Should we challenge every theistic argument?
Recently, 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.