Pitfalls in debate – the difficulties we face

Posted by on May 19, 2010 in Thoughts | 16 comments

As a person who discusses his beliefs mostly with the like-minded, I find it difficult to speak to someone with a very different viewpoint to my own in relation to religion, science, the paranormal and the metaphysical. I generally won’t stand by and let what I perceive as foolishness escape challenged, because I think misinformation is dangerous, and too easily manipulated. And I can’t always fault the person from which this misinformation comes, as we all have our understandings of the universe because of what we’ve learned and what information we’ve been exposed to. Most of the people with whom I’ve debated have been reasonable people who just have a different viewpoint. There is nothing wrong with a different viewpoint if both parties in a debate can appreciate the relevance of the case being stated, and when this happens, we make progress as people.

But sometimes the people we love and care about can have views and ideas that either we see as false, or know as outright foolishness. The last thing I want to do when debating with family members or loved ones is to alienate them or cause a rift between us.

The problem here has several parts:

  • People’s core beliefs are very precious to them, because this is what they base their assessments of their universe upon. If you stomp on these, you stomp on all they hold dear.
  • When discussing topics of belief, people with strong views which you are addressing or opposing can tend to “clam-up” and stop listening to you. The more insistent you become, the less they hear.
  • Aggressive attacks only cause the other person to feel threatened. If you get too emotional about a topic or during debate, you lose, the other person will claim victory based on your lack of self control.
  • Pedantic and semantic arguments can be a trap for both aides of any argument. As in politics, arguments can be all too readily used against you if poorly worded.
  • Facts are your friend, they can also be your enemy. If you don’t know the answer, it’s difficult to stand your ground in a debate.

So what to do? Given these difficulties, how can we talk sense to someone we care about without coming across as a bully?

I for one see the way forward when debating against the tenets of religion, anti-science, the paranormal an other forms of denialism is to be as empathetic as possible. You have to really listen to what the other person is saying. You’ll find that a lot of the time their deeply held beliefs will stem from fear; fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of being alone in the universe, fears that their lives are without purpose. These fears can be somewhat placated by belief in a higher power who is here to look after you, to listen to your wishes and to grant you eternal life after your life ends. And these fears are very powerful, because they address the very nature of what it means to be human. If a person were to lose their entire perspective on life, and all they hold to be true, the confrontation of this may be too much to bear. None of want to see people simply giving up on life.

The militant stance of a soldier of reason will not have a favourable result in most cases. The idea that the mainstream media has of atheists as aggressive and “strident” is damaging to us all, it’s false and needs to be adjusted by out actions. That’s not to say there’s not room for Dawkins and Hitchens in the debate, but if we are all like them, we come across as a mob, or as evil.

In my eyes, I see the best way to go into debate is with a sense of respect for the individual (this is a human with human experiences/needs much like your own), a sense of empathy (try to understand what the person means rather than just what they are saying), and a lot of patience ( aggression and insults will only foster the same in kind).

I am not professing to know everything about interpersonal communications, nor am I saying that this is how I operate all the time, but this is what I’d like to see people adopt in their arguments. And yes, I’ll admit that there’s nothing like the occasional firefight to spark things up, but at the end I always feel like I’ve betrayed myself somewhat.

What are your experiences/advices when it comes to dealing with conflict that arises from atheistic/theistic/scientific debate?

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16 Comments

  1. I think we should treat them the same way they treat us. How much respect does a religious person have towards a non believer? They try to convert us, they try to scare us into this crap, they try to convert our children so they can “save” them. And they close their eyes when the leaders of the church fuck little boys. What respect do these people deserve? They make arguements based on ideas and not facts and when they are presented with facts they reply by saying that it’s gods will and that he has a plan.

    These people are dangerous and and the best way to deal with them is to give them the same treatment they give you. they don’t respect, they just believe. They are dilusional and dangerous. How many people have died in the name of God. People that are christians are people like Jeffery Dahmer, or Gacy, or Hittler. Peacefull people don’t need religion. God means war. When you deal with a religious person keep that in mind.

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  2. As a theist, I have debated a lot of people who have outwardly treated me as if I support hatred, violence, and child rape (I’m not even Catholic), merely because I strive to be a Christian.

    I think one thing we can do is treat each individual like an individual. Like you said, we all have our reasons for coming to the beliefs we have (whether we consciously accept them or not). Even though there are millions of Christians in, say, the United States, each individual’s view is likely, at least, slightly different. I believe this is also true of the atheist. I have talked with atheists who aren’t Christians or don’t believe in God for fear of being associated with what they hate. Some find it uncomfortable. Some just haven’t thought much about it. Some are indifferent. Some have thought hard and come to what they feel is a reasonable conclusion. The list goes on.

    I think what we need to do is drop the stereotypes. We’re all human. We’re all in this together.

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  3. Sam Harris argues that we need to attack faith with reason because faith itself is damaging.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3YOIImOoYM&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

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    • This was an interesting talk by Sam Harris. However, he seems to be letting two issues slip together. He’s arguing against ‘faith.’ He wants us to use reason, instead. Ok, fine. However, he keeps implying that if we lose faith, we lose religion. Or, if we lose faith, we lose God. If people keep believing that there are 72 virgins waiting for them, they’ll do X. If people believe in the God of the Bible, they’ll treat homosexuals like X. That is a completely different matter. There are two issues: (i) faith and reason, and (ii) whether or not a particular religion’s belief system can be reasonably held. He can’t just assume, like he does, that a view cannot be reasonably held in its own right. Unfortunately, his point and all of his conclusions rely on it.

      I also wanted to point out a few more things. When he’s calling homosexuality an abomination, he fails to mention that sexual immorality is listed right along side it. That would put certain heterosexual sexual behavior in the immoral box, as well. Also, when he quotes Jesus as saying they should bring those who do not want him to be king before him and slay them, he’s ripping it out of context. That’s part of a parable. Sure, it could be allusion to some kind of future punishment. But, he’s not telling his followers to do this. He’s not even saying it directly. The parable needs to be examined. Harris, per usual, rips things out of context, distorts the big picture, and ignores fundamental issues to his premises in order to push an agenda.

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    • I’m not following your first paragraph. Harris’s argument seems pretty clear to me and I don’t see how there is a problem with “letting two issues slip together.” You say you’re okay with letting yourself be guided by reason (or, at the very least, you’re okay if someone else does that). Do you disagree that if people use reason, they will ultimately decide that killing a massive number of people in order to terrorize even more people is demonstrably wrong? Do you disagree that we can use reason to understand that beating someone and leaving them tied to a fence to die is not an example of good moral behavior? I don’t see how these are separate issues. I don’t know what you mean by “He can’t just assume, like he does, that a view cannot be reasonably held in its own right.” What, specifically are you talking about here? Is it Harris’s view on how women should be treated? That it is demonstrably wrong to demand that all women be covered from head to toe in cloth bags? Are you suggesting that this is a view that can be determined to be the moral thing by using reason alone?

      There are lots of bizarre things that are said to be against God’s rules, I don’t think that Harris was attempting to make a comprehensive list. He was using homosexuality as an example because, I’m guessing, it is a hot button issue at the moment.

      As for the Parable of the Pounds in Luke 19, it is pretty clear that this is meant as a warning. Those who refuse God will be slaughtered. It’s really not that complex. In any case, you ignore completely Harris’s point that the atrocities in the dark ages were committed by people that were devout biblical followers. It was their belief in the bible that made them burn people at the stake and torture people until they lost their minds.

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  4. P1: Individual holds Luke 19 to be true based on faith. The individual is non-violent.

    P2: Individual holds Luke 19 to be true based on faith. The individual resorts to violence.

    Sam Harris is arguing that it is faith that is the cause of violence and unreasonable immorality. I think it’s obvious, in this case, that faith is not the cause, it’s misunderstanding. When the ancient text does not say to perform these acts, it’s not faith that’s guiding their actions, it’s ignorance or something worse.

    He’s equating “faith” with being “unreasonable.” They are not the same. There are separate cases, however, where it seems to me that faith can be the cause.

    P1′: Paul says that women should cover their heads when they pray.

    So, let’s imagine (P1′) is taken on faith. The blame seems more attributable to blame, in this case, because it’s explicitly stated. To call it a misunderstanding would be to say it doesn’t really say not to wear head coverings. I think they understand what he said perfectly well. They’re just taking it on faith. I agree with Harris that this should also be battled with reason.

    So there are two conditions, it seems, to me, that should be battled with reason. There is misunderstanding and then there is faith. Misunderstanding can cause people to put faith in the wrong place. But it doesn’t look like it is the sole cause of all unreasonable immoral situations.

    We can think of how it’s used in science. For example, we put our faith in the fact that the initial singularity had zero volume yet was infinitely dense. I don’t think this is unreasonable to believe based on a reasonable worldview. We may find out it’s wrong, and then we’ll properly place our faith in some other axiom or principle that allows us to better understand the world.

    If Harris said something like “unreasonable faith” was wrong, I might be able to follow him, wholeheartedly. However, I still think he’s distorting the whole situation so he can blame solely “faith” and make it look like it’s only something people of religion do. Everyone is faithful to something. So, then he takes this propagandist approach by unleashing Luke 19 into the discussion when it’s clearly a different matter. That is a matter of misunderstanding, not faith. I think he’s got an agenda and he’s going to distort the issue to press it. If he dealt with the real issue he’d realize that he couldn’t blame religion as much as he’d like to.

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    • “Misunderstanding can cause people to put faith in the wrong place. But it doesn’t look like it is the sole cause of all unreasonable immoral situations.”

      This is one aspect of Harris’s speech. You appear to be arguing that faith doesn’t always lead to bad things. Okay fine. Harris agrees with you on that and that’s not the kind of belief that he’s talking about. He gives one example of the Catholic belief that condom use is prohibited by God. This belief is specifically and demonstrably malevolent to the health of people in Africa where they only information about condoms comes from the Catholic clergy. The belief that condom use is bad is not based on any rational thought and is easily shown to be immoral because of the suffering and death that are directly attributed to this belief. This belief about condoms is indelibly tied to a certain belief about God and, therefore, a rational challenge to the morality of condom use is not sufficient. One must attack the root cause of this belief: the religion itself.

      This is the crux of Harris’s argument and it is my point in bringing it up. Religion is a belief that for too long has been able to make itself exempt from rational discussion. We’re supposed to simply stand back and allow someone to believe whatever they want about God because you can’t criticize their religion. This is not an attitude that we take in any other aspect of life. For example, you wouldn’t hold yourself back from suggesting someone was nuts for believing the holocaust didn’t happen or that George Bush was directly responsible for 9/11. Why should we be forced to hold ourselves back when suggesting that suicide bombers are immoral idiots or that the Christian belief in God leads to greater suffering than there otherwise needs to be?

      And my answer to the blog post’s suggestion is that we should not. In fact, we must not. Criticism of religious faith is every bit as important as criticism of inaccurate historical beliefs. Do I go around trying to stir up religious debates? No. Similarly, I do not go around stirring up debates about history. But if either topic comes up, we should feel free to use rationality to counter the irrationality of religion.

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  5. /* correction */
    So, let’s imagine (P1′) is taken on faith. The blame seems more attributable to FAITH, in this case, because it’s explicitly stated.

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  6. @Harris

    You conceded my point and went on to make the same mistake Harris does with your example.

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    • You apparently have fundamental misunderstanding of the argument, then.

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  7. Well, I don’t think it should be exempt from rational discussion. I reread your first paragraph and I thought your conclusion was more general than it was. I see how in the case where the Catholic church has said condom use is wrong, we need to combat Catholicism with reason. I misunderstood and applied what you were saying to Christianity, in a broad manner. Sorry about that.

    I think it actually was a fundamental misunderstanding on my part if by the religion that is to be attacked with reason you mean a particular interpretation. When someone interprets Luke 19 as being a message to start killing people, they do need to be combated with reason. It doesn’t mean Christianity is false or that Luke 19 is false. I think it means the interpretation of it is. Is this what you meant?

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    • This is what I am getting at. This particular argument is not an argument against the validity of religion per se, rather it is an argument that we should not exempt matters of faith from skeptical reasoning. We owe it to the world to treat religion just as we treat any other belief particularly because religion has such a large impact on our lives.

      It is my opinion that this kind of rational skepticism of religion will ultimately be corrosive to religion, but that’s yet to be seen. It is not impossible that after careful rational consideration of all things religious, we could come to understand that Religion X really does represent the right way to conduct one’s life. What I think we’ll find, though, is just what Harris says, that there are multiple ways of conducting our lives that are no more or less moral and that we can derive these morals strictly from the natural world.

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  8. Guys I’m really enjoying the debate here, but if we could keep on topic the of the post that would be great.

    “What are your experiences/advices when it comes to dealing with conflict that arises from atheistic/theistic/scientific debate?”

    I have included the Sam Harris video in its own thread here, so if you want to discuss the video on its own, please continue the conversation over there.

    http://atheistclimber.wordpress.com/2010/05/20/sam-harris-at-idea-city-05/

    Thanks for the debates people, it’s awesome.

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    • The point I was making with the Sam Harris video was my answer to your conundrum. You should feel necessary, IMO, to engage people in a sincere, rational discussion about their religion and I do not believe that anyone’s faith should be considered a taboo subject.

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    • That’s cool, I an just trying to make an effort to try and keep things “on-topic” in the specific threads. Just trying to maintain control. If your replies are related specifically to the vid then go there, if not, stay here.

      Thanks again!

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  9. My experience has been that different people respond in so many many ways based on multiple personality characteristics. Although I do sometimes see rather rash and uninformed comments, I sometimes see comments that are perfectly rational and peaceful. I enjoy calm, detailed, rational debate. And I can agree to disagree. I have seen both sides of the coin, thought I still think theism is more rational (the belief that there is a God). I like it when I make others think and they make me think and there is a general common finding of the truth. Even if they are being totally irrational or I am being irrational we can still agree to disagree. Its all just a game of chess, with the difference being you might actually learn something new.

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