Talking To Believers, Part 5: Preparation

To conclude my series of unsolicited advice about how to navigate a wide universe of conversational disagreements, thinking specifically about skeptics engaged in dialogue with believers, I’m getting more practical and less theoretical, and more specific to my chosen target audience.  This post will cross a bright line with that trend, although I hope the many believers who are enjoying the series and finding value in what I’m offering will stick with it and consider cognates to the more directly-aimed sorts of things that I’m addressing here.

The reason I say that is that in order to have a good dialogue with a believer, whatever the objective of that dialogue might be, a skeptic will do much much better if some preparation has taken place before the conversation.  In particular, a skeptic’s close allies and ready appeals have to be driven by logic, reason, and evidence.  You can’t just make crap up on the fly, and it has to hold together under critical analysis.  The religionist, by the very nature of her side of the discussion, ultimately gets to rely on at least one irrational thing — faith — which you as a skeptic do not get.  To be sure, the religionist will want to and likely will try to offer logic, evidence, and good reasoning to support her claims within the discussion and hopefully she will do a good job with that.  But at the end of the day, the religionist ultimately gets to say, “This is my faith,” and you don’t have that.

So my first point for your consideration today is that in one way or another, at some point you will ultimately have to aim at whittling a believer’s arguments down to its foundation of faith.  When you do this, you have in a very meaningful sense won the exchange.

I can hear my faithful Readers hackles’ raising even as I type this in first draft.  “There’s plenty of evidence to support the Bible,” they’ll say.  “What’s wrong with basing something on faith?” they’ll demand searchingly.  Well, maybe yes and maybe no, but that’s not really my point.  The point is that faith is not objectively verifiable.

Faith is an entirely personal, internal process.  A group of people might share the same faith, but it’s something that resides within each of them individually.  And if you don’t share that faith, there is no outward difference between you and them.  That faith is not based on material evidence.  It is not based on logic or even experience.  It is, quite simply, faith:  the world view that a given proposition is true regardless of whether there is evidence to support that proposition.

For the skeptic, reducing a religious contention to faith means that the religious contention is irrational, it means that it is personal and not universal, it means that your religious interlocutor must ultimately make a critical concession.  That concession that you are looking for is that unless one personally has a faith experience of some kind, the religion will ultimately not make sense.  One might continue outwardly observing the religion despite the lack of this faith experience, but one would do so as a result of social pressure rather than the true belief that the religion espouses as an inherent virtue.

My second piece of advice is to learn formal logic.  You can learn it online.  You’re better off learning it in a class of some kind, hopefully taught at a community college or something like that.  Symbolic logic was easily, far and away, hands-down, the most important and valuable class I ever took at any phase of my education.  I took it in my very first semester of college, while I was also learning that UCSB stands for “U Can Study Buzzed.”  Well, in fact you can’t study symbolic logic while you’re half in the bag on cheap tequila, and this was the only class I took that quarter which I stayed sober for and didn’t allow myself to skip a single session because it was hard and intellectually rigorous.  Even though the instructor was obviously bored and appeared to lack any personality, it was quite evident to me that fallacies I was learning in the 10:00 lecture for symbolic logic would be violated in the 11:00 lecture in sociology.  It was the first example I had access to of how to take dispensed wisdom from authority figures with a grain of salt.

Know your fallacies.  You will find them all over the place in religionists’ claims.  When you point them out, you will eventually get your interlocutor to agree that seeming paradoxes cannot be resolved with reason alone, that at some point, one must make a “leap of faith” and leave logic and reason behind.  Thus, you will demonstrate that religion is irrational.  That doesn’t mean it’s bad, by the way.  It just means that there is no objective reason to think it is any better than any other religion, or the absence of religion.

The great thing about logic is that when you do it right, there is simply no further arguing with it.  “A is A,” the basic proposition goes, and that is the end of that discussion.  A thing is itself, and this is an uncontradictable truth.  You don’t have to get all Ayn Randy here, because once we introduce more variables into the equation, things start to get interesting.  A is A, but maybe A is also B, in which case it is A and B.  Is C A?  If C is A, then is C also B?  Make some Venn Diagrams if this isn’t making sense to you.  See?  You’re learning symbolic logic!  This is actually quite fun stuff, a game that skeptics and believers alike can play and enjoy.  And that’s the real point.  Logic is universal.  A is A, whether you’re an atheist, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Wiccan, or whatever.  We all use it, all the time, although most of the time we do it intuitively and informally.  Disciplining your mind to do it formally is the best mental training anyone can have.

Also, as you structure and prepare what you’re going to say, you can test your own statements to see if they too make logical sense.  Do not spare yourself the withering and merciless scrutiny that you intend to deliver later to a religious interlocutor’s arguments.  You, too, must bear the burden of offering a logical justification for what you contend to be true.  Just because you’re a skeptic does not mean that you are immune from making mistakes in your logic.

No less an atheist celebrity than Sam Harris has been righteously accused of committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy in his book The End of Faith by claiming therein that an atheist would never commit an act of violence motivated by religious faith.  Yes, it is certainly true that suicide bombers and a great many other subspecies of terrorists are motivated to their acts of violence by the assurance that they are somehow advancing their religions, that they will be rewarded for their deeds in the afterlife, and that no atheist believes that he will be rewarded in the afterlife because by definition the atheist does not believe in an afterlife at all.  But at the same time, it is certainly possible to imagine an atheist committing an act of violence on a religious institution if the atheist adopts a not just non-theistic but anti-theistic point of view, by imputing evil motives to a religious institution and seeking to stop it from doing further harm.  If the atheist thought he could save thousands of innocent lives at the cost of only a few dozen (possibly including his own) then it’s not a huge stretch to imagine someone willing to make that ghoulish ethical bargain.  I don’t know of any such incident actually having taken place anywhere, but it is not a huge stretch to imagine such a thing happening.

So learn logic, and use it, both on yourself and on your interlocutor.

Third, learn apologetic tropes.  After a relatively short time of trying to expound your own world view to those who disagree with it, you will find that you start encountering the same arguments again and again and again.  The Kalam Cosmological Argument, for instance, seems particularly common, in large part because of the work of a believer philosopher named William Lane Craig.  Craig offers some sophisticated arguments that are the subject of a lot of deep thought, and has been called one of the finest theological apologetics alive.  Now, chances are pretty good you won’t be dealing with William Lane Craig, but even if your interlocutor is only half as smart as he is, you’re going to need some kind of a response to the Kalam argument because it’s only a matter of time until you’re going to be confronted with it.

Kalam isn’t the only argument you’ll encounter, although it’s one of the more interesting ones.  You’re very likely to get a reasonable number of the following:

  • If you reject the Bible, why would you be ethical?  What’s to stop you from killing and raping and stealing all the time?
  • Don’t you want some purpose to your life?
  • You’re not really an atheist; you can’t be because there is no such thing as a true atheist.  [Related: “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  Also related:  “It takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to be a believer.”]
  • I’m sad for you that you are blinding yourself to the joys of a spiritual life.
  • A creator must exist because life is irreducibly complex.
  • Have you ever considered [insert purported objective archeological or historiographical data] which clearly proves that the Bible is true?
  • If there is no God, then life has no meaning, so why don’t you just kill yourself?
  • Atheism (or evolution, as if those were the same thing) is a religion just like Christianity.
  • Religion is good because it inspires people to do good things.
  • What if you’re wrong?

What are you going to say when your faithful interlocutor confronts you with these things?  Speed in response is important, because the faster you respond to the point, the stronger and more convincing you’re going to seem in giving it.  But even more important than a quick comeback is a confident one.  A confident response comes from having some knowledge of the subject matter of the discussion, it comes from having thought through your own position, it comes from the heart, and it makes logical sense.  Which it will, if you’ve given it the right level of thought first.

Rest assured, your interlocutor has resources available to prepare her for the kinds of arguments and issues and evidence that you are likely to be bringing up.  And it’s not just a question of memorizing and selecting the appropriate tropes to throw back and forth.  That’s been done already.  Hopefully, you’re trying for something a little more meaningful than sloganeering, and hopefully your interlocutor is, too.  Here’s one good source for some common, short questions that believers often ask of atheists.  I won’t tell you here how to answer them, what I’m telling you is that they’re coming and you need to have answers for them.

Fourth, insist on getting answers to your questions, not answers to questions you didn’t ask.  By the same token, answer the questions you are asked, not questions that you wish you had been asked.  A conversation cannot move forward without actual answers to questions.  If you don’t think you have an answer to your question, go back and clarify.  Use a tactic like this:  “I’m sorry, I don’t think I understood you.  I asked [X], and it seems to me that you said [Y].  I get what you’re saying with [Y], but that doesn’t really respond to [X].  So, [X]?”

One of the easy hallmarks of not giving a real answer is to “answer a question with a question.”  In one of the links above, I refer to a now-famous exchange between Richard Dawkins and (I presume) a faithful questioner, who just listened to a forty-five minute reading from The God Delusion about why there is almost certainly no such thing as God, and she asks “Well, what if you’re wrong?”  Dawkins’ response is, “Well, what if you’re wrong about the Great Juju in the Sea?”  As a technical matter, he didn’t answer the question.  We’ve got to unpack the question in order to understand why that is the case — the questioner is a believer, and what’s she’s really asking is not “What if you’re wrong, Dr. Dawkins,” it’s “What if I am right?  What if it turns out that Jesus really is the Son of God and God is really a trinity of entities, and He really will judge your immortal soul one day to determine whether you go to Heaven or Hell and he will judge you not on your deeds alone but on your faith?”

In response, Dawkins pointed out that everyone is at risk of being subscribed to the wrong faith, and that doesn’t really answer her actual question.  Nor would have been a response of, “Well, I’m not worried about that because the chances are so infinitesimally small that I am wrong that it’s not worth thinking about.”  Dawkins didn’t answer the question about what he really would do if he found himself confronted with the Judgment Day as literally described in Christian mythology.  I’ve got my answer to that question prepared.  You can borrow it from me if you like — I don’t mind.

Now, not everyone is trained like a lawyer to really think about questions and answers, especially when doing it on the fly.  But on the other hand, it’s not too big a leap to do the unpacking of the original question, and it’s not too hard to see how the question isn’t really answered.  So don’t accept an answer to your question that is itself a question.  That’s a rhetorical device, your interlocutor is shifting the burden of the conversation back on you rather than addressing the point that you have raised.

Like I warned you when I started, this is last post in the series is pretty specific for skeptics talking to believers.  But I suspect that if you are not a skeptic preparing for a talk with a believer, you can still extract some abstract ideas from here and apply them to your own situation.  The basic rule here is “Be prepared.”  Understand where your interlocutor is going to come from.  Anticipate the likely arguments.  Use good logic and point out where your interlocutor does not.

Whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, a Democrat or a Republican, a saver or a spender, I hope I’ve managed to give you some ideas about how to express yourself in a polite and personable way, while not sacrificing your ability to be direct and convincing.  Good luck.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. "A creator must exist because life is irreducibly complex."On that topic, I recommend Jerry Coyne's 'Why Evolution is True', which does not aim to disprove creationism, but rather, simply prove evolution based on its own merit.

  2. Glad I read the whole series.I have something of a lingering question. Let's say you meet Believer A. Believer A is not an evangelical type, and is not prone to proselytizing. Indeed, Believer A would probably fall into the "milquetoast Lutheran" category, if not quite precisely. No belief in hell. No belief in his religion being better than anyone else's, or (in fact) any honest pursuit of truth. Perfectly happy to concede at the outset that his belief is wholly personal, subjective and non-rational. But still honestly believes in some kind of Divine Other, for a variety of reasons that aren't expected to convince anyone else, but nonetheless have meaning to him. Where does the conversation go from there? Or do you just happily change the subject to how lame this year's Oscars were?Also, how does the kalam cosmological argument differ from Aquinas's First Mover argument?

  3. Dan, a believer of the sort you describe (yourself?) would likely not be interested in a deep and potentially difficult exchange of ideas on the subject with a nonbeliever anyway:"I believe in God but if you don't, that's cool.""Well, you know I don't. But I think it's cool that you do.""Cool. Hey, want a beer?""That sounds good! How 'bout them Lakers?"The end. Nothing contentious, little conflict, so we can go straight to the beer.As for Kalam versus Aquinas, the difference is subtle but there. Aquinas said:1. All things are finite and contingent and therefore have causes.2. Nothing which is finite and contingent can cause itself, it must be caused by something else.3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.4. Therefore, a First Cause must exist. We call this God.Kalam argues:1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.2. The universe began to exist.3. Therefore, the universe had a cause. We call this cause God.Both refer to a first cause, which by definition is uncaused. The difference is Kalam is predicated on the idea that all things have a beginning to their existence; before that time, they did not exist. Aquinas argues that all things have limits — in both directions temporally, and as to size, power, energy, etc. — and that this means that they had to have been caused by something. Kalam is in some ways more elegant, but Aquinas is more sophisticated as you explore that first step.Physics, however, teaches us that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed; at most, one can be (sort of) converted to the other under extraordinary conditions and in fact when you get down to Planck distances, the difference between the two is less profound than we might have initially thought. But it is all eternal, indestructible, and every bit of it goes back to the Big Bang, before which time itself (as we know it) did not exist. So neither can be readily squared with what we know about cosmology, although we're also getting into some real mind-bending stuff here and at 11:00 at night after an early wake-up I don't care to explore that issue any further, especially in a comment to a blog post. Maybe we can return to this territory in a few days.

  4. No, no. I was referring to my friend… Stan. I'm a frothing Christian fundamentalist who spends much time praying for your soul and has started reading your blog in hopes of discerning a weakness.

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