Should we challenge every theistic argument?

March 31, 2008 at 12:08 am 17 comments

chess game 1Recently, many books and websites have been written on the dangers of theism. Theism is described as an irrational belief leading to irrational actions including flying planes into buildings, bombing abortion clinics, or considering prayer to be an appropriate alternative to seeking medical care. Because these actions can affect more people than the acting theist alone, and sometimes affect them in a fatal manner, non-theists are being called to not settle for being non-theist, but to become anti-theist.

There are choices to be made, though, in what goals one will choose to pursue, and what means one will employ to pursue those goals. Is it best to spend time and energy challenging every theist or even every theistic argument one encounters? Or is this like giving money to an individual begging you for money instead of giving to a charity that provides food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, or medicine for the sick? I have heard this latter question debated in classrooms and hallways, on Internet forums and television shows. In some ways, it depends on what you are trying to accomplish by giving your money away.

If I give money to an individual, I may help that one individual meet a need or desire. If I give money to a charity, I may help attack the root of the problem that causes the need or desire to exist. Or, I may find other choices outside of those two. There may be other ways to attack the root of the problem. Would different legislation or education help people get the jobs they need, learn how to use their money wisely, provide affordable housing opportunities or draw us closer to finding affordable cures for diseases?

Even if I can find more efficient ways to use my time and money to combat the problems of hunger, homelessness and sickness, I am still free to choose to give some money to an individual who asks for some. Sometimes my goal is not to help the most people in the most efficient manner, but to see an immediate result from my actions in a way that is pleasing to me. I am not proposing that anyone be obliged to choose one action or another, but that we think about what goals we have and the best ways in order to meet those goals. However, if I choose to give my money to the begging individual, they might choose to spend the money alcohol and gambling or simply give it to someone else instead of on food or medicine.

Applying this example to our original question on whether or not it is best to spend time and energy challenging every theist or even every theistic argument one encounters, the theist may take the challenge as a spur to re-think theism, ignore or be offended by the challenge, consider the challenge evidence in and of itself that theism is a rational belief, or take the challenge itself as something to be taken as an article of faith until someone louder or more articulate comes along.

One can choose to become anti-theist. One can also choose to become pro-reason. The two are not inherently exclusive, but you only have so much time and energy to devote to any cause or endeavour. If the problem with theism is that it is an irrational belief, I can choose to respond to this problem by encouraging critical thinking. I can create novels, movies or video games in which critical thinking is required to solve mysteries and triumph. I can support my local public library or spend time teaching people how to read. Can you think of other choices we can make? Are there ways we can influence systems of legislation or education in order to increase access to tools people can use to help them think critically? The answers will be different in different countries, but the starting questions are the same.

Even after finding more effective and efficient ways to encourage critical thinking and rational examinations of personal paradigms, I will likely choose to spend some time challenging individual irrational beliefs as I encounter them. Sometimes my goal is not to help the most people in the most efficient manner, but to see an immediate result from my actions in a way that is pleasing to me. Also, if I see an immediate danger that might be caused by irrational actions, I may choose to intervene. I do not always see a need, though, to confront or challenge individual irrational ideas or those who hold them. Confrontation will not help, in every instance, to encourage critical thinking or otherwise reach toward a goal of discouraging irrational actions.

For example, if my father tells me he is praying for me, or someone blesses me after I sneeze, I have no desire to take offence and see no real benefit in confrontation, so I choose to do neither. In the same line, at no time would my choosing to mock or humiliate a theist suddenly provide them with the capability to think critically about something if they have never learned how to do so.

If I have a goal of encouraging critical thinking, I may as well pursue it rationally.

- Quester

Entry filed under: Quester. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

Postcards from the Apocalypse The fall of literalism in my life

17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jersey  |  March 31, 2008 at 1:19 am

    Hmmm, I just wrote my opinion on something similar at my rant blog earlier on Saturday morning. :)

  • 2. Wordsmith  |  March 31, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    I’ve been homeless, not for any great length of time…..a couple of months. The only time I’ve asked anyone for money was once on the rapid when I was short a nickel for fare, and I wasn’t homeless or jobless. Just short a nickel.

    I went into treatment at a VA – women’s program. Via AA I met many, many fairly well off and wealthy people. Some were quite opposed to the idea that i would give money to panhandlers in downtown Cleveland. Like I told them, it’s my money; you didn’t earn it. I did; I’ll do with it what I will. It was about the loss of control to them. You didn’t control what the individual did with the money. Exactly, once I give it, it’s gone. The only time I’ve controlled an outcome was when a woman approached me in Tower Center and asked for a couple of dollars to eat. I had no money on me, but I did have my check card. Wherever she wanted to go in the food court, whatever she wanted to eat, I’d buy it. She chose McDonald’s – yuck….and wolfed that shit down.

    I don’t worry about whether to give or not. If I have money on me, I’ll give. It’s as simple as that.

  • 3. Cthulhu  |  April 1, 2008 at 10:38 am

    The most important way (to me) to fight irrationality is to teach my children to be critical thinkers first. After that, I tend to choose my battles. I agree with Richard that it would be fruitless to argue every time someone says they will ‘pray’ for me or says bless you. In my opinion, there is a time and place for such discussions – and we should make the most oft hese opportunities to promote critical and rational thinking.

  • 4. Richard  |  April 1, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    I think this is an interesting topic. Should we always challenge theistic belief, and should we become anti-theists?

    I think Quester is right in that it depends on what our goal is. For my part, my goal is to go at the root of that part of religion that is the most toxic and destructive. I emphatically do not think that that is theistic belief per se. For one, I think it’s a bit of hubris to call all belief in God irrational. Although I don’t believe in god, I don’t think the issue is as cut-and-dried as all that, and think its entirely possible to be rational and believe in God. I have a fairly forgiving standard of rationality.

    But mostly Im interested in the consequences of such belief. I don’t care of someone believes the moon is made of green cheese so long as they are decent, compassionate, empathic people who will work for common causes.

    To that end, I ask what the root problem in theistic belief is. And the answer, Impretty sure, is not belief in God itself. Its *certainty* about belief in God.

    Those who are certain, who think their belief system is the only rational and moral conclusion to reach and allow no doubt about that, are those with whom it is impossible to work. After all, if you have Gods Own Truth, compromise with other views is, of course, immoral. Who would you compromise? Thus there can be no middle ground, no meeting of the minds, no mutual understanding, no common cause. You are either with them or against them. Your only goal is to show the non believer the error of his ways. He either accepts correction or he does not. It is a profoundly anti-democratic view, and in this are the seeds of totalitarianism and all manner of inquisitions. I know this sounds harsh, and most modern fundamentalists do not of course take it that far. But the potential is there – when you are sure you are right.

    Thus, in my view, theism is not the problem. Crusadism is the problem. You cannot negotiate with a crusader.

  • 5. Richard  |  April 1, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    One more thought. Might I suggest that we turn this into an empirical question? I.e., not should we challenge theistic belief, but *can* we?

    When you were a believer, what might have worked for you? Would any challenge to your belief system have had any chance of success? Has any Christian in debate ever conceded defeat? I know for my part I started with the almost conscious assumption that it was true, and thus any arguments against it *must* be flawed.

    The only thing that made a difference was having direct experience with nonbelievers who did not fit my images of them. It worked to break down the neat us-vs-them dichotomy that characterized my thinking and, thus, eventually introduced doubt into my system: nonbelievers are not what I was taught. What else was I taught that wasn’t true?

    As far as arguments are concerned, I think our main goal should be to simply provide a resource, a place for those to go who are willing to entertain doubts – when they are ready. Before they are ready, no argument in the world is likely to have an impact.

  • 6. karen  |  April 1, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    As far as arguments are concerned, I think our main goal should be to simply provide a resource, a place for those to go who are willing to entertain doubts – when they are ready. Before they are ready, no argument in the world is likely to have an impact.

    I agree completely. This is why I don’t go to Christian blogs or websites and challenge what’s being said there. I think it’s much more effective to be available as both a resource and a “bridge” between the two sides.

    After all, having been in both “camps” (theist and nontheist) I can oftentimes understand something (an idea or even a bit of jargon) that stumps one side or the other. If I can provide an explanation that is respectful and encourages dialogue to continue, I feel like I’m doing some good.

    To just barge in as an anti-theist and ridicule or insult doesn’t do any good for the cause of rationality; indeed, it undermines it.

    Like you, Richard, I interacted with non-theists and was sometimes confused when I saw real evidence that they were good people and not at all as described to me by my pastors. However, while I was immersed in Christianity, I was able to willfully ignore that contradiction or explain away that dichotomy in my head.

    It was only when I was personally ready to question that I recalled those people and THEN their lives made an impact on my thinking. But not before.

  • 7. Stephen  |  April 1, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    I read this before and after it had apparently been edited. It’s better now. Just my two cents.

  • 8. Quester  |  April 1, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    I agree, Stephen. I had apparently become too enamoured of my own analogy to clearly get my actual meaning across. My thanks to The de-Convert for the skilled editing.

  • 9. Cthulhu  |  April 1, 2008 at 11:06 pm

    Questor,

    A question…do you find the stridency of many atheists to be counter-productive? I find myself somewhat put off by this and think the attitude of say, Richard Muse, to be far more profitable. In my opinion, the caustic attitude displayed by many make changing peoples minds about rational thinking much more difficult. As all here probably know, critical self examination can be very difficult and being told how stupid you are doesn’t seem very helpful to me. I welcome others opinion here…

  • 10. Richard  |  April 2, 2008 at 12:10 am

    “To just barge in as an anti-theist and ridicule or insult doesn’t do any good for the cause of rationality; indeed, it undermines it. ”

    And not just rationality – discourse itself. After all, when someone accuses you of being blatantly irrational, how does that affect you? Does it make you think, “holy cow, you’re right! I *am* being just stupidly irrational! Thanks for pointing it out!” Or does it just make you defensive?

    We humans like to see ourselves as reasonable and competent. When you challenge a set of beliefs in a way that makes people feel irrational and stupid, you will invariably just engage their defenses. Even if they might otherwise have been convinced they were mistaken, now it has become about maintaining self-esteem and self-image. I suspect this is half the motivation behind most apologetics.

    “However, while I was immersed in Christianity, I was able to willfully ignore that contradiction or explain away that dichotomy in my head. ”

    Me too. And FYI, sociologists would call this the presence of a “plausibility structure.”

  • 11. Richard  |  April 2, 2008 at 12:23 am

    Cthulhu-

    “A question…do you find the stridency of many atheists to be counter-productive?”

    A thousand times yes. I think it is *dramatically* counter-productive and probably does far more damage than had they just ignored religion altogether.

    Evangelical believers already have a whole slew of internal caricatures about nonbelievers — in a nutshell, that we are angry, spiteful, prideful people who hate all that is true and good. Thats what it means to be a sinner. In particular, we hate “true” Christians because they are the Light and remind us of our sin and guilt before God.

    So, when you act like a strident — which is to say, angry, aggressive, militant, insulting — atheist, what do you do? Do you tend to confirm, or disconfirm their internal stereotype? In fact, I think this behavior just reinforces the us-vs-them circle that conservative religionists live inside of.

    As I said in #5, the only thing that got through to me was having direct, behavioral experience with nonbelievers. My nonChristian friends accepted me for who I was, religion and all, despite my being an annoying uptight little neurotic twerp. *That* made an impact. *That* wasnt supposed to happen. Had, however, they ridiculed me for my beliefs, it would only have served to confirm my expectations, and they would not have stayed my friends, and that circle would be unbroken.

  • 12. Quester  |  April 2, 2008 at 1:25 am

    A question…do you find the stridency of many atheists to be counter-productive?

    Depends what goal they’re trying to produce. Are they trying to change minds, or vent emotion? There is no over-arching “atheist agenda” to be productive toward, after all.

  • 13. Cthulhu  |  April 2, 2008 at 11:40 am

    Richard,

    My nonChristian friends accepted me for who I was, religion and all, despite my being an annoying uptight little neurotic twerp. *That* made an impact.

    Exactly!

    Quester,

    There is no over-arching “atheist agenda” to be productive toward, after all.

    I agree – while I believe that there are areas we must be vocal and fight for – like teaching evolution and keeping religion (even in the disguise of ID) out of our schools, a civil attitude does more to change minds than berating someone for their beliefs.

  • 14. karen  |  April 2, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    So, when you act like a strident — which is to say, angry, aggressive, militant, insulting — atheist, what do you do? Do you tend to confirm, or disconfirm their internal stereotype? In fact, I think this behavior just reinforces the us-vs-them circle that conservative religionists live inside of.

    Exactly. And it reinforces their persecution complex, too, which is a powerful tool particularly for fundamentalists and End Times believers.

  • 15. Cthulhu  |  April 2, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    #14 karen

    it reinforces their persecution complex

    Excellent point – wish I had thought of that. People who berate and belittle tend to put most other folks on the defensive. It closes minds instead of opening them.

  • 16. Garg the Unzola  |  April 7, 2008 at 8:37 am

    Being an anti-theist is not constructive. The point of freedom of speech and freedom of thought is that you allow people freedom. Whether everyone is smart or responsible enough to use that freedom is a different matter entirely, but forcing people to abdicate their belief systems is crossing the line. There are many people who enrich their lives with superstitions, and they are free to do so as long as their freedoms do not infringe on other people’s freedoms. For instance, the film the Golden Compass invited much criticism from religious circles. I feel the film and the source books were carefully crafted opinions on religious matters without being vigilante or fanatic. I also feel the Christian protesters were voicing their opinion with decorum, even if I do think they were wrong. So no harm done. Contrast this with the Islamic extremist reaction to Danish cartoons.. this is not acceptable. It is not admirable to kill someone for your beliefs, or theirs.

  • 17. exevangel  |  April 8, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    I saw a fantastic talk by a nun who works on interfaith issues and she noted that Christians and Muslims are the sole theists who try to convert people, that other theists not only don’t try to convert people but they even can resist converts (Judaism in particular). My view is definitely one of “to each his own” and I don’t want people trying to convert me but I also try not to convert others to my viewpoint either. Having been raised a Christian I admit I find this tough and I do sometimes slip and catch myself!

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