Tuesday, 15 January 2013

If You Want To Debate An Atheist...

Trying to debate a Creationist or fundamentalist of any creed is sometimes like trying to hold a conversation with someone who speaks a language or employs a grammar neither of you understands. There's you expecting, or at least if you're experienced in these matters, half hoping for, a logical discussion about the validity of evidence, what it means, how it has any bearing on the matter and why it supports a particular point of view.

Does anyone remember having such a discussion with a Creationist?

Me neither.

With this in minds, and mindful also of the mental state a certain deluded Bronx resident got himself into when he claimed to have irrefutable scientific evidence for the Christian god, only to find his fantasy world collapsed around him when given the simple challenge to substantiate his claim expressed in scientific terms, namely:

There is verifiable, falsifiable, scientific evidence for only the Christian God for which no possible natural explanation can exist.

Okay, maybe the word 'falsifiable' was superfluous there but his objection was essentially that it wasn't fair because I wasn't supposed to put it that way and he wouldn't be allowed to delete answers and debating points he didn't like, wouldn't be able to unilaterally claim to have won when he had no arguments left and wouldn't be able to use the normal delaying tactics, obfuscations, diversions and evasions he had been rehearsing, apparently under the impression that this is what constitutes normal debate with religious matters where the point is to try to trick your opponent into believing something you know isn't true or to impress them with your tactical skills.

In reality of course, the poor little man had just realised what his claim meant. A bit like striding onto the pitch boasting loudly about how there is not a pitcher in the land who can pitch a ball you can't knock out of the ball-park, only to find, when the ball is pitched, that you don't have a bat.

So, with this in mind, I put these few points together to help any wanabee creationist or religious fundamentalist debaters who imagine they are going to win debates with atheists, agnostics and/or evolutionists. Some of them might seem obvious but not, so it seems, to creationists and religious fundamentalists.

If you wish to refer to any of them, they are numbered for ease of reference. Just append #nn to the page URL where nn is the number in the list.
  1. Don't lie. To show us you know you need to lie for your cause shows us you know your cause is a lie. Lies can include a pretence of expertise. Especially in science, theology and apologetics very many non-believers are far more expert than you may think. We are also notorious fact checkers - which is often one reason we are Atheists.

    That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.

    Christopher Hitchens
    A lie can be a simple claim of certainty where there is no possibility of it. It can also include a claim that a single authority figure overrules an entire body of science. The opinions of a single creationist biologist do not trump the entire collective body of scientific opinion. Almost all evolutionary biologists agree with Darwinian Evolution and there are no peer-reviewed scientific papers published in any journal of biological science which supports the notion of Intelligent Design. (Michael Behe, Transcript of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Day 12 am, p. 22 ln 25 - p.23 ln 5.)

    Another form of lying is using the straw man fallacy. I'll list the common fallacies you should avoid later on.
  2. Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.
    Christopher Hitchens
  3. Don't Quote from your favourite 'sacred' book. Before your book can be accepted as the infallible word of a god you first have to show beyond reasonable doubt, using external evidence, that the god you are claiming wrote, dictated or inspired it, actually exists, otherwise your claim is mere dogma, not evidence, and not something we need to pay any attention to, any more so that we would regard a book of Greek myths as gospel truth.

    To try to use a book as evidence simply shows that you don't understand the concept of evidence.
  4. Don't make evidence-free assertions. The only claims worth considering are those supported with evidence, logic or deductive reasoning based on known and verifiable facts. To do so again shows us you don't understand the concept of evidence and so don't have opinions worth considering.

    We can be certain that you would eagerly seize on any scrap of hard evidence so your reliance on assertion merely highlights the lack of it as well as your awareness of that deficit.
  5. Don't try to impress us with faith. Faith itself is a fallacy, as this article shows. Faith shows us that you have abandoned learning and reason in favour of dogma and magical thinking. Your belief in an idea is not scientific data and does nothing to support your argument. It merely detracts from your credibility as an objective witness and again draws attention to your awareness of the lack of any hard evidence.
  6. Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.
    Christopher Hitchens
  7. Don't expect respect for an evidence-free opinion. You have a right to your opinions but you have no right to demand others regard your opinions as fact. You have no right to private facts.
  8. Don't try to trap us with loaded questions or false premises. This will show us you are disingenuous and have decided to use tactics over substance as a debating ploy because you know your argument has no substance. We are well aware of these tactics of the sophist. Using these tricks will show that you have already conceded defeat over your substantive claims. We are not interested or impressed by your skill at deception and trickery. It's a form of lying and lying is an attempt to make people believe something you know is not true.
  9. Don't try special pleading. Special pleading is where you demand a lower standard of evidence for your claim than you demand of others. If your beliefs can't stand the same tests as scientific opinion then they are not worth holding. Using this tactic will show us that you lack confidence in your own reasoning and know you have a belief which required a low level of intellectual honesty and personal integrity - the God of Low Standards argument. We are not going to compromise our intellectual integrity simply to believe something you probably don't have much confidence in yourself.
  10. Don't use fallacious reasoning. You may have been fooled by them but you have the responsibility for your own arguments and for checking their validity. All the creationist and ID fallacies have been refuted. I'll provide a fuller list in a moment but the common ones are The God of The Gaps Fallacy, The False Dichotomy Fallacy, The Ontological Fallacy, The Cosmological Fallacy and The Teleological Fallacy.
  11. We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.
    Christopher Hitchens
  12. Don't quote the opinions of others as fact. Opinions are not fact, no matter how long ago they were expressed. It does not matter whether this 'expert' or that believes such and such. The only opinions worth considering are those based on evidence, logic or deductive reasoning.

    A great deal of theology is based on opinions about other peoples' opinions. In fact the entire body of opinion about the validity of sacred books is based on other peoples' opinions that the book is divinely inspired. There is no extra-biblical or extra-Qur'anic evidence that they are any more valid than any other ancient books. If all 'sacred' texts were truths there would be many different realities. The self-evident fact that no two religions ever arose with the same set of dogmata should tell you that books do not create reality.

    Just as with buildings, unless opinions make contact with reality they should not stand, and will not stand the test of scrutiny. Unquestioning acceptance of the opinions of others places them in a position of power over you and reduces you to a mere cypher.
  13. I suppose that one reason I have always detested religion is its sly tendency to insinuate the idea that the universe is designed with 'you' in mind or, even worse, that there is a divine plan into which one fits whether one knows it or not. This kind of modesty is too arrogant for me.
    Christopher Hitchens
  14. Don't argue from ignorance. Gaps in your knowledge and understanding are not scientific data. To claim expertise where you have none is a lie and lies are intended to deceive. You insult our intelligence when you try deceptions and you show the world you know you are pushing a falsehood.

    If you don't want to learn don't try to debate with an Atheist. If you do want to learn, be prepared to look it up for yourself. Never more so than today, ignorance must be either wilful or feigned for anyone living in a developed economy. You may come from a culture which prizes ignorance like it probably prizes virginity. Don't expect us to subscribe to that primitive ethic.

Now for that list of fallacies which are often (almost always) used by Creationists, fundamentalists and religious apologists. I got these from Jason Long's Biblical Nonsense: A Review Of The Bible For Doubting Christians.

  • Bifurcation or Black & White Fallacy. Where only two alternatives are offered. Usually a ridiculous one and the one being promoted, where there are several plausible candidates. See also the False Dichotomy. A form of this fallacy is Plurium interrogationum where a yes or no answer is demanded for a complex question, for example, "Do you believe the characters in the Bible were real people"? The correct answer is that some were, some might have been and some probably weren't.
  • Argumentum ad baculum. Implied threats. "You'll burn in Hell if you don't believe in Jesus"/"You'll burn in Hell if you don't worship Allah".
  • Ad hominem. Attack the opponent's character. The person's character need have nothing to do with the validity of the argument unless the proposer is putting the weight of his/her personal authority and integrity into the argument and inviting you to regard him/her as a credible witness.
  • The irrelevant conclusion. "Jesus died for our sins. Many people now accept Jesus. This proves that Jesus was the son of God". No. The conclusion does not follow from the assertions, even if the assertions could be proven.
  • Non sequitur. The conclusion does not follow from the premise. "Because Mark wrote a biography of Jesus he must have been an expert in ancient Hebrew." Er... no. Any one could write a biography of Jesus without knowing anything very much about ancient Hebrew. It might not be worth reading but writing it doesn't make a person an expert.
  • The red herring. Introducing an irrelevance into the argument.
  • The straw man. A (usually infantile) parody of the opponents position is attacked instead of the real thing. This relies on the ignorance of the audience for success so is an almost universal tactic of Creationists and religious apologists. The trick is to make it look like the opponent is defending something no sane person would believe. (See above).
  • The universal reply. "You just need to read the Bible/Koran". "You need to open your mind.", "God did it!", etc, etc, ad nauseum.

So there we are. If you want to debate with an Atheist you'll come a cropper if you try any of the above. All you'll have achieved is to show how dishonest and disingenuous you need to be to be a Creationist, religious fundamentalist or apologist for Christianity or Islam or whatever religious dogma you are promoting or defending.

If the above means you can't hope to win a debate with an Atheist or evolutionary biologist or other scientist then that means you have no real reason to be arguing against us. You might like to think about that and work out why that might be. If might involve you re-thinking your beliefs. There will be no reason we should re-think ours.

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  1. Few notes:

    "Argumentum ad balacum" should be "Argumentum ad baculum" (lit: argument from the stick).

    Some notes about debate format & the like would help too (hopefully I didn't gloss over this in my reading). First, the Craigite tactic of calling your opponents cowards (or similar) for not debating you (and similar) is...usually low quality at best. Second, debate terms are generally set by both parties or by a neutral third party, not just unilaterally so one party can game the system. This includes the choice of venue; a neutral site like OnlineDebate.net prevents complaints about editing or deleting responses to fit your agenda. Another option is to have both parties post all conversations to their respective sites.

    1. Thanks. I'll correct it. Should have used cut and paste. :-)

  2. I am not sure the challenge "There is verifiable, falsifiable, scientific evidence for only the Christian God for which no possible natural explanation can exist," is really fair. Often arguments leading to the conclusion that God exists are inductive arguments, to the best explanation. There may still be other possible explanations, but in such an argument, the conclusion is contingent upon one explanation being the best, but not necessarily the only possible explanation. So I do not think the qualification, "for which no naturalistic explanation can exist," is really fair.

    1. The claim being made in that specific case was that he had scientific proof of the Christian God. This simply states that claim in unambiguous terms. To allow for other possible explanations does no prove point, it simply establishes the claim as a contender. To not establish that the god in question was the only possible god does not establish that it is the Christian god.

      In fact, of course, as we all know, he had no such evidence and had blundered stupidly into the trap of making a claim which could be so easily dismissed merely by asking him to prove it.

      It made him confront the elephant in his room; or in this case, the complete absence of one.


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