A reader asked me,
Do you ever feel a [sense] of futility when arguing with believers? What drives you to argue as much as you do?
After giving some examples of arguing with stubborn and ignorant Christians, he concludes:
Sorry about this rant I have just been arguing with some frustrating people as of lately. Arguing with people who think they are “masters” concerning the skeptic position and “skeptic psychology” even though though they have never read a skeptic book, this drives me nuts! I am thinking in my head… damn it, please go educate yourself and read some skeptic books and a couple of logic books [while] you are at it!
How do you decide who or who not to argue with? What are your thoughts about the merits of arguing with the religious?
I have already explained Why I Write This Blog – I’m not just trying to win converts to logic and atheism, though that’s part of it.
Arguing with people can be a frustrating experience. People generally have many deeply held but poorly examined beliefs – theists and atheists alike! Most people don’t like having their beliefs challenged; it is uncomfortable for them.
One of my most fortunate developments was to enjoy having my beliefs challenged. Reading strong philosophical arguments for the existence of God – or anything else contrary to my current beliefs – is actually “mental masturbation” for me, except that challenging my beliefs not only leaves me excited but sleepy, but may actually bear fruit in my life.
Christians are especially vulnerable to holding unexamined beliefs because for them, beliefs have moral and eternal implications. A good way to make someone resistant to examining one’s beliefs is to tell them it is not only immoral to doubt God, but that doubt may usher them into a world of eternal, excruciating torture.
I argue with stubborn believers a lot, but I can’t remember the last time I was frustrated by this. When I tried to guess as to why I’m not frustrated, I came up with the following advice on how to argue with believers and not get frustrated:
- Lower your expectations. If you think you’re going to deconvert a believer or even change his mind about something, you need to lower your expectations. Things don’t usually work that way. I never expect to deconvert someone or change their mind about an important topic. Instead, I take a lesson from my early days as a Christian evangelist: I seek only to “plant seeds.” Back then, I planted seeds of faith in an invisible friend. Now, I plant seeds of doubt. The arguments I give are not going to impact someone in the moment, but the seeds I plant may sprout fruit sometime later. The theist may consider my arguments at another time, or remember them when confronted with something in the real world. Perhaps when visiting a hospital, he’ll think, “Isn’t it nice that God can be source of comfort for all these people? But wait – why would a loving God allow so much innocent suffering in the first place? Luke may have had a point, there.”
- Detach yourself from the outcome. This is useful pretty much any time – when taking exams, when picking up women, when writing an article, whenever. You need to realize that your efforts are not the only cause of a given outcome. If a theist doesn’t see the flaws in his own reasoning even when you carefully explain them, realize that there are many causes for this that are outside your control – his upbringing, his psychology, his emotions, his ignorance of science or logic, etc. Focus on what you can control: your presentation of atheism. If you gave a concise, clear, and compelling presentation of atheism then you should be proud of that. And if you did not, then you “win” anyway because you can learn from the experience. Perhaps you need to refine your argument to avoid common objections, or perhaps you need to research a particular issue more. Remember, one reason the theist didn’t change his mind may be that your arguments weren’t compelling. In this case, the theist himself, if he is trained in logic, may help to improve your own argument by pointing out flaws in your reasoning. This is a big bonus to you even though the theist did not deconvert on the spot.
- Value the conversation. Part of detaching from the outcome of an argument is to value the conversation for its own content, not for its result. Personally, I enjoy a good back-and-forth. I have to think on my feet and run everything through my critical thinking filter in real time. Such conversations tell you a lot about how believers think. The more you talk with believers, the more you’ll realize what their most common arguments or assertions are. Then you can tell yourself, “I should really come up with the shortest, stickiest, most persuasive rebuttal possible for that point.” You can even try different rebuttals on different people and see which ones have the best effects. Arguments about religion – regardless of their outcome – can be fascinating anthropological studies. I am often surprised by what believers really think, and how their belief structures are built. Most of them are wacky, some of them are educated and novel, and some of them are just pitifully uninformed – like the parents who threatened to call in the FBI to deal with their atheist daughter. What does it take to become that kind of person? That’s fascinating.
- Have fun. If it fits the situation, I try to make lots of jokes when arguing with a believer – and not always at the believer’s expense! I’ll fit in jokes about atheists and other topics, too.
- Respect the other person. This can be hard. How do you respect an adult with a magical invisible friend? Sometimes you get lucky and argue with someone who has studied logic and philosophy and has some sophisticated arguments – I don’t find it hard to respect someone like Mark Linville or Peter van Inwagen. Other times, you’ll have to remind yourself that this person is probably skilled and knowledgeable about many things – just not their own religious beliefs. Remind yourself that you have many beliefs (about morality, politics, psychology, dating, whatever) that are probably really stupid because you haven’t taken the time to study ethical philosophy, political philosophy, psychology, and the science of social dynamics. As a last resort, you can respect the person on the grounds of determinism. If you had had the same genes, the same development, the same parents and friends, the same life events – then you would have been a believer, too. The believer is a product of genes and circumstances just like you are – you just got lucky and scored some genes and circumstances that lead you to have true beliefs about a very particular subject – gods. It’s not like the believer stepped out of the causal chain, considered all the evidence, and simply chose to cling to a comforting belief in an All-Powerful Protector King. Respect that they are a product of genes and environment just like you.
- Be a team. Frustration comes easy when you view the believer as an opponent who refuses to go down when beaten. Not so when you view them as a partner or teammate in your search for truth. I think of an argument with a believer as a Socratic dialectic, in which the back-and-forth can help lead us to truth and clarify each other’s thinking – and that is something to which we both contribute. And if I phrase the dialogue in that way – “Well, the thing that confuses me about that is…” rather than “No, that’s a stupid argument because…” – then the ‘argument’ goes more smoothly and can indeed be transformed from a gladiatorial battle to a mutual journey for understanding. And that’s a lot less frustrating.
As you can see, these tactics will work just as well as advice for How to Argue with Atheists and Not Get Frustrated. And I think my advice is slightly better than Dave Barry’s.
But these things are easy to forget. If you find yourself getting frustrated in arguments with believers, come back to this post and read it again.