Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition of America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. Here we talk about religious and secular debates, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: If we look into the contexts of the presentation of religious and secular debates, something akin to Godwin’s Law or reductio ad Hitlerum – perhaps, a reductio ad paganus (reduction to heathen) – tends to emerge, where the secular or non-religious debater’s arguments cannot be defeated, or will not be engaged, and then the religious debater shifts from the logical, philosophical, and scientific into the personal, the emotional, and the historical with an emphasis on assertions about secular, even atheist, totalitarian regimes or autocrats committing atrocities. Those take the place of the previous points of the argument. This happens in sophisticated, educated, and intelligent circles, and in spheres in which none of those three traits exist in unison or alone. Any shorthand retort for this rhetorical flourish or alteration of frame for winning over the crowd rather than the argument in a formal debate? Any recommendation for those who do not spend most of their time thinking about these topics? A shorthand retort and a recommendation, or set of them, designed to bring the debate or the casual conversation into the realm of reasonable discourse of logical argumentation, philosophical dialogue, and scientific analysis rather than personal attacks, emotional appeals, and historical misrepresentation.
Herb Silverman: I’ve debated many fundamentalist Christian ministers, and it’s often the first time that members of a mostly Christian audience get to hear an atheist point of view from an atheist, rather than from their Christian minister.
Many atheists, myself included, have been overly optimistic that rational arguments will change minds. I’ve since learned that you can’t reason someone out of a belief that he or she didn’t find unreasonable through reason. I now think the best we can do is make good points in a reasonable and pleasant manner. I emphasize “pleasant” because many in the audience are affected more by the debater’s personality than by arguments. This was difficult for me to understand at first, since it’s so different from my world of mathematics, where smiling and a sense of humor are useless. I look for opportunities to change atheist stereotypes and to raise questions some Christians may never have considered.
It helps in debates or discussions to treat your opponent and audience with kindness and respect. Assume they believe what they say, even if it sounds like nonsense. If my opponent makes personal attacks, I just ignore them. I acknowledge that there have been bad atheistic regimes, and also point out that most wars have been over religion. While atheists usually want me to bash religion, I try not to do too much of that because I want to reach open-minded Christians. Most conservative Christians are skeptical of whatever I say in a debate. The best I usually hear from them afterward is, “The atheist seemed like a nice person, even though he’s going to hell.”
I also like to praise the Bible, mentioning that every educated person should read the Bible (the only time I get cheers from conservative Christians) because it’s an important part of our culture. I also provide a list of other books for audience members to read, which includes A Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan, Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Friedman, Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russel, and books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, among others.
Now here are some of my responses to questions I hear from my debate opponent or the audience.
Why do you hate God? I don’t hate God any more than I hate the Tooth Fairy, and most of us didn’t become atheists because something bad happened to us. We became atheists because we find no evidence for any gods.
Don’t you know that you’ll become a believer when you have a big problem? This is an offshoot of the “no atheists in foxholes” cliché. Check out the organization Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. Atheists tend to address problems by looking for practical solutions to resolve them, and through supportive friends, family, and medical doctors. Many believers “talk” to God only when they have a problem, so such a comment is more applicable to theists than to atheists.
Do you see that I feel sorry for you because you don’t believe there is a purpose to life? Atheists don’t feel sorry for themselves, nor do they feel deprived of something real. We don’t need to believe in God to find joy in our lives. There may not be a purpose of life, but we find many purposes in life. And by the way, how would you feel if an atheist said he feels sorry for you because he thinks you are basing your life on nonsense? And would a Christian tell a Jew that he feels sorry for him?
If there is no God, what responsibility do we have to be moral? Personal responsibility is a good conservative principle. We should not give credit to a deity for our accomplishments or blame satanic forces when we behave badly. We should take personal responsibility for our actions. I try to live my life to its fullest — it’s the only life I have, and I hope to make a positive difference because it’s the right thing to do, not because of future rewards or punishment.
How can you be moral without God? You must feel like you can rape and murder and do whatever you think you can get away with. With an attitude like that, I hope that you continue to believe in God. (Alternatively, I sometimes say that I do rape and murder as many people as I want to. Zero.) I often ask the questioner how he or she would behave differently if they stopped believing in God. One minister thought for a minute, and said: “I’m sometimes tempted by other women, but I don’t cheat on my wife because of my love of Jesus, knowing how much it would hurt Jesus.” I responded that I don’t cheat because of my love for my wife Sharon. (I think even the minister’s wife preferred my answer.)
Why are atheists so arrogant? Which of these worldviews sounds more arrogant? Worldview 1: I know God created the entire universe just for the benefit of humans. He watches me constantly and cares about everything I say and do. I know how He wants me and everyone else to behave and believe. He is perfect and just, which is why we face an eternity of either bliss or torture, depending on whether or not we believe in Him.
Worldview 2: We’re the product of millions of years of evolution. Most species are extinct, as humans will eventually be. I hope to make a positive difference because it’s the right thing to do, not because of future rewards or punishments in an afterlife. When I don’t know something, which is often, I say, “I don’t know.
Why do you think science is more reliable than religion? Because we know how to distinguish good scientific ideas from bad ones. Scientists start out not knowing the answer and go wherever the evidence leads them. Science relies on experimenting, testing, and questioning assumptions critically until a consensus is reached, and even that is always open to revision in light of later evidence. This is why scientific truths are the same in Pakistan, the United States, Israel, and India — countries with very different religious beliefs.
I became a Christian because I know it’s true. How do you think we should distinguish good religious beliefs from bad ones? As it turns out, there’s a remarkable coincidence to how people choose their religion. The overwhelming majority chooses the religion of their parents. Most Asians are Buddhists, people from India are generally Hindu, Saudi Arabians are Muslims, and Americans are mainly Christians. Religious belief is based more on geography than on theology. With all the conflicting religious beliefs in the world, they can’t all be right. But they can all be wrong.
Wouldn’t it be safer to become a believer in case there is a heaven and hell? This is a form of Pascal’s Wager. You assume that the only existing god would be your Christian version—one who rewards believers with eternal bliss and punishes nonbelievers with eternal damnation. Moreover, it would either be a god who could not distinguish between genuine and feigned belief, or one who rewards hypocrites for pretending a faith that they lack. Suppose I posit the existence of a creator who cares about human beings and elects to spend an eternity with a chosen few. What selection criteria would such a supreme being adopt? I expect this divine scientist would prefer a “personal relationship” with intelligent, honest, rational people who require evidence before holding a belief. Such a superior intellect would presumably be bored by and want little contact with humans who so confidently draw unwarranted conclusions about his unproved existence, and believe only on blind faith.
Don’t you at least worry that heaven and hell are real and that you will be going to hell? Here are some questions I have for you about heaven and hell. Why is faith not only important, but perhaps the deciding factor about who winds up in heaven or hell? What moral purpose does eternal torture serve? If we have free will on earth, will we have free will in heaven? If so, might we sin and go from heaven to hell? If not, will we be heavenly robots? If God can make us sinless in heaven, why didn’t he create us sinless on earth? Can you be blissfully happy in heaven knowing that some of your loved ones are being tortured in hell? And what do you do for an eternity in heaven without getting bored? Wouldn’t a loving God who wants us all to go to heaven make it unambiguously clear how to get there?
Christians, let alone those of other faiths and none, disagree about what to believe or do. My wish is for believers and nonbelievers to focus on helping their fellow human beings and treating them with respect and compassion. I believe that my afterlife will consist of the repercussions of any good works I have done that survive after my death. I expect my body parts will go neither to heaven nor hell, but to medical school, just where my Jewish mother wanted me to go. I will then feel much like I did before I was born, which was not the least unpleasant.
I understand that few will change their worldviews because of a debate. Those who “feel” the presence of Jesus in their lives and see his miracles on a regular basis will not be swayed by scientific evidence or biblical contradictions. However, some Christians might become less inclined to stereotype atheists, and some Christians and atheists might get to know one another and find ways to cooperate on issues of importance to both their communities. Whenever that happens, I consider it to have been a win-win debate.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Herb.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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