Common mistakes Christians Make When Arguing with Atheists
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01-02-2013, 12:30 PM (This post was last modified: 01-02-2013 01:31 PM by Reltzik.)
Common mistakes Christians Make When Arguing with Atheists
I won't describe the events or individuals inspiring this post, but it's a rant turned useful guide for Christians (and many other religions as well, though I was kinda focused on Christianity as I worked on this, and yes, some of these do apply to atheists too). If you have any points to add, please reply! I'll try to edit this list to make it as comprehensive as possible, without making it nasty or insulting. To any Christians reading this, please bear in mind that making some of these errors too flagrantly can constitute an act of false witness or violation of the Golden Rule under many conventional interpretations of the Bible, so think very carefully before making them.

1) Not recognizing that they are atheists even after you are told. In particular, making a point based on articles of faith, when you know darn well that they don't have that faith in the first place. Expect these errors to be met with apathy, disinterest, scorn, helpful education, and/or pity.
a) Bible quotes and/or "evidence". These are fine when arguing about what the Bible says, or maybe if you just feel like sharing. Not so much when trying to get someone to believe what the Bible says is true.
b) Arguments about needing salvation. You can't tempt an atheist with heaven or threaten an atheist with hell if the atheist believes in neither.
c) Arguments based in faith. For example, don't argue a point on the basis that atheism is immoral, if your only support for atheism being immoral depends on a belief in God.

2) Misconception of atheists and atheism. In particular, not understanding what atheism means and doesn't mean, and implies and doesn't imply. Atheism is ENTIRELY about belief in whether gods exist or not; in particular, it involves not believing that gods exist (weak atheism), or outright believing that they do not (strong atheism). PLEASE understand this distinction before making blanket statements about atheism!
a) That someone is an atheist, does not imply that they believe in evolution or the Big Bang. That might be the way to bet, but it's not a sure thing. Nor does atheism involve faith in either, and is in fact not in any way dependent on either. Undermining evolution and the Big Bang theories doesn't actually undermine atheism. (Also, there is a distinction between evolution and abiogenesis. If you MUST go off on a tangent into evolution, don't get the two mixed up, or all that you'll demonstrate is that you don't know what you're talking about and aren't worth listening to.)
b) Atheists do not worship Satan, nor do they in general believe Satan exists, or engage in any sort of worship at all. Of course, you can twist "worship" to mean something far from its typical interpretation of active honoring and praising a supernatural power, such as claiming anyone who doesn't worship god by definition worships Satan even if in fact they don't believe in ANY higher powers. But in this case, you must also allow atheists to twist "mean" into something far from its typical connotations. I'd like means to mean cotton candy. (Also, don't get tricked by Laveyan Satanism. That religion is basically a small subset of atheists engaged in extreme sarcasm.)
c) Though true in some cases, atheists by and large are not ignorant of the religions that surround them, and often better versed in those religions better than the typical worshiper. In particular, many atheists hail from those religions in the first place and possess a deep, insider's understanding.
d) Atheists are not inherently immoral. As a philosophical stance, atheism is amoral, in that it provides no list of prescriptions or proscriptions and doesn't give any more attention to morality than, say, a tree. Atheists, however, can adopt morality from other sources, such as ethics, enlightened self-interest, humanism, or social mores. Most atheists do have a moral code, even if it isn't exactly what you think it should be.
e) Atheism is not a religion. It requires no faith, it involves no particular congregation or system of belief, it has no dogma, and it makes no statements about the metaphysical. (Some subsets of atheism might, such as arguably strong atheism, but atheism as a whole does not.) However, most free, Western states either explicitly or implicitly give atheism the same freedoms, permissions, and rights as any faith.
f) Equating all of atheism with particular atheists. Just as not all atheists believe in evolution, not all atheists are communists or likely to engage in the same atrocities as Stalin or Pol Pot.
g) Assuming anything about a universal agenda of atheists. While most desire the legal and social freedom to believe or not as they will, it is outright false to say that we all want the same thing. In particular, not all atheists want to abolish religion.

3) Misconception of Christianity. In particular, mistaking one's own particular subset of Christianity, and its particular doctrines and interpretations, to represent the whole of Christianity.
a) Insisting that only your breed of Christianity are "true" Christians, and that the rest of Christianity (as defined as those who identify as Christians) doesn't count. Atheists hear this claim from thousands of different sects, each insisting that they are true and the others are false. Don't expect atheists to consider it worth their time to keep each of these claims straight, much less readily subscribe to your assertion of what is or isn't true Christianity. To atheists, Christianity just about amounts to anyone who identifies as a Christian, or possibly a slightly more narrow definition of anyone who follows or believes in Christ and the Abrahamic God, as somewhat related to what's found in the Bible. Also, even were an atheist were inclined to see one set of identifying Christians as "true" and others as "false", the distinction is of little practical value to the atheist. Expect to hear the phrase "no true Scotsman" if you do this.
b) Insisting that Christians who became atheists were never Christians to begin with. Again, this is about having a much narrower semantic definition of Christianity. In particular, this definition lacks predictive power. Someone who truly subscribes to this argument could NEVER say that anyone still living is a Christian, because they have no idea whether they will deconvert in five years.
c) Blindly asserting that Christianity is the exemplar of morality, when the typical atheist is quite familiar with countless instances of Christian immorality. Argue that it is a good source of morality all you want, but be prepared to acknowledge that it fails at least here and there. In particular, Hitler identified as a Christian and Nazi Germany was an explicitly Christian state. If you claim Hitler was an atheist, do NOT expect a civil response from actual atheists.
d) Ignoring some really nasty stuff in the Bible. Arguing new/old covenant or dismissing the OT as flawed is one thing, but don't insist that God would never order the genocide and mass execution of babies without at least being familiar with the tale of Joshua.

4) General arrogance. Most of the following mistakes can be summed up as "not following Wheaton's Law".
a) Thinking that any disagreement with you constitutes a personal attack. In particular, if someone doesn't believe what you believe, it's not about you.
b) Having an opinion, and then insisting that no one may have a countervailing opinion about your opinion.
c) Getting personal and nasty. Honey vs vinegar. Sinking to their level (assuming they start it). One who lives by the flame shall be roasted by the flame.
d) Believing what your preacher says about atheists, rather than actually using your own eyes.
e) Insisting that atheists are obligated to prove something to you, unless the atheist is actually trying to persuade you of something.
f) Assuming that just because you say something, the atheist must be persuaded.
g) Assuming that just because you type something, the atheist must read it. Goes double for poorly-formatted, poorly-grammared, or just uninteresting material. If you want someone to read something, it's your job to make it interesting. In particular, if you're simply throwing out a common apologist argument (especially one with an established set of counter-arguments), don't expect an atheist who's already encountered it ninety-nine times to have much interest or respect for it the hundredth time.
h) Treating criticism of your beliefs as a personal attack. They're attacking a concept, not a person. Of course, if they tack on a few ad-hominems, THEN you can feel insulted.
i) Criticizing something you didn't actually read, or only just skimmed.
j) Flaming in general.
h) Above else, recognize that you WILL be a target to the lowest common denominator. Don't ascribe to all atheists the qualities of these trolls, and keep track of who has been civil to you.

5) Not knowing the basic logical fallacies, or engaging in them anyway. Not only will many responses to your arguments be phrased as such, but flagrantly doing these will often lose you any respect you might have. I almost listed them all, because I've seen almost all used extensively, but instead I'll just link Wikipedia.

6) Not having a sense of your own objectives, or not choosing appropriate strategies to further those objectives. In all cases, communicate clearly what your goals are. In all cases, realize that success in your objectives is the underlying goal. In all cases, tailor your methods to achieve (or at least have the best chance of achieving) that goal.
a) Are you arguing in order to hang out and share interesting ideas? Tone your arguments accordingly and focus on a good relationship.
b) Are you venting to work off some agro, toss around as many insults as you can, and generally pick a fight? Review Wheaton's Law, slowly count to 100, and try again. Barring that, start a thread titled "silly flame war", make it clear that all your flames are silly and for fun, and invite people to join in on your virtual food fight.
c) Are you trying to educate about what Christianity says, or your particular take on Christianity? Try a Q&A format.
d) Are you trying to educate yourself? Be open in what you don't know, and ask plainly.
e) Are you actively trying to convert people? Then actively identify the major obstacles to their converting and lack of motivation, then try to address those. (I do not promise this will succeed.) DON'T simply assume; the only person who can really tell you these things is the target of your conversion. Also, don't assume that the answers will be the same for all atheists. DON'T simply toss out blanket statements like someone on a streetcorner soapbox and expect a positive result.
f) In particular, does your objective require the atheist to actually listen to you, and respond with more than off-the-cuff snipes and snarls? Then maintain a civil tone, even in the face of hostility, and invite the atheist to do the same.

"If I ignore the alternatives, the only option is God; I ignore them; therefore God." -- The Syllogism of Fail
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01-02-2013, 12:40 PM
RE: Common mistakes Christians when arguing with atheists
For the most part I like it.

You have two #4's.

There are a few sweeping generalizations in here, and some unnecessary examples. For instance, 1c says not to assume all atheists are against homosexuality but it's OK to assume we're against murder. I would avoid that generalization entirely. Come to think of it, point 1c might need to go away entirely - you tell the Christian not to use moral arguments unless he chooses the atheist's morals which is impractical (they're either going to argue about morals they don't share or agree about morals they do share).

Who's your audience here? Us? Most of us know this stuff. Are you planning on spreading it around the theist forums?

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01-02-2013, 01:20 PM
RE: Common mistakes Christians when arguing with atheists
(01-02-2013 12:40 PM)Aseptic Skeptic Wrote:  For the most part I like it.

You have two #4's.

There are a few sweeping generalizations in here, and some unnecessary examples. For instance, 1c says not to assume all atheists are against homosexuality but it's OK to assume we're against murder. I would avoid that generalization entirely. Come to think of it, point 1c might need to go away entirely - you tell the Christian not to use moral arguments unless he chooses the atheist's morals which is impractical (they're either going to argue about morals they don't share or agree about morals they do share).

Who's your audience here? Us? Most of us know this stuff. Are you planning on spreading it around the theist forums?
Thanks for the feedback. I've fixed the numbering scheme and reworded 1c.

Right now, I'm venting to a largely friendly audience (most everyone here), and thinking that MAYBE certain unnamed parties on this board who need to read it will read it. (Not holding my breath, though.) In the future, I might take it to a larger distribution.

"If I ignore the alternatives, the only option is God; I ignore them; therefore God." -- The Syllogism of Fail
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01-02-2013, 01:43 PM
RE: Common mistakes Christians Make When Arguing with Atheists
I take an issue with 3b.

According to Christianity, a person cannot lose their salvation. If they say that they did, they are either 1) lying or 2) were never "saved".

By applying a "No True Scotsman" to this, you are applying an atheistic view as an authority for a Christian belief. This isn't fair.

As an atheist, you cannot rewrite Christian views based on your own experience. If a Christian says that you were never saved based on the what the Christian authority says, then that is truth according to Christianity.

Much like you addressed how Christians cannot impose their views upon atheists, atheists cannot impose their views upon Christians

This is one of the few instances where "No True Scotsman" is valid.

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01-02-2013, 01:54 PM
RE: Common mistakes Christians Make When Arguing with Atheists
(01-02-2013 01:43 PM)kingschosen Wrote:  I take an issue with 3b.

According to Christianity the Christian denomination that I adhere to, a person cannot lose their salvation.
Fixed.

(01-02-2013 01:43 PM)kingschosen Wrote:  As an atheist, you cannot rewrite Christian views based on your own experience. If a Christian says that you were never saved based on the what the Christian authority respective person's belief says, then that is truth according to Christianity the Christian denomination that they adhere to.
Fixed.

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01-02-2013, 02:03 PM
RE: Common mistakes Christians Make When Arguing with Atheists
Thanks, Vosur (see, I can say it and mean it, too Dodgy ), I was going to say that this is not how it is according to the "Christianity" I knew, but you took care of it better than I could've. As if there was even a single thing that all denominations agreed upon... other than god creating the world or some such silliness, I guess.

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01-02-2013, 02:04 PM
RE: Common mistakes Christians Make When Arguing with Atheists
They also over look the fact that many atheists used to believe as they did. Claiming no true Scotsman.

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The atheist is a man who destroys the imaginary things which afflict the human race, and so leads men back to nature, to experience and to reason.
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01-02-2013, 02:35 PM
RE: Common mistakes Christians Make When Arguing with Atheists
(01-02-2013 02:04 PM)fstratzero Wrote:  They also over look the fact that many atheists used to believe as they did. Claiming no true Scotsman.

Then they claim that they must not have been real Christians.

Out of the tens of thousands of denominations and of the immeasurable personal flavours of the belief, which is considered real?

I suppose a real christian to them is one that never sheds the delusion.

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01-02-2013, 03:32 PM
RE: Common mistakes Christians Make When Arguing with Atheists
(01-02-2013 02:35 PM)Aspchizo Wrote:  
(01-02-2013 02:04 PM)fstratzero Wrote:  They also over look the fact that many atheists used to believe as they did. Claiming no true Scotsman.

Then they claim that they must not have been real Christians.
That's what "No true Scotsman" means Tongue "You left the group? Well you were never really a part of it anyway."
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01-02-2013, 04:04 PM
RE: Common mistakes Christians Make When Arguing with Atheists
(01-02-2013 03:32 PM)hedgehog648 Wrote:  
(01-02-2013 02:35 PM)Aspchizo Wrote:  Then they claim that they must not have been real Christians.
That's what "No true Scotsman" means Tongue "You left the group? Well you were never really a part of it anyway."
Oh, I have never heard that expression. Undecided

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