Say it Brother! (or not)

I remember attending a political debate on campus back when I was in college. College Democrats vs. College Republicans — I can’t remember the specific topic, but I recall that the republican team pretty much dominated the contest. There were two people on each team — the conservatives had two very sharp debaters, while the liberal side was split — one of them was quite intelligent, while the other just seemed to be parroting prepared “talking points” without seeming to fully understand the topic in depth.

In argumentative terms, it was a solid win for the Republicans, but at the very end of Republican closing statements, the second debater made what I saw as a bad mistake — he veered off the logical argument and stepped firmly into religious territory, essentially arguing that the conservative side was God’s will and was thus the right side of the argument. (The topic of debate had nothing directly to do with religion.) This wasn’t an error in purely logical terms, as he had made a lot of solidly reasoned arguments up to that point, and in the religious detour did not say anything to undermine those arguments. It was a mistake, I think, because it was the final impression given for the whole debate, and gave anyone listening who might have been predisposed to want to believe the liberal side an easy out to discard the entire argument as religiously based. Faith-based arguments are just fine and dandy if you know that your audience shares your strong religious convictions, but when speaking to a general audience and trying to convince people using facts, figures, and reason, capping it off with “I’m right because God says so” gives the impression of undermining the logic of the rest of your argument to any person who does not share your religious convictions. It is a reality that the average person relies far more on overall impressions than hard, cold logic, and politicos and pundits ignore this at their peril.

I approached the debater at the end of the presentation and tried to discuss this with him to some extent, and he was completely uncomprehending of my point — in the end I was not able to make him grasp what I was trying to say.

Today I read a column by Mike Adams, in which he opens talking about a letter he got from an atheist reader, and then goes into an extended discussion of the life and death of his grandmother, and the way she lived her life. He wraps up his discussion with the following advice:

…I often urge people who have fallen into the habit of self-pity to try a little experiment. Variations could be adopted by my conservative atheist and agnostic readers. But, for most, I suggest they begin with a change in the way they pray.

Rather than praying to God the same way you talk to your store-bound spouse â?? merely listing the things you want Him to get you â?? you should confine yourself to enumerating the blessings you already have. …If you follow my advice, your only problem will be choosing between the many blessings you have but rarely even think about.

At the end he suddenly becomes extremely dismissive of atheists and agnostics, saying:

Of course, my conservative atheist and agnostic detractors might not like my prayer advice. Perhaps, someone needs to market a calendar that lists every day as Thanksgiving just for them.

In this essay, Adams demonstrates a profound failing that I think is rather common among highly religious people — a fundamental inability to comprehend the beliefs of atheists. For some theists, the belief in God is such an a priori assumption that to even contemplate the possibility that He doesn’t exist is tantamount to arguing that the Earth is flat and rests on the back of a giant turtle. Thusly, atheists are by definition incomprehensible and no attempt to see their perspective need be made.

In this particular case, he’s basically advising people to “count your blessings”, and assuming that those wacko atheists couldn’t possibly comprehend such an idea because he has (rather unnecessarily) coached it in a religious context. Adams is making the precise opposite mistake as the debater I saw in college — he is making a weak argument based on religious conviction and attempting (and failing) to coach it in terms of logic.

To be clear: I’m not one of those who automatically disparages religious faith — in fact I have a lot of respect for it; but faith is not the same thing as reason, and I tend to have issues with people who muddy that distinction.

Note: Steven Den Beste has an excellent essay on atheism in his archives. Actually, this is the best treatise on the nature of atheism I’ve ever read, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the topic. I, like he, am what he terms a “mechanist” atheist.

Update 16 March 2006: minor textual changes for clarity, and added the note at the end.
17 March 2006: Added the brief final paragraph.

Comments are invited and encouraged

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