The Alabaster Sock

We Will Fight the Threat with Fighting

Posted by Matt on August 5, 2010

One of the things that frustrates me about the standard-issue arguments about religion is how myopic they almost inevitably are. Usually, there tends to be two ‘sides’: some nebulous form of Christianity, and non-believers. Christianity serves to represent religious belief as a whole, which is of course very much a product of the western origins of these conversations. There are often variations on these two sides: sometimes the Christians are casual, sometimes they are fervent; sometimes the non-believer is agnostic, and will repeatedly bring up how they don’t dismiss the possibility of the supernatural, even if they show no reason to believe in it. But aside from the intensity of the debate, these don’t really alter the fundamental problems with the argument.

One of the maxims of the elder gods of the online atheist community (places like Pharyngula) is that there is no point in debating the hardcore religious defenders, the fundamentalists especially. They have no actual argument, no desire to argue any point, but will revel in their inner huckster and just try to sell their religion to the audience via emotional pleas and instilling guilt, alongside the usual ad hominem and out-and-out lying. There is no reason for any intelligent person to enter into such a debate, which exists merely to give their opponent an advertising opportunity. So, for the most part, the kinds of public debates you often see between well-known unbelievers and believers are little more than elaborate pitches to the audience, where the better snake oil salesman is the winner, not the one who uses, you know, facts.

This alone stifles actual attempts to inform, as well as permeates that myopic view of the debate, as it’s almost always an atheist with several major books about how much they don’t believe in God, and either a true Christian nut or some pencil-neck Catholic nebbish whose never had his passive-aggressive newspaper columns challenged. As I’ve said, I know this is because most of these debates occur in the west, where Christianity is the dominant religion and the thing that immediately comes to everyone’s mind when someone says ‘religion’. But religion is far more complicated than these black and white arguments would imply, even within the context of Christianity. How can one say that the argument of the religious representative in this debates really represents religion, when his particular belief in God doesn’t even square with the other people who believe in the same God? This is the reason ‘arguments’ like Pascal’s Wager are so utterly worthless on their face: it’s not that one could simply believe in God, or not believe in God; there are countless gods one could believe in, and countless ways to believe in any of those gods. It is NOT simply atheism vs. Christianity.

This is what leads me to think that there is very little reason for unbelievers to try to argue against religion, and should instead let religion argue itself into oblivion. The fact is, although you can present the logical argument for why one should avoid believing in any of the permutations of religious belief, it won’t matter to the person you’re arguing with, or the audience. Most people believe in a certain religion for reasons that aren’t logical or something that could be easily debated: culture, family, social relationships, subjective emotional reasons, etc. At some point (mostly through the misuse of education), some will go on to concoct bogus ‘logic’ to defend their belief, but it still all comes down to a subjective, often heavily societal-based, origin for their religious beliefs. Considering this, the best one can do is simply provide facts about what we know about the nature of the universe and call out extreme cases where religious incursions cause direct harm (which ranges from violent extremism to more local, social problems like the gay marriage debate). They don’t really need to ‘prove’ religion wrong, nor is it a particularly easy or worthwhile task.

No, if someone wants to challenge people’s beliefs, there is simply no better argument against religion than religion itself. Simply put, the multitude of mutually-exclusive belief systems, all coexisting all over the world, and each entirely convinced of its own status as the sole truth, will likely make someone question their beliefs at an equal, if maybe slightly greater, rate than the arguments against belief entirely. Why do they believe that they can only find salvation through Jesus Christ, and not that they should pray to Lord Krishna, or that life is part of the cycle that must be broken through following the example of the Buddha? Because of the way the religion argument is framed, very few are ever confronted with this question, which I think is fundamental to either reaffirming their own religious belief for whatever reason way they imagine, or really getting them to think about why. And no matter the conclusion, at least they know a little bit more about the nature of belief.

Of course, even getting that far can be difficult. Aside from western arrogance, one of the reasons other religious beliefs are never brought up is because the religious side of the equation (as established, whatever brand of Christianity they found a volunteer from that week) are often completely dismissive of beliefs other than their own. The other religions might as be speaking gibberish about rainbows and Martians. I even find it among atheists: for whatever reason, the beliefs of Mormons are somehow less believable than those of mainstream Christianity, for example. It just doesn’t make sense to me: it’s like arguing whether Star Wars or Godzilla is more ‘fake’. There may be more or less harmful proclamations within their scripture, but that has nothing to do with whether or not the religion is more ‘real’ than another. If you think they’re all fake, what does it matter?

These are the difficulties of this line of reasoning, although really, at the point where someone will dismiss someone else’s god or belief in god while continuing their own, there is likely no argument that could convince them to even consider looking at their beliefs critically.

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