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How far should atheists go in their polemic?

I am an atheist, and fiercely interested in discourse about religion at that. However, when I try to bring the subject up in public forums, I almost immediately receive more than my far share (in my opinion) of resentment for doing so. I am sure this experience is not unique to me. Irrespective of whether these attitudes are justified or not, what is the best way to enter into debate about religion in our society? Religion is so pervasive in most of our cultures that godlessness seems too far removed from the status quo to be even accepted as a tolerable stance. Do we stick to our guns, and present our arguments, however inflammatory? Or do we tone ourselves down for the sake of simply getting ourselves heard?

Posted: March 31st 2009

Maxx Power www

When it comes to any sort of discussion about religious beliefs, it is necessary to find an even ground between putting your points across and being polite at the same time. Whenever you decide to discuss these ideas with Theists you have to remember you are talking to real people, who hold their beliefs close to their hearts. Attempting to criticize their religion is akin to making passes at their family. Therefore it is worth having as much tact as is necessary to avoid causing undue anguish to others.

However, having said that, I don’t believe at all that is sense of empathy should ever extend to the point where you are afraid to put across your own thoughts on the subject. The sad truth is we live in a world where the vast majority of people believe in some religious practice, and many of them don’t want to have their beliefs questioned. There is a lot being done to stem the overall feeling of hostility towards those who want to put their Agnostic/Atheist beliefs across, though it is still the case that people will put up the red flag of “It’s my personal beliefs so don’t question them” the moment any kind of discourse is attempted.

We can set an example whenever the opportunity arises, and Non-Theists should never feel intimidated to the point where they keep silent whenever religious discussion is brought up. It helps to practice your own arguments as much as possible, to get an idea as to how best to present what you want to say in the least offensive way possible. The Internet is a good place to start, however it is worth joining forums/discussion groups that favour such debates. I have often found myself quickly banned for expressing my Atheist views of belief, a sad side effect to the over-religious viewpoints of others. If after this effort people are still hostile towards you then it is their loss, not yours. By standing by your principals and not backing down when the “status quo” would have you act otherwise, you manage to instill the notion that it is acceptable for Non-Believers to let their opinions be known, even if Believers don’t want to hear them.

Posted: April 5th 2009

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George Locke

The question isn’t so much how far to go as it is when to go there. The thing you have to realize is that many people think it’s impolite to discuss religion merely because it tends to brings up irreconcilable differences. This can be different from not wanting holy ideas challenged. Some people just don’t like to have arguments of any kind and don’t like being around them. You have to judge whether the people you’re talking with are open to a debate.

If you’re trying to actually convince people to stop believing in God, then, in my opinion, you don’t want to put them on the defensive if you can avoid it. Explain your position and ask them about theirs, and have a discussion instead of an argument.

Posted: April 1st 2009

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George Ricker www

How one engages in a discourse about religions depends in part on the forum in which the discussion occurs. A formal debate, for example, requires a different approach than a casual discussion among friends after dinner.

However, for some religionists, the very existence of an atheist is regarded as an affront in and of itself. That’s why some of them go to great lengths to convince themselves there really are no atheists.
So there is very little to be gained by trying to soft-pedal your thoughts on the subject. Frankly, I’m of the opinion religion has for far too long enjoyed a privileged status in most societies. While it is certainly true that one ought to respect the rights of conscience of all people, respect for the right to believe a thing does not translate into respect for the belief itself.

In an essay titled “R*E*S*P*E*C*T cartooning religion,” I wrote, “The respect we owe another’s right to hold different ideas does not extend to the ideas themselves. Once those ideas are submitted for our consideration, then we are entitled to show them no respect at all. We may treat them with honest reflection, with consideration or with contempt. The respect we extend to other ideas will depend partly on the inherent worth of those ideas and partly on our own mental architecture, but its exercise is strictly voluntary.”

Sincerity is not an argument. Things don’t become more true just because someone “really, really, really” wants them to be true. And nonsense is still nonsense, no matter how artfully it is disguised as profound pontification.

We really cannot have an honest dialogue about religions and their role in our world if the religious are going to wrap themselves in the mantle of self-righteous indignation every time someone criticizes one of their beliefs or pokes a bit of fun in its direction. When the religious presume to tell the members of secular societies how they should act and to critique their performance, then they should expect their own ideas and performance to receive scrutiny as well.

Besides, there is so much about most religions that is offensive, it is absurd to think their absurdities should be off limits.

I really don’t think we atheists will get a fairer hearing if we tone ourselves down, I just think we will make it easier for the religionists to ignore us and to pretend we either don’t exist or don’t have anything relevant to say.

Posted: April 1st 2009

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Reed Braden www

The other answers cover this well, so I’ll just expand on how I think it’s best to approach controversial or possibly-offensive arguments: Stick to your guns, soldier. ;-)

What some people call polemic or controversial, I call unadulterated truth. There are nice ways of saying things and then there are truthful ways of saying them. For instance:

  • Catholic priests don’t “abuse” or “mishandle” young kids, they rape them.
  • Scientology is not a “new religion”, it’s a cult.
  • Internal conflicting statements in holy texts are not “translation errors” or “interpretation differences” they’re contradictions and lies.
  • Female circumcision isn’t a “cultural practice”, it’s genital mutilation of young girls.

Don’t give in to bullcrap requests for you to bend over backwards to accommodate religion or concede to evidence-less statements (The Vatican can’t be judged by things as ancient as The Crusades). Most theists won’t listen to non-sanitized arguments, but for the few who do, it will have a profound impact. That’s one of the things that led me to question my faith: Polemic.

Don’t water down the truth to make it palatable.

Posted: April 1st 2009

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SmartLX www

The problem is toning ourselves down in a way that actually leaves our arguments intact.

Calling yourself an atheist in the first place says something confronting to all religious people around you: you think they’re wrong, and that they’re wasting time, effort, money and more on their faith. If you’ve challenged the way they live their lives merely by self-identifying, how much does your choice of words really matter?

Your position is clear from the outset, so being nicer usually means saying more. There are myths about atheists to dispel: that they’re certain, that they have no morals, that they want children taken away from religious parents, that they’re really closet believers. There’s an intellectual case for atheism to be made, so that people don’t think you’re simply clinging to dogma as irrationally as a fundamentalist or criticising for emotional reasons.

Once people realise that you’re simply a person who holds a view that’s justifiable given your reasoning so far, there’s no good reason to be put off by you. Some people might still be put off for bad reasons, such as emotional attachment to their faith, but that’s their problem. For everyone else, it’s all about the issues, and that’s what you want.

Posted: March 31st 2009

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Eric_PK

Well, there are lots of people who think that all atheists are nihilists who are only interested in themselves.

Or worse.

Often, I think the best thing to start with is not the atheist side of things, but the positive beliefs that you do have – how you know what is right or wrong, how you think society should function, etc. That can counter some of the misconceptions.

But I don’t believe in toning down the discussions when you choose to have the discussions.

Or, to put it another way, the great Stephen J. Gould wrote a whole book about how religion and science are totally different things (his term was “non-overlapping magisteria”, IIRC).

That sort of typifies what I would call a “live and let live” sort of attitude, which is something I used to believe in and now think is counter-productive.

If the theists want to be taken seriously, I think they should have to discuss their ideas seriously – especially when they think their ideas should set public policy for everybody.

Posted: March 31st 2009

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