Discourse with religious believers

Chuck Doswell - 04 March 2011

I’ve been having a continuing discussion with RJ regarding how to interact with religious believers.  I think any fan of this program knows that RJ is reluctant to cut believers much slack, preferring instead to give them a substantial dose of his own particular brand of verbal capsaicin. 

It’s been something of a struggle for me to cope with this issue.  My initial reaction to RJ was one of disapproval of his implicit disrespect in his comments and responses to believers.  We had some vigorous arguments regarding this topic and RJ even went so far as to proclaim something of a change of heart, choosing to stop the insulting name-calling (like ‘christard’) when interacting with believers.  But at the same time, I was coming to a new appreciation for RJ’S viewpoint, in part because he educated me about the so-called ‘moderate’ believers who follow a non-fundamentalist form of their chosen faith.  When pushed to choose between acceptance of atheists and being counted among the believers when confronted with the choice of “with us … or against us” by fundamentalist extremists, I suspect most moderates would choose to go along with extremists.  The evidence is there in history.

At any rate, I hope it’s pretty clear I have no respect for any of the major religious beliefs.  And I find it puzzling, indeed, when those whom I respect for their ability otherwise to think independently, to be rational, and to use logical, evidence-based arguments, choose to reject all of that and embrace an unthinking, irrational belief system that demands unquestioning faith and obedience on the basis of no evidence!  It seems to me to be a monument to compartmentalized thinking.  They are rational only insofar as it doesn’t conflict with their faith.  What such moderates seem to do is to “cherry-pick” those aspects of religion that are least contradictory and violent, while ignoring most of the actual teachings embodied in their putative “sacred” texts.  As Ken Humphries has shown, careful study of sacred texts reveals the inconsistencies and contradictions that lead me to conclude these documents cannot be the work of an infallible diety.  At least the fundamentalists are consistently irrational!

But what’s the point of arguing religion with believers?  It seems to me that there can be only two objectives (for an atheist) to a civil discussion about religion with a religious believer.  One possible objective is to offer such a compelling argument that the believer would be forced to confront the irrationality of their beliefs.  That is, the idea is to convert the believer to unbelief (or at least, to doubt). The other is to understand the sort of thinking that leads the believer to embrace irrationality.  Let me consider each of these, in turn:

Converting believers to atheism is not something most atheists want to do.  Atheism isn’t a religion in its own right (despite the specious statements to that effect by many believers);  rather, it’s the denial of belief in a deity.  We have nothing to which to convert believers!  There are no atheist creeds, there are no atheist sacred documents, there are no atheist churches, there is no atheist dogma.  Moreover, if someone wants to believe in something despite the clear absence of evidence, what is that to me?  In my experience, believers consistently refuse to accept that their beliefs are inconsistent with rational thinking.  It’s pretty unlikely I’ll shatter their irrational belief systems with any rational argument.

What about understanding their point of view?  Increasingly, I find it less and less interesting to attempt to understand a perspective that accepts inherently contradictory elements.  What value might I derive from a deeper understanding of this?  I’m at a loss to know, but ...

I’m left with the following:  I seem to have no rational reason to be civil to my believer friends!  Thus, I’m forced to conclude that I’m being irrational about this.  It seems that friendship can have an irrational basis so I can enjoy maintaining relationships with my believer friends because this brand of irrationality causes me no harm.  If they don’t push their beliefs on me, I won’t push my disbelief on them.  And we can continue to get along.  Live and let live.  I’m not completely rational myself, I suppose.  It seems only the fictional Vulcans of Star Trek fame fit that label.