The less garbage we produce, the less there is to be dumped or burned. Let’s extend that truism to include rhetorical refuse as well as physical trash.
Communication is exchanging not just words but information and insights between people who are genuinely interested in what others think. But religious debate is rife with verbal garbage, which contributes nothing worthwhile and actually stifles communication; it takes up space, makes noise, wastes everyone’s time, and generally stinks. This is why most religious debate is interminable and intolerable.
Whatever one’s beliefs—this religion, that religion, no religion—we should all be able to agree that the quality and value of debate will benefit by minimizing garbage. To that end, these garbage-reduction guidelines are offered to all who take any public stance on religion.
Rule 1. Accept people’s self-identification
Is atheism an assertion that God doesn’t exist or a statement expressing lack of belief in God? Is agnosticism the middle ground between theism and atheism or a statement expressing lack of certainty, which could go with either theism or atheism? Is Christianity defined by acceptance of doctrine as crystalized in creedal statements or by efforts to follow Jesus’ teachings?
People will not accept that their identity and beliefs are invalidated by the definition in a dictionary or a philosophy text. It would be different if definitions were universally accepted, but nothing related to religion is universally accepted. Quoting definitions that suit your own agenda is not debating; it is just an invitation to bicker over labels. For the same reason, saying that most people have a different understanding of your opponent’s self-identifying term short-circuits the debate; we need only look at what is almost universally called “conservative” in America to realize that labels can be virtually meaningless.
In short, if you’re a believer, don’t tell atheists what atheism means; if you’re an atheist, don’t tell believers what their religion means. Instead, focus the discussion on the reasons for your respective convictions.
Rule 2. Separate comments about beliefs from comments about believers
Religion is the touchiest of topics, and criticism of belief is often taken as criticism of the believer. The reasons underlying this hair-trigger attitude deserve an in-depth analysis, but the practical impact is that dialogue is constantly at risk of breaking down into an exchange of resentful accusations and defenses.
The familiar Christian aphorism “Hate the sin, love the sinner” contains an applicable principle. Challenge the belief, not the intelligence or rationality of those who hold that belief. What’s that you say? How can you not challenge the intelligence and rationality of a person who holds some supremely unintelligent and irrational belief? By consciously and relentlessly focusing on the belief; as for those who hold that belief, keep your opinions to yourself. Remember that your opponent has the same attitude toward you and your convictions, and both of you can claim “But I’m right!” with total sincerity. Even if one side is objectively correct, the goal is to let the truth emerge through the debate; pointlessly provoking anger does not serve that goal. Another sure-fire way to derail a debate is citing data on mean IQ test scores or brain-imaging findings in believers versus non-believers (which, by the way, prove nothing about the validity of religious beliefs).
It is important to recognize that people who hold absurd beliefs may be of normal intelligence and rationality in other aspects of their lives. The explanation is not mental deficit but compartmentalization of thought, whereby they avert the discomfort of cognitive dissonance by keeping their religious beliefs shielded from objective scrutiny.
The general principle is self-evident: Eschew all derogatory group-labels and stereotyped generalizations about your debate opponent’s intelligence, rationality, and morality; he or she is a person, not a faceless agent of wrongness.
Rule 3. Do not abuse the concept of evidence
In a debate, evidence means documentable, demonstrable fact that an objective and impartial observer would accept as valid in supporting or refuting an assertion. An assertion that cannot be assessed by evidence has little or no value; it is merely a personal belief boldly stated to appear authoritative.
As individuals, we may become convinced that certain things are indisputably true or false, but our reasons for such conviction are not evidence unless an impartial observer would recognize them as such. Convictions held without objective evidence are not necessarily false; but there is no obligation for anyone else to believe another individual’s personal convictions without evidence.
Now we can make these distinctions:
Information—assertions deemed true because they are consistent with evidence; the exemplar is scientific theory, a model that best explains all extant evidence and is not contradicted by any evidence, but which is subject to revision or even replacement if and when superior evidence is obtained.
Hypotheses—assertions that may be deemed true or false if and when supportive or refutative evidence is obtained.
Speculations, conjectures—assertions that cannot be deemed true or false because there is no conceivable way to obtain evidence.
Misinformation—assertions deemed false because they contradict available evidence; they may reflect ignorance, willful deceit, or socially imposed delusion.
One final vital point about evidence: Because objective evidence does not favor religiosity (else we would all be believers sharing the same belief), the believer in a debate may resort to presuppositionalist rhetoric—a device aimed at casting doubt on the credibility of evidence by asking, in essence, “How do you know that facts are factual? That logic is logical? That rationality is rational?” The gist of this argument is that we must make certain presuppositions without evidence, to form a basis for knowledge. Yes, we need certain starting axioms that cannot be proven through more basic principles because there are no principles that are more basic; but such axioms should be self-evidently true. To the presuppositionalist, biblical truth is the axiomatic starting point (see “question-begging,” below); however, the fact that religion requires apologists demonstrates that the Bible is not self-evidently true. In contrast, here are some axioms that are self-evidently true: Facts are factual, logic is logical, and rationality is rational. These principles are the foundation of objective evidence and meaningful communication. For believers who think presuppositionalism is a legitimate argument in debate, it must first be established that (1) facts, logic, and rationality should be regarded with some degree of suspicion; and (2) the Bible should be accepted axiomatically, as self-evident truth.
Rule 4. Avoid indefensible assertions
This rule is the big one, because people find so many ways to say things without realizing that they are speaking garbage. Garbage in this setting does not necessarily mean that an assertion is false; it means that it cannot be verified and defended factually or logically. In a debate setting, an assumption stated as objective truth but without supportive evidence is an indefensible assertion.
Let’s look at several types of garbage that render assertions indefensible—and note that in religious debate, most if not all assertions are made by believers, because atheism has no doctrines and makes no positive assertions, but only challenges religious assertions.
Unverifiable personal gnosis, personal revelation. This is a non-starter; evidence presented to others must be demonstrable and objective. An individual may hold a belief on the basis of personal revelation and may be absolutely convinced of its truth, but it is not evidence to others; presenting it as evidence actually means asking others to place their faith in the individual making the assertion.
Biased sources. Polemics and other biased non-academic sources have no probative value. The most common example in religious debate is citing material from creationist websites to attack the science of evolution. Similarly, the Bible is not evidence. As defined above, evidence in the setting of a debate must be objective, such that an impartial observer will recognize it as valid.
Straw-man arguments. Mischaracterizing an opponent’s position to make it seem ridiculous is a confession of inability to refute it honestly, with objective evidence. Again, the most common example is creationists offering a grotesque parody of evolution and then arguing that evolution is absurd; the parody is absurd but it has nothing to do with the real meaning of evolution.
Analogies offered as evidence. An analogy from a different field may be useful in explaining or clarifying one’s assertion, but it does not, by itself, constitute evidence that the assertion is true. For example, keys open locks, and key-in-a-lock is a classic analogy used to explain how enzymes work; but that analogy is not evidence about enzymes and how they work.
Philosophical viewpoints offered as facts. Philosophy is not verifiable fact; it is a set of principles that may be followed in looking at ideas, and different schools of philosophy offer different perspectives. Therefore, philosophical viewpoints cannot be treated as factual assertions, and philosophical considerations do not invalidate scientific facts.
Logical fallacies. The list of fallacies that turn thought into garbage is vast. Common examples include the argumentum ad populum (an assertion is not necessarily true just because it is widely held); the argumentum ad ignorantiam (an assertion is not necessarily true just because it cannot be proven false); the argument from incredulity (an assertion is not necessarily false just because someone finds it incredible); the post hoc fallacy (the fact something occurs after something else does not prove that the first caused the second; closely related is the concept that correlation does not imply causation, as two sequential events may both be due to an unsuspected third factor); and the ad hominem fallacy (answering a challenge by attacking the character or competence of the challenger; a common example is the tu quoque fallacy, pointing to some topic-related misconduct on the part of those whose views are represented by the challenger). Other logical errors are even more obvious: Misuse of statistics, cherry-picking data to support a desired conclusion, and plain silliness such as question-begging (using a desired conclusion as the premise of an argument), circular reasoning (a linked pair of statements in which the truth of each is dependent on the truth of the other), and tautology (restating an assertion in different words instead of providing supportive evidence). A search on “logical fallacies” will identify numerous sources that provide detailed explanations and examples of all of these and many other forms of fallacious argument that should be avoided in debate.
If both sides in a debate can agree on rules that minimize garbage, there is less risk of sabotaging the debate and a greater chance of achieving actual communication. Though it may appear that these guidelines place restrictions only on believers, the principles apply to both sides, and it is difficult to see a basis for disagreement. Yet if everyone adheres to these rules, it’s possible that most religious debate will very brief:
Theist: “I believe this and that.”
Atheist: “I don’t.”
“Well, have a nice day.”
“You too. Peace.”