Eight things I’ve learned from arguing with atheists online and why I (mostly) can’t be bothered anymore

I’ve spent a fair portion of my time in the last two years entering arguments with atheists online. These are different to arguments with atheists in real life. Steve Kryger at Communicate Jesus has posted a couple of thoughts on this matter lately – and even been roundly panned by an atheist blog for his trouble. Steve’s posts:

My motivation for doing so has been twofold – on the one hand, I don’t like seeing people bagging out Jesus without anybody mounting a defense, and on the other, I realise that people google for all sorts of things and read blogs and their sycophantic comments to help make up their minds. I want to present Jesus as an alternative worldview to militant atheism.

But I’m on the verge of giving up. Here are eight lessons I’ve learned (at times the hard way) from arguing with atheists that have left me close to pulling the pin on this particular avenue of evangelism.

  1. If you argue with atheists online, especially on their turf, you will almost always be outnumbered. There’s something about the nature of community that stops Christians using the Internet the same way atheists do. I suspect it’s because atheists are a minority with no real world equivalent to church. They meet virtually. They encourage one another through forums and blogs. The Internet, in my opinion, is their nexus of community.
  2. Being outnumbered makes actually engaging with arguments hard. If one hundred commenters on a forum each ask the token Christian a question and that Christian only picks three to answer (which is a 3:1 comment ratio ie those hundred post one comment each, the Christian posts three) then the forum often jumps on the one person, suggesting that they are being duplicitous or purposefully evasive. It’s a trial by numbers and “victories” are awarded to the masses.
  3. If you’re going to talk about science, logic or morality you need to be careful to frame your terminology accurately. If you want to engage and give a good account for yourself you need to be familiar with strawmanning, Godwin’s Law, ad hominem, Pascal’s Wager, and the “no true Scotsman fallacy” – Christians are often guilty of transgressions of the first two, the chances of an atheist resorting to an ad hominem attack in response to a Christian rapidly approaches one the longer the conversation continues. Atheists think they’ve debunked Pascal’s Wager, while the “no true Scotsman fallacy” is a favourite “trump card” they play in order to lump all theological beliefs together so that they can strawman us.
  4. Atheists have no interest in nuance. They don’t pay any regard to context. They interpret everything literally – be it text from the Bible, sarcasm in discussion (or irony), or anybody’s claim to be a “Christian.” They love quote mining – especially from the Bible. I’ve seen atheists take bits from Jesus’ parables to suggest that God wants his followers to put people to the sword. They aren’t interested in theology, they aren’t interested in why Christians can justify believing things they find abhorrent, they won’t ever really put themselves in “Christian” shoes when understanding things Christians say – they prefer to maintain distance because it’s easier to ridicule the “other”.
  5. “Christians” are your own worst enemies in these contexts. A week’s worth of reasoned and fruitful discussion can be very easily undone by one comment made without being mindful of presenting the “truth with love.” Stupid “Christian” statements, along the lines of the Answers in Genesis billboard advertisements form last year spend any credit lovingly Christ centred arguments develop.
  6. Most “atheists” are antitheists, most hold atheism at the core of their identity – but this is not true for all of them. You can’t generalise when describing atheists – some are like Dawkins who are atheists through a philosophy of scientific naturalism and evolutionary biology through “natural selection” – this view leaves no case for a creator, others are ex-Christians who had rejected all other gods already, and have since rejected God, some, like Christopher Hitchens, seem to be atheists philosophically first, and scientifically second. Each atheist is an individual. This is part of their problem when dealing with the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. They think self definition is all that matters for assessing claims – there are, in fact, external issues to take into account when deciding if a Christian is a Christian.
  7. You’ll almost never change anybody’s mind online. Particularly if you’re outnumbered. They who shout loudest win. Ten idiots in a room yelling loudly will always feel like they’ve beaten one genius speaking quietly.
  8. Your best bet in these situations is just to bring everything back to a question of the historicity of Jesus and his resurrection, this, after all, is the lynchpin of our belief. If they can disprove the resurrection then our faith is in vain. And it’s this argument that needs to be convincing. Questions of science and methodology are secondary.

Some bonus reflections – if you’re familiar with online bookmarking services like Digg and Reddit you’ll know that they are full of atheists who like to post, share, and comment on articles relating to atheism. There is almost no Christian presence (that I’ve found here). Christians need to come to terms with discourse on the Internet – because it’s, like it or not, a form of community. And a nexus for people looking to discuss new ideas. Sending people in to these forums “solo” doesn’t work. Constructive conversations in this format need more than a lone voice. I don’t know how you arrange a “team” approach – but that might be worthwhile.

If you’re an atheist who arrives here and thinks “these claims are all generalisations with no substantiation” – I can, if requested, point you to different threads (mostly on my blog, on the Friendly Atheist and on Pharyngula) where situations have arisen. Here’s one example, with a follow up, here’s a post I wrote that created quite a lot of atheistic consternation, and the response on Pharyngula. Or check out guest poster Dave’s three fantastic posts on why he’s not an atheist…

I’m not giving up arguing online – though I won’t spend as much time and I’ll try to establish my commitment to arguments early in the discussion, but I’d much rather chat over a beer in a pub where there’s not the ability to hide behind a computer screen and thousands of kilometres. Non verbal communication is important. And it’s much harder to be nasty to a person if they’re right in front of you (incidentally this is why you should always do radio interviews in studio rather than over the phone).

UPDATE: Hermant from the Friendly Atheist has kindly responded to my list. I’ve posted a response to his response in the comments on his blog.

I’d also like to make a small amendment to point 4 – atheists (as a general rule – not all atheists) also pay no regards to “medium” a blog entry is to be deconstructed, analysed and critiqued the same way a scientific hypothesis or peer reviewed journal is. They disagree with a sentence without paying any regard to the paragraph it builds. They interpret things they disagree with at extremes –  for example – I put quotation marks around the word “Christian” above as a shorthand way of describing those who take the Christian label (making no actual judgment on whether they are Christian or not – I think you can be a Christian and be very wrong about things). And it is interpreted in the following manner:

“Oh, and putting Christian in smarmy little “scare quotes” whenever you’re using it to describe a person whose actions you disapprove of? That’s what we call a “cop out.” The claim that YOUR interpretation of the Bible is flawlessly correct and that ANY judgment you make about whether a person is or is not a Christian places YOU in a position of purported omniscience. Talk about hubris!”

That might be one way to interpret such punctuation – the traditional usage is to indicate direct speech.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

37 thoughts on “Eight things I’ve learned from arguing with atheists online and why I (mostly) can’t be bothered anymore”

  1. Great reflections Nathan, these very accurately reflect my time online in these 'debates' and why I came to the conclusion that generally speaking (although I find it hard to consider the exceptions) that engaging in these forums (fora?) is not the best use of my time.
    My recent post Don’t buy another bad (Christian) book

  2. Hey! I found this site through Hemant's blog on Friendly Atheist. I'm an agnostic/atheist myself, and I'd like to take a moment to say thanks for writing out this manifesto, it was an interesting read. My two cents would be, don't give up completely on trying to talk about religion — believe it or not, there are nonChristians out there who actually do delight in some intelligent discussion about religion and politics, and we love the opportunity to ask specific and straightforward questions to people who are willing to give straightforward answers. As long as you are open and honest and non-confrontational about it, there will be *somebody* who will respect you for at least that. And just never mind people who are going to judge you without listening to what you have to say.

    Although I do feel the need to point this out….I'm not saying there aren't any stubbornly literal atheists out there (there are), but from my own perspective, when I confront a Christian with a literal interpretation of a Biblical quote, it's often because I've heard another Christian use that same quote to make a different case (such as your case of putting people to the sword — I've heard Christians cite that verse before in defense of violent political recourse). The way I see it, it's not so much a means of stubbornly insisting that you are required to hold a certain belief, as it is a curiosity — how would YOU interpret that verse, and what would you say to someone who interpreted it in a different way? It's a lot like hearing someone say, "if there's no objective morality, then Hitler wasn't evil," and then asking someone else (who doesn't believe in objective morality but who believes that Hitler is evil) how they reach the conclusion that they do. It's like reading Wikipedia.org; you get little pieces of information from different sources until you gradually start being able to understand the bigger picture.

    …does any of that make sense? I've had about 2 hours of sleep in 3 days…forgive me if this is not entirely coherent :o

    1. Hi Tim,

      I'm not giving up on talking about religion, just giving up on arguing online. I want to find a balance between defending our right to believe things that you find ridiculous and lovingly presenting a message I think is really important. There's a video on YouTube were Penn (from Penn and Teller – an atheist) talks about how people who evangelise are doing it for good reasons. I don't want to be one of those "you're going to hell", nor do I want to be evasive. I'm actually genuinely interested in answering people's questions, and I'm not threatened by disagreement. These points express my frustrations with such discussions online. I'm always happy to provide a reasonable (and hopefully reasoned) response to reasonable queries. But it's hard to filter the dross on larger forums, and almost impossible to answer every question from an often angry (or passionate) mob.
      My recent post iPad critics should take a tablet

  3. Um.

    “You can’t generalise when describing atheists […]”.

    This after your point #4? ;)

    1. Hi John,

      I was aware of the irony. And hopeful that readers would be too – given that I made the comment about disregarding context.

  4. Hemant Mehta's post in response to this is beautiful, fantastic and makes everything you say here laughable. Hysterical, even. Make sure you read it if you get the chance.

    Peace,

    Chris

    1. Chris, I certainly chuckled reading Mehta's post, and the following comments, but really only because it demonstrated several of the points Nathan actually made here! (kilts and all!)

    2. Chris,

      I've read it. I do not think it does what you think it does… if this making everything I say laughable thing is similar to atheists debunking the resurrection or disproving Pascal's Wager then that explains why so many people still see both as valid. He really hasn't done anything except prove half of my points, leaving the other half up to his commenters.
      My recent post iPad critics should take a tablet

    3. Chris,

      I've read it. I do not think it does what you think it does… if this making everything I say laughable thing is similar to atheists debunking the resurrection or disproving Pascal's Wager then that explains why so many people still see both as valid. He really hasn't done anything except prove half of my points, leaving the other half up to his commenters.
      My recent post iPad critics should take a tablet

  5. You sound like a pretty smart and sensitive person. Your still a student, so just learn, ask questions. Staying out of comment wars is a good thing, it's mostly morons from all sides and people filled with hate. Listen to reasoned arguments and not hastily worded comment wars. This sounds like you're not some narrow minded tool, just read about logical fallacies, stuff like that. It's not about 'I have all the answers' it's about not buying answers because someone's daddy told them so or suffering from a small minded world-view.

  6. Im sure if an atheist went into a forum with mostly Christians or other religious people, it would be a similar reaction to the ones you have experience on an atheist's turf. The mass speaks

    1. I don't know about the writer of this post, but on my own blog atheists show up often in large numbers, or at the very least in extremely large comments. (and I write on a Christian blog).

    2. Tim,

      I mostly agree, and I can't even claim that Christians don't resort to ad hominem attacks as quickly as atheists without seeming to break the "no true scotsman" fallacy – except to say that the Bible says Christians are to speak the truth with love and when that doesn't happen you can start to question how "Christian" these people are…

      In the main though, I've disagreed with plenty of Christians robustly without being talked about the way I'm talked about at the Friendly Atheist (let alone Pharyngula) by some of the commenters (cf Muggle).
      My recent post iPad critics should take a tablet

  7. My own perspective, FWIW, is that discussion Christianity vs. atheism in a 'Net comment thread is more or less a waste of time. In a presented debate, you're at least holding your arguments before an audience with a variety of views. In a 'net board or blog … not so much. You're never going to resolve the central conflict between yourself and an atheist. You believe in a god. The atheist doesn't. And all the hot air on the planet isn't going to change that.

    However, a lot of fringe issues are worth discussion.

    Morality. Politics. Philosophy. These and other side topics, if you will, can prove an interesting, fertile ground for debate as long as you recognize that neither you nor your atheist opponents are going to budge on the central point of belief in a god.

    If you want an example, consider the recent story out of Fulton, Mississippi regarding Constance McMillen, who wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom. How would your faith guide your behavior? What do you think of other students' behavior? Why? And so forth. The watchword should be mutual respect and a recognition of unresolvavble conflicts.

  8. Funny. I use a lot of the same reasoning to justify why I no longer argue online with anyone calling themselves a Christian.

  9. Your best bet in these situations is just to bring everything back to a question of the historicity of Jesus and his resurrection, this, after all, is the lynchpin of our belief.

    Interesting. This is a chief reason why I can never be a Christian. If a being who could somehow prove he was God, came down and said "Well, all of you are sinners, but I love you anyway, Im going to get myself tortured and killed and then rise after 3 days, and all you have to do is accept that I did this, and you will be saved, your sins will be forgiven". I'd still say "No thanks" (though I still cant figure out how my sins get forgiven, but lets for the moment assume they are).
    I don't think any Christian I have met has ever been able to provide even a remotely reasonable explanation of how this works without resorting to its a mystery or you must be a believer to understand or he's God , he can do whatever he wants however he wants or some other avoidance of the issue.
    Or in other words your lynchpin would only help you get lynched (metaphorically speaking)

    1. Interesting Deepak,

      So you're saying that one obstacle is that you're philosophically opposed to penal substitution (someone stepping in and taking the punishment in your place) even if it's God doing so, on your behalf, for free?

      I would say the way it works is that Christianity works opposite to any other religious belief I've seen – believers aren't saved by doing things for their God, but by their God doing things for them. It's a complete reversal of the dominant religious paradigm of the time Jesus lived, and a fulfillment of the Old Testament system of sacrifice. Jews were to make sacrifices of the first born of their flocks or first fruits of their harvest as an indication that they had faith God would be gracious to them – Jesus' death replaces the need for that – God sacrificed his first born in our place.

      The resurrection then is to demonstrate that Jesus is God, and that the things he said while he was alive weren't the words of a lunatic.

      I think the reasons God this are many and varied (there are so many threads from the Old Testament tied together in that one act).

      Firstly, like I said, it was a completely different methodology to any other religion, and if the Bible is to be believed God has always been interested in separating those who want to follow him from the pack.

      Secondly, I think the Bible suggests that God's holiness requires payment to be made for sins, payment that we could never make because we always sin. Every action that does not stem from faith in God is sin – even the ones where we seem to be doing the right thing. Sin, as the Bible defines it, is an inability to meet God's standards with our actions and an attitude of disobedience. Jesus had to be the one to take that punishment because he is both the "first born" and without sin. Only he could possibly pay.

      I don't want to go on too long – is this stuff you've heard said before, or on the right track to answering your question?
      My recent post iPad critics should take a tablet

      1. is that you're philosophically opposed to penal substitution…..even if it's God doing so, on your behalf, for free?

        Correct. Or lets say you sinned against someone, perhaps you cheated on your wife or betrayed the trust of your friend. Who can forgive you and what would you need to do to earn that forgiveness.? The *Christian* answer is probably a lot different from what most normal people actually practise (including christians).

        God sacrificed his first born in our place.

        And I dont want anyone to be sacrificed for me. Not an army soldier , not you and not the first born of God. Why must anything be sacrificed when there are alternatives?

        God has always been interested in separating those who want to follow him from the pack.

        Heh. Ill let this one stand without comment because it speaks for itself.

        Every action that does not stem from faith in God is sin

        You really believe this? By that definition every action that i commit is a sin given that I have no faith in any personal God?

        I don't want to go on too long – is this stuff you've heard said before, or on the right track to answering your question?

        Yes heard similar things before, you havent explained why God needed to sacrifice his first born , you have stated that he had to do so , and that saves us. Thats not an explanation. Though as you have concluded neither you nor I can change each others views on an internet discussion but Ill leave you with one thing

        The resurrection then is to demonstrate that Jesus is God

        So if you take away the resurrection from the Bible, you(personally) would no longer be a christian?

  10. Nathan @4, if you were aware of the irony, then you’re aware that you’ve contradicted yourself.

    Speaking of irony, I find this particularly apposite: “… they [atheists] prefer to maintain distance because it’s easier to ridicule the “other”.”

    I presume “context” absolves you of hypocrisy (in your own mind) regarding that quote.

    1. John,

      As I wrote the generalisation in point four I thought to myself – "atheists hate it when you generalise because they're all so different", so I made the point about not generalising.

      However, I think you can make certain generalisations about atheists online and atheist communities. While they have a diverse mix of people from different backgrounds they all seem to feature vitriolic antitheists and neighbourhood trolls whose job description seems to be insulting every Christian who stops by under their bridge.

      I think my point about the "other" is valid. I've never been described the way I am online by atheists anywhere else. Not by my atheist friends, not by people who disagree with me in real world arguments, and not by people who don't like me.

      There is something about being behind a keyboard that makes people not very nice, and there's something about the anger that theism inspires in atheists that is equally not nice.

      I don't think I've said anything in this post that I wouldn't say to your, or any other, atheists in polite real world discourse. I don't think this is true of my experiences at the links I included in the post, or others. I don't think I've ridiculed atheists in this post… perhaps you could draw my attention to any point you find insulting that isn't a result of our fundamentally different beliefs? Disagreement is not offensive to me, only the manner in which it is expressed.
      My recent post iPad critics should take a tablet

    2. John,

      It's also worth noting that this is my personal blog, it expresses my personal opinions. This was not an advice column, it was my reflections and feelings about my experiences. You may think they are invalid or unrepresentative of the evidence that I provided – but I disagree. And since we're in the murky, subjective waters of personal feelings it's very difficult for you to suggest that my position is invalid.
      My recent post iPad critics should take a tablet

  11. James,

    I agree that moral issues and political issues are still important to work through – but from what I can see it's all "give" expected, and no take from the atheist side of the fence.

    I would happily support the legislation of gay marriage – though I would never conduct one in a church, I don't believe being gay is compatible with being a Christian. And I understand that there's a genetic side to homosexuality, there's a genetic predisposition to all sin. I don't expect non-Christians to live like Christians because I don't believe they are able to – that's part of the Christian belief that the Holy Spirit helps to moderate the behaviour of the Christian.

    I think there are issues Christians should care about though – like abortion – if we truly believe that the fetus is a human life then we need to speak out, as do ethicists from any philosophical background with that conviction.

    My recent post iPad critics should take a tablet

  12. I appreciate your responses, Nathan.

    You’ve given some thought to what I’ve written, and with that I am content.

  13. #8, Tim Scarlane said, “Im sure if an atheist went into a forum with mostly Christians or other religious people, it would be a similar reaction to the ones you have experience on an atheist’s turf. The mass speaks”

    I’ve done this actually (at a site aptly named ChristianForums), the forum had to change to rules because of the atheist minority. You see, too many of their Christian members were deconverting. As a result of this, I don’t believe that being outnumbered is a good excuse, at least not by itself.

    And Andrew, please continue to write these insipid little lists, they’re quite amusing. The way you manage to make it both oversimplified with an intellectual flair is a real skill.

  14. Well, anger and frustration make reasoned responses harder to recognize and harder to create. The questions of evidence are compelling though and cannot be waved aside without forsaking the medium of debate. An argument without evidence isn't an argument. It's religion.

    Believing that the arguments made from evidence are truth and reality is also religion. Unwarranted. We can get less wrong but we can't get more right. It's just too big of a universe.

    If Jesus helps you live a compassionate life, then Jesus is a good thing. If you think that Jesus commands you to act in any manner at all, then religion becomes dangerous.

    The gospel of Thomas is one of the most soul-affirming documents I have ever read. My only real point in responding to this is to say that we must accept what we observe. No matter whether it leads us to God or humanity. Honesty is the one thing we never have to feel bad about.

    1. An argument without evidence isn't an argument. It's religion.

      Or, rather, it's rhetoric, which your comment appears to be also, for there is indeed evidence that a belief in the resurrection is based on historical evidence.

      If you think that Jesus commands you to act in any manner at all, then religion becomes dangerous.

      Believing that the arguments made from evidence are truth and reality is also religion. Unwarranted.

      While I would use the term 'religion' here (as it just gets in the way of the point with anti-religious people, I think) I see what you're saying, and pretty much agree. While we all, of course, assume that what we believe to be true is reality, I have a problem when debating such views, when one is asserted as reality and then anything that contradicts this is automatically rejected. It's very frustrating indeed to try and dialogue with someone who doesn't merely accept that naturalism is reality but that assumes that this assumption is beyond question and has been established as reality. 'The reality' is that naturalism is a philosophical assumption, and there is no empirical evidence to say that the universe is causally closed.
      Indeed, I find it rather circular when many anti-theists argue that because science (which by definition deals with the natural universe) doesn't (actually can't) deal with the supernatural, then the supernatural must not exist. This is what Lennox and others call 'Scientism' and it is a philosophical kind of faith in the process of Science as the only means to knowledge. It is not unlike suggesting that because I can't measure the temperature with my ruler, heat must not exist.

  15. Hey Nathan, you said:

    “If you want to engage and give a good account for your self you need to be familiar with straw man-ning, Godwin’s Law, ad hominem, Pascal’s Wager, and the “no true Scots man fal­lacy””

    Would you be able to blog on what these types of arguments look like?

  16. I read something very interesting recently, which argued that the way we generally see Pascal’s Wager used is not how he mean it (indeed, as it is normally used it’s not a very good argument).
    It was not that he was trying to show that it was a good idea to ‘bet’ on God, but an exercise in showing the unbeliever’s innate hostility to God. It was design to expose the myth of neutrality.

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