How to Kill Faith and Win Arguments with Religious Zealots

How to Kill Faith and Win Arguments with Religious Zealots

Most Christians would roughly define faith as a ‘belief without evidence ‘ that comes as a gift from a just and loving God. Of course, they also believe in talking snakes, pregnant virgins, and people rising from the dead, so it gets a tad fuzzy trying to follow their logic. Regardless, the important part is to understand what they think, not what the truth is.

As a Christian (or Jew or Muslim) it’s beaten into their brain from childhood that there is this God-given gift that lends them strength and power in times of need (like, say, when they are losing a theological debate). They are taught that when the chips are down, God/Allah/Yahweh will grant them a special knowing that fills them with a sense of purity
and wholeness. Faith allows them to know. After that, the facts are irrelevant. In any deep, intellectual debate it’s enough to make you want to throttle them.

Most atheists seem to see faith as being synonymous with ’stubborn stupidity’. It’s not. If it were, it would never have held up for as many years as it has. No one can be that stubborn and that stupid for that long. There’s something else going on here, and it’s probably the most important thing I’ve come up against in trying to get rid of the hold religion has on people. Here’s how it works…

When you argue an ‘article of faith’ [like Jesus being Divine or Mary giving virgin birth] an atheist assumes (wrongly) that the discussion is about the facts. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Did Mary give birth without knowing a man, or was there some unrecorded weekend when Joseph was out of town and the Roman legion was on leave? You can cite chapter and verse until you’re blue in the face. Pull up Pliny or Josephus,
and cross reference with the Talmud, Torah, and Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t matter. You’re on a dead-end track to the ‘faith’ defence. The reason? You’re not having the same argument as the person you’re talking to.

No matter what you think the topic of conversation is, you’re wrong. When talking to a religious person about religion, you are actually talking about their loving, blue-haired old grandmother, their loving wife, and all the best things that have ever happened to them. Every fact you throw at them is being weighed against memories of Christmas morning, their child’s baptism, and the love and support their congregation has shown at funerals and times of trouble. That is their experience with religion and, in their eyes, that is what you are arguing about.

In reality, this is where the smug surety of faith comes from. What they are so damned sure about is not a God, but the people and place where they learned about him. Their argument has nothing to do with the history or the facts. Most true believers have only a passing knowledge of the real history and tenets of whatever religion they belong to. What they do have are the bits of knowledge they’ve gleaned at church/temple, and a lot of warm memories of the people that were there. This is what you are really up against when you argue religion. When
they inevitably fall back on the faith argument, it’s these warm memories that they are falling back on. ‘God’ has proven everything He ever needs to prove in the love and support these people find at church.

It’s important to reiterate here that this is all horseshit. But it’s what they believe, and why they believe it. Knowing this, the way around it is easy.

You’ll notice that this faith argument never comes up early-on in the conversation. At first, most religious people still think they have a chance of converting you (thus expanding the safe, secure,and loving environment they go to on
Sundays). Eventually, though, they realize that you will never be ’saved’ (or whatever), and they beat a hasty retreat to the safety of faith. Before they do, you’ve got to find a way of separating your attack on their religion from their experience with it. As long as you can keep the facts from threatening the safety they feel at church, they really will listen to you. Slip up just once though– say anything that makes them feel like you’ve insulted all the wonderful memories they have of church life– and the ‘faith’ will kick right in. The conversation is over.

So far, the best way I’ve found to do this is by explaining [honestly] that the vast majority of people who attend churches are good and decent folk. When presenting facts that attack the religion, I point out that average church goers are victims of misinformation, not liars. “No one is attacking the people you love” I say in a thousand different ways. “The flock are kind and decent people. Now, let’s talk about the shepherds…”

It takes some work, and you’re going to screw up a few times. But, by separating the church life from the church doctrine, you take away the emotional risk a religious person feels in these debates. The source of their faith is not being attacked. You’re not asking them to reject the family, friends, and loving memories they have of their church community.

Pull this off, and you’ve defeated the faith defence. From there, you’ll find that religious people are far more open to reason.


[Note: The above is my work blog from williamjhopper.com. Not sure if linking to it here is kosher (pun intended), but it's where I do the journal blogs that I would want to share here. If this is not ok, someone tell me.]

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Tags: arguments, atheism, faith, religion

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Comment by William Hopper on May 20, 2010 at 4:58pm
I have found that, once disarmed of emotional worries, many theists are willing to listen. Especially if you keep explaining that their faith has been coopted by greedy, power hungry idiots over the years. They can usually accept this... especially since it agrees with the Xian view of human nature.
The approach really does work... better than any I have found anyway. The neat part is when the theist (now convinced that his religion has been coopted by greedy idiots) goes back and tries to explain this to the congregation. Amazing how quick their warm, loving environment can turn ugly on them...
Comment by Sam in WV on May 20, 2010 at 1:54pm
Very good insights here. For people who are afflicted with the "warm and fuzzies" emotional state that trumps facts, reason, and logic every time, you will almost never convince them But in a public setting, like the blogosphere, there are theist lurkers whose emotional perspective may not be so pristine. These are the folks who could be convinced by well ordered arguments.
Comment by Secular Sue on May 20, 2010 at 4:43am
You're so right.
In a talk with my daughter about religion, she said "Nothing but good has come of it". She means, she met nice people in towns where she knew no one. Church women brought her meals after her baby was born. She was moved by the music and ceremony and seeing her little girl in an angel costume. You can't fight that stuff. Very clever...the deception.
And yet, the god she's worshipping would burn that little angel in hell...
Comment by unholyroller on May 20, 2010 at 2:35am
Your position is succenctly put. Never quite looked at it from this angle. You've given me food for thought. Thank you.

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