I’ve been seeing lots of really stupid debates between atheists and religionists lately. But, then, aren’t all debates between atheists and religionists stupid?
That last question is rhetorical: I don’t really expect an answer. Feel free to leave a comment if you have a response, but — and this is addressed particularly to any Christians who happen to stumble over here — do read the rest of this post before spouting any nonsense.
Why are all debates between atheists and religionists stupid?
You’ll have to figure this out for yourself. But here’s some information that might help. There will be a test — the next time you run smack up against a Christian troll. So pay attention.
The three musketeers of argument are Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.
According to Aristotle, who knew a little something about rhetoric, those are the different kinds of appeals a person can use when debating.
... is an appeal based on “character,” or what we’d usually recognize today as “authority.” Aristotle thought it was the most important type of argument. In his day, an appeal to Ethos depended on the character, authority, and reputation of the speaker. Aristotle was qualified to make an argument about philosophy based on Ethos because he was Aristotle; Nicky the drunken cook in the Greek deli wasn't qualified to appeal to Ethos; nobody gave a crap what a drunken cook had to say. On the other hand, Nicky might have had more Ethos than Artistotle in a debate about how best to prepare spanakopita.
Nowadays, an appeal to Ethos can involve a transfer of reputation. For example: I know it’s true because Jesus said it in the Bible or I saw it on an episode of Nova, so I’ll believe it until I have good reason not to.
Obviously, both atheists and religionists make arguments using Ethos. However, they do not (usually) accept one another’s authorities as valid. It makes no difference to atheists how many people in the world believe in the supernatural. It makes no difference to creationists how many scientists accept evolution. Why would atheists care about what Paul wrote to the Ephesians? Why would religionists care about what Daniel Dennett said to Charlie Rose? Reputation is irrelevant.
So basing your arguments on Ethos will make for a stupid debate.
... is an appeal to the emotions. It can be a very effective trick for religionists who are trying to sway other religionists, because most of them love hearing whatever makes them feel comfortable, or happy, or wise in the ways of the lord. Pathos is also an extremely effective strategy for atheists to use among themselves, because — admit it! — we love to be pissed off. Man, do we like getting each other up in arms, and we do it very effectively, day after day after day.
If you'd like to see a master at using arguments based on Pathos — although she may get angry at me for giving her this compliment — go check out chappy. (By the way, her partner, deacon, is a damn good practitioner of this technique, as well.) Look at her latest post, although there are others that are similarly constructed. She starts with an example of an abuse by religion, often an anecdote based on something she has experienced firsthand. Then, in a logical sequence, she presents her oh-so-rational points, one by one. I suspect that if you asked her what kind of argument she was using, she'd tell you she was appealing through Logos. But for me, it’s not my intellect that first gets hooked; it’s my gut. Whenever I read about the evils of religion, particularly if there's any focus on the brainwashing of young children, I'm won over by my emotions. If the writer is someone I respect (there's that Ethos cropping up), I'm feeling rage and disgust at religionists long before I get to the syllogisms. Chappy, you had me at "hell."
Another good example of a fantastic appeal by Pathos is this:
Notice, however, that Pathos works best within a group. Atheists stir the emotions of other atheists; religionists stir the emotions of other religionists. The two groups don’t really affect one another much.
So basing your arguments on Pathos will make for a stupid debate.
... is an appeal using logic. How thick-headed does an atheist have to be to see that Logos is entirely ineffective against deluded people? In honor of Lewis Carroll, a rare rational theist whose birthday is tomorrow, here’s a dialogue from Alice in Wonderland. I’ve changed the names of the speakers, but the rest of the text is verbatim:
"But I don't want to go among mad people," the Lifeguard remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said CL. "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said PhillyChief.
"You must be," said iggy, "or you wouldn't have come here."
So basing your arguments on Logos will make for a stupid debate.
Time after time, I see people I respect falling down the rabbit hole. I’ve been known to plummet down there, myself.
But look. We’re not going to sell evolution to everybody, so let’s stop trying. Those of us who accept evolution don’t need to have it explained to us over and over and over. (So please, for fuck’s sake, stop — unless you have something new to add.) And those who dismiss evolution aren’t going to change their minds no matter how many times, or how loudly, science-lovers try to teach them. That’s an ineffective appeal by Ethos. When two people speak different languages, as scientists and fundamentalists do, repetition and shouting are not effective tools for clarification. If a theist asks a question about science, and if one of us is well-read enough to give a cogent answer — then he or she should do so. (Evo did a very nice, succinct job of this here.) But really? Who gives a rat’s ass whether religionists “believe in” evolution. It’s not some magical phenomenon to be believed in; it's a natural process that needs no sanction from the ignorati — just as the Earth will continue to revolve around the Sun no matter how many idiots don't agree with that explanation. Our only “job” as atheists is to make sure that science isn’t squelched by superstition. But those redneck kids up the block who go to Bible school? They don’t need to know about Darwin.
Likewise, atheists shouldn’t spend so much time appealing by Pathos, trying to prove to religionists that some of us can be moral, or ethical, or charitable, or friendly, or .... Why should we have to justify our freedom from faith to anyone? I don’t want to be known as the “oh, he’s a good atheist” guy. That strategy isn’t what the Bill of Rights is about. Even the nasty guys are entitled to their rights. I don’t want to be held up as an example — good or not — of anyone other than myself.
Anger? No one can ever succeed in getting believers angry at religion. Oh, you can get Christians furious at Muslims, and Muslims furious at Jews, and Jews furious at Christians. You can incite Catholics and Protestants against one another, or Sunnis and Shiites, or pro-Israel Reform Jews and anti-Israel Chasidim. But one thing you can never do is get any religionist angry at religion, itself.
Finally, endless appeals by Logos get so tiresome. Pointing out detailed logical fallacies to a person whose entire worldview is generated by a huge illogical premise is an exercise in futility.
I’ve heard atheists whom I consider quite brilliant say something like:
Well, I’m not trying to change the mind of the person with whom I’m debating; I’m trying to influence the quiet people who are just listening in the audience.But you know what? When you play with the inmates in an asylum, the spectators may not be able to tell that you’re not just as nuts as the rest of the team. As Alice found out, when you try to have a reasonable conversation at a mad tea party, you wind up sounding mad, too.
My recommendation therefore, is to avoid debating with religionists. If you find yourself drawn in, either because you're aiding a friend, or defending yourself, or you just can't resist, why not try using a fourth type of appeal?
... is an appeal to the funny bone. Yeah, it’s technically another form of Pathos. But it feels good, and it’s a fantastic defense against all other arguments. Many atheists need to learn to lighten up. Perhaps religionists must take themselves seriously in order to take themselves at all. But we atheists have the intellectual freedom to poke fun. So we should avail ourselves far more often than we do of perhaps the most powerful argumentation weapon at our disposal: humor.
As Mark Twain said: Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.