This is a constant problem in religious debates and I don’t know if it’s because theists are just too stupid to get it or because they honestly don’t understand. I do know that when I’ve tried to explain it in the past to theists, no matter how carefully I do so, they just don’t get it and nothing changes. Therefore I wanted to do a more well-thought-out version to explain to theists why their various tactics just don’t impress skeptics and why they shouldn’t convince theists.
Claims of Supernatural Experiences: Lots of Christians claim to have had an experience with something they cannot explain and they attribute that experience to God or Jesus or the Virgin Mary or whatever and then they present these experiences to atheists as though they should be convincing evidence. They are not for two separate, but important reasons.
- Every religion claims to have these exact same experiences. Christians claim to have them, Muslims claim to have them, Hindus claim to have them, etc. They are, so far as we can tell, extremely similar claims, the only real difference is the claimed entity responsible. Imagine two theists sitting in a room, a Hindu and a Christian and they’re discussing their supposed supernatural experiences. Would you, as a Christian, accept the Hindu’s claims as evidence that Krishna is real, or would you, as a Hindu, accept the Christian’s claims as evidence that God is real? Because if you wouldn’t accept the claim from the other guy, why would you expect anyone to accept it from you? The strength of one’s conviction has nothing to do with the validity of one’s claims. If you cannot understand that your experience, however real and important it might be to you, has no inherent validity to anyone else, then you’re a lost cause because you cannot act rationally.
- More importantly though is the fact that these religious claims are not verifiable, either objectively or logically. These claims cannot be demonstrated whatsoever. Let’s use an analogy. In a courtroom setting, the lawyers are trying to demonstrate that Bob murdered Joe. We have a demonstrable fact: Joe is dead. He’s been hacked up with a cleaver. This is what actually happened and we can prove it by producing Joe’s dead body. However, to be able to link Bob to the crime, prosecutors have to produce a chain of causality, each link coming together to show that Bob actually did kill Joe. The lawyers might argue that Bob hated Joe and produce witnesses to that effect. In fact, Bob might have told someone that he wanted to kill Joe and that person could be put on the stand. They could produce credit card receipts that Bob purchased the cleaver at Walmart. They could come up with evidence that Bob and Joe were at the site of the murder together, they could find Bob’s fingerprints on the handle and find witnesses that heard or saw the crime take place. All of this establishes that Bob did, in fact, kill Joe. There are tons of little pieces of objective, demonstrable evidence that links Bob to Joe’s murder. That’s how rational arguments are built and it would lead to the conviction of a murderer. However, theists don’t do this. They will describe something that they assert happened, some experience they cannot explain, and then they will make the claim that God was somehow responsible. How do they know? Where is that causal link drawn? A theist is the lawyer, the skeptics are the jury. It is their job to produce that evidence to show that their experience actually comes from their claimed cause. If they cannot do so, the jury is going to come back with a “not guilty” response. If the lawyer in our above case walked into court and said “Bob killed Joe but I can’t produce any evidence that he did it or any reason he might have committed the crime, in fact, I can’t even prove that Bob is real, I just read about him in a book, but I have faith that he did it!” he’d be thrown out of the courtroom.
In the end, no matter how much you believe in your mystical experience, it isn’t going to convince anyone else because you cannot show that it happened how you claim it happened. In fact, I’d argue that you cannot even demonstrate that it happened how you think it happened to yourself.
Holy Books: While you might value what it says in the Bible or the Qu’ran or the Vedas or whatever other book you hold holy, just because you believe it doesn’t necessarily make it so. All this requires is the ability to step back and realize that every other religion on the planet, with every other holy book on the planet, thinks the exact same thing you do. The Hindus value the Vedas and think that the Bible is a pile of crap. The Scientologists value Dianetics and think that both the Bible and the Vedas are a pile of crap. You can go on and on and on through all of the religions until you realize that people who believe in the Bible are not significantly different than people who believe in the Vedas or people who believe in Dianetics. Once you understand why you don’t take their claims that their books are authoritative, you’ll understand why they don’t take your claims about your book seriously either. Atheists don’t take any of these claims seriously because none of these books, whether you like it or not, have been actually demonstrated to be factually true. In fact, the overwhelming majority of them have been shown to be factually false and that includes books like the Bible and the Qu’ran. No matter how you spin your stories, no matter how hard you try to rationalize away the problems with your books, they still remain. Your belief to the contrary really means nothing, it all comes down to what you can prove, not what you believe. Speaking of belief, that leads to our next section.
Faith: The fact is, no matter how much the religious wish it was otherwise, that faith doesn’t impress anyone and if the religious were honest about it, they’d understand why this is the case. Clearly, just having faith in a thing does not automatically make that thing true, otherwise every religion would have to be true because they all have people who are faithful. This is problematic when Christians, for example, think that they have some special kind of faith that makes their own beliefs true, while every other religion is somehow deluded and thus wrong. They refuse to admit the possibility that some other religion could be true and their own faith could be delusional and thus wrong. It’s not something they’re willing to even consider and that is, by it’s very nature, irrational. Anyone who is irrational is simply not worth debating with because no conclusion, outside of their very strongly-held faith, can be agreed upon.
The Argument From Ignorance: This is arguably the most common logical fallacy perpetrated by the religious and the one that they understand the least. I’m going to try to explain it in as plain and simple language as I can but I fear that for most theists, it won’t make a difference. They can’t understand or, more properly, won’t understand because to understand the Argument from Ignorance is to be required to admit what they’ve been doing wrong all along. Simply put, the Argument from Ignorance occurs when an individual takes an event that they do not understand the actual cause of and, because they are uncomfortable not knowing the cause, they simply assign one that makes them emotionally comfortable. It’s like saying “I was in a traffic accident, I don’t understand how I survived, therefore angels saved me.” Unfortunately, as in my discussion of religious experiences above, there is no demonstrable causal link between the event and the claimed cause of the event. It is very similar to another very similar fallacy, the Argument from Personal Incredulity, where a person cannot understand the event and has therefore convinced themselves that the only possible explanation, to which they are emotionally predisposed, must be true. Essentially, “I don’t see how it could be anything but X.” It is never a matter of coming to a conclusion through a well-reasoned evaluation of logic, evidence and critical thinking, it’s always based on a lack of imagination and a whole lot of wishful thinking. If, at any time, your explanation can be replaced with “leprechauns” or “unicorns” and have it make as much sense, then you’re doing something wrong. You can easily tell if your claims are valid if you can move, step to step, along your argument and actually show, via logic or objective evidence, that your claim is true. In my above example about angels, ask yourself how you know it was angels. Is it something you can prove or just something you believe. If it’s only something you believe, you’ve failed to make your case and therefore the explanation should be rejected. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” in any situation where you actually don’t know what the explanation is. Of course, this only matters to people who are actually concerned whether what they believe is actually true in reality and, unfortunately, far too many theists fall outside of that camp. Most theists believe for emotional reasons, not rational ones. Those people are lost to reasonable debate and intellectual argument.
If our goal here is to reach the truth, rather than just push a theological agenda or propagate a belief, then people, especially theists, have to be willing to open up their beliefs to the most harsh criticism. If your beliefs are actually true, you have nothing to worry about, they will be proven so in the end. If they are not true though, if your emotional comfort is more important to you than actually believing correct things, at least be honest with yourself. Stop pretending that your beliefs are rational or that they can stand up in a fair fight because they can’t. Trying to pass off a heartfelt belief that isn’t intellectually valid is inherently dishonest and, truth be known, atheists are really tired of debating intellectually dishonest positions presented as rational when they’re anything but. I’m not telling you to stop believing, although certainly I think you should, I’m telling you to have some kind of understanding of what you actually believe and why, you can’t rely on atheists to school you in the basics every time you open your mouth.