Debating other atheists

This post was first published at Monicks Unleashed on April 8, 2011. It unleashed a heated debate on Facebook. Happily, no one was hurt. Atheists aren’t into stabbing themselves or others with sharp objects.

This may surprise some of you, but I’ve probably debated more with other atheists than with believers. It usually becomes clear rather quickly that the main gripe leveled at me is that I’m basically wasting my time – and theirs – with this militant atheism business.

My debate partners normally fall into three categories:

♦ Type I debater begins amicably, “Listen, I’m an atheist, too. I agree with you about most things.” Then a swift condescension: “But I don’t go around waving flags and proselytizing to others. You’re acting just like they do.” Yes, proselytizing. That’s the word they use. If you point out that, no, you’re doing nothing of the sort, then you might hear an annoyed, “Yes you are. But you’re preaching to the converted. You’d do better writing poetry (I also write poetry). Nothing will change because of that red “A” in the corner of your blog.”

♦ Type II debater is the de facto atheist who clings to the word “God” as if it were a life raft. This person has no definable religious adherence, doesn’t believe in holy books and is quite embarrassed by the idea of a white-bearded autocrat in the sky. He or she accepts science as the best explanation of phenomena and has little or no patience for the supernatural (e.g. UFOs, ghosts, etc…) – except where “God” makes an appearance in the ultra-rarified guise of the voice-in-the-head. But when you ask for clarification, don’t hold your breath. You might receive an answer like, “God is what makes us who we are.” Or a sleight-of-hand like, “Do you believe in love?” The difficulty in debatingthis person is that, no matter what points you feel you score, they just smile politely and take credit for the hit. They’ll even quote Einstein at you. Ugh.

(Don’t call Type II an atheist. Oh, no. Type II is a true believer. But if you hint that his or her belief doesn’t remotely correspond to that of 99% of religious believers, you’ll see a wounded look. “Why are you confusing my super-sophisticated conception of the divine quintessence with that bearded fellow on the Christmas cards?” it seems to say. Why, indeed?)

♦ Type III debater tends toward the postmodern. Type III will throw everything at you, confound you with a Žižekian cornucopia of pop culture and deep philosophical concerns, then abruptly proclaim the impossibility of all knowledge. You’ll wonder what that debate was about for days.

It’s really a matter of method, in the end. Many non-believers (yes, Type II, you are a non-believer) feel they’re supposed to suck it up, stick it out and patiently wait for the paradigm shift as if it were the messiah. They don’t like being lumped in with those of us who engage the world directly as atheists. For them, being an atheist is nothing more than having dark hair or wearing glasses.

“You can’t force people to stop believing in God,” they’ll observe. But who’s forcing anyone to do anything? Is arguing a philosophical point all of a sudden holding a pistol to granny’s temple and hollering, “Admit it you old bag, there is no God!”? That’s misrepresenting what’s really going on, which is that many atheists want in on the action. We’re tired of sitting on the sidelines watching the game.

But no matter how much atheists may squabble over the rules of engagement, we’ll still be more consistent than religious believers who can’t agree on anything – except that we are the common enemy.

6 thoughts on “Debating other atheists

  1. Why demonize yourself? Some of my best friends are atheists! I go bowling with non-believers! (very low-average people)

  2. From Mr Amis to Mr Hitchens:

    My dear Hitch: there has been much wild talk, among the believers, about your impending embrace of the sacred and the supernatural. This is of course insane. But I still hope to convert you, by sheer force of zealotry, to my own persuasion: agnosticism. In your seminal book, God Is Not Great, you put very little distance between the agnostic and the atheist; and what divides you and me (to quote Nabokov yet again) is a rut that any frog could straddle. “The measure of an education,” you write elsewhere, “is that you acquire some idea of the extent of your ignorance.” And that’s all that “agnosticism” really means: it is an acknowledgment of ignorance. Such a fractional shift (and I know you won’t make it) would seem to me consonant with your character – with your acceptance of inconsistencies and contradictions, with your intellectual romanticism, and with your love of life, which I have come to regard as superior to my own.

    The atheistic position merits an adjective that no one would dream of applying to you: it is lenten. And agnosticism, I respectfully suggest, is a slightly more logical and decorous response to our situation – to the indecipherable grandeur of what is now being (hesitantly) called the multiverse. The science of cosmology is an awesome construct, while remaining embarrassingly incomplete and approximate; and over the last 30 years it has garnered little but a series of humiliations. So when I hear a man declare himself to be an atheist, I sometimes think of the enterprising termite who, while continuing to go about his tasks, declares himself to be an individualist. It cannot be altogether frivolous or wishful to talk of a “higher intelligence” – because the cosmos is itself a higher intelligence, in the simple sense that we do not and cannot understand it.

    Anyway, we do know what is going to happen to you, and to everyone else who will ever live on this planet. Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars. Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so very brightly. The parent star, that steady-state H-bomb we call the sun, will eventually turn from yellow dwarf to red giant, and will swell out to consume what is left of us, about six billion years from now.

    1. Charming find, Alex. Don’t think that I haven’t thought about it, either. But “agnosticism” just seems halfway too far to the nuthouse. What Amis calls “higher intelligence” is just another name for our ignorance. There’s no reason to think of it as anything like what religious people call “God.” Of course, no atheist claims to know there’s no God. We admit the possibility that there might be, and await further proof. In the meantime, though, it seems a pretty good supposition that there ain’t no such thing except in the Spinozan sense. And they used to call him an atheist.

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