SEB Mailbag: “Why does it matter?” edition.

The old mailbag has been less confrontational as of late. And the trend continues with Brandon Postler asking a good question:

Why do atheists in general seem to jump at the chance to argue? I’m an atheist and I just find it tiring. I really, truly, believe in NOTHING except for the fact that I don’t know everything.

I’m finally starting to get up there in scientific courses at my college for personal reasons, and all I’m discovering is that after all the lectures I’ve sat through and books I’ve read, science still cannot quite explain everything. That is alright by me, but why do so many atheists take it to the extreme in arguments?

You have two questions here so I’ll address them individually.

First, the reasons why so many atheists seem eager to argue with theists are as varied as the reasons for why they are atheist. Given that, it should go without saying that I can’t speak to anyone’s reasons but my own, but if you wanted me to speculate then I’d say, in a very broad generality, the willingness to argue with theists is because atheists feel they offer a valid and worthy counterpoint to the claims being made. Many outspoken theists make a lot of extraordinary claims that should be challenged lest they take on an air of credibility they don’t really deserve. As for myself, in the early days of this blog I did it because I enjoyed the challenge and it helped me to refine my beliefs and justify holding them. These days I’m not quite a quick at jumping in mainly because it’s all too often a fruitless exercise.

As for your second question, well, I’m not quite sure what you mean by taking it to an extreme or why the fact that science doesn’t know everything would be a reason not to argue with theists. Science not knowing everything doesn’t mean the theists claims are true by default. For all we don’t know, we still know quite a lot. Enough to judge extraordinary claims from theists at the least. I’d be very surprised if mankind ever reaches a point where, collectively speaking, we will know all there is to know. That shouldn’t stop us from using science as the tool it is for determining what reality is and how it works. Or, for that matter, as a means of judging supernatural claims.

What about the rest of you SEB regulars? What are your reasons, if any, for arguing with theists?

11 thoughts on “SEB Mailbag: “Why does it matter?” edition.

  1. The poster says it pretty well. You want to make extraordinary claims for which you have no evidence? Fine, claim all you want, but keep it in your pants.

    But no, they won’t keep it in their pants. They want to “define marriage” and pimp the death penalty and tell women what to do with their uteruses. And that’s just the beginning. In the past they used their mythology to defend slavery and racism, but now they claim they didn’t. They think it gives them an excuse a “sincerely held” conviction to bully gay teens or harass women who dare to run for public office. There’s no end of it.

  2. Don’t forget the centuries of oppression, burning scientists at the stake, etc. 🙂

    I usually don’t argue with theists unless they’re spewing hate (and I am not shy about calling a bigot a bigot), or doing their supernatural hand jive in front of my son. Otherwise, I don’t care what weird delusions they have.


  3. I argue because, even when the beliefs seem to be well-intentioned, the “garbage-in, garbage-out” rule applies.

    I argue because there are many theists who cannot admit to themselves that they are trapped by their faith, because it has become so fundamental to their identity that shaking the faith is shaking their sense of self.

    I argue because I believe that, while faith has a place in human nature, it cannot be used in place of fact, without consequence.

    I argue because faith gets blended in with any number of different, distinct things – including, but not limited to, religious, sexual, familial, social, political, and economic norms and traditions.

    I argue because we rely on each other to offer clarity, and I’m doing my part.

  4. I have to ditto OP and George.

    It sounds like to me a chicken and egg scenario. I’m of the thought that really theists are the ones who speak up first with atheists replying. If people want atheists to stop arguing, get the theists to keep it in their pants.

  5. I fashion myself a “Golden Rule Atheist” and seldom argue religion here in the heart of the American Holy Land (Tulsa). However, when confronted with one who wishes to consign me to hell for my lack of belief, I ask which Gods they believe in, Odin, Thor, Zeus, etc. It always turns out they are nearly as atheistic as I. I simply cannot abide those who try to push their religion on me. My favorite expression with these people is, “Do you really believe that crap?” That generally ends the discussion.

    That said however, I attend church regularly (Unitarian) for the fellowship, open minded discussions, and efforts to provide social services to the community and World. Our church is multiracial, ethnically diverse, accepting of gays and lesbians, and contains Moslems, Hindus, Buddists, Agnostics, Atheists and at least one Wiccan. It is surprising how well people can get along when they are practicing the Golden Rule.

  6. For all we don’t know, we still know quite a lot.

    Sorry, got to take issue with that one.
    What we don’t know is by definition not known, therefore the extent of what we do know in comparison to what we don’t know is unknowable.

    For the most part it’s pointless to argue with anyone who believes something on the basis of faith, faith by its very nature isn’t based on logic or rationality.

  7. I have even heard some variants of this, people even saying that one cannot be a “real” atheist if they talk about religion, since atheists aren’t supposed to care about religion. The notion that atheists are homogeneous entity is the first mistake. There are quite a large number of atheists who are perfectly content to live and let live. Some aren’t, particularly the “New Atheists.” These guys have given plenty of legitimate reasons for why they object to religion. If someone is unclear of why Hitchens or Dawkins feels the need to speak out publicly against religion, that is on them for being ill-read.

    If a religious person attacks atheists or demands special priviliges, it might not necessarily hurt to ignore it, but why should someone be expected to? The notion that religious people are allowed to engage in polemics and not atheists might be part of the underlying religious sense of entitlement that causes some atheists to speak out in the first place.

    I am increasingly finding myself thinking “who cares?” when I hear religious B.S. But from time to time you hear or read something intolerable, and it is difficult not to object.

  8. I used to argue because it was a way for me to know my opposition. But I, too, have increasingly become unable to engage in “debate” with believers. Either because I know it’s a largely useless endeavor or because I frankly have become too lazy to care anymore.

    I do enjoy watching or reading other arguments, however. I just no longer feel compelled to chip in.

  9. “…after all the lectures I’ve sat through and books I’ve read, science still cannot quite explain everything. That is alright by me, but why do so many atheists take it to the extreme in arguments?”
    Perhaps because the ‘science can’t explain everything’ argument is too often used as part of an excluded-middle fallacy – that since science can’t explain everything, it therefore can’t explain anything.

  10. Argue is probably too strict a term, for me. I prefer dialogue, you know, listen and then comment. The listen part is what seems to be missing in most arguments. When I see someone suffering, like theists, I like to offer them a way to end their suffering. When I find they ENJOY their suffering, I move on.

    😉 😆


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