The Civil Atheist - Theist Discussion: How to Get There

In my last blog entry, I reported on what I thought was a rather extraordinary event: a YouTube discussion between Dr. Michael Jones, his wife, both theists, and Atheist Nexus member Steve Shives, along with a number of both theist and atheist participants, in what was entirely a calm, civil and downright amiable discussion on topics regarding both belief and the lack thereof.  Steve certainly seemed to think that both the discussion and its contributors were notable as well, as he gave a shout-out today (16 August, 2013) during his “You Had to Ask” series to the New Covenant Group which hosted that conversation.  During that show, Dr. Jones made mention of christian apologists such as Eric Hovind and YouTube’s Sye Ten Bruggencate, and his desire to have such people join NCG in the kind of considered conversation which characterized what I was watching at that time.  Considering the positions held by Hovind and Bruggencate, as well as those such as William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, Rick Warren and others who are noted for their apologetics, I wondered what it would take to truly have a roundtable with such participants and have an interchange of ideas free of the kind of rancor, ad hominem and general mud-slinging which too often characterizes theist-atheist encounters.

With that in mind, I commented on Steve’s video, asking at the end:

How can polemics be removed from the atheist - theist conversation? CAN it be done?

I’ll have to wait a week to see if Steve will deign to take a shot at my question, but in the meantime, I want to take a crack at an answer, myself.

One of the first things I noticed about the interaction between the theists and atheists during “That Place” (the title of NCG’s show) was that there was no talk of creationism vs. evolution or any of the usual false arguments one hears entirely with sickening regularity when believers and non-believers meet.  Indeed it was extraordinary to me to hear Bob Greaves, one of the regulars on “The Place,” state at one point that he knew that his faith stood on a weak foundation, though he persists in that belief.  Right from the beginning of the show, Dr. Jones stated that: “This is The Place for intellectual, spiritual and scriptural honesty,” and throughout that show, their words and actions reflected that statement.  “We don’t want to convert anyone” is another assertion I have seen too often honored more in the breach than the observance, yet here it was observed and scrupulously so.  Steve was treated as an honored guest and indeed, lionized for his work and his style.  For his part, Steve’s manners were equally impeccable.  The fact is that their discussion was less about debate than it was about each stating their positions in a respectful and considerate manner while also respecting the stances of the others involved.

I would think that the point of any such interchange between atheists and theists is best served when issues are dealt with from the level of fact rather than the level of emotion.  Stipulated that emotion plays a large part in religion, and certainly emotion isn’t absent in any atheist I’ve ever met.  Still, dealing with established understanding and knowledge may serve as a starting point.  It certainly did during the discussion I observed on “The Place.”  There was no mention of Young-Earth Creationism, nor any assertion of Intelligent Design, and I would seriously suspect that none of the believers on that panel would subscribe to either supposition.

It may be that someone like Kent Hovind or William Lane Craig would find such a precondition prejudicial to their positions and amount to an unfair concession.  Indeed, it is a concession, and by their lights, a considerable one.  The problem is that arguments such as Craig’s alleged “self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit” are neither verifiable nor falsifiable, nor are they universal in human experience.  Indeed, such a statement borders on tautology.  Questions regarding the accuracy or trustworthiness of scientific claims are reasonable and indeed expected, but the tired “god-of-the-gaps” argument should have no traction whatsoever.  I suppose what I am suggesting is a set of initial conditions similar to what YouTube member “NonStampCollector” put forward somewhat tongue-in-cheek in his Christianity Debate, though I can’t help but notice that the participants on “The Place” seemed to manage to have at least a discussion if not a debate under similar conditions, and frankly, I heard no complaints.

So what do we concede from the atheist side?  What we’ve always conceded: that science doesn’t know it all and, accordingly, we don’t know it all.  In that uncertainty is the honest possibility that there might be a god of some description.  However, whether it’s the christian god, that of the muslims, or some other deity altogether is equally uncertain.  When something is unknown, that is the default position.  That uncertainty provides for the possibility of a god, not the certainty of one.

My ultimate point is this: there’s been enough polemics in the contretemps between believers and atheists, and I’m not convinced that that conflict has gotten us much of anywhere.  A quote I remember from a while back speaks to this point:

Polemics is argument for the sake of victory, as opposed to discussion for the sake of arriving at the truth.
-- Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Polemical argument amounts too often to little more than a pissing contest, where the nod may go to the one who is fastest on their feet in a debate environment, without necessary regard to the veracity of their arguments.  Whether it actually helps in the search for truth may be questionable or at least secondary in importance.  Worse, it has the tendency to drive the opposing parties further apart than when they started.  What the New Covenant Group is looking for, and indeed what I think is far more desirable is that “discussion for the sake of arriving at the truth,” and if not the truth, at least a meeting of the minds.

One statement which was made again and again by multiple parties during the show was that: “we are all in this together.”  Whether there is a god or not and regardless of who is right, it is a truism that differences need not give rise to dissension.  Coexistence of disbelief with belief may be a status quo that is with humankind for a long time after this moment, and the more peaceful that coexistence is, the better for all concerned.  Indeed:

We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.
-- Benjamin Franklin

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Comment by Drew Carpenter on August 18, 2013 at 2:34pm

I think that this type of discussion without rancor is vital. My initial forays on the internet while searching for atheist web sites turned up mostly very angry youtube videos. I recently published and atheist themed novel and there is one section that has the main character explaining where this anger in atheists originates. For us, it is not difficult to see where it comes from. The anger that we face, the prejudice and (at times) threats make it difficult to approach a discussion without being on the defensive from the beginning. I feel that we have to overcome that attitude and that we have a better chance of co-existing with theists, or perhaps even converting some, if we do it with patience and with love. 



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