and should not be brainwashed simply because you feel your god is more worthy than Dagon or Thor.
              And the physical mutilation of genitalia simply to satisfy a barbaric ancient ritual to a make believe genocidal despot is completely untenable and should be legislated against.
              I reiterate, if what you believe were the product of an omnipotent deity then such measures would be unnecessary. That indoctrination, which has had devastating effects across the globe, is crucial for the spread of religion so clearly demonstrates its fallacious and man-made nature.
              That indoctrination is not restricted to one religion or form of god belief further illustrates this point.
              You would not countenance any genuflecting to the Aztec god, but might consider the attempted liquidation of so called Christian heresies and witch-burning mere ‘history’ and part of religion’s natural evolution?
              Yet people are still being brutally killed the world over because of ‘errant’ religious belief.
              As I mentioned before..talk to a deconvertee and ask them what they feel like regarding the religious indoctrination of children.
              Then come back and tell me it should be left in the hands of parents.

            • Dear Akenaten,

              You’re clearly a good person with an admirable desire to change the world for the better, and a crusading zeal for truth as you interpret it.

              I hear that you’re very angry with religion in all its forms. I appreciate that. I think you are right to an extent but also mistaken to an extent. But I really don’t think that I have any chance whatsoever of persuading you to hear anything I have to say. I’m genuinely trying my utmost to be reasonable and good-natured, but it feels as though everything I say acts like a red rag to a bull to you and brings you leaping in to the attack.

              The whole point of my original piece was that these kinds of debates tend to be unproductive, often doing more harm than good. And sadly I feel that our discussion so far is no exception.

              So I’m reluctantly calling time on this conversation. It has been useful to hear your point of view and it’s given me plenty to think about. But I see no benefit in continuing the discussion further.

              I wish you all the best,

              Harvey

            • Arkenaten says:

              Sadly, this response merely highlights the level of indoctrination that religious people are subjected to:
              a retreat to familiar ground.
              There is nothing you can say that justifies religion on the grounds that you practice it.
              As I have have mentioned, this is choice.
              And I respect that you wish to believe it.
              However, that you fervently believe in indoctrinating children, ( notwithstanding the fact you consider it a good thing) is intolerable and tantamount to abuse and some form of legislation should be introduced.
              Unless, of course you believe a parent should brainwash a child to believe the ( short term) profession of suicide bomber is somehow noble and in the service of your god?

              I take it you didn’t bother reading any stories from deconvertee’s then?

            • Sigh. I’m not retreating, though you can call it so if you wish. Rather I’m calling time on what feels to me an unproductive conversation which has been taking up a disproportionate amount of my time and emotional energy.

              I made it very clear in my OP that I had no intention of getting embroiled in fruitless arguments, and to my mind this has become one.

              I am up for constructive dialogue – but that requires genuine willingness on both sides to listen, to acknowledge that we might possibly be wrong on some things, and to refrain from angry haranguing or accusations. I’m still not seeing any great evidence of such willingness on your part.

              Religion is not a homogeneous phenomenon, though you clearly believe it to be so. It’s analagous to human relationships – some are mostly wonderful, some are mostly abusive. If you’ve been the victim of an abusive relationship, then you need to get out and you may want to avoid love or sex for a long time.

              So too with the deconvertee from an abusive religion – and yes, I have read some stories, and I’m sad for the pain they’ve experienced and glad they’ve found freedom. But for others, a relationship is a wonderful, life-changing experience – and so it is for many who convert to faith.

              Sadly you seem unable or unwilling to employ nuance, to distinguish between psychologically healthier and less healthy forms of religion. It’s all black-and-white to you. But the world isn’t like that. Humans aren’t like that. We’re all a mixture of better and worse, and so is everything we engage in – sport, politics, relationships, religion.

              Of course religion is not primarily rational or logical or scientific – but neither is sex, or music, or sport, or poetry, or friendship, or kindness, any of the other things that make life worth living. Neither are humans, whatever you might wish.

              But scientists from Kepler and Newton through to Faraday and Francis Collins would disagree with you that a belief in the supernatural is illogical or incompatible with science. I’ve blogged more in-depth on this at http://evangelicaliberal.wordpress.com/2011/06/30/science-and-belief/.

              I do not ‘fervently believe in indoctrinating children’ – I simply disagree with you quite strongly on what ‘indoctrination’ entails. Let me tell you my own story. My parents were liberal Anglo-Catholics who showed no desire to indoctrinate me in their somewhat vague beliefs. On the contrary, what they taught me was to think, to question received doctrine, and to take a strong interest in science and the arts.

              In my late teens I drifted into agnosticism. I explored various options including the occult and atheism (I loved The Selfish Gene), and I enjoyed a godless lifestyle. Then in my early 20s I hit rock bottom and decided to give Jesus a try.

              Over the ensuing 20 years, I’ve questioned all the doctrines of Christianity and let go of many. What I’ve found myself unable to let go of is Christ, because he’s been real for me in a way nothing else ever has.

              I’m acquainted with several people who, unlike me, were arguably ‘indoctrinated’ as children – which I’m not arguing is a good thing. Of these, a few have indeed retained their parents’ beliefs, but several others have subsequently become agnostic or atheist. Conversely, a number of members of my church were brought up by atheists/agnostics but later decided to try Christianity. Of course you’d have to take my word for it. :)

              So no, I don’t agree with you about indoctrination. And I feel that I’ve spent enough enough time and energy on this conversation, and I wish now to turn to other matters. If you want to continue that’s fine, but I won’t promise to respond.

              I wish you joy on your path,

              Harvey

            • Arkenaten says:

              What you appear to be doing – as do most religious people – is categorize their own belief and equate it with ‘good’ while all the other naughty versions of the same religion are just plain wrong, or not quite right.
              And who is to say which is the right one? You? Smile
              No doubt similar sentiments are express by every religious person across the entire spectrum.
              You truly need to be able to recognise this – but sadly, this is unlikely.
              You believe such dialogue a waste simply because what you consider reaching a middle ground of tolerance is in fact saying I have a right to believe what I wish.
              And I agree. Just don’t espouse it as truth unless you can provide evidence or teach it to children.

              And when you are truly ready to become enlightened then you will investigate what you believe in with a completely open mind and for the duration of your investigation you will put aside dogma and faith and simply apply common sense and historical evidence.
              This is where truth lies.

            • Hi Evan, I have been following your blog for a little while now, and I really like what you have to say and how you say it.

              I have also followed your discussion with Arkenaten with considerable interest. You have engaged with him; you have respected him; and you have been kind and generous with him. In his latest comment, he accuses you of not wanting to pursue dialogue, but this thread has not been dialogue. Arkenaten is not a partner in dialogue but hostile to your position, and it seems that he insists on having the last word even after you have tried to disengage from the thread.

              I have encountered this sort of prolonged, pointless process before, as I am sure you have also.

              I hope this thread has ended, but if Arkenaten tries to continue it, I would simply let him have the last word, whatever it is, because I don’t see any positive result from continuing, and it does indeed take an enormous amount of time and energy with little benefit to either of you.

              You are an admirably nice person, but you don’t owe him anything; he is not your judge.

              I hope I have not meddled where I ought not. Have a great day! ~Tim

            • Thanks Tim! Yes, I’m butting out of the discussion with Arkenaten now. It’s all too easy to get drawn in (as I have done) but as you say, better to allow him the last word.

              I’m not really that nice – I just don’t like conflict! :)

            • Arkenaten says:

              If you wish to gain acceptance for a point of view and post on an public forum then at least be open to dialogue.
              The second you close down interaction you shut the door on investigation and honest appraisal, only entertaining views that coincide with your own.

              If you expect to export this doctrine – which you obviously do – then it is in your interest to present it in the most honest fashion without ambiguity or any bias toward dogma.
              That Harvey is a nice bloke, I have no doubt, but like you, he has reached a point where dogma and faith override commonsense and open dialogue.
              As I have ,em>repeatedlystated (here and elsewhere) , what a person believes is their own business, providing they do not preach it as truth without substantiating such claims and do not
              force such beliefs on children who are not in a position to exercise critical thought.

              Comments about ‘having the last word’ are asinine and not conducive of any sort of respect.

            • Andy Schueler says:

              You are an admirably nice person, but you don’t owe him anything; he is not your judge.

              I´ll briefly delurk to give a +1 to that message!

            • Cheers Andy – good to have your take on this as a robust yet friendly atheist! :)

  11. Hi all, just a quick general round-robin to thank everyone who’s commented and to apologise to those I haven’t responded to yet! I’ll do my best to reply individually as soon as I can. I don’t normally receive quite this level of response – it’s gratifying but slightly daunting! :) Bear with me…

  12. makagutu says:

    Harvey, it’s me again.
    I have read your comments and clarifications on what you implied by this post. There is an issue that would require arbitration because it regards what you mean and since you are here I am hoping an honest answer can be got.

    I would like to know if in this post you were addressing the nature of argument or presenting a case why Christians and atheists should stop arguing?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Makagutu,
      I think you may both be right to an extent (but as a would-be peacemaker / conflict-avoider I probably would say that!). :)

      You’re certainly right that my post was primarily presenting a case for why it’s pointless for Christians and atheists to argue with each other. (By which I didn’t mean we shouldn’t engage in dialogue, but just that so many of our debates turn into fruitless warfare where we argue past each other with no useful outcome.)

      As part of that case, I perhaps slightly touched on the nature of argument in passing, but I was really talking more about the nature of belief – that we tend to adopt our beliefs first and then reason for them later. And because of this, arguments about our beliefs are often somewhat fruitless.

      So I wasn’t saying that Christian beliefs (or indeed atheist views) are necessarily irrational, but I was saying that our reasons for holding those views may well not be as rational as we imagine.

      Hope this helps – do say if I still haven’t clarified properly!

      Cheers
      Harvey

      • makagutu says:

        Harvey, spoken like a politician but this is good. I think in that case we agree as I have stated several times in my response to consoledreader with whom we have been having this protracted argument and in my earlier response to you.

        • Thanks! Yes, I’ve seen the protracted argument and thought I’d stay well out of it… especially as I’m making the case for avoiding online arguments… ;)

          • makagutu says:

            Well, you could join it and say this is exactly the point you were making :-P

            • Well I could join but you were doing so nicely without me…;)

              I think consoledreader is right to the extent that I was actually meaning to talk about the nature of all beliefs, which of course includes my own Christian beliefs but isn’t limited to them.

              Now (as I’ve said to consoled) you could certainly dispute whether atheist views count as ‘beliefs’ – I happen to think they can do in some cases, but it rather depends on how you define ‘belief’.

              But either way I wasn’t really meaning for anyone to argue about it or call each other names… ;)

              All the best,
              H

            • makagutu says:

              Well I think the case is rested. What have been saying all through is that the moment you mention atheist then that answers to one specific question. Beyond that the nature of belief is open for debate.
              If the question is about beliefs, then I don’t see why there was any need in addressing atheists anyway. You would have left it open especially since the dichotomy isn’t just atheists and christian.
              And as I have said here and on my blog, if it is a question of generally held beliefs it is possible that some will be held without reason or reasons will be provided later

            • I’m not really sure how that would help. I read his remarks and I kept thinking, hmmm, this is exactly what I thought he was saying and as far as I can tell what I said he was saying.

              So like I said on your blog, somewhere along the line we clearly started to talk around each other.

            • makagutu says:

              I don’t think it needed to take the direction it did. All the same, if it is nature of arguments there is no point in talking about atheism.

            • makagutu says:

              Well since we are it, I would like to explain something from where I see it.
              Harvey has in his response to you said he meant to refer to nature of belief. This is after saying he only mentioned it in passing. I think it is changing goal posts. But since my interest is to be understood I will say why I have disagreed with you both.
              I think we all agree that an atheist is a person who lacks a belief in deities and that is where we all agree. And it is a non belief or lack of belief and beyond that there isn’t anything you can point as an atheist belief.
              I will demonstrate Dennette is an atheist who believes we have free will. Sam harris or myself don’t believe we do and each of us have compelling reasons. Now I didn’t start by believing then looking for reasons for, I got here after I was convicted that the other option, the one I always held as a believer I couldn’t justify.
              We can argue back and forth about what was meant or not but we must agree that by mentioning atheists he reduces the scope to the question of deities. If he wants to talk about nature of arguments broadly then it is clear the hindu differs from the jew, the buddhist from the moslem, or jw or salvation army.
              I will say again as I have said before that we all have beliefs that we try to explain after the fact but they aren’t atheistic just coz it is held by an atheist.
              Thank you all for your indulgence

            • Greetings both (Makagutu and Consoledreader).

              Firstly, I’m really sorry if you think I’m moving the goalposts – that genuinely wasn’t my intention. I’ve tried to be clear throughout I’m not commenting on whether or not Christianity or atheism are irrational; I’m simply making a point about how humans tend to arrive at their belief systems.

              However, it seems that the sticking point has been whether or not these belief systems can meaningfully include atheism, which I think Makagutu is defining as a lack of belief. I don’t fully agree with this definition myself, but I may well be wrong and I can see that a good case can be made for Makagutu’s position. Unfortunately, human language is imprecise, and words like ‘belief’ can be particularly slippery. Either way, it’s not something I want to make a big deal about here or turn into an argument. :)

              I think this whole comments thread shows how easy it is for humans to misunderstand each other, how inexact language is, and how it’s sometimes possible not to be sure exactly what you meant by something you’ve written yourself!! And of course the whole point of my original piece was to say that these kinds of arguments tend to be fruitless, for these very reasons.

              So I think we should call time on this now – I’m certainly butting out now. Feel free to continue, but I probably won’t be responding any more as I think this is best left now.

              I wish you both all the best!

              Harvey

            • makagutu says:

              Harvey I think you misunderstand me. In my last comment I only tried to clarify my position especially because this same debate deteriorated and an opportunity for clarity was lost.
              I understand you quite well.

            • Okay thanks – sorry if I’m misunderstanding you! Misunderstanding each other (and ourselves) does rather seem to be the theme of this post and thread :)
              All the very best,
              Harvey

            • makagutu says:

              It’s alright. It has been an interesting discussion all the same.

      • Could you clarify the particular paragraph in question?

        And furthermore, our beliefs are generally not founded on intellect and reason in the first place, however much we like to think they are. Our beliefs may well have rational grounds, but we tend to gather that after the fact. We believe first, based on a complex mix of emotion and intuition, of personal and psychological and cultural reasons that we have little awareness of. And then we look to justify those beliefs intellectually and rationally. So when we argue, it’s never just reason and logic that’s involved – it’s personal.

        Did you mean here the nature of all beliefs or specifically just Christian beliefs?

        • Ah, I’m sorry to disappoint you but I was talking about all beliefs – obviously including Christian beliefs, but not limited to them. Now of course, you can dispute whether atheist views are ‘beliefs’ in the same sense that Christian ones are – I happen to think they are, but it’s a question of semantics and what we mean by ‘belief’…

        • Yes, by ‘our beliefs’ I was talking about human beliefs in general – obviously including Christian beliefs, but not limited to them.

          Of course you could dispute whether atheist views are ‘beliefs’ in the same way that Christian ones are. It rather depends on how you define ‘belief’…

          But I certainly wasn’t meaning to start an argument – ironic given the title of my OP!

  13. Chas says:

    I have to agree that such arguments are usually pointless. The only time that I have been led into opposing an atheist was on a blog in which it was obvious that he was engaged in intimidation and control. The process was to engage him and then play ‘rope-a-dope’ until the opening came; then he was given the knockout blow, in which his arguments were turned against him, and then I went, never to return.

    • I guess we have to pick our arguments. I’m certainly not saying we should never argue; just that we should maybe think twice before we rush in where angels fear to tread.

      And of course you’re right – bullies need to be stood up to, for their own sake and for the sake of those they victimise. Again, I think there may be more and less helpful ways of doing this, but we can only do our best with what we’ve got.

      • Chas says:

        For me, I have to be open to God’s guidance and trust in it to achieve what He has sent me to achieve. He knows best; without Him I have no idea.

      • Chas says:

        I very much agree with your comment about doing our best with what we’ve got, because God uses us exactly as we are at present, which is the product of our past. Once we are in His Presence, He begins to change us, nevertheless, He uses us as we are, with all of the inherent (inherited?) characteristics and weaknesses. Sometimes those weaknesses are important in what He wants to achieve through us at that time, although He might be intending to eliminate or modify them later.

  14. R2 says:

    I agree that we should show the influence of Christ in our lives, but I do not concur with your vision of what a Christ-like life includes and excludes. Yes, we should love people immensely; however, it is Jesus who defines what it means to love, not contemporary culture. Yes, he healed the broken. Yes, he loved them even as they were killing him, asking for their forgiveness. But dude, didn’t Jesus Himself, Love incarnate, call people out on their bullshit?

    I know it’s not politically correct to be angry at people or call them idiots, but it is a Christ-like thing. Check it out–Jesus didn’t spare words: Luke 11:40 “You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also?” Matthew 23 “You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold?” “Serpents! Brood of vipers! How can you escape the judgment of Gehenna?” And the Bible says Jesus looked at certain Pharisees with anger–Mark 3:5. So yeah.

    This kind of conduct shouldn’t be arbitrary. Nonetheless, it is my contention that Christians should call atheists fools if they are acting like ones–Jesus certainly would!

    Otherwise, I think you hit the nail on the head with this blog. I especially agree with your conclusions on universalism, open theology, and homosexuality.

    Peace out.

    • Hi R2, thanks for your comment. I take your point to an extent – Jesus certainly did get angry with people, and was at times pretty forthright (all right, downright rude!).

      However, I’m not Jesus. Jesus could speak into people’s lives with absolute authority, knowing their hearts and also knowing that he himself was without fault and fully in touch with reality. I’m not in that position; I’m as much of an idiot as the people I might want to call idiots. And I don’t know that I’m right; in fact I know that a lot of the time I’m wrong. I may disagree with others and at times think they’re being stupid, but unlike Jesus I’m not sure I’m in a position to make that judgement.

      Secondly, I don’t know how Jesus would have reacted to atheists because he never met any. He reserved his anger and his harsh words for the religious, particularly the religious elite. In this, he was acting out of profound compassion towards those who were oppressed and marginalised by the religious system and the powers-that-be. I’m not sure that he would have spoken in that way towards atheists who in many cases are criticising that very system, and whose hatred of God often stems from witnessing abuses of religious power.

      Finally, I just don’t think that calling people fools is constructive if you’re trying to engage in dialogue. Jesus clearly wasn’t interested in debate with religious leaders, but I do want to keep the lines of communication open with atheists.

      However, yes, I do think that at times we need to call a spade a spade, and stand up for what we believe – but always with humility and compassion, and an understanding of the deeper issues underlying people’s anger.

      All the best!

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