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Evangelism, not debate: my mistake

house on religionReligious debate

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – Having recently been involved in a number of debates and having given several seminars on the topic of critical thinking – debates and seminars which inevitably drifted toward religious questions – I am now beginning to rethink some of my previously held positions. Oh, don’t worry, I haven’t been persuaded of the existence of an imaginary superfriend or anything like that; I heard nothing new, persuasive, or even any arguments worth much more than a few moment’s consideration. It’s just that I am rethinking my views with respect to those who actually find the arguments or exhortations for the existence of a particular god to be persuasive.

I have always approached discussions of religion (or virtually anything else, for that matter) from the perspective that the subject is only worth discussing if both sides are open to the possibility of being persuaded by the reasoning or rhetoric of the other. I don’t mean that neither side ought to have firm views or strongly held positions; on the contrary, such logic 4discussions are only interesting if people are motivated to provide a robust defense of their views and to advance their position vigorously. That, however, is not the same as knowing beyond any possibility of error that one is one hundred percent right and there doesn’t even exist the slightest possibility of being mistaken. That degree of certainty is reserved for the religious and for giving first year lectures to classes of a hundred or more students. But to engage in open discussion with that mindset is intellectual fraud, unless it’s disclosed at the outset.

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What if our religious leaders told the truth?

Intellectual fraud is a salient characteristic of virtually all discussions with the religiously inclined. The very fact that the unpersuadable are willing, even anxious to engage in discussions of the validity of their beliefs is hypocritical to begin with. Lecture us on their beliefs? Sure. If they can find an audience outside of the captive one in front of the pulpit. But to engage in a pretend-rational exchange of ideas, when they take pride in not being capable of accepting a differing view? That is clearly dishonest.

Examples of that sort of dishonesty are legion in what passes for religious discussion today. Take the question of scientific proof for any of the assertions commonly made by theists. The devout leap on any report of a new observation that questions previously accepted scientific consensus. “See?” they gleefully cry. “Proof that science doesn’t know what it’s talking about!” This display of a clear misunderstanding of science and the scientific epistemology is not necessarily dishonest; it may be merely ignorant. What is certainly dishonest is when they leap with equal enthusiasm on any scientific observation that they can interpret as supporting in any way some fragment of their doctrine.

Remember the Shroud of Turin debates from a decade and more ago? For true believers in the logic 3authenticity of the shroud as the burial cloth of the biblical Jesus, the reports that pollen from plants indigenous to the eastern Mediterranean ca. 2000 years ago were seized upon and trumpeted as validation of that which they already believed. But when Carbon 14 tests were permitted by the Vatican and they demonstrated that the organic material in the shroud was alive at some time in the early Renaissance, suddenly science was not to be trusted and science was once again an inappropriate tool to use to investigate religious claims.

Another example of the characteristic dishonesty of religious apologists is seen in the linguistic sophistry commonly employed. This isn`t just ignorance either; this is dishonesty. Take the deliberate misuse of the word “theory” as one of the most pervasive and deceptive techniques used by the devout. That is especially evident in discussions of their pet peeve, the scientific theory of evolution. Evolution, they say, being only a theory, should be taught alongside other theories like creationism or its uptown cousin, “intelligent design”.

This is the logical fallacy of false equivalence. The truth (if the devout were to be interested in truth as opposed to “Truth”) is that evolution is a scientific theory because it meets the criteria required to describe it as such; the notion of creationism doesn’t.

Evolution is experimentally verifiable. It is logically possible to disprove it. It has survived science-religioncountless challenges. It is consistent with laws of science as currently understood. It rises to the level of theory. It is a theory like gravity is. Not one of those things can be said of creationism. It is not a theory under any scientific definition of the term. There is no equivalence despite the vocal assertions of science deniers. And that fact exposes yet another layer of the deceit that is at the centre of religious apologetics: theists like to employ scientific “proofs” and scientific language, and claim that their unfounded assertions are “scientific”, while in the next breath they are perfectly willing to dismiss science itself as man-made and profane.

But while we can resent the duplicity and hypocrisy of the argumentation employed by the devout, we ought not be surprised.

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They are not discussing anything with any intent of expanding our understanding, or of considering other possibilities; they know, you see. They are not the slightest bit interested in analysing your points, in thinking about your reservations, in considering your views. They are interested in repeating their beliefs in various different words and persuading you to accept them, or at least to persuade you stop expressing your own views. They are there to evangelise, not to seek understanding or to grow intellectually. When you are right, and any contradictory view is not only wrong but inspired by Satan, then any kind of intellectual dishonesty is justified.

So, as the devout gird themselves to do intellectual battle with atheists, they are not preparing for an intellectual discussion; they are only preparing to lie, cheat, mislead, and obfuscate. It is their duty, you see. They are right, so whatever it takes to get their point across is valid. Logic doesn’t matter. Reason is irrelevant. Truth doesn’t count. Because they have Truth.


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