Monday, September 5, 2011

Engaging with theists online: Trying to be direct without causing offence

I wasn't expecting it to be so impactful, but engaging in online discussions with theists has been quite a learning experience for me.  I am finding out everyday, that it is rather different from both blogging and face to face interaction and it requires a different set of skills. Online discussions are similar to  blogging in that you have time to sit down and craft what you want to say in the way you want to say it. This is something you don't have the luxury of doing in a face to face chat. In online discussions you have to however be even more careful than you are when blogging. A blog is something you throw out to the online world and people are free to take it or ignore it. It is speaking to the general populace rather than a specific individual and  people  can decide 'if the cap fits' as they read. When you are in a discussion with a single person or group online it is a different story. You are speaking more directly to the individual and it makes me feel as though I am speaking personally about his or her God and a related set of beliefs which is often held very dear.

So, as a result I am regularly bending over backwards to not be offensive in tone to a greater extent than on the blog. (Although I try to be sensitive in blogposts too). I therefore try to avoid the humour and sarcasm I would use to get my point across in blog writing, lest it make the person I am talking with feel uncomfortable. In practice, this effort of trying not to upset people makes writing responses online almost as challenging as writing a blog post. Yes, sometimes you feel like a West Indies batsman being fed an 'easy to hit' ball, short and wide outside the off stump. The sort of delivery that you have seen and played many times in your career. But you have to be careful. If you try to hit it too hard the result could be disastrous. A shot hit too ferociously and the opposition will claim you are taking unfair advantage and the game could be over before it's begun. So you have to try and caress the ball delicately between the fielders like Brian Lara used to do rather than go for a savage pull over mid-wicket in the vain of a Chris Gayle. It is so critical to get that balance right.

For the reasons stated above, it is sometimes takes me a few days to respond to a point a believer raises in a discussion. I am sure that they think the delay is because I am just stumped by the great arguments they come up with. Oh well, I am sorry to disappoint the theists out there. It's often that I am trying to decide on the appropriate stroke to play, thinking of the right response that will encourage more engagement and understanding of my point of view. I also take the additional time to try to understand the position of the person I am talking to and put myself in their shoes. This is actually more of a challenge than you might think. It is easy when you become an atheist to forget what it is like to think like a believer. When I say that there is no evidence for the existence of God, for me it's an obvious fact. However, for most Christians the statement is plain nonsense.  Of course there is evidence for God, it's all around us, every living thing including you yourself testifies to his greatness and power. To say there is no God is to turn a blind eye to the whole universe and even deny your own existence. It is not easy to explain to a person who has always taken God for granted why nothing in 'creation' counts as evidence. I am not sure I have always been successful making this point.

In attempting to be respectful, I have especially tried to stay away from comparing their God with leprechauns, fairies, Santa Claus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I know that equating their God with such characters will tend to come across as demeaning. Yet, there are just times when I have to resort to this because there is simply no other way to make the point that the burden of proof for God's existence lies with them.

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Sno- cone with milk or without?

One of the main sticking points I have in these discussions is the idea of belief being a choice. It is often expressed to me how sad it is that the atheists ' choose' not to believe in God. They make it sound as if a decision about reality is like considering whether you prefer to have your sno-cone on a hot day in the Caribbean with our without  condensed milk at the top. They reason that it is irrational to choose a plain sno cone when you can get something  much sweeter without paying anything extra. I am sorry, you don't get to buy your own personal reality from a vendor pushing a cart.

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Unfortunately in this game of exchanging ideas, this playing field is about as level as the slope of the Pitons Mountains in St. Lucia. Whereas I am required to play carefully and watchfully, the opposition players are allowed to treat me as they like. There are no arguments that are not allowed for them, no limits to the number of bouncers they can bowl at me in one over. I recognise the double standard but I must admit that I am not unduly bothered. I am cognisant of the reality of holding an unpopular minority view, in a part of the world where God belief is almost as natural as breathing. However, I have to say that there is one ball which is being thrown at me often in these debates which I think should be deemed illegal. It's the famous quote from Psalm 14:1.

"The fool has said in his heart. There is no God."

I have refrained in discussions from calling believers on this tactic, but I want to say here that this is a definite  'no-ball' and does not represent an argument made in good faith (irony intended). It is basically just 'name calling.' I know the argument will be made that these are God's words and we shouldn't blaming the believers who are simply the messengers. But this doesn't really cut it because  they always make it clear from the outset that there are making their judgements based purely on what the ' holy book' says. So the words, " You are a fool!" are by default coming from their own mouths. This is in no form or fashion  an appropriate statement to say to someone that you want to have a respectful conversation with. I wouldn't dream of saying or implying that anyone was a fool at the outset of a debate , I wouldn't even want to suggest the person I am speaking with is by any means intellectually inferior. Level of intelligence is irrelevant in any case, because the only thing that matters in a discussion is the strength of the argument that is being put on the table. The quoting of Psalm 14:1 is a further insult due to the line that follows that is almost never quoted but would have to be equally applicable if the first line of the verse is to carry any weight.  Here is a little bit more of what God says about those fools who don't believe.

" They are corrupt, they have abominable works, there is none that does good."

Now I can't believe that the persons I have had conversations with actually think that way. If they did I don't see why they  would want to talk to me at all. You see, that is the conundrum you put yourself in when you go to the bible to argue your position. If you want the first part of the verse to apply you have to be comfortable with the second part as well. It's in the same verse of the same chapter of the same book in the same Book. Therefore you can't yell " Context!" So, my advice to the theists who are reading this is to try to refrain from using the Psalm 14:1 line of attack.

Having got that all out of the way, I thought I would leave you with a sample of an ongoing online discussion that I am having with Rachel (not her real name), a Christian living in the Caribbean. The dialogue has been respectful so far and I look forward to further interactions with her and others.I try to be firm and direct in stating my areas of disagreement while at the same time seeking not to disrespect her cherished beliefs. Have I got the balance right? I don't know. You can be the judge.

Hi David,

Let's use some reasoning from mere observation. If there is such a thing as an invention then one can readily conclude there must be an inventor.If there is a creature there must be a creator. The bible has so many truths. Man has questioned its validity because God allowed man to record His account of life. If the bible was strictly man's concoction we would have excluded all the failures and flaws and presented this perfect account to try to convince people to believe in the bible. We would exclude Abraham's lying, David's adultery, Jesus asking him for the cup to pass from him etc, but God has allowed man to see that sin and salvation are very real.

A lot of scientific discoveries were long time mentioned in the bible but the revelation of God's word is with those who seek Him. Even some of us Christians do not fully understand all that is revealed. There are some things God has chosen to remain silent on, but the things he has revealed are enough to keep us in this life. Many of you who claim to be atheists sooner or later call on the same one you say doesn't exist, that's why there are signs up saying " God doesn't believe in  atheists." One writer said " A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." I choose to believe in God rather than man. I think it is sad that (you) the creature are now denying the creator. David, God loves you and I pray that you will one day be drawn to God through that love.

Hi Rachel,

You have raised a number of things which I will try to go through one by one. Firstly, you make the argument that just as every invention needs an inventor, every creature needs a creator. This does not necessarily follow. We know having observed human beings , exactly how man creates. We can see the templates, equations, architectural and engineering drawings. We have seen builders and technicians take these concepts from mind and paper to implementation and we can visit the factories and see these transformations take place.

For things that occur in nature we have no such evidence. That is how we are able to distinguish between the natural and the man made; how we know that a skyscraper was built and an underground cave was not. If we posit that a special creator made all the things in nature that man did not, then we are left with the question of where the creator came from and who made him, her or it. This just creates a bigger mystery, because we need an explanation for the creator too.

I don't see how the portrayal of man's failures in the bible counts as evidence that the bible came from God and how we can surmise that man if he made it up would have left out these failings. Indeed, I think those failings help to make the stories more compelling. It shows how the characters in the bible have triumphed in spite of their own personal limitations. Such stories often move us emotionally, as we may even see aspects of ourselves as we read. Why would biblical writers not want to include these things? I consider that the essential point of showing the human failures is to emphasize how much God is needed to make us whole. That idea is what leads people to think that they need God's salvation and that's exactly what anyone that has the objective to spread that belief system would want.

I have heard it said that many scientific discoveries were mentioned in the bible. Yet, so many things in the bible directly contradict what we have discovered through science. Things like a seven day creation, plants created before the sun they would need for photosynthesis, illnesses caused as a result of demon possession. There is nothing in the bible about microbes, DNA,electrons or black holes. Knowledge of these things 2000 years ago would have saved millions of lives and put our development light years ahead. I just can't see how the bible has served as a benefit to science.

I know that many Christians will say that we atheists when we find our backs against the wall will cry out to the same God that we claim doesn't exist today. I have strong doubts about that, but since I have not yet been in that situation as an atheist, I cannot tell you for certain what I would do. So, maybe I would call out to God. But that would make him no more real or unreal than he is now. You consider that my not believing does make God not real and I agree. But the opposite must hold as well. Me believing tomorrow would not be proof there is a God.

Arguments must stand on their own logic. I think that the decision I come to when I have the chance to consider the evidence carefully without pressure is likely to be better than the one I come to when I am under intense stress or in a highly emotional state. It is one of the reasons why psychologists advise us not to make major life decisions when we are angry.

Rachel, I know that your desire to reach out to me to show me God's love is sincere. I know you consider  you have found something precious and you want to share it, that's great. I hope you understand that I have considered all the things you said. I had years of wrestling with these issues and there are even moments that I wish I could believe again just to be at one with many friends and family. However, I just can't. My heart cannot accept what my mind does not.

What I want to let you know is that I am not sad and you don't have to feel sorry for me. Life without my old beliefs is far from unhappy, indeed it is very fulfilling. Since I have left faith I too have found something precious. a sense of being free, not to do whatever I feel like, but to think without fear.



  1. I think you made your point succinctly and in a very lucid way. In my experience, arguing with religious people is usually a waste of time as the argument quickly turns into a nasty attack on anyone who doesn't believe in an invisible sky being, but I'm glad someone tries to be civil instead of doing what comes naturally and call them deluded morons.

  2. Thanks Fredrik, I know it's a fine line to walk and maybe there is no approach that will work for everybody. We can only try and learn as we go along. For me, there was no one person or event that made me stop believing, it was a combination of many things. So if all of us keep chipping away who knows what impact we could make collectively.

    I often think I could have come to embrace reality earlier if someone had directly challenged my belief in God when I was growing up in Barbados. But no one did that and so I just got comfortable with my 'knowledge,' until I, on my own, started questioning this assumption. I now try to do to others that which I would have liked done to me many years ago.