Learning from the Most Hostile of Teachers

I almost want to apologize, but I entered into an online debate this week with a few self-identified atheists. Though they would deny it, I would classify them as New Atheists.

As someone who’s avoided the group for some time, I found it an interesting experience. Yes, the fallacies are all still there: the refusal to accept any burden of proof, the scientism, the distortion of theists’ actual arguments, the mockery in place of rational argumentation…but this seems rather old news.

I’ve decided that I ought to focus on what I can learn from the experience. Here’s my list so far, but I welcome additions in the comments section.

1. Doubt is a good thing

The New Atheists are right to assert this. In fact, it is not their doubt of theism that is my chief issue with them. It is their lack of doubt in scientism and materialism. 

But I can’t respond to them by digging in our heels and declaring certainty. I need to see this as an example to avoid–to be thoughtful and reflective about my views.

2. You can’t persuade everyone

It isn’t our job to convince others of the truth of theism; only the spirit can convict. Our job is to communicate our beliefs, and the reasons for those beliefs, as clearly as possible.

The rest is between the listener and God.

3. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake

It’s not “blessed are those who are persecuted for obnoxiousness sake”. If I’m irritable, pushy, or defensive in my presentation, then I need to change.

However, it has happened that I’ve been insulted because someone is resorting to mockery for a lack of intelligent response. I’m slowly learning that this isn’t a reason to be upset, but something to expect.

4. Debate sharpens the mind, and clarifies one’s theology

I’ve found no better way to sort out the details my beliefs. I hope to always have someone to challenge me in ways that I don’t think to challenge myself.

5. Theism is an approach for the thoughtful

That’s not to say that all thoughtful people are theists, but that realizing that theism is a formidable position is part of being a thoughtful person. Those who dismiss the debate as if it were over simply don’t understand the reality of the situation.

6. Loving my enemies takes practice

It’s also the only way to free myself from bitterness.

7. One isn’t saved through debate

Part of the reason, I think, why most of us are so eager to convince others is that we think it will help us with our own doubt (and it seems to be worst when we won’t admit to ourselves that we have doubt).

But winning debates doesn’t make me more right, and it definitely doesn’t bring me closer to God. And it is amazing how easy it is to start debating as if it justified my existence.

Those are my lessons. If you have any others, I’d love to read about them.


25 responses to “Learning from the Most Hostile of Teachers

  • Atomic Mutant

    Just a little detail concerning the burden of proof… Do I get you right, that you claim, that someone who doesn’t believe something has to prove that it doesn’t exist (just to make sure that I didn’t misunderstand you there)?

    • William Ockham

      I am not the author but I can respond from my own interactions with New Atheists on the burden of proof issue.

      Many atheists have an artificially high burden for proving the existence of God such as “certainty” as in a scientific proof or “beyond a reasonable doubt” as in a legal standard. The appropriate standard is the standard used for philosophical arguments or used in making business decisions “more likely than not” (I’ll ignore the whole ramifications modification as set forth by Paschal).

      So to answer your question: Yes theists have the burden proving that the existence of God is a better explanation for the nature of reality than the non-existence of God. Similarly, atheists have the burden of proving that the non-existence of God is a better explanation for the nature of reality than the existence of God.

    • Debilis

      No, actually.

      My claim is that every single human being has an approach to reality–and that anyone who wants to debate with mine should be willing to defend his or her own.

      That seems only reasonable.

  • William Ockham

    Good summary. I would also add this it is very helpful to have a basic understanding of science as that is a language that New Atheists speak to that creates a common ground for dialogue. Cosmology, evolutionary biology, quantum physics and neuroscience all provide evidence that there are dimensions of existence beyond the material world. Moreover, these sciences point to a creative mind behind the Universe and can be used in support of theism.

  • Howie

    Hi Debilis. I’ve been mocked and insulted for being an atheist so I can understand your feelings and I try my best not to “give the insults back” when they are dished out to me. I think this is something we all deal with in our discussions (especially online) – are we going past the grey line between a joke meant for a laugh and an insult. I haven’t read your “debate” but I wouldn’t doubt that the insults probably went way past that line and I’m sorry you had to deal with that. By the way I had also been mocked when I was a Christian so I can actually understand the feelings even more.

    I’m not sure I’m understanding the burden of proof fallacy you are describing. My understanding of that is that unless a positive claim for the existence of something is self-evident then the burden of proof lies with that positive claim. You may be saying that the existence of God is self-evident, which I would agree would be something to be discussed and in fact is discussed by philosophers. That’s fine and there is obviously much honest disagreement on what the criteria for something being self-evident is. But those philosophers (like Alvin Plantinga) who believe that the existence of God is self-evident do seem to be in the minority, and there are good reasons for that. Further, I don’t believe that the arguments for the existence of God should be ignored. They should be responded to and evaluated to see whether they are successful, so maybe that is what you mean by burden. But beyond that the non-existence of stuff is not something that we all need to prove. That list would be infinite (says the finite being 😉 ).

    • makagutu

      Howie I think it would be best to see the actual exchange to judge if he was insulted or not and why the question of burden of proof came up

      • Howie

        agreed. 🙂 He said he felt insulted and I’ve read a lot of places where insults are thrown in debates so I just thought it likely. No fights needed on that one unless you want to of course. 🙂

        • makagutu

          In this case he links a blog from where he says he was insulted. I know insults fly around a lot most of the time but I think one has to be fair in their reporting. I avoid fights like people avoid the plague 😛

        • Howie

          Awesome, sounds like you and I are similar then. I’ve seen you post elsewhere and you always seem quite kind. I was just trying to tell Debilis that I can relate to feeling like I’ve been insulted in debates (and sometimes that is inside of our own heads, like you are probably suggesting). I wasn’t trying to get in between, just trying to offer the guy (sorry if ‘guy’ is the wrong guess) some consolation which is needed whether or not his perception is reality. But yes, I agree that fair reporting is important. I avoid fights too so can I leave it at that and not be the in between guy like I always seem to stupidly do?

        • makagutu

          I know you avoid fights. All your comments wherever I have seen them have been level headed so to speak. In fact you hardly get in between. I have enjoyed reading your comments on Nate’s blog. I never can write that much!

        • Howie

          I am literally laughing out loud Makagutu!! You are so right that I can’t seem to control how much I write. I’m surprised you even read my comments because they are often way too long. 😉

        • makagutu

          Sometimes am patient I shock myself. I love to know what other people think and how best than to read their thoughts whenever they express them. Most times I can only manage a paragraph

      • Debilis

        I agree with this. Please have a look.

        For Mak and those who disagree that this actually happened, please take my statements as divorced from the incident itself. I think they can be read that way.

    • Debilis

      Thanks for the sympathies, they are very much appreciated.

      As far as the issue of burden of proof, I agree that the theist has it with regard to the existence of God. A better version of my statement might be this:

      1) Many (but, by no means, all) atheists have far too strict a standard of proof–and are dismissive about evidence without giving a standard of evidence.
      2) All people have a take on reality, and this means that each of us, whether atheist or theist will have the burden of proof at some point in the discussion.

      More than anything else. I appreciate the kindness and thoughtfulness of your approach. That has definitely not gone unnoticed.

      • Howie


        You said:

        More than anything else. I appreciate the kindness and thoughtfulness of your approach. That has definitely not gone unnoticed.

        Very cool!! Some think I’m overly sensitive to this kind of stuff but I try to be in order to overcome the difficulty of the online medium. If we were in person I’d likely be giving you sarcastic jabs and we might even both be laughing about it because I rarely mean them condescendingly. Feel free to let me know if I’ve insulted you and I’ll adjust.

        Many (but, by no means, all) atheists have far too strict a standard of proof–and are dismissive about evidence without giving a standard of evidence.

        Obviously I can’t speak for others, but I personally do hold strict standards of proof because I believe that history has shown that we can easily fool ourselves into believing false things without them. All fields of study (not just the physical sciences) have strict standards of proof, and you can see this being applied in universities across the world. I have a hard time understanding why this standard should be modified for other fields given the history of our pursuit of truth. I believe even religious people hold to very strict standards of proof when it comes to the religions that they do not espouse. Can we go overboard with this? Sure, but I’m not sure that’s so easy to tell in online discussions.

        • Debilis

          I definitely like your approach. I’m very pleased by it.

          And I agree with you that it is important to check ourselves against the idea that we might be fooled. That being the case, I agree with strict standards–so long as they are consistently applied (that is, we don’t give theism or materialism either one a free pass when it comes to these questions).

          I expect we agree with that. But, either way, best to you.

        • Howie

          Hi Debilis,

          Yes, I definitely agree with that – strict standards should be applied to all views consistently. I try my best to do that and try to look for other experts who do the same. I would suspect all of us fail at doing this perfectly which is a part of what makes the search so challenging.

        • Debilis

          That is always the struggle, isn’t it?

          I’m suspicious that this sort of circular reasoning, where we give views we already hold a less-challenging review, is the most common fallacy humans commit.

  • makagutu

    Am not sure you were met with hostility on my blog, unless this was a different blog. All the same I know how annoying it can be.

    Back to the main issues you raise
    #1. my uncle told me the beginning of knowledge lies in the ability to doubt. So I agree it is a good thing. You say we [I] don’t doubt scientism and materialism- am not sure at what point the debate on the scientific method came up on the discussion we were having. I will have to check it again. But while we are on it- apart from the scientific method as a way of learning about the cosmos- what other method do we have that has yielded results?

    #2 you can’t persuade everyone
    In that case I am sorry to tell you will never succeed. Conviction is personal and is a question of judgement. All you can do is make a person consider a question in a different light.

    #3 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake
    I believe as a moral teacher, Jesus did poorly. Why do you cry persecution anyway? You were not barred from speaking your mind.

    #4 Debate sharpens the mind, and clarifies one’s theology
    I agree debate sharpens the mind and help in clarifying ideas but it does nothing to theology as long as theology remains the study of nature of god.

    #5 Theism is an approach for the thoughtful
    This is a veiled insult to a host of very thoughtful people and if for a person claiming persecution you can resort to such insults then I don’t know what to say.

    #6 Loving my enemies takes practice
    You don’t have to love your enemies. It is bad practice. Just avoid them. Works very well for me 😛

    #7 One isn’t saved through debate
    Fortunately for me, I am in no need of salvation.

    In general, I notice most theist bloggers keep saying atheists are mean, that we insult you and that theists are all nice. Well there is nothing about unbelief that tells you what a person is and to keep this line of argument or generalizations is totally out of place. It is this reason that sometimes most people don’t bother listening to anything the theist has to say because you start judging not the content of what you have been told but how it has been said.

    • Debilis

      This is surprising! I really didn’t think anyone would debate the points here.

      To answer, I’m going to get away from the specific discussion, but I do want to make some points.

      “You say we [I] don’t doubt scientism and materialism- am not sure at what point the debate on the scientific method came up on the discussion we were having”
      I say that this is a problem among the New Atheists.
      But this isn’t about the scientific method, it is about the fact that science is not applicable to every question. The idea that the types of things that science studies are the only parts of reality seems to be an undoubted assumption of the New Atheists.

      The best example I can give is the film “The Unbelievers” which never addresses that idea in insisting that “a scientific worldview” would take this as true.

      It seems that we agree here. I’m not out to persuade everyone.

      I wasn’t crying persecution; I’m not persecuted. I merely thought the statement was apt to the situation.

      But, if you want to make the case that Jesus Christ was a poor moral teacher, you are free to do so, but I’ll not challenge that if you’re just stating your position.

      I simply don’t understand this. Debate affects one’s understanding of any subject. Why is theology an exception?

      I specifically denied that all thoughtful people are theists.

      You seem to be reading between the lines, and (I assure you) reaching false conclusions about me. Please be careful about this.

      I try to do both, but would definitely challenge the claim that this is “bad practice” if that were the point of discussion.

      I think we have very different understandings of what salvation is. But, if you claim that you are in no need of it, I’d definitely want a case made for that before I accept it.

      But, if you’re simply stating your positions without intent to defend them, feel free. I intended this as more of a discussion than a debate.

      Let me go on record as agreeing that atheists are not universally mean–nor are theists universally nice. In fact, if you re-read my comment, I was talking about how I can learn be a nicer person.

      I also want to underline that I wasn’t talking about all atheists–just a particular group that has some negative tendencies. It is that group which I was referencing, not all atheists.

  • Mark Hamilton

    There seems to be a bit of debate about whether people were insulting to you on that particular blog. Reading through it I have two things to say. The first is that it was on the whole civil, until people starting talking about you among themselves. I’ve seen worse. But the second point, and the much more important one, is that even words that seem harmless to one person can cut deep. It hurts to be dismissed, and it hurts when people accuse you (or simply imply) that you’re trying to do something that you’re not. I know how it feels. Just know that you’re not alone.

    And at least it wasn’t Ark. 😉

    • Debilis

      This one made me smile.

      And you’re right to say that it is far from the worst scenario. I do hope that i didn’t come across as if it were somehow terrible. I’d meant to say that it made me think, and that I should focus on improving myself. If that didn’t come across (or, worse, if that wasn’t my real motivation) I owe some people an apology.

      I even hope that, one day, I’ll even have a productive discussion with Ark. But I’m not up for trying just yet.

      In any case, I thought this was very reasonable. Thank you.

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