As an atheist, defending my lack of belief has become a preoccupational hazard. Invariably I find myself debating Christians who try to convince me of the goodness, the power, the love, or just the mere existence of their god. Reciprocating, I try to show them that their beliefs rest on false premises, or vaporous evidence, or a book with no authority. In return, I often get circular reasoning, appeals to authority, and a multitude of logical fallacies galore. It can be very frustrating.
But the most frustrating aspect of these debates is the assumption by Christians that we are on opposite sides. We’re not.
When a Christian posits an argument that they believe is a “killer’, irrefutably proving the existence of god, (while I mentally roll my eyes) it is clear what the main difficulty with their argument is. They start with a bias. They argue from the assumption that god exists, when that assumption is what they are trying to prove. However, most times, they can’t see that. They are blinded by their subjectivity into thinking that they are being objective.
Atheists don’t argue from the assumption that god does not exist, which you would expect if we were on opposing sides, where the common perception places us. The only assumption an atheist makes is that the evidence, if properly pursued, will lead to the right conclusion. From that assumption we look at the evidence, both pro and con, and accept or reject it, as appropriate until a conclusion can be reached. So in a theist/atheist debate, the atheist is the only one with no ax to grind. The atheist is the only one who is arguing from a neutral position. The atheist is the only one taking the middle ground.
There is a continuum of the argument that looks like this:
God Doesn’t Exist <———————————————-> God Exists.
In the middle of that continuum is atheism and, perhaps, agnosticism. Both are essentially skepticism. Atheists are not at the end, affirmatively claiming the lack of existence of god. We are in the middle, simply pointing out that there is no evidence, anywhere, for god’s existence. One could validly pick any point on that continuum, and make that argument. Atheists, depending on the strength of their convictions, probably lean a little further left than right, but I know of no Atheist who claims god doesn’t exist. Show us evidence and we’ll move to the right. We may say we don’t believe he exists, but that is not the same thing as saying we believe he doesn’t exist; an example of a distinction with a difference. A big difference.
People who do, affirmatively, reject all notions of god, higher authority, morality, or purpose, are called nihilists. Nihilism 1 is a philosophical position that suggests that human existence is without objective meaning. Nihilists, almost by definition, do not believe in the existence of gods. While there may be more to the philosophy of nihilism than a rejection of the concept of god, (and I certainly am no expert – there is much more to the history and philosophical underpinnings of the theory than I can do justice to here) it is fair for purposes of this post to place nihilism, NOT atheism, as the counterpoint to theism. Nihilism comes from the Latin word meaning “nothing”. To most theists, god is everything. A better point/counterpoint would be hard to find. The point here is that atheism is decidedly not nihilism, (although nihilism is atheistic) and with theism at one end of the spectrum, and nihilism at the other, atheism lies somewhere in between.
So when I am having a debate with a Christian about the existence of god, to a truly impartial outside observer, it seems to me that my position should be given more credence, because I have taken the only truly neutral rhetorical position, by simply pointing out that there is no evidence for the proposition “there is a god”, and therefore, it is reasonable to have no belief in god until the evidence shows up. The theist position, starting from the proposition that there is a god, is not neutral.
There are a lot of different debates one can have with a theist. Is religion preferable to no religion? Is scripture the inerrant word of god? Can atheists be moral? All good questions and all good topics of debate. But each and every one of them is pointless until you answer the ultimate question – does god exist? – because if the answer is “No”, then it is a waste of time to discuss the others. They become merely academic arguments.
On that ultimate question, where is the best place to stand, while attempting to answer it? I say it’s on the middle ground, looking left and right to the two possible answers. From the middle, it’s the shortest distance to either answer. If you are standing at either end, the odds of you changing your mind, and moving to the opposite end of the continuum is much higher, than if you are in the middle. It is easier to become irrationally entrenched in your beliefs, rejecting good arguments because you are too invested in them.
This is why I think a debate between an atheist and a theist is somewhat doomed, and therefore frustrating, from the beginning. The theist has already made up his mind. The atheist has not. (And if you don’t agree with that, theist, then ask yourself how many times you have said “You can’t prove god doesn’t exist”, or “prove to me that god doesn’t exist”. Does not the very nature of those questions assume god’s existence?) If your position is neutral to start, you should be able to go either way. If you’re simply defending that which you already believe, and have invested your life in, it’s dubious, at best, that you’ll change your mind.
Remember high school debate club? That was where you were assigned one side of an argument, or the other, and told to research it and debate it. As a rule, you had no prior bias, and even if you did, you had to force yourself to ignore it, because you may have been assigned the opposite argument. This type of debate is the ideal debate. Both sides are presumably starting from the middle ground. Additionally, they must convince impartial, non-participating judges, not each other. So they have no personal stake in the outcome, other than to do an effective job convincing the judges, (perhaps for a good grade, or at least the satisfaction of knowing they were more convincing).
Atheism is the philosophical position most amenable to these impartial, high school debates. Atheism sits firmly on the middle ground, in the “show me” state of existence.
1 The artist is Randall Munroe, and his licensing terms are here.