Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Post About Irrelevant Things

I am making this post because I think that atheists often take the wrong tactics in debating against believers. They get caught in a trap, arguing completely irrelevant points, and do not demand that the believer make arguments which are relvant to the issue.

Here are some of the common arguments made by the religious, and what I think an atheist's response should be.

1. "(insert famous scientist's name) believed in a god."

Well, that's great. This is why science examines each idea individually, and does not just take people's word for something based on their reputations. If a great scientist was right about one thing, it does not mean that they were right about other things, especially when it comes to issues outside of their area of expertise. In religion, the sheep just choose a person to listen to then accept everything he says, but science doesn't work that way. It examines ideas on their own merit.

In addition, some of the scientists who are often cited (ie. Newton) lived in an era when they did not have the proper evidence to refute ideas such as the young-Earth model. It's an extremely dishonest tactic.

If you are faced with this argument from a believer, do not try to argue the fact, regardless of whether it is true or not. You should instead make it clear that it does not matter what a scientist believed about gods, unless he had proof of it. You can explain how science is not a battle of reputations. You could also ask them to demonstrate that the scientist was correct in his assessment.

2. "Atheism/evolution leads to abortion/genocide/Communism/school shootings/(insert social-evil-of-the-week here).

Even if it's true, it doesn't matter. Not even a little bit. What certain people do with such knowledge is completely irrelevant. Anything bad, or good, which comes from knowledge of a scientific field, does nothing to influence the truth. Anybody who uses this argument is implicitly saying that the truth is not important to him, and that he would prefer to believe lies if it makes him feel good.

Believers use this argument because they have no evidence to back up their case. If faced with this argument, you should dismiss it and ask the believer if he has anything to say on the facts of the issue itself.

3. "I can prove that a god exists. The Universe must have a creator because bananas are perfect/look at the trees/DNA is a code/logic is transcendent/bacterial flagellum/(insert hand-waving-argument here)."

Congratulate the believer for actually attempting to make a relevant argument this time. Unfortunately for him, he has not proven anything, but merely made a hypothesis based on a proposed model of reality. This hypothesis has alternatives (ie. no gods), and so the believer must now actually produce the evidence needed to support his case. The typical standard for proof of the existence of an entity is to detect it, either directly, or based on its observed interaction with the things around it. In order to be considered proof, you must also exclude all other reasonable possibilities. Wish the believer good luck, and send him on his way to do years of research to prove his case.

If the believer doesn't like this reasoning, ask him if scientists should declare the existence of the Higgs Boson to be proven, just because they have hypothesised it and it fits the models. Wouldn't it be better if they actually detect it before declaring it to exist? Chances are the believer will agree with you on this.

The mistake that so many atheists make in these cases is to try to argue the truthfulness of the believer's assertions. This often leads to disaster. The problem is that there are so many, probably an infinite number, of arguments that a believer can make in this style. It is fruitless to try to argue against them all, as nobody has the knowledge necessary to do so. You cannot refute all of these points to the satisfaction of all observers. This allows the believer to make the atheist look bad in front of easily-impressed onlookers. It also distracts from the truly important point, which is that any argument of this style proves absolutely nothing. It is completely irrelevant whether or not the assumptions the believer is making are true or not, except for the final conclusion, the leap to gods. Don't get caught in this trap. Instead, attack the logic that was used and the hands that were waved. I've posted on this topic before, here and here.

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