Every so often, someone will tell me that atheists are impossible to debate, because they think they know it all. Someone will tell me that I am dismissing their claims before I have even heard them. They accuse me of shutting out the “evidence” they have to “prove” god’s existence. They say I am doing what I accuse them of doing: sticking fingers in the ears and screaming, “La-La-la! Can’t hear you!”
Well, they may have a point. I guess.
The truth is I’m not really doing this. I’m not sticking my fingers in my ears. It’s just that I’ve heard this before. Care to guess how many times I’ve been approached with the first cause argument? Or the argument from design? Or pascal’s wager? Or the ontological argument? Seriously.
I help run a student organization at my local university. One of the things we are doing now is going over these arguments that are so common; they may as well be mantras. A few of the younger members haven’t heard these before, and I want them to understand that these are not new arguments and they have been refuted by people WAY smarter than I long before I could spell atheist.
So if I cut someone off when they begin with, “Everything has a cause…” and insert immediately, “What caused god?”, it’s not that I have fingers in my ears, it’s I’ve heard this before. When they begin with, “God is the greatest thing we can imagine…” and I cut them off with, “So you admit god is imaginary,” I just want to skip the long explanation I know is coming. And when they fall back to, “What if you’re wrong?”, I just smile and ask, “What if you’re wrong about Zeus?”
It’s not that I know everything. It is completely possible that there is an argument out there I’ve not heard and will actually have to consider. Thus far, that has not happened.
Oh, and back to my student group: We entertained briefly the idea of having “mock debates” where one of us would take the opposing side and argue for it. We wanted to be sure we were not attacking strawmen and that the actual arguments were justly represented. But when this came to practice, we couldn’t figure out how to do it in a way that would not at least appear that we were attacking strawmen. So we just present the argument and refute it in a discussion.