Monday, January 17, 2011

Surrendering the High Ground: The Pitfall of Religious Debate

Religionist : “Everybody has a chance to go to heaven , if they ask Jesus to forgive their sin.”
Atheist: "Jesus forgiving your sins means nothing if the person you sinned against doesn't forgive you."

I witnessed this exchange between religionist and atheist recently. I imagine that to many of us it reads like reasonable discourse and debate between two people with opposing perceptions of reality. But that’s because we have been raised in a culture where the dominant religion’s words of the absurd have become accepted and common place. In fact the atheist has already surrendered the debate high ground by accepting the challenge on the religionist’s terms.

In his effort to inject reason to counter a basic proselytizing platitude, the freethinker inadvertently validated the legitimacy of the Xtian’s proposal. He did so four times.
First, by granting the Xtian’s premise of the existence of an imaginary Man-god; second, by imbuing that imaginary being with the ability to grant forgiveness; third, by allowing the reference to gaining entry into a fictional place of afterlife to be established as a valid concern; and fourth by accepting the concept of “sin” as a meaningful term in secular parlance where any forgiveness is needed.

Jesus forgiving your sins means every bit as much to the thinking as Jean Val jean, Sherlock Holmes, or Baal forgiving one’s sins. Thus, seeking such forgiveness is absurd at face. So why propose that the fictional god figure’s forgiveness “... means nothing IF...” ? It means nothing, period!

That we may use the word sin in normal discourse to mean an ethical lapse is indicative of our evolving language. But religionists see the word very differently. "Sin" is a man made convention predicated on committing transgressions that violate a supernatural being's prohibitions or edicts causing him/her/it displeasure. Thus, since the very concept of sin is fallacious it negates any need for forgiveness from anything or anyone.

Unless this atheist has concerns about entry to paradise after death; or is worried about offending an imaginary supernatural being’s sensibilities; or he accepts that not keeping the Sabbath holy is a “sin” necessitating a spirit’s forgiveness (any of which by the definition of atheist make no sense) ... his tack is ill conceived. The proper strategy would be to reject the theist’s premise; explain that by virtue of one’s reasoned thinking the proposal is as meaningless; and point them to greener pastures like Scientologists or Muslims.

When evangelicals propose salvation to an atheist they are doing so out of the belief that atheists are simply being stubborn. They have already rejected the fact of our non-belief, considering it simply a defect that proselytizing and testimony can repair. That’s hardly the time to take their bait.
Twenty-six hundred years ago Sun Tzu taught that one doesn’t intentionally allow their opponent to draw one into battle where the enemy has the terrain that is most advantageous to their strategy … no matter how primitive their weapons, or weak their minds.


NewEnglandBob said...

Will no one learn what was taught 2600 years ago? :)

I like this post. One minor thing I wondered about is "They have already rejected the efficacy of non-belief...".

The definition of efficacy: the power to produce an effect. I would go with the skepticism of non-belief.

Dromedary Hump said...

Thanks, Bob. Good catch. corrected.

longhorn believer said...

Excellent post. Would it be true that almost anytime a Xian suggests a premise, it can be rejected because it is Biblically based? In other words, if we were to reject the premise proposed at the top of this post, the Xian would automatically be reduced to trying to prove God exists using the Bible. Would that be true with most any Xian premise?

Larry Lipit0r said...

I don't think I knowingly accept terms of debate with theists, at least not like I used to. In fact, I really don't like religionists very much at all, and would rather not discuss important matters with them. I know that I cannot influence them in any way, so why bother? I get much farther discussing things with people of science and reason. I don't blame Richard Dawkins for refusing to debate theists any more. I fully support that decision. I think by refusing debate with them, you don't validate the legitimacy of the religionist's terms at all.

Dromedary Hump said...

[[[[ the following comment was sent in email from "N" and is reposted here ]]]]

When a Freethinker is accosted with a statement such as this, what is the best response to completely shut the offender down? I work in a conservative Christian office, and have to be very careful about my views. In my mind, however, I am thinking, WWHD? (What would Hump do?)

Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile
In the same situation the exchange would be something like this:

Religionist : “Everybody has a chance to go to heaven , if they ask Jesus to forgive their sin.”

Hump: "I reject that premise at face. No one goes to's imaginary just like Hades, or Valhalla, or the Underworld, or the Happy Hunting Grounds, or Hell. Asking this Jesus concept for forgiveness is tantamount to asking Santa for gifts... there is no Santa thus there can thus be no gift. Finally, sin is a theological concept that I reject as an ancient way of controlling people by proffering an offended god. I dismiss the concept, just as I dismiss the existence of a God or gods. Now, if you have something intelligent to offer, please do so."

Obviously your choice of words may vary. If you aren't in a position to expose your views quite so bluntly you may want to stick with: "How nice. I prefer not to discuss religion in the work place."

Hope this helped.

Longhorn... Thanks.
I think my reponse to "N" here answers your question. and if it doesn't, I think the answer to your question is YES.

But,to put it another way: any theological discussion that is PREDICATED ON THE ACCEPTENCE that jesus, sin, god, heaven, miracles or any supernatural personages or events exist at least requires us to reject the working premise up front.

If they then care to attempt proofs of said imaginary things... heheh... fine.


Larry... I don't dissagree. The frustration factor, and predictability of repetative hackneyed apologetics is irksome and tiresome.

Carl said...

I suggest a very well written book by David Eller called Atheism Advanced. One chapter is all about how to stop talking in religious language altogether. The best phrase when a religious person starts talking in religious garb is to say, I don't know what you are talking about and neither do you, and walk away.

Keruso said...

Hi, Glad you made this point because its so prevalent and widespread when believers and non-believers exchange views/opinions. Many non-believers, even the likes of Hitchens et al, perhaps unwittingly make a vast concession every time in favor of the believer, granting the believer that their position is commonsensical and legitimately worth consideration. Doing so risks undermining the non-believer's position at the outset.
Smarter apologists are very aware of this and use it to their rhetorical advantage, some debates are even "won" as a result.

I often remind the believer that by the same standards of evidence I should consider their statements, I must grant it also to all the other 39,000 different Xtian denominations bearing contradictory positions, and the many thousands of alternative and contradictory religious claims too.

Invite them to discuss it amongst themselves and with their coreligionists, when they conclude who has the "truth", and can articulate and demonstrate what they believe and why, with reason not faith, then perhaps then we can have a sensible discussion.

Until then it remains unintelligible feckless twaddle.

gristleoflife said...

The Catholics do forgiveness the best.

Sit in a dark booth adjacent to a pedophile in the next booth and tell him your "sins", while he relishes every word. I imagine they love to hear about the sex-related sins the best. I'm sure they get a "rise" out of them.

Ten "Hail Mary's" gets you scott-free from just about everything.

You leave the church feeling a little less guilty for raping the neighbor's dog and the priest begins his masturbation ritual.

Ah, what a world.

Momma Moonbat said...

In defense of the Atheist debater, I have used the term "sin" in debates in reference to the deeds man commits against man and nature. Transgressions would probably be a better term, as sin by definition is a transgression against a deity. However, most of their fundy little minds can't even pronounce transgression, let alone define it. Otherwise, you've once again nailed it. The atheist actually comes across as a believer arguing with another believer as to what one must do to obtain "salvation."


Texas Mike said...

Next time, I am going to borrow from Keruso. "I reject your entire premis as unintelligable feckless twaddle!" I love it!

Rachelle said...

Love this post and the comments. :) I also like when a religionist uses the word "G/god"--so I can ask "which one out of the many thousands are you referring to?" LOL!

longhorn believer said...

"Finally, sin is a theological concept that I reject as an ancient way of controlling people by proffering an offended god." Love that! 

Okay, I'm just going to throw this out there. Most everyone who has commented seems to agree that debating with religionists is mostly a waste of time because there is no common ground on which to start. Isn't it still important to keep some kind of dialogue going? For the sake of needing to have other arguments which ARE important like the separation of church and state? Keeping those debates alive which ARE important to atheists might depend on continuing the debates which are NOT important to an atheist, but may be important to a theist. I would compare it to the U.S. keeping dialogue open with  countries like Iran and North Korea who are diametrically opposed to everything the U.S. stands for, but for the sake of keeping war from breaking out, we still have diplomatic relations with them.

Dromedary Hump said...

Thanks all for your feedback and contributions to this article.

I tend toward agreement with Texas Mike. Thomas Paine said it best (and more tactfully): "Reasoning with one who has abandoned reason is like giving medicine to a dead man."

That said; not debating a deluded deadhead doesn't preclude insuring our rights and freedoms and the Founding Father's intentions for the 1st amendment aren't protected and enforced.

We'll never change the minds via rational discourse of those who have "abandoned reason." But we can and MUST by pass them and go directly to the legislative branch. This is what FfRF and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the Atheist Alliance, and the Military Religious Freeedom Foundation does. When met with an insurmountable obstruction one doesn't waste their time and energy trying to breech it; you go around it / out flank it.

That's what these organizations do. They are the spearhead of the atheist resistence. People like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Ray, Dennett et al, (and to a much smaller degree, my own efforts) help equip the rational as well educate the moderate/liberal religionists who are open to discourse and learning. In this way the movement is sustained and strengthened.

I will seriously engage moderate / liberal Christians. But not those whose ability to reason has been destroyed by the God Virus.

Engineer of Knowledge said...

Hello Hump,
What a good, well written, and thought provoking piece. Your presenting of logical argumentation within your writing always makes for a good read.

Again, Good Job!

longhorn believer said...

Hump, thanks for answering my question. Point well taken!