“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” – attributed to Socrates.
If you’re a believer (Christian, Muslim, Mormon, etc.), have you ever felt like your arguments were being completely ignored by the atheist you were conversing with? If you’re an atheist, have you ever wondered at the believer that wouldn’t bow to what you perceive to be sound reasoning? It’s tempting to think that your adversary is just too dense or stuck in their ideology to listen, but what’s really going on and how can you improve your chances to make them see your point?
Cognitive biases and other logical fallacies are very serious roadblocks to truth in any emotionally invested world-view. Unchecked, they make it extremely difficult to seriously consider any conversation that challenges our current belief system. In my experience one of the best inoculations against many of the naturally fallacious influences of the human mind is to:
- Acknowledge that they are real and you and I are not immune to them.
- Choose to care more about finding truth (or at least avoiding cognitive dissonance) than preserving existing beliefs.
- Admit that statistically we each also hold some percentage of false beliefs but we don’t know which ones they are.
- Spend time trying to learn the fallacies linked above.
- Think about how each fallacy may have influenced our current beliefs.
If we (ourselves and our opponents) can consistently follow these steps, we will be on guard against one of the most dangerous fallacies of all – motivated reasoning – and will have achieved a belief system that fulfills Hume’s admonition:
A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.
If we can further recognize that:
- Each of us, even our opponents, believe what makes the most sense to us at the time based on our specific phenotype.
- None of us are knowledgeable enough about either naturalistic cosmogeny or the intentions of a God to justify vain certainty on these topics.
… it will help us be more willing to have theological conversations with humility, gentleness and respect. Vitriol breeds vitriol. Love breeds love. Off my soapbox and onto the point of this post. I don’t want to lose you before the poll at the bottom. 🙂
Identifying your and your adversary’s theological belief position – and why it matters
Pascal and I started our conversations by identifying misconceptions about the other’s position and we’re still doing that today. Misunderstandings inhibit fruitful conversation and make the odds of convincing someone that much more unlikely.
One of the first issues we encountered is the same one I see repeated often on the internet – the straw man argument, specifically as it relates to someone’s theological belief position. The issue comes from our mind’s natural tendency to justify its own beliefs by thinking of its adversary’s beliefs in a way that makes them seem less tenable than they actually are. Then there’s the fact that the terms we tend to use to identify our belief positions are too ambiguous due to multiple possible definitions. As a result, our minds tend to think our adversary’s hold the easiest position for us to knock down. It’s a significant problem because until we accurately understand what we believe and what our adversary believes, we can’t form arguments that address the real issue – the differences between us.
I created this graphic a while back for Pascal visualize where my beliefs line up on the spectrum (as I see it), where his do, and what the actual differences are. As he knew, gnosticism/agnosticism are knowledge positions while theism/atheism are belief positions – so they overlap. When someone says their agnostic about God it doesn’t technically tell you whether or not they believe in God, as the chart will show. Once atheism started becoming culturally acceptable, people started adopting the more specific label – thus we have atheists that are really what we used to think of as agnostic. Pascal suggested I share the chart here in case it’s helpful for anyone one else. I can’t tell you how many debates this helped us avoid, and how few of the arguments I see discussed on the web are even relevant to my form of atheism.
The first step is to identify what your belief position is. Then you can send the other party here to identify theirs. Once you know both, you can work out where you actually disagree which will help you determine where to focus your arguments.
The chart is pretty straightforward with one exception. Every God-claim has a set of properties. A God-claim is the description of the God being proposed (e.g. the concept or mental image about the God, including his actions, intents, properties, nature, powers, etc.). If you’re an atheist because you reject the culturally common God-claim around you (e.g. Christianity), that doesn’t necessarily mean your theological belief position has to match your confidence (or lack thereof) in that specific God-claim. For example, you may be a gnostic atheist about Zeus, an agnostic positive atheist about the version of God you interpret from the Christian Bible, but an agnostic negative atheist about the existence of some God or gods if you think you just haven’t heard the right God-claim yet. The Bible itself can be interpreted many ways, and each way that affects the character, actions, intentions, or attributes of the God is a different God-claim. Many people are gnostic atheists about the version of Yahweh that sends people to Hell, but still consider themselves gnostic theists about the God of the Bible (because they hold a different interpretation). Someone can be an anti-theist (openly opposing belief and/or worship of a specific set of God-claims) regardless of what theological belief position they hold.
How will knowing this help a believer address an atheist?
Arguments about what you think is evidence for an order behind nature are not very relevant to most agnostic negative atheists, because they will often grant you that, at least for the sake of argument. Those types of arguments (cosmology, fine tuning, laws of nature, transcendental argument for God, laws of logic, etc.) are most relevant to the agnostic strong atheists or gnostic theists – though I’m not sure if there are many gnostic theists. What negative atheists need to know is why the specific God-claim your advocating (your interpretation of that deity’s properties, actions, intents) is the true cause for that order. There’s a big chasm between deism and your brand of theism, and that’s what you need to focus on when addressing an agnostic negative atheist.
I hope this graphic will serve as a reminder to all of us to find out what someone actually believes before we spend time and energy, and our audience’s patience arguing against a position they don’t hold.
Your turn – what do you believe?
I know this poll isn’t truly random due to the selection effect, but we really are curious to see if most atheists visiting our site and willing to take the poll are strong or gnostic atheists – which is what believers tend to argue against – or if there is a decent percentage of agnostic negative atheists that just lack belief in a God. On the theism side, what percentage of the believers who visit us are willing to admit that they are agnostic? This will help us get to know you – our audience.
The voting is anonymous. Please comment here if you have questions. Click or tap the chart image in the survey above to see it full-size so you can read it. Feel free to share if you find it useful.
Please let me know if you see any errors, and thanks for reading. If you were willing to respond to the poll, thank you for that, too! 🙂
Gentleness and respect,