A Thought on Religion-Atheism Debates

I’m generally not a huge fan of debates over religion. I like the idea of them – of people coming together to present arguments for and against religious positions – but conversations and debates over religion almost never even approximate that ideal of rational, civil, critical, self-reflective discussion. They usually just turn out to be a few people reiterating, with increasing volume and vigor, their own religious or non-religious view, along with their tired stereotypes of the other’s view. So, one way to fix discussions over religion is to inject a little civility, humility, and critical thought into them.

But that’s what everyone already knows is wrong with most debates over religion (except the people who participate in them). There’s another problem with these discussions/debates, though, that is less obvious: when people engage in these discussions, they normally aim too high. Specifically, it’s generally the position of person A in these debates that person B’s belief is totally irrational, and the same goes the other way round. Atheists think that religious folk are just being foolish, and religious people think atheists are just crazy (or evil). These are their respective theses. But, sadly, almost all of the time, the people who are in these discussions just aren’t capable of even coming close to showing that their thesis is right.

To see what I mean, consider what it would take to show that that sort of statement is true: Person A is irrational by believing p. That statement (which is usually the thesis of the participants of religious debates) has the structure A is x because s. To show – to really show in the way that people involved in these debates want to, and think they can show – that this sort of statement is true, you need to do a lot of work. First, you need to have some clear understanding of what x is. Most of the time, we all have a shared understanding of what x is when we make statements of the form A is x. I am a human. Ralf is a dog. That is a volvo. We all know what x is there. But in the case of the claim A is irrational we definitely do not have a clear, shared idea of what x is. What it means to be rational or irrational is a very complex philosophical issue that most people have not given any sustained consideration to. Consider that if I asked you what a dog was, you’d be able to tell me, if not a complete definition of dog, at least a lot of defining, necessary features a thing must have in order to be a dog. But if I ask you what rationality is, could you do so well? Probably not; and the people who engage so eagerly in debates to show that someone is irrational for believing x usually can’t either. In fact, if you pressed them to give you a definition of rationality, you’d usually get a blank stare, followed by a hasty, mumbly string of near nonsense.

This is what I mean when I say religious debaters (of both the professional and college-sophomore sort) aim too high in their discussions. Most believe, and want to show, that people on the other side are crazy. But to do that you need a decent definition of what it means to be rational or irrational, and that’s a very complex and sophisticated question that they (apparently) don’t have the time to pursue, what with having to show everyone they’re crazy all the time.

The reason they aim so high, I think, is that they have the following line of thought in their head: Belief p seems totally false to me. Anyone who believes something I think is totally false is irrational. A believes p. Therefore, A is irrational.


The problem here is with the idea that believing in something that you think is obviously false makes someone irrational. First of all, basing your standard of rationality on your particular set of beliefs is pretty silly. This makes rationality either subjective – if you say that what’s rational for person A is just what A happens to believe – or totally arbitrary – if you say that what’s rational to believe is what you believe (why should anyone care what you believe when considering whether they should believe something?). All this is obvious; no one would honestly promote the idea that what’s rational is just what’s in accordance with their own beliefs, but this is what, in practice, people in religious debates often seem to do.

A better aim for religious debates is this: to show either 1) that the other person’s position is false, or 2) that the other person’s position is not as worth holding as yours is. The first requires research into what the relevant facts are. The second requires coming up with a clear theory of rationality, and applying it consistently to both belief systems to show that one fares better than the other in being rational. These are legitimate aims for debates in general, and religious debates in particular. And doing one or the other is the only way to make a debate worth having. Both of these things would take a lot of time to be able to do well, and this gives an added bonus for everyone, since the loud-mouths who love to debate would then be removed from the real world to a library where they could work on being able to give us something worth having.

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15 Responses to “A Thought on Religion-Atheism Debates”
  1. ashleyfmiller says:

    No one is always rational and skeptical about everything, it’s too difficult. Which generally translates to people are irrational, but a lot of them are trying really hard to overcome this. And it is never, ever a good idea to turn a person into their beliefs. It is possible to believe stupid things without being stupid.

  2. I definitely agree that we are not our beliefs – that very idea is what often makes rational discussion impossible, since people who identify with their beliefs feel personally attacked when you try to show why you think their belief is wrong. That said, I’m not sure I agree that it’s too difficult to be rational about everything. You say “No one is always rational and skeptical” – I don’t think those two are the same thing at all. Skepticism is about having a tendency to refrain from belief until some personal standard is met, but lots of ‘skeptics’ don’t have very consistent or reasonable standards in the first place. Rationality, on the other hand, is about having the *right* standard in the first place, and believing accordingly. I don’t see why the latter thing is so hard to do, apart from the difficulty of figuring out what standards to have. But, given that our beliefs determine so much of the content of our lives (and the lives of others around us), isn’t it the *reasonable* thing to do to go through the hard work of believing rightly?

  3. Gabriel says:

    I have spent a great deal of time thinking about this. I agree there is a large group of people who do behave uncharitably toward one-another in religious discussions. I think have just recently come to measuring these types of conversations by how they approximate to intellectual virtues (vice = recklessness / virtue = courage / vice = cowardice). A few areas that easily come to mind are old line Christian fundamentalists and their new counterpart the New Atheists as well as the Scopes-Monkey -Trial-era-educational-system and its opposite, current day anti-creationist educational system. I don’t think any of these groups are/were practicing and encouraging intellectual by the way they are having their conversations. Moreover, a large group of young people are growing up with the attitude that the way they had their conversation about this stuff is ok.

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