Monday, August 24, 2009

On keeping your cool

An email friend, whom I'll call "Carl," (he can identify himself in the comments if he feels like it) sent me a message with the subject "Could you help?" It contained a few letters exchanged with a pastor named Jesse. It seems that some of Carl's well-meaning friends don't care for his atheism, and therefore sent Jesse after him to change his mind.

I won't quote the entire exchange. Carl started off well but then after a couple of rounds said this:

Jesse, anyone that believes in any "Man Made" religion is not only superstitious, but harmful to society and has a serious moral dilemma to deal with. All religions are hurtful to the progress of all science and mankind in general, the sooner people learn this and think for themselves the better off everyone will be.

It's a shame what you do for a living really. Taking advantage of innocent people with lies and false promises of eternal punishment and damnation if they fail to believe as you do.

Are you truly happy in your chosen line of work? I don't know how you sleep at night knowing that you preying on people's insecurities and lack of knowledge.

Jesse got extremely huffy and basically accused Carl of being an intellectual lightweight, concluding:

Unfortunately, further discussions will take viable witnessing time away from those who are seeking our Savior rather than those who have clearly rejected Him after 25 years of holding the title "Christian".

Again, that the burden of proof that God does not exist falls solely on you.

Carl came away from this exchange feeling annoyed and wondering how he could have gotten across to the Christian about how burden of proof works. I have a lot more thoughts about the way this conversation went though, so here's what I wrote back.

I hate to say it, but in a small way I agree with Jesse. It was kind of rude of you come at him with a personal attack, accusing him of taking advantage of people and deliberately lying. It may have been cathartic for you to be able to tell him what you really feel, but it's no way to start a mutually respectful debate where he might be willing to listen to your opinions.

It sounds to me as if he contacted you unsolicited, but I imagine that you WANT something from this guy. If all you wanted was to be left alone, then hey -- mission accomplished. He just essentially told you that he's moving on to fresher targets, and shan't pester you again. Great! But the fact that you wrote to me indicates that you are bothered by this response and wish the exchange had gone differently.

What do you want out of the discussion? I can't answer that. Do you want to justify yourself to the pastor? Do you want to beat him soundly and then show whichever friend sicced him on you that he has no leg to stand on? Or do you just want to have a practice discussion so that you can hone your own arguments?

Whichever one it is, keep this in mind: People are more inclined to give you what you want if you're not mean to them. On the internet, conversations only happen between two consenting parties. You have the right not to talk to him, and he has the right not to talk to you. Be honest: if somebody tried to open a dialogue with you by saying "You're an atheist? I despise you and everything you stand for, and think you are luring innocent people to hell every day." Would you want to continue a discussion with this person, or would you tell them to take a hike?

I'm in that situation all the time, receiving email directed at the TV show, and I'll tell you what I do with those kinds of messages. Either I ignore them intentionally, or I keep them on the line for a few rounds just to return their scorn and abuse with even higher levels of sarcasm and mockery. Just for fun. Eventually I drop it.

So I don't blame Jesse for answering an attack with an attack. If I were you, I think at this point I'd either apologize if I wanted to keep talking, or drop the subject and learn a lesson for the next conversation.

When I say "apologize" I of course don't mean you have any need to apologize for not believing in God. As atheists, we already come into this dialogue at a disadvantage, because (1) Christianity is popular, so we're defending a minority position, and (2) Christians are told that atheists are immoral, so they already assume that they are descending into a pit of vipers by even talking to you. So basically, they are looking for any hint of bad behavior as an excuse to dismiss you entirely. If you don't want them to have that excuse, then don't give them an opportunity by deliberately insulting them.

As for the burden of proof: What we generally say is that the person who is making a positive claim is the one who has a burden of proof. Or to put it another way, if you want to convince somebody of something then you should be prepared to prove it.

This means that if the other guy is making the claim "There is definitely a God" and you are simply saying "I don't believe you have enough evidence for that" then yeah, he has to bring his proof or scram. But if you come at HIM and say "There is absolutely no God, and you are LYING to people!" then you've actively managed to transfer that burden to yourself.

My final point would be that even if he says things that are not true, he is probably not lying. "Lying" implies that he has an awareness of a truth that negates his claims. It implies that not only is he wrong, but he knows he's wrong. I don't see how you can assume that that's the case. If you had simply accused him of being incorrect, it might defuse a lot of that messy interpersonal stuff.

I wanted to share this because I think it's important that atheists learn how to communicate effectively. When I discuss evangelical atheism, I try to emphasize that every exchange you get into should have a clear goal. If at any time you do not know how to answer the question "Why am I still writing to this guy?" then you should stop writing. Goals can include:
  1. Convincing the other person.
  2. Convincing an audience.
  3. Entertaining an audience (if the opponent is too big a crackpot to be taken seriously).
  4. Practice.
That's part of the reason why if a theist who is a stranger writes to the TV list, my first instinct is to redirect it to a blog post or other venue where more people are listening. If there's little chance that either of us will be persuaded, there's not much point to arguing unless there's someone else paying attention. If it's a friend whose opinions I care about, I might have the discussion just out of a desire to be social or maybe try to soften their position.


  1. Whoops!

    You can find the article here.,9171,1902851,00.html

  2. Personally, I have to disagree, at least somewhat, as I think that Carl's response to Jesse was legitimate. Keep in mind that, if I understand correctly, Jesse initiated the conversation in order to attract him back to Christianity. Carl did not solicit the conversation, although he engaged in it once invited. Those who try to convert others to their beliefs can reasonably expect some hostility.

    Furthermore, Jesse's final reply to Carl comes across as petulant more than anything. Carl gave him no reason to believe he was a seeker, at least based on the excerpts we are presented, and Jesse complains of a waste of time that he took upon himself uninvited.

  3. I guess my first post didn't publish.

    Thanks for this post Kazim! I feel like I am in the same boat as Carl, somewhat. I have been in a conversation with my in-laws pastor about an article in Time. I don't believe I lost my cool, but I was considering writing to the show to ask for advice on continuing the discussion and also for a short critique of what he and I had previously written. Maybe I'll still do that.

    Anyway, thanks again. This gives me some things to keep in mind as we continue our discussion.

  4. You missed one...
    Goals can include:
    1.Convincing the other person.
    2.Convincing an audience.
    3.Entertaining an audience (if the opponent is too big a crackpot to be taken seriously).
    5.Telling a religious creep to get stuffed.

  5. If Carl had any desire to further the conversation then his response was overly personal.

    My response would have been along the lines of:
    What evidence do you have that Jesus was God?
    Why is that evidence better than what the Jews believe?
    Why shouldn't we take Mohammed at his word when he said he was God's messenger?
    Why is there not one moral or story in the Bible that we cannot find in other societies around that time? If all God did was to take the best(!?) morality tales of the time and place them into one book then why revere Him when any human could have done the same?
    Why are so many evil things allowed, if not actively commanded, in the Bible such as slavery?

    Why do you claim morality comes from God and is present only in humans when we see fairness, altruism and empathy in chimps, dogs and even (to a degree) rats?
    Where are all the moderate relious people who should be out there shouting down the crazies in the ID camp? (May not work if Jesse is an ID believer)
    Why are there so many branches of Christianity with such conflicting beliefs, how can you possibly know/think that you have the correct one? Not to mention the number of different religions.

    Any religious person who can answer most of these is doing well, anyone who can answer all of them, in an acceptable manner, deserves to be heard.

  6. @The Expatriate:

    Yes, Carl's response to Jesse was appropriate in and of itself given that Jesse's contacting Carl was unsolicited, but that's not the issue. The issue is he's emailed Russell about it for some reason. If Carl were just trying to say "Hey, fuck off!" then yeah...he did a great job and I have no problem with what he said, but it seems like maybe he's trying to get something more out of his exchange with Jesse....which, as Russell said, means he should apologize to Jesse if he wants to continue to engage him.

    Personally, if some pastor emailed me out of the blue about religion and I wasn't in the mood to accomodate a discussion or a particularly bad mood for some other reason, I can see myself saying something very similar to what Carl did.

    But then, the fact that the pastor thinks the burden of "disproof" is on Carl is probably a good indication the discussion wouldn't be a very good one.

  7. Hey tfahey1, that Time article you linked to (here) is from 1970, and the decision was overturned in 1971.

  8. I think some of you are missing Kazim's point. He isn't saying Carl's response was inappropriate. He's pointing out that Carl appears to be disappointed with the reply he got--which is why he sent the correspondence to the AE list.

    What Kazim is saying is that if Carl wanted to tell Jesse to piss off, then mission accomplished. But if Carl wanted something different, then Carl made an error by replying in a way that clearly came across as "get pissed."

    Appropriateness of any response can only be gauged by what we hope to accomplish with our response. Clearly Carl did not want to blow Jesse off, and doesn't understand what happened. Kazim is explaining that it was unrealistic to expect anything BUT Jesse's exit from the dialogue, based on Carl's reply. And I agree with Kazim 100 percent. If a theist came at me with that same style of correspondence, I'd consider dialogue a waste of my time and I'd either not reply or reply curtly and with finality.

    If Carl intended to engage Jesse--and it appears he did--he went about it all wrong.

  9. And let's not forget that Carl called Jesse a liar, when Jesse gave Carl no reason to suspect dishonesty (as far as I can see.)

  10. Appropriate or not, Carl's response to Jesse was a debate ender. Perhaps he could had used an analogy to get his points across, rather than a personal attack.

  11. Liked that post, those are all good advices. It is essential to stay measured in our arguments and not use the same kind of sophisms as many believers. Although I understand Carl must have been frustrated at some point.

  12. There's lots of goals. Honest discussion can be a goal in and of itself.

    I agree, Kazim. Carl did accuse Jesse of being a fraud. I know lots of ministers (including my father) and while there are a few of them that probably are frauds, most of them are quite sincere. They really do believe what they are preaching. Besides, you can't really know what the motivations of the minister really are. That was Carl's big mistake.

    If Carl had really wanted honest discussion, he probably should have offered to meet the minister in person. It's really difficult to accuse a sincere person of fraud in person and in public.

  13. I think the overall point of the shifting burden of proof stands.

    Charlatans and idiots like Matt Slick and the like build their _entire careers_ off the back of simple maneuvers like this....

    All it takes is a simple gloss here and there and pretty soon you're debating the nuances of the bible, the actual question of whether it has any basis at all or not to begin with completley lost in the dust of our chase after the theist round and round mount Sinai....

    I personally think it's vital that we remind our opponents at every available opportunity that atheism is NOT a belief system. It also makes NO positive claims about the existence of the plaintiff's gods.

    We merely take a skeptical position towards the _theists_ claims that they _know_ their god _does_ exist. Our attention needs to remain on demanding evidence for the theist's claims and the discussion shouldn't drift into justifying a straw-man claim to the contrary by the theist.

    So I'm with Kazim on this one....

  14. @ Curt
    God? Is that you? Who is this Curt fellow? How do you know I sent that link?
    I sent that link to the AEtv address, and realized shortly after that it was old news. But the link in my first post is to an article titled, "Decoding God's Changing Moods". Which is the subject of a discussion I've been having with my in-laws' pastor. I would be very interested to hear feedback about the article from the folks here.


PLEASE NOTE: The Atheist Experience has moved to a new location, and this blog is now closed to comments. To participate in future discussions, please visit

This blog encourages believers who disagree with us to comment. However, anonymous comments are disallowed to weed out cowardly flamers who hide behind anonymity. Commenters will only be banned when they've demonstrated they're nothing more than trolls whose behavior is intentionally offensive to the blog's readership.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.