24 May, 2008

Talking Past Each Other: A Few Simple Rules For Christians Among Atheists

So much for getting things done tonight. And here I thought I had bags and bags of time, but all it takes is getting caught up in one Pharyngula thread and time goes spiralling down into a supermassive black hole. Research: nil. Work on this blog: nearly nil. Obsession with current discussion: stratospheric. Has been instructive, though, and a few Pharynguloids (is that what we're calling ourselves these days?) have stopped by, which is always more than welcome.

*Waves madly* Hello, you!

Right, well. In a nutshell for those who haven't the foggiest what I'm talking about: PZ posted a little notice about an actual atheist being interviewed on a local (MN) Christian radio station, Kenny got his ass kicked in the comments thread (just as he always does, the man's a masochist), and Karen Simon stopped by to snivel at us for being uncivilized bastards.

That sort o' thing doesn't play well to this crowd. Karen promptly got her ass handed to her, and things would have gone very badly for her indeed had she not apologized and explained herself. A fruitful discussion ensued. I'd like to think some progress was made, and will be made now she's dropped by here. It's certainly clarified a few things for me, but raised more questions than answers.

To wit: why the fuck do Christians do this to themselves? I understand the ones who come by to proselytize - it's what they do, they're like the Borg. But I do not understand why Christians dump their views into the thread and then get offended when the atheists proceed to pick them apart.

It's an atheist thread, moreover one filled with science-minded atheists who can spot a flaw in logic faster than a shark scents blood. Fuck, we annihilate each other over flaws in logic. What the fuck do Christians think we're going to do? Pat them on the head and coo over how nice their moderate delusion is? Not bleedin' likely, guv.

I think, from engaging in this discussion tonight, I begin to see some of the difficulties. We're talking past each other. For all we're speaking English, we don't speak the same language. We're alien to each other, and alas, very few Christians come into the atheists' territory willing to play by atheists' rules.

Do not even begin the "but the atheists aren't playing by Christian rules!" snivel. We played by those rules for ages, and they got the discussion absolutely nowhere. Our turn.

So. This shall develop as time goes on and I get a chance to observe more atheist-Christian interaction, but here's what I've got for now:

1. Understand that in our house, you will win no converts. Atheists for the most part weren't born or raised that way: a lot of them are ex-believers, and they're not going to be talked back into the fold. There's no argument under the sun you can use that they haven't heard a thousand times before. Time 1001 will make no damned difference. So just give it up. Shh before you even begin to proselytize. And if atheists mistake your attentions, don't get all butt-hurt: we run into so many proselytizers-in-sheep's-clothing that we're a little gunshy and apt to overreact. You may not have been attempting to convert, but if the atheist takes your discussion as such an attempt, apologize, clarify, and move right on.

2. Be clear about your purpose. I've noticed a lot of Christians get mightily offended when they say something, we snark back, and it turns into a shouting match because the Christian can't tell us what the fuck they're doing spouting off views not related to the thread to begin with. Explain. Don't assume we know what you're here for: we've already assumed the worst from the second you mentioned your faith. It's habit born from long experience. Remember, we've probably been dealing with a bunch of incoherent rabid fundies from several threads back, and our patience has probably worn thin long ago.

3. Refrain from demanding proof of God's non-existence. That's not what we're here for. Challenging an atheist to provide proof that God doesn't exist is just as useless as us demanding you to prove his existence by the rules of scientific evidence. If either one of us could accomplish those feats, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

4. Speaking of proof, the Bible isn't. Neither are personal anecdotes, fervent belief, or anything else subjective or self-referential. Neither is "but billions of people believe!" Billions of people once believed in a flat earth. Science PWND them. Too fucking bad. If you're going to get into the proof pissing contest, which you shouldn't, learn what science means by "proof."

5. Don't move the damned goal posts. That's a ridiculous trick and it'll get you spanked. If you can't answer the original challenge, just say so. Don't try moving the goal posts and pretending you just scored. You'll get annihilated, and you'll have deserved it. Evading the challenge is just as bad, by the way. Refusing to answer when you're the one who started the discussion just makes you look like a coward. Same with being happy to scrum until someone says something you don't like, and then falling back on the lofty, "I'm so above that, I refuse to discuss it with you" bullshit. If you don't want to accept the challenge, don't start it. Period.

6. No snivelling. No one's impressed by tears, whining, cries of "You're being so mean!" or "You're so unfair!" or "You just don't understand!" We're not here to sing kumbaya. We're not swayed by "Bu-bu-but it's what I believe, and you're disrespecting that!" arguments. We're atheists: religion gets no special pleading and no special treatment here, and getting choked up over it won't help you in the slightest. If you can't take that kind of heat, you have no business being in an atheist's kitchen. This extends to concern trolling about bad language, blasphemy, and other such things: you knew what you were getting in to. Your lectures won't change a damn thing. They'll just earn you the title of "concern troll," so if that's not what you came to be, refrain from snivelling and silly lectures about civility.

7. No pity. We bloody can't stand it. Some of you religious bastards seem to think that atheism is some horrible, nihilistic disease. "Poor buggers, they don't believe in God, how sad for them" drips from your every word. You yourself can't imagine how one could live a happy life without God, so you think we must be miserable. Newsflash: we're not. I have, in fact, met far more happy, unconflicted atheists than I have happy, unconflicted believers. We're free. We enjoy life. We love our families, friends, pets, and all of the other things you take joy in. What you fill with spirituality, we fill with other things. We notice no lack, and we don't appreciate being treated like poor victims who don't know any better.

8. Don't take it personally. When we're tearing apart your argument, we're not attacking you. We probably like you just fine, especially if you've contributed something useful to the discussion. But your arguments about God, well, they're going to suffer. Be prepared for it, and do try to give as good as you get. We respect someone who engages us openly, honestly, and holds their own to the best of their ability.

9. Absolutely under any circumstances never ever bring up that old "atheism is a religion too" chestnut. That's one of the dumbest things you could possibly say. Absence of belief is not a religion. We don't have "faith" in the non-existence of God. That's just one of those whiny, snivelly things religious people do to try to win arguments, and all it does is make you look like a total fuckwit. If you're here to earn any respect at all, do not shoot yourself in both legs by that snooty "atheism is religion" crap. And if you even begin to start with the "but you're really agnostics" bullshit, I shall give you such a smack.

10. A ready wit, a good sense of humor, and a willingness to give as good as you get are essential. Display those things, and the acrimony will probably go right away. Have fun with this stuff. Especially here.

11. We can agree to disagree. My best friend and I do it. We don't waste our time trying to change each other. He's religious, I'm not. That's the way it is. We agree to disagree on that point and move right along to the points we do agree on, which are legion (see his take on the Worldnutdaily, for starters). The point is not to win, but to play the game. Find points of commonality, achieve some understanding of each other's views even if we heartily disagree with those views, decide how we're going to work together for a better world without crowding each other too badly: these things we don't need to be in full agreement for. We don't need to have the same world view to be in harmony. Hell, we don't even need to be in harmony, when it comes right down to it. But we do need to concede the war as unwinnable, sometimes, and get past that fact.

12 (not 11 again, sorry bout that). Finally, there's the door. I hope you can stay, I truly do. I hope we get somewhere in our dialogue. But not if you're miserable. If you're deeply offended, outraged, upset, shocked, and battered, and you can't stand how mean we are, and you're angry at our outrageous blasphemy and godless ways, there's an exit. You don't have to be here. If we're getting nowhere, you can go somewhere else. Have a nice day. We really do wish you well.

*Karen should keep in mind that while this post was inspired by the Pharyngula thread, it is not aimed exclusively at her, but at all Christians who mix it up with atheists. She's not the only Christian who's gotten off on the wrong foot on an atheist blog, and she shan't be the last. This post will hopefully help them understand why we get so pissed at what they consider inoffensive behavior. And if any of them are offended by the rules, they should consult Rule #11 forthwith.


Torbjörn Larsson said...

*Waves back* Hello to you too!

That was a well thought out list.

One comment on point 11 (the first one): this is enforced by law. Freedom of speech, freedom for religion, et cetera. I don't think you can argue around or talk past each other on that one. :-) Doesn't hurt to mention it though, there being fundies and all.

And on point 6, I think special pleading makes a point all by itself. Though it can be a tough sell, as regular religion is nothing but.

I think I see one problem though: point 9 is itself an example of talking past the religious. Many can't conceive of having no belief, they have "a belief in belief". Either it doesn't belong on this list, or one have to support the claim. My choice would be to keep it (it is soo irritating) and point out that it is circular reasoning with a huge pinch of special pleading.

Woozle said...

The point I would make about Rule #3 is that "belief in God" isn't actually the issue; it's a red herring, a bait-and-switch.

If you're telling me that "God says thus-and-so" or "X is wrong because God condemns it", then the existence of God implies (to you) a specific set of beliefs which affect your behavior. Those beliefs are assertions of fact for which evidence can meaningfully be sought. (I started to give an example here, but decided it was a distraction from my point.)

If belief in God has no effect on your behavior, then why are you so fervently trying to get me to believe in something which isn't going to change what I do? Why do you so fervently believe in it? (Answer: this isn't your god; the one you believe in so fervently has consequences, and those consequences are subject to analysis.) The existence of Inconsequential God can't possibly matter -- to the nonbeliever or the believer -- except as a philosophical exercise. Atheists don't object to Inconsequential God, except for seeing it as kind of a pointless idea, a waste of everyone's time, and a marketing device for what you're actually trying to sell.

The nonexistence of Inconsequential God is not just unprovable but irrelevant, because it's truly a meaningless proposition -- logically equivalent to "This sentence is true".

But I can give you some damn good evidence for the non-existence of (e.g.) Bible-Author God, or Homo-Hating God, or Mysterious Plan God, or any other version of the God action figure -- which are all basically just stupid manipulative shit with the name "God" stamped on the front in large, friendly letters (or large scary letters, depending on your denomination).

If a Goddist violates Rule #3 with the claim that you can't prove God doesn't exist, the implication is that the existence of God has no consequences in the real world. Fruitful discussion might possibly emerge from raising this point. (Then again, I tend to be an insane optimist.)

For myself, I'd probably rework the rule to include this: If you are planning to discuss God in any capacity, you must define God -- or, to put it less ambiguously, you must be specific about which attributes are included within your definition of God, since there is apparently no commonly-agreed-upon definition of the word.

If you can't define what you're talking about, how can you possibly have an opinion about whether or not it exists, much less get into a meaningful conversation about it?

Efrique said...

Wow. I read that comments thread when it was just getting started; it just looked like the usual evisceration of Kenny, who I think is just a troll.

NB: you appear to have two number 11's in your list.

I definitely agree that one major cultural issue is the different attitude to robust argument.

Atheists can savage each other's arguments and still like each other just fine; I think it's a spillover from scientific/academic circles. I find it interesting to read correspondence between Dawkins and Gould for example - acadmeically they were poles apart, and when it came to their biological discussions they repeatedly attacked, even savaged each other, but in their personal correspondence not only can you see the animosity drop away, but they both appear to deeply admire much about their opponent, and are able to find a lot of common ground.

I have a good working relationship with a number of academics with whome I almost never agree. Indeed, one with whom I have worked closely for years knows that I think much of his work is compeletely wrong-headed. Yet any time he writes in my area of expertise, he shows me what he's working on, knowing I will savage it to his face. He consults me when he has a new idea. Sometimes he'll set the parameters for the discussion ("I already know you disagree with A, B and C, but let's set it aside while we discuss these other aspects"), which is fine. He knows I like him fine, even while I happily kick the guts out of whatever he writes.

He knows that his ideas are improved by having the most devilish of Devil's Advocates readily to hand.

That's just how science works.

That's not the world of the theist, however, and I think we all need to be aware of how the others world works.

A few problems I have frequently encountered when getting into an online discussion with a thesist (most of them just turn out to be drivebys, I mean the ones where they come back and respond):

(i) they almost always assume I am completely ignorant of the Bible

(ii) when I start pointing out that what they say is either baseless or wrong, it very quickly turns into "those words don't mean what they say - you have to read what this smarter guy than me says they mean", but cannot see that is just argument from authority that is even less convincing that the one they started with

(iii) apologetics will be quoted as fact, without ever having looked to see whether their factual claims have any real basis.

[So, for example, I have several times been presented with a list of "comtemporary references to Jesus", - straight from some apologetic list; they all seem to quote the same one - but when you track them down, it turns out that actually, each one is either (i) not contemporary, (ii) not a reference to Jesus, or (iii) a fraud. I particularly loved when one started repeatedly throwing Tacitus at me (just that: 'Tacitus! Tacitus!'), because I had actually read Tacitus - in translation - in high school and knew that it didn't say what he said it did... *and* it wasn't contemporary, anyway.]

(None of these were the case with Karen; I'm just reporting on my own experiences in other discussions.)

Dana Hunter said...

Heh heh heh whoops... I do indeed have two 11s. That's what I get for frantically trying to wrap this up at nearly eight in the morning... thanks for the catch!

@torbjorn: Thankees! And point well taken on the 1st 11 - yes, it is a matter of law, much to the fundies' chagrin. Which means you've just given me a fun tool indeed to poke at them with. Hee.

Evil atheist, I am.

How would you rewrite #9? I'm sure it could be worded differently, but bugger if I can think of how.

@Woozle: Rule 3a, Be prepared to define just what you mean by God - and then ready to take the consequences? LOL. I think that'll do. They're never prepared for that - they just assume everyone knows what they mean by "God," and you're right - it's too subjective to make assumptions like that.

@Enfrique: I'm more grateful than ever you volunteered to be one of my Wise Readers. I know exactly why your friend keeps returning for evisceration: it improves one's thought and writing immensely. I tend to extend that into the religious realm: I think having to hone your arguments and defend your faith would make it better, stronger, faster... but the moderates even have a hard time seeing it that way, and it's a huge affront to the fundies (which is one of the reasons fundies are sooo much fun to fuck with). I'm just going to point the folk who get all in a snit over how mean we atheists are right back to your comment, and see if they can comprehend that when we're attacking the argument, we're not attacking the person.

Unless you're Kenny, of course, in which case all bets are off because our patience is gone. ;-)

Excellent brain fodder, all of you!

Woozle said...

Re the Bible, especially Efrique's point ii -- I'm working on a collaborative (wiki) project to document understanding of the Bible (and ultimately any work of scripture) so that all the various interpretations of each bit can be put in one place, and any relevant assertions checked against reality (for whatever that's worth [/sarcasm]) and checked for internal consistency.

The plan is not so much to discredit the Bible as to provide tools for fighting the abuse of its assumed authority.

It's not quite ready for prime-time but I felt compelled to mention it, given Efrique's comments (and of course in case anyone finds the idea utterly fascinating and wants to help ^_^).

Anonymous said...

Good post, a bit long maybe, but I couldn't find anything I'd want left out. I second Woozle's suggestion about requiring believers giving a definition of god or some other belief. Often discussions with believers of all sorts of stuff consist in a large part of chasing them around while trying to pin down what their position is. But really, that kinda falls under the "moving the goal posts" section as well.

One small criticism though: you might want to replace the flat earth example in section 4. The idea that medieval Christianity believed in a flat earth turns out to be a misconception. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth_mythology for an explanation why. A better example might be geocentricism Vs. heliocentricism.

Webs said...

Loved the post Dana. I now have a wonderful list to point believers to. Thanks!

Dana Hunter said...

@Webs: Welcomes! Glad to be of service.

@Beowulff: Heliocentric, check. You're right: despite the current flat-earthers, that's a far better example.

Keep the input coming! One o' these days, I'd like to post a revised and improved "Simple Rules" for us all.

Torbjörn Larsson said...

@ Dana:

How would you rewrite #9?

Um, how about breaking the "belief in belief" point as I suggested?

For example:

9.1 Don't take religion for granted

Remember that your opponent isn't religious. He doesn't need to be to be a citizen, and as he acts socially he will also have a moral of sorts. (Even if you don't agree with his morals.) In fact, to claim that religion is necessary is in itself a belief, a "belief in belief". That is entirely circular reasoning, and special pleading for religion as well.

9.2 Absolutely never ever bring up that old "atheism is a religion too" chestnut.

That's one of the dumbest things you could possibly say. Absence of belief is not a religion. We don't have "faith" in the non-existence of God; remember that your opponent doesn't need to have particular beliefs. (See 9.1.) That's just one of those whiny, snivelly things religious people do to try to win arguments, and all it does is make you look like a total fuckwit.

... I'm sure you can improve that with your own style (and proper numbering) - I had to add two of your NSFW terms to the pc dictionary. ;-)

@ Woozle:

That is an utterly fascinating idea!