Seeking out disagreement

I recently missed a Jehovah’s Witness coming to my door. It’s not the first time, and each time leaves me more disappointed than the last. They never catch me at home. I would really love to talk to them. I think I could have a really fascinating conversation with someone so certain in their religious beliefs that they would go door to door imploring people to agree with them.

From time to time I attend a Bible study group that one of my Christian friends introduced me to. It’s not the first Bible study I’ve attended, either, and I’ve been an atheist for as long as I can remember having well-formed opinions on the matter. I’m open about my lack of belief if it’s relevant to the discussion or if I’m directly asked, but I don’t go to try to deconvert people. I just like learning about the thought processes of religious people — it’s like anthropology field work. I also like asking difficult questions about religion that I don’t think have good answers, because I think that religious people should at least grapple with those questions if they are going to be religious. I am intrigued by the answers I get. I haven’t heard any good answers to these questions yet, but I have had some enthralling conversations about theology.

I follow a number of religious blogs, mostly evangelical Christian, and I leave comments on the ones that allow me to do so. Mainly I just ask questions — how do you reconcile this belief with this other part of scripture? What is your grounds for asserting such-and-such? Why do you describe this situation as “glorious” when it sounds honestly pretty horrific to me? And so on. More than a couple times I’ve been answered as though I was a Christian experiencing some doubts, or perhaps a Christian confronting the unsavory aspects of their religion for the first time. If it’s necessary in the conversation, though, I’m up front about being an atheist.

And I listen to religious radio in the car. And I take pamphlets from street preachers, and actually read them. And, and, and.

I enjoy this kind of thing — I wouldn’t have an atheist blog if I didn’t — but I wonder if it’s really the best idea. I think it’s really important for intellectual integrity that I seek out disagreement, rather than spend all my time in an echo chamber being told by my friends that I’m right. I think I’m right, but maybe it’s just that I haven’t yet heard the best argument for some alternative view. I feel like I am obligated to keep checking. At the same time, it can be incredibly frustrating. I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for good pro-religion arguments for years, and I haven’t heard any yet — but here are all these religious people, everywhere, all the time, just the same. Meanwhile, although many religious people are fine with and even welcome my questioning, I offend some people deeply just by saying I disagree with them and explaining why.

What do you think? Am I just being a disrespectful troll, or is it a mark of integrity to try to expose myself to opinions different from my own? Is this worth my time, or am I bound to make myself miserable? Do you seek out disagreement with your views, or do you try to ignore the disagreements when you talk to other people and focus instead only on common ground?

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30 Comments

  1. So clearly, as a fellow atheist blogger, my answer to your question may be a bit predictable. Yes, I think it’s a good thing, for you and for them, but the way you pick your battles matter.

    I avoid arguments that I know will make me short tempered and which I don’t feel unusually qualified to wade into. I don’t want to have ID fights for the most part, when there are entire organizations already covering that ground. I only enter the fray on this kind of thing if I have more than layman’s knowledge of the matter up for discussion.

    One class of people who are also probably less worth engaging with is people who don’t treat religion as a truth claim, but as a cultural practice. They’re awfully hard to rebut, since they claim so little, and it’s usually easier to settle policy disagreements at a secular level.

    It’s definitely the case that arguments with religious people are challenging, even if, most of the time, neither side yields. Prior to college, I had never known religious people who seemed intelligent (I come from a very Jewish/secular neighborhood), so arguments made it easier to respect my friends, as well as forcing me to think a lot harder about my beliefs in order to defend them.

    Sometimes the disagreements that come up turn out to be orthogonal to the a/theist split. I’ve ended up on the same side as theologically conservative Christians when arguing with postmodernist atheists (who were allied with the Universalist Christians).

    - Leah @ http://www.unequally-yoked.com

  2. You can certainly expose yourself to different ideas and opinions without leaving comments on the Christian blogs you are visiting. The only thing I hear that sounds even potentially like trolling would be the comments. Since the bloggers and their readers may not know your motivation, I could understand how it might come across as trolling.

  3. I quite disagree on the question of commenting as trolling. If you’re going to try to seek out challenges, you’re not getting full value for money as a silent observer. Not to mention, if you believe you are right and ‘they’ are dangerously wrong, it’s important to challenge them as well. Simply make sure your comments are polite and well explained, and respond politely no matter what the tone of the rebuttal. If the other side doesn’t want to engage, sign off, but give them the chance to exceed your expectations.

    –Leah @ http://www.unequally-yoked.com

  4. NFQ just commented on my blog – i’m a “christian” who in employed full-time at a church. NFQ was crazily respectful and gracious.

    As one who is inside the “christian” camp, Leah’s above comment about discussing religion with those who are simply culturally religious is very frustrating. I think it’s frustrating for everyone…

    Also, sorry if any Christians come trolling your site to be obnoxious. Several of the atheist blogs I read run into this frequently. Oddly, the same trolls can find my site sometimes….

  5. Leah and vjack, you’ve both given me a lot to think about. I need to sort out the degree to which my intentions center around gaining knowledge for myself vs. around arguing for my side. And to what extent / in what contexts I think both categories of intention are acceptable. On the issue of comments, I guess I sort of feel like if you allow the general public to leave comments on your site you are inviting real dialogue, including disagreement … but I don’t know. Anyway, thanks for your comments.

    Adam, I’m very glad to hear I came across as respectful on your blog. I really appreciate your insights on this topic!

  6. I can appreciate your willingness to surround yourself with people who don’t believe like you do. I have some family members that I dearly love and respect that are either agnostic/atheistic. As a Christian, I find the “new atheism” more interesting than offensive. It seems to be less intellectual than the atheism of old. Ironically, it almost carries with it the same tone that religious fundamentalism taunts. Here is an interesting article by David B. Hart:

    “A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.” (see the whole article at: [Link removed — Google flagged this site for malicious software installs. -NFQ])

    I am in agreement with this statement. I’d be interested to hear Leah, NFQ, and vjack interact with it. I happen to think that anti-intellectualism is not limited to Christians. Anti-intellectualism is pervasive throughout all spheres of our culture. If you don’t believe me visit the magazine rack at your local convenience store.

    On another note, I’m looking to start reading some classic atheistic works and was wondering if any of you all have any suggestions, save Hitchens and Dawkins. I recently purchased Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” for starters.

  7. Aristarchus

     /  June 25, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    NFQ, I can see why you might be interested to see how religious people answer your questions. People tend to believe what they believe for emotional rather than logical reasons, and it is interesting anthropology to try to understand those things. I don’t think, though, that you should really worry that there’s some secret wonderful pro-religion argument out there that you haven’t heard before. You’ve looked pretty hard, and if there was an argument that was really that good, it would spread and not be that hard to find.

    There’s definitely nothing wrong with commenting – having a blog with a comment form is asking for feedback from the public, and people don’t get to (rightfully) be outraged because someone gave them bad feedback. I’m not sure it’s worth your time, though – I think it’s extremely unlikely you’ll convince anyone, and I feel like the learning you get from the responses probably declines in value pretty quickly once you’ve done it a few times.

  8. Aristarchus

     /  June 25, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    @Jarod – I really don’t think your quote matches with reality. Most of the “new atheists” make exactly the same intellectual arguments that those before them made. They definitely understand the beliefs they’re rejecting. What’s different is their tone. In that sense, they are less “intellectual,” but I don’t think that’s so bad. What really separates the new atheists from the others is that in the past many atheists thought religion was wrong, but didn’t see it as all that horrible a thing. The new atheists see religion as very harmful to society. That means they have to argue not just that it’s wrong but that it hurts people. They are more outraged at religion, and are arguing that it’s really bad, so they offend religious people more. That doesn’t mean they don’t also make all the correct intellectual arguments against religion.

    Remember too, though, that part of the difference is that they’re really trying to convince people. Most people don’t make these sorts of decisions as the result of rational argumentation. Missionaries don’t go up to someone and start providing historical evidence for the reliability of the gospels. They make emotional appeals. They say things like “Look how much good work our church does.” Atheists attempting to “deconvert” people say “Look how many children your church molests.” I can fully understand why you don’t want to read books of stuff like that – it’s not the real reason religion is wrong – but don’t confuse the presence of emotional arguments with a lack of intellectual arguments.

  9. @Jarod,
    That is a common problem in some atheist works. I’m afraid I don’t have many to recommend (though I like Small Gods and Good Omens, both novels by Terry Pratchett.

    To turn the question back to you, what would you like to see atheists do to engage with Christianity enough to reject it confidently? If you have book suggestions, I’m all ears. I’m still making it through Christianity: The First 3000 Years and you can see the other religion themed books I’m reading/have read here: http://www.unequally-yoked.com/p/bookshelf.html

    –Leah @ http://www.unequally-yoked.com

  10. NFQ: I’m not sure why it’s flagging the link I posted as having malicious software. I’ll check that out.

    Aristarchus: My intention is not to promulgate a generalization on modern/postmodern atheism. I’m not one to think that we should always write off our emotions: human emotion is a beautiful thing. I don’t mean to sound as though I was down-playing emotional appeal. When we appeal to someone by saying that something is bad (morally-loaded term), one should be prepared to speak of what is good (morally-loaded term). This is an inconsistency that I run across in these types of dialogs.

    Leah: Thanks for the suggestions. If you interested in reading some works by Christians who give a reasonable apologetic, I’d recommend the following:

    Why I Believe in God, by Cornelius Van Til (not sure if this one is still published)
    Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton
    Reason for God, by Timothy Keller
    Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, by Flannery Oconnor

    Blessings,
    Jarod

  11. Jarod, my guess is that it isn’t the site itself that’s malicious, but probably that their site’s infected with some kind of virus.

    One book I’d recommend to you is Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. It’s the source of the quotation in my banner above, and it’s a great introduction to the importance of critical thinking about “supernatural” beliefs. Sagan himself did not identify as an atheist, so you definitely won’t find the “new atheist” tone there, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate to portray the book as “atheistic.” Small Gods and Good Omens are great novels (high five for Terry Pratchett, Leah!) that end up making a lot of atheist arguments through humor reasonably effectively, but you should know they’re not a collection of essays or anything.

  12. MS Quixote

     /  June 26, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    “Am I just being a disrespectful troll”

    Nope. Disrespect comes through disrepsectful behavior, not through asking questions, or even in sharing a viewpoint. It’s no different from my being here on your blog. I don’t think I’m being disrespectful, anyway :)

    “I haven’t heard any good answers to these questions yet,”

    Then it seems to me you haven’t looked very well, or in the right places, or perhaps what you mean to say is that none of the answers you heard were persuasive to you as an atheist. I’ve seen plenty of good answers from skeptics that were not persuasive, but I still thought they were good answers and logically coherent. Meant respectfully, btw…

    “great introduction to the importance of critical thinking about “supernatural” beliefs. ”

    How would critical thinking with regard to supernatural beliefs be distinguished from critical thinking with regard to non-supernatural beliefs?

  13. MS Quixote: Yes, by good answers I essentially mean persuasive answers, answers that I think could theoretically persuade someone. I understand the distinction you are making — there are some political opinions I disagree with but still see the arguments for why a reasonable person could hold such opinions. I have not seen even that meager level of persuasiveness in arguments for religion. I have not seen one that I would call “logically coherent.” … Where do you think “the right places” are to be looking?

    Critical thinking with regard to the supernatural differs from critical thinking with regard to the natural in terms of the subject matter. :) The process is the same; that’s the point. Many people “compartmentalize” and never get around to applying their otherwise good critical thinking skills to their supernatural beliefs.

  14. I don’t think you are being a “troll” as well NFQ.

    Define a “good answer.” It’s very hard for me to understand how one can put such authority in their own rational understanding of “the facts,” especially when your own rationality is viewed as being a bi-product of evolutionary mechanism. To put it another way, how is one able to comprehend the meaninglessness or meaningfulness of their own existence simply by their finite interpretation of the “facts” when your own rationality is at the mercy of the ethereal “chance.” Why trust your own understanding? This is “authority of reason” is both mythical and unconvincing to me, though I can understand where you are coming from based on your critical thinking processes. I just don’t agree with the foundation from which your argument springs. It seems that you are smuggling in an a priori into your argument.

    I will readily admit that I am doing the same when I say that our knowledge is analogical to God’s knowledge. God, our creator, is the ultimate interpreter and we are the finite re-interpreters. We think our own thoughts after God’s thoughts, that is to say, God is always presupposed in our thinking whether we acknowledge His existence or not. Our knowledge is necessarily related to God’s knowledge in that all facts exist by virtue of God’s interpretation. Our reinterpretation does not somehow nullify the reality of the triune God’s Interpretation.

    “Arguing about God’s existence, I hold, is like arguing about air. You may affirm that air exists, and I that it does not. But as we debate the point, we are both breathing air all the time.” Van Til

    Jarod

  15. @ Jarod

    I am not an intellectual. I finished school at fifteen.
    However, I understand that you are questioning NFQ’s wisdom in trusting his own judgement of the facts or ideas. However, this is precisely what you are doing. I came to understand that religious people do have strong faith-in their own judgement though of course they claim their faith is in their god. You go on to state some ideas as FACT. That is about as far from intellectual as one can get as far as my uneducated mind can grasp.

  16. MS Quixote

     /  June 27, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    “I have not seen one that I would call “logically coherent.” … Where do you think “the right places” are to be looking?”

    Hmm. Browsing through your blog, and with your open-minded demeanor, you must just not mean what I think you mean. How about this: what is an area you think is logically incoherent?

    “The process is the same; that’s the point. Many people “compartmentalize” and never get around to applying their otherwise good critical thinking skills to their supernatural beliefs.”

    I agree completely. It’s also true for the set of non-believers. Critical thinking is rare across the board. There just happen to be more belivers to exhibit the trait :)

  17. MS Quixote: You were the one that said I probably “haven’t looked very well, or in the right places.” I’ve done a whole lot of looking, so I was wondering where you thought I should be looking to find these answers you insist are out there. What did you think I meant?

    I think it is logically incoherent to say that the Bible is a reliable document that forms the basis of a functioning belief system. See here or here or here for a bit more of my thoughts on that. I think it is logically incoherent when people argue that they believe things for any reason other than that they are at least very likely to be true — saying that a belief encourages them to be nice, or feels beautiful, etc. — yet people argue for beliefs in that way extremely often. More on that here. I could go on, but you just asked for one area. That’s some of the stuff that comes to mind immediately.

  18. @knitman: Thanks for piping in. My question isn’t necessarily directed towards NFQ, but to anyone of my anti-theist/atheist/agnostic [AAA hereafter] friends. My statements are not meant to personally attack anyone, but to give an απολογία.

    I commend your observation that I am stating God’s existence as fact. My AAA friends are standing on an epistemology that is assumed as well. This is what I’m wanting to tengo with. You might have guessed that my epistemology is the eternal Word of God, which is that knowledge by which God makes Himself known. If there were no knowledge of God there would be no knowledge of man. G.K. Chesterton said it in a more a tongue-and-cheek way: “If there were no God, there would be no atheists.” If the knowledge of God wasn’t an inherent reality in the mind of humanity, there would be no market for denying His existence.

    NFQ stated in her “about” section that there are parts of religion that she finds incomprehensible. Indeed, the eternal, triune God is incomprehensible. However, He has made Himself comprehensible by virtue of His intervention in human history through His Word, and through the person and work of Jesus Christ. And it is in this person that I put my faith and trust.

    Jarod

  19. MS Quixote

     /  June 28, 2010 at 12:36 am

    “What did you think I meant?”

    I wasn’t sure, so I figured I’d better ask first. Here’s some thoughts:

    Logical incoherency can occur when conclusions are reached outside or against the rules of inference. This does not seem to be the case with Christian theism, as there exist plenty of logically valid, well-known arguments. For instance, I’ll construct one on the fly based on your biblical reference above:

    If the Bible is a reliable document, it may form the basis of a functioning belief system.

    The Bible is a reliable document.

    Therefore, it may form the basis of a functioning belief system. (MP)

    This is a valid deductive argument containing no logical flaws; it’s not logically incoherent, though you may possess reasons not to believe it. So, I’m not convinced this is what you mean by logical incoherence. What I really think you mean is that you do not find premises within valid arguments for Christian theism sound. With respect to the above, something along the lines of the manuscript evidence leaving you no reason to consider the Bible to be reliable. Again,

    If God did not exist, objective moral values and duties would not exist.

    Objective moral values and duties exist.

    Therefore, God exists.

    Same thing: valid and deductive, with no logical incoherency. I’m still thinking what you mean is that the premises do not persuade you, as in you deny the existence of objective moral values and duties, not that the argument is illogical.

    Am I wrong about this? Or am I completely off base and you’re arguing for a coherence theory of truth, or something else altogether?

    “I think it is logically incoherent when people argue that they believe things for any reason other than that they are at least very likely to be true”

    Now, this seems to me to be a description of inductive reasoning, as inductive reasoning can never deliver the truth of a conclusion absolutely, even if all the premises are true. This is the great irony of the debate, IMO, because the non-theist views you appear to profess are not reached deductively; they are arrived at inductively. In fact, views such as Naturalism cannot be delivered empirically, in great contrast to Christian theism!

    I do not consider views such as naturalism to be logically incoherent, btw. I’m only questioning why you would apply that phrase to Christian theism.

  20. Jarod: What does it mean to say that a concept “is incomprehensible” but in the next breath say that it “has [been] made … comprehensible”? It cannot be both. This is part of what I am talking about.

    MS Quixote: If you do not see how your syllogisms can still be said to be illogical, I don’t know how much further we can really go in this conversation. If one of your premises has no logical reason to be taken as a given, you are not making a logical argument. You could “prove” literally anything by substituting in the wacky sentence of your choice for line 1. “If I were not a millionaire, my blog would not be named No Forbidden Questions. My blog is named No Forbidden Questions. Therefore, I am a millionaire.” Is it “logical” to draw that conclusion? Obviously not; it is founded on illogical premises. There is no relationship between p and q.

    This is to say nothing of your line 2 contents — in particular, “The Bible is a reliable document,” which I gave you three of my own posts disputing already.

  21. MS Quixote

     /  June 28, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    “If one of your premises has no logical reason to be taken as a given, you are not making a logical argument.”

    There’s a genuine and demonstrated difference between logical validity and the soundness of an argument. An argument can be logically coherent and flat out wrong at the same time. Critical thinkers will recognize this distinction.

  22. Jarod, thank you for clarifying your position. In common with all fundamentalists of any persuasion, you fail to understand that what you believe is an idea. Not TRUTH. The only meaning it has is that meaning that you have given it. Your belief, or faith, is in your own judgement. I too use my own judgement. However, my mind remains open, and therefore it is possible for me to make corrections in my judgements, where I see that it needs to be. it is dishonest to base your whole thinking upon an idea that you have decided is fact. A life and a way of thinking based upon a lie, that an idea is fact, cannot produce positive effects. No matter how fervently, one wishes to believe it so.

  23. @knitman, I think you overstate the point a little, in a way that would lead to radical skepticism. Technically, my belief that my sense perceptions correspond to the existence of physical objects in a material world is also belief in an idea. In this case, I am basing my whole thinking (and my choice of path when there is an open manhole in my way) upon an idea that I have decided is fact. I have never proven the existence of a material world or my ability to perceive it.

    I don’t think it’s fair to criticize religious people for making a different leap of faith in their cosmology, simply because it is a leap. Part of the way I justify my leap is by pointing out that no one has yet had experiences that suggest the physical world is an illusion, and this model has useful predictive powers.

    My attack on parallel religious lines of argument is that their faith based model has poor predictive powers and doesn’t accord with observed data.

  24. @MS Quixote

    Your last is absolutely right, but I’ve long since given up on getting my preferred level of mathematical precision in the real world. (I’ve seen too many reports trumpeting significant differences when there are no p-values in sight!)

    I don’t think NFQ was disputing the logical form of your argument, but the existence of a causal relationship between your premises and your conclusion.

    You put forward:

    If God did not exist, objective moral values and duties would not exist.

    You’re trying to set up a modus tollens proof of God’s existence. If atheists concede that objective moral values and duties exist, they must concede that God exists.

    I (and I assume NFQ) do not disagree with the existence of objective moral values and duties, yet we maintain the nonexistence of god. The reason is we do not believe that your original conditional satisfies the condition that the antecedent is necessarily true if the premise is true. It’s not a criticism of the structure of your argument but a disagreement about whether the argument belongs in that structure to begin with.

    –Leah @ http://www.unequally-yoked.com

  25. Aristarchus

     /  June 29, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Ok, sometimes words have different meanings in a logic textbook than in a dictionary. Both are valid uses of the word. There’s a certain sense in which the argument “If I know A and that A implies B, then I know B” is logically valid. However, if you have no reason to believe A is true, it is still illogical (in the everyday sense) to believe B. So unless you have some reason to believe the Bible is a reliable document, it’s not logical to believe your argument. Obviously we can’t prove here that there is no logical argument for God. That’s the point of this blog, many other blogs, lots of books, etc. Many of us, though, have heard a lot of smart people try to argue for God, and haven’t found those arguments at all logical. The fact that the arguments you give above are the best you can come up only reinforces this in my mind.

  26. MS Quixote

     /  June 29, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    “I’ve long since given up on getting my preferred level of mathematical precision in the real world. ”

    I have a lot of respect for this view, Leah, and can speak it fluently, FWIW.

    “I (and I assume NFQ) do not disagree with the existence of objective moral values and duties”

    I would guess you would disagree in the sense I intend by the phrase, though I acknowledge you may posit genuine objective values in a different sense.

    “The reason is we do not believe that your original conditional satisfies the condition that the antecedent is necessarily true if the premise is true.”

    I understand, and I’m not here to demonstrate why I think it is. All I’m saying is that it is logically coherent. And it is…

    “Ok, sometimes words have different meanings in a logic textbook than in a dictionary.”

    This is certainly true, but when invoking the phrase critical thinking, formal logic is in view, I’d think. Formal logic is a necessary condition of critical thought, right?

    Hey NFQ,

    This whole thing started out with an eye toward being respectful. I certainly don’t intend to disrespect your blog. If I’m irritating you, let me know…

  27. @NFQ:

    To clarify: I believe God, eternal Being, although incomprehensible, reveals Himself in ways that are comprehensible (naturally and specially).

    @knitman & @Leah:

    I would not consider myself a fundamentalist in the way in which you use the word. I do believe in the “fundamentals” of Christianity, but I do not identify with the movement called “fundamentalism” and its Constantinian roots. I am grieved at how this movement has caused many people harm.

    I do consider God’s existence as fact because I believe He presupposes our thoughts and existence. To me, God is a personal being and not an idea. My anti-theist/atheist/agnostic (and sometimes ID) friends often unwittingly presuppose an idea in their argumentation, namely, the principle of uniformity. They reason by induction upon this idea without justification. Hume called this the “problem of induction.” I appreciate how you (Leah) recognize this as a “leap of faith.” This hardly ever gets called into question because the “facts” are often preached rather dogmatically and without question.

    I believe that God’s providence and governance of the created order provides science with the uniformity of nature that it seeks to employ. I am not anti-science by any means, in fact, I believe that the physical sciences in no way contradict or threaten the reality of God. However, many scientists of the day tend to postulate their data/theories along with certain philosophical doctrines that elevate the authority of the scientific method in fanatical fashion. I’ve heard this referred to as “scientism.” I am in agreement with what the late agnostic Neil Postman wrote:

    “Scientism… is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called ‘science’ can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like ‘What is life, and when, and why?’ ‘Why is death, and suffering?’ ‘What is right and wrong to do?’”

    From: Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

    Blessings,

    Jarod

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