[Blogathon] On Challenging Religious Beliefs

I have a confession to make: I have an entirely negative attitude towards people who ask religious people about their beliefs. When I hear at a party, “But how do you know God exists?” or when I hear over a Friday night dinner table, “But what about the contradictions in the bible?” or anything similar in any social situation, I cringe and walk the other way. Part of that is for decent reasons: I have no reason to expect that anything will be said I haven’t heard a hundred times before, the conversation is likely to be unproductive and/or combative, and there’s high probability of someone getting offended or upset. I honestly don’t want any part of that, especially in a social context.

But that doesn’t really excuse how little I think of the people asking. If I’m being honest, I see asking such questions as low-status. They are, to me, a marker of a 101-type, a newly christened atheist still asking the basic questions. Atheism is boring, after all. There are so many other questions to discuss besides God. I would obviously never be so gauche as to ask my friends what evidence they have for god; my intellectual sophistication means that I instead discuss Talmudic sources and argue about the consistency of John Calvin’s theology.

This is what a page of Talmud looks like, by the way

This attitude also means I’ve bought wholeheartedly into the truth of the Courtier’s Reply. That is, atheists are silly to counter the claims of fundamentalists or youtube commenters. Those are easy to rebut. If you were to read Platinga (I haven’t) or Calvin or Luther or Vatican II, you would understand. Again, it’s a marker of low-status to be pointing out silly things like lack of evidence or evil in the world. Haven’t you examined the best possible counterarguments to your position? Humph, done with you, I’m off to read Luke Muelhauser and Leah Libresco, they’re atheists (or used to be) who take religion seriously.

Now, I’m not throwing out all of this approach. I do think discussions about God at a party are largely uninteresting and unproductive, I do think asking such questions gives me good evidence that someone is a 101 level atheist, and I do think that atheists could stand to know more about common counterarguments to their positions.

But I am deeply questioning the morality and accuracy of my position. Firstly, the sneering superiority really isn’t a good look for anyone. Atheism isn’t my primary hobbyhorse, and I might argue it shouldn’t be anyone’s, but that doesn’t mean that the people who like to argue about it a lot or talk about it a lot are to be looked down on. People have their interests and their preferences, and it’s much more appropriate for me to disagree with the extent to which these people have implicitly prioritized their atheism than to dismiss them entirely. (Somewhat to my credit, consistency-wise, is that I tend not to have a lot of patience for anyone who has just the One Big Thing that they care about, hence my general disapproval of hedgehogs. But the whole low-status business is pretty disgusting on my part.)

Furthermore, some subset of the people who talk about atheism a lot online or in person are new to atheism. Anyone new to a belief system and community deserves the space and patience to do the whole 101-thing, to figure it out for themselves. We should be happy and excited that they’re asking questions and being skeptical, and recognize that there are things we’re all still figuring out. That’s how we make atheism a safe place to land.

Also, I’m often secretly happy that this kind of person challenges religious people, and actually makes them argue for their position. As we know, religious people frequently get a pass on their beliefs that no one else gets on any other type of belief, and I’m only contributing to that state of events by not asking. Good on them for being willing to have the intense conversations, even if I wish they were more charitable and/or less focused on “winning.” And after all, without Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Jacoby, Dennet and others writing books that tackle these issues, the atheist movement really wouldn’t be what it is today, whatever else one might say about them.

On the empirical part, I’m currently reading the entirety of Calvin’s Institutes for a class, and I recently attended a Veritas Forum on Truth and Tolerance that I livetweeted. You know what I’ve noticed? The sophisticated arguments for the truth of scripture and the existence of God? Really not much better than the ones I see on facebook every day. Why is humanity sinful? Because of the fall. Why did god make us fall? He didn’t, we did. Then we have free will? No. Then why is it our fault? It was necessary, but also voluntary. Why would god make our wills such that we would fall? God is perfect. Really? Yes. (The format is different, but this is the actual content of Calvin’s argument). Similarly, the Christian (David Skeel) at the Veritas forum made utterly uncompelling arguments for the existence of god and the redemption of Christ. So I seem to have been wrong about at least a large part of the my belief in the Courtier’s Reply.

That’s why at the Veritas Forum, I asked Professor Skeel what it was like to live in a world where most of the people he cares about and interacts with were going to hell. He’s a public intellectual, making public claims about the nature of the world I think are both wrong and disturbing. Many, many other religious people are making similar claims, equally wrong and equally distressing. They should have to defend those claims, and the fact that I think it’s boring or low-status to be the one to make them doesn’t erase that truth.

Professor Skeel himself

Now, I think there’s a difference between public intellectuals and people at a party or online. And I think there’s definitely a difference between people who personally believe things and people who are very public about them. But I no longer think it is a useless or rude thing to ask about and challenge religious beliefs (except when it is, and I trust my readers can figure out appropriate contexts). I may still find it uninteresting, and I may still find many of the actual arguments made in such discussions uncharitable or badly made, but I am committed to working on no longer seeing the very act of asking as a low-status thing to do, as something worthy of derision. On the contrary, it’s deeply important.

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10 thoughts on “[Blogathon] On Challenging Religious Beliefs

  1. The internal distinction between savvy theoreticians of theism and theism as lived by theists as a living social majority often makes it seem useless to understand the former. Now in the environs in which I live and work, the sophisticated species is not all so rare as that, but it does seem reasonable that we must remain ready to converse with their radically less savvy cousins in the second category. What strategies do we use to do this without spending the majority of our time explaining more subtle theology to them first?

    • Chana says:

      Well, as I say, I don’t think the arguments are so different, but your question is a good one. I think there are very good arguments that can be used in less sophisticated discussions. One good place to start would be simply using the same kind of arguments, but without any jargon or overly high level language, which is a good thing to be able to do regardless. A second thing is “proving too much.” If their argument for god also proves batman, that’s all you have say. You don’t have to refute point by point. I will think of others.

      (http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/04/13/proving-too-much/)

  2. As someone who’s very familiar with catholic theology, over the years in catholic schooling I’ve read through the catechism, most if not all of the Vatican II council documents, numerous writings of the more popular saints, and the bible itself, I find most of this knowledge completely useless when discussing the catholic faith with both laymen and clergymen.

    Maybe it’s because every member of the clergy I’ve discussed my issues with catholic doctrine were disinterested in discussing the more serious topics they probably haven’t heard since their days in seminary with an young-atheist (the “you’ll understand when you’re older” line came up every time), but the atheist-101 arguments, though simple, are very challenging to answer. The question of evil, for example, in catholic doctrine is very poorly answered and contradicts itself in every single corner and has not been updated or reviewed in great effort since Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, as most of the current church’s teachings on the problem of evil are derived from that document.

    Yet again, all my reasoning for my atheism stems from anti-Catholicism, as that’s what I was raised with. I have very limited understandings of other faiths, just enough to not sound too ignorant in discussions, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a non-christian would wreck any of my arguments apart completely. Perhaps the atheist-101 arguments fall apart when applied to non-catholic faiths, to be honest, I’m not sure if they would or would not.

    But all that aside, we’re both educated individuals, our knowledge of these issues may be more extensive than the average atheist. (This is in no way saying a university education is the only, or best way even, to attain knowledge.) I believe most of what we see or read coming from atheists (especially on the internet) would be from these lesser-informed, and some of the arguments on Reddit make me cringe as well, but I don’t think it’s fair to hold all atheists to a high standard, especially if they’re new and just starting to reason their way through their faith-crisis. Perhaps they just got done reading one of them 4-horseman’s books, or watching a debate, or read something on FTB, and they have a new favorite quote or zinger which sounds nice and they’re itching to use it on an unsuspecting person of faith they meet somewhere, I wouldn’t completely hold it against them for being so excited.

  3. So I think I get the gist of your post, in that you are (in the end) glad that some people do ask the “low status” questions. But this part confuses me:

    “This attitude also means I’ve bought wholeheartedly into the truth of the Courtier’s Reply. That is, atheists are silly to counter the claims of fundamentalists or youtube commenters.”

    That is not the Courtier’s Reply.

    The Courtier’s Reply is, in fact, what you did at the start of the article: demand that atheists read more nuanced/academic/intellectual/comple theology.

    The characterisation of those “what is your proof of god?” questions as low-status is, itself, the reply of the courtier.

    As someone who has read Plantinga (and Clarke, and Berkeley, and many, many others), none of them offer any significant rebuttals to the basic criticisms of the atheistic writers *even* when those writers are writing at the 101-level (i.e. Dawkins).

    And please don’t misunderstand: I don’t say this as an Atheist, but as someone who is an atheist due to the study of Philosophy wiping out most of those untenable beliefs. I bear very little allegiance to movement-Atheism.

    I say this because I generally respect your posts, and the point you’re making here seems very mixed and unclear.

    (Also: that was an excellent question to ask Skeeling, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts he had a glib response)

    • Chana says:

      Perhaps we’re simply using different definitions. My understanding of the Courtier’s Reply is that an atheist refutes some crude fundamentalist point and is told, “That’s not the real argument to refute. The real argument you must refute is this very complicated one by this here theologian.” So in my mind, these two parts go together. I had bought into that approach, thinking, like the religious courtiers, that atheists asking 101 questions should go read good theology instead of being so boorish as to ask the 101 questions.

      This post is about me coming to the opposite conclusion, that in fact the sophisticated arguments aren’t so different from the crude ones and the 101 questions are very important to ask.

      Does that clarify?

  4. Good piece. I think Brian is right though. I think that many religious people have pushed the line that questioning their beliefs is rude, pushy, boorish, and socially unacceptable. I think that a lot of atheists, perhaps the best example of which is S.E. Cupp, have bought into the liberal religious idea that you shouldn’t question another person’s religious beliefs.

  5. Miri says:

    Thanks for your honesty! I largely share your boredom with discussions of atheism. I think it’s great that you want to work on not seeing them as a “low-status” thing anymore, but I also agree that there’s nothing wrong with not finding them very interesting.

    I also think that some of it’s just social skills. If I’m having a dinner party and one of my guests is a theist and one of my atheist friends were to start loudly making fun of religion or questioning my theist friend about their beliefs, that would be super inappropriate. And hopefully none of my friends would do that, but I know there are people who would.

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