Smackdown: Debating Debate

So a couple of weeks ago there was a big debate between noted atheist debater and public-access TV host Matt Dillahunty (TGIA listeners will remember him as our guest on episode 128) and somebody that I had never heard of before, but whose real name actually seems to be Sye Ten Bruggencate. I watched (listened to, actually) most of the debate, and have given it some real thought. Here’s what I’ve come up with: I still think these debates are of limited or negative value to our movement.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t have to see it. I largely knew what they were going to say. So did they! So much so that, as a stunt, Matt read a pre-written REBUTTAL! That’s how confident he was that Sye wouldn’t come up with anything new or interesting to say. And Sye, in what was meant to be a similar stunt (though it was much less effective), played a bunch of video clips of Matt, as if to say “I know all of your arguments ahead of time, too!” Both came totally prepared to talk right past each other, and that’s exactly what they did.

Mr. Dillahunty pointed out there there is no universally accessible or verifiable evidence to support Mr. Bruggencate’s theological claims, and Mr. Bagglecaken claimed that the bible is true because God says so (he’s a so-called presuppositionalist), and that Mr. Dilettantey and everybody else in the world knows that, and any claim to the contrary is just lying out of a desire to sin. Oh, and we can’t know anything if we don’t start with the assumption that God (yes, HIS god) is real, and the final word on all questions.

And thus it went. Each man passionately saying things. Neither conceding any of the other’s points, because they can’t. The problem isn’t that they won’t listen to each other, nor is it that they don’t speak each other’s language (though even that came into question a little when Matt pointed out that words don’t have inherent meaning…). The problem is that they’re coming from entirely different ways of thinking, each of which precludes giving any credence to pretty much anything the other guy has to say. They’re in different kinds of cars, racing on entirely different tracks.

Of course, as Matt pointed out on our show, the point of a debate for him is not to convince the person he’s debating, but rather to convince folks in the audience. His exact words were “I view it as a way of getting out information.” To reach the woman in the third row who has been on the fence, and now can see how rational the skeptic position is, and how ridiculous the religious people sound. And that’s great by me. I want her to be reached!

The thing is, a debate like this has a much larger scope than the one or two fence-sitters in the room. What debates– all debates– do is set up an adversarial dynamic. That is, my proposition against your proposition. That’s fine for most topics, but this is not most topics. The fact is that religious believers don’t see their beliefs as just a series of propositions. They see their beliefs as intrinsic parts of their identities. Therefore, someone debating those beliefs isn’t just exploring the logical validity of the claims, they’re launching repeated. personal. attacks.

It is my belief that most people– and I include non-believers in this– don’t walk away from these debates feeling like a good, healthy examination of thought has just occurred. I’m guessing that most people walk away from these debates feeling like they’ve identified an enemy. “A ha!” we all think, “I am part of x in-group, and now I know that y in-group is against us and we must fight them!”

I have two major problems with this. First, I don’t think it helps ANYBODY to think of someone who thinks differently than you do as your enemy. It doesn’t lead to empathy, it doesn’t lead to understanding, it just leads to more and deeper antipathy. Second, if my in-group is atheists, and our enemy is religious believers, we are going to LOSE! In the U.S. anyway. They have us wildly outnumbered, and they control every channel of power. All this enemy stuff just makes us WAY easier to marginalize without the least bit of sympathy.

Think of the recent Supreme Court decision Greece v. Galloway. That, to my non-legally-trained mind, should’ve been an easy slam-dunk for our side. Giving constant Christian prayers (or any prayers, for that matter) in town council meetings clearly favors the religious over the non-religious. It is an obvious first amendment violation. But when that question is put before a panel of nine judges, six of whom are Catholic and three Jewish, suddenly questions of tradition come up. As does a shoulder-shrugging “what’s the harm?” attitude.

To my mind, the Greece v. Galloway decision was a failure of empathy. The justices just had no compelling reason to even attempt to see the non-believer perspective. That’s because we’re not people or citizens, we’re the enemy. I mean come on- it was less than a year ago that justice Scalia did an interview where he ACTUALLY SAID that atheism “certainly favors the devil’s desires.” He had no trouble saying that.

As long as we let the Christian majority (and the Jews and Muslims, etc) see us as the enemy, rather than fellow citizens who want to be treated fairly, we’re going to lose battles like this. And every victory that we manage to get is going to be viewed as a loss to their side. THAT DOES NOT HELP OUR CAUSE.

Our goal as a movement, at least for the near future, needs to be to break down the walls that separate us from the religious, not build them higher. And whether it’s inadvertent or not, I believe that wall-building is the main thing accomplished by debates. Matt Dillahunty said it himself on our show:

It’s sad that we live in a world where it may not matter who makes the best case or who has the best arguments or who has the facts on their side; that there’s an element of theater to this.

That’s the truth. Do we have the best arguments on our side? Of course we do. Do the facts all point to our conclusions? Absolutely. So the fuck what? The debate was never about the facts or arguments. The debate was about drawing lines in the sand. And those lines can only hurt our movement. The second we start debating, we’ve already lost.

4 thoughts on “Smackdown: Debating Debate

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. Obviously we haven’t gotten anywhere babbling on as we have, but I think with the internet and facebook we have sparked a new era in the spread of ideas. I feel that rather than using the internet to make a broken record out of debates, we should start taking an unbiased step back to contemplate what the true crux of the situation is. Obviously most free-thinking atheists, when confronted with a question by a religious folk, can without hesitation answer it. But the questions continue to live on unanswered. So rather than temporarily bandaging our ego I say we take a softer approach and carefully observe. I’ve heard Frank and Dan mention many times to not be that classic “angry atheist”. We need to stand up against the generalization of our ideals as well as the perpetrators of the stereotypes. Socratic discussions and autonomous thought should be a primary subject in school as well as the understanding of the many religions. The only way to safely take care of religion is to guide a self revelation through the popularization of free thinking parents to teach their children the many religions. Give the children a voice otherwise we’re locked in an endless loop of tradition as we have been.

  2. Yeah. No!

    I strongly disagree. For centuries the theists had control of any narrative. The least these debates do is show that their arguments can be questioned. And that is a good thing. The theists, not the debater, but those watching, see that it’s ok to question religion and no lighting will strike the one who questions it. For centuries the only opposition they had was an argument: “My god is better than your god!” Now they hear: “what god?” And unlike communists we don’t have a separate ideology to replace their theism with. No, we just show that one can live a life without ideology and blind faith. STB is a fairly known apologist, who is a bit stupid. Only thing Matt did wrong was to lower himself to be on the same stage with this cretin.

    In religion the biggest sin one can commit is to doubt one’s faith. But when there are arguments presented a seed is introduced. There will be no “Road to Damascus” moments, but slowly some will begin to question their brain washing. All over television, radio, and churches the theists are able to spread their message without any resistance or alternate views. These debates at least allow for a voice to be heard. I doubt many theists watch The Atheist Experience just to gain a different perspective. But when they attend or watch these debates online they hear another point of view.

    Right now we are insulating ourselves more and more. Conservatives watch nothing but Fox News and listen to talk radio, Liberals watch MSNBC and maybe listen to NPR and the only way they hear the opposing side is through the filter, and with editorial commentary, of their political agenda. And we have turned political opponents into enemies. In our system politics without compromise can not function, ours is not a parliamentary democracy. But how can you compromise with the enemy? Anyone who agreed on the tiniest of things with the president gets voted out. Cantor is the latest casualty. Because the right hears nothing but how anything the Democrats want to do is destroying America.

    So insulation is bad. Conservatives want to live near other conservatives because their talking heads have convinced them that the other side wants to ruin the country. We do live in two different Americas. That is the problem. No one talks to the other side. Debating at least shows that we deserve to be part of society and to be heard. We can no longer be ignored or dismissed. When you discuss politics or religion with a friend who holds an opposing view do you think he actually hears you, or are you just talking past him most of the time? Yet we do constantly debate between ourselves. Even though it’s a bit pointless. But we can not just sit idly by while dumb shit is being said, without an opposing response they can feel that what they said finds agreement. So we open our mouths and argue. No one leaves the conversation convinced by their friend. BBC had an article about studies which have shown that no matter how correct you might be, an appeal to logic usually falls on deaf ears. That no one can convince the other person by just being right. One has to develop a special method which will appeal to emotions.

    Through experience we all know this. Yet we still argue and present facts to support our arguments. So what? Does this mean we should just stop debating at all? Just because there will be no big increase in the membership to American Atheists after each debate doesn’t make them pointless. If people weren’t sure of their stance when they debate someone they would go to a lecture, not agree to argue someone else. But to simply dismiss it, and even say that it hurts us, is wrong.

    I get that you guys don’t want to antagonize anyone else. But tough. Those people are antagonized by your very existence. You reject their god, that hurts them. So why not be heard at least? Or should we all just disengage from anyone who doesn’t think like us? How can we achieve a majority without speaking out? Some debates are better than others, some are more useful than others, but we can’t just idly sit and wait until everyone sees the light and the logic of our arguments. Hell, fucking “Cosmos” offends these people. Anything that is not what they believe offends them. The Taliban shoot little girls just because they want to learn. Someone has to stand up and say no.

    They already “see us as the enemy.” And it’s not because Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris have big mouths. If something is wrong then it should be opposed. Especially when it’s unconstitutional. The court voted the way it did because it has become politicized. Because we are the enemy. They feel threatened. Because they are losing the battle. And it is a battle of ideas. No matter how nicely you want to behave. The only reason sane religious people show any understanding is because they are compelled to by a plural society. There was nothing threatening about the NYC downtown mosque, or the one in Tennessee. Yet they still opposed it. Not because Muslims in America antagonize them demanding their rights and constantly buy up billboards or debate them. But because they already saw them as enemies and felt threatened by them.

    They don’t need excuses to feel a lack of empathy. You reject their god. How did gays achieve (are in the process of) equality? They said “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” The more open they were, the more they engaged in debate the more people accepted them. Less than 20 years ago a Democratic president signed a bill which forbade gay marriage. And America saw that and said that is good. But right now most of the country thinks it’s crap. Was it because gays said let’s not antagonize anyone, lest they see us as enemies? No, they demanded their rights.

    The religious can not go on unopposed. When they claim that we have no morals do you think that they will all tell their friends that they have this neighbour who seems like a nice guy, doesn’t kill or rape anyone, is friendly and might be an atheist, so that they should all respect atheists because they are nice and not threatening at all? What happens when they try to convert you? And share the great news of their lord with you? Will you nicely politely say no, and they will see how wonderful you are and tell their kids? They have bullied non believers for too long. It’s time to oppose them. The fanatics will never have any empathy for you. I bet you would not say this to anyone else. Not to someone black 50 years ago, to keep their head down and just be nice, and sooner or later they will be accepted as long as they don’t antagonize anyone. And how were old racists different from the theists? They saw, slavery, their race, and segregation as an intrinsic part of them. Hell, they fought, died, murdered to protect that.

    We don’t have to antagonize them at every turn. Some things atheists do or say are counterproductive, or just stupid. But we are not a unified movement. The only thing that united us is our shared conviction that there probably is no god. Everyone should act the way they choose. When someone sees a “Thank god I’m atheist” t-shirt do you think they are happy? Or is it a bit antagonistic and mocking? Do you think they see that and become curious? Or are they just a bit insulted?

    However they feel after these debates is up to them. No debate or book changed my life, I became an atheist on my own, but also because I heard ideas which I later, sometimes maybe years alter, used in my internal battle. At the very least these debates are indeed theater, therefore entertainment. And that is a good thing. I love watching Hitchens debate, even when Hitch is sometimes wrong. He was always entertaining. The world would be much poorer if we did not have those debates. And though I am not a big fan of philosophical arguments using modern logic like Matt does, I still enjoy listening to him. And sometimes I can even pick up a nicely formulated idea or argument with which I agree and can use. Sometimes we already came to the same conclusions but someone like Matt, or Hitch can say it better, clearer, so we gain that. So again, who cares if almost no one will be convinced. It’s about entertainment and an idea. And that is good.

    The world becomes poorer only when we disengage, not when we debate. And I don’t really give a shit if they see me as the enemy. They already do. They think I am going to hell. You insult them by your very existence. The American Christian right is not a positive empathetic cooperation society. They are divided and see those who believe just a tiny bit differently as enemies. In order to be understood and gain any empathy we first have to be recognized. Which means, yes, billboards, court cases and debates. And general engagement. Anywhere and everywhere. In whatever way we see fit.

    • Hear freakin’ hear!

      I could not agree with you more. The non-religious were once practically non-existent in this country. Now they’re more than 20% of it. The reason that happened is because we spoke up, and our very existence punches a huge hole in the unwritten christian narrative:

      We are christian because christianity is true.
      This is why most people are christians.
      The message of christianity is so obviously true, so convincing, that almost everybody is christian.
      This is how we know christianity is true.

      To see people walking down the street, acting in movies and on tv, having debates on Youtube, and not breaking down at the first flimsy god claim thrown at them breaks the illusion that christianity is the only game in town, that it’s a no-brainer. And the fact is, people notice. If they didn’t, we’d still BE a negligible minority rather than 20% of the nation. Most of us are just that: ex-christians who noticed that our narrative had feet of clay, and decided to look deeper. People who, despite having faith, weren’t so hidebound as to believe they could never be wrong.

      The only reason there ARE a meaningful number of us is because these debates and other methods of speaking out reached us, and we listened. Reason IS persuasive. That it falls flat against a mind that’s stopped having new thoughts is no reason to stop screaming it out at the top of our lungs.

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