An Open Letter to Apologists

In this project I’ve been listening to a number of apologists (those who defend religion) and a lot of them seem genuinely baffled by why atheists and people who do not conform to their particular religion don’t find their arguments persuasive. Communication is very important to me and while I don’t always get it right I have noticed a few things in their argumentation that point toward issues. At the end of the day I want to hear the best arguments and I’m hoping this will help to foster better communication and understanding between groups.

Don’t assume motive

If someone tells you they are an atheist or they are no longer of your religion a lot of things tend to get assumed.

Things like:

  • They want to sin
  • They left for bad reasons
  • They just dont understand
  • They just dont want to believe
  • They were hurt by the people of their church

In reality the only thing you know is what they told you and nothing more. If instead of assigning preconceived notions to the conversation one looks at it as a mutual developing understanding of positions the two groups will be better able to make informed comments and not frustrate the other side.

I understand that your experience dealing with what can seem like repetitive arguments and reasoning can lead you to a shorthand of “I’ve seen this before and know how to respond”, but that is simply untrue in most situations. Respect the individual you are talking to and try to not see them as a class of people all too easily dismissed.

You Honestly Do Not Understand

Often when I hear people talk and they are refuting reasoning or listening to the other side they come across something and the response is “I don’t understand why they believe this”. Embrace this. There is no shame in not understanding why and asking your interlocutor. No matter how much both sides tend to not like it the truth of a situation is normally somewhere in the middle.

I will say if “I dont understand why they believe this” is a rhetorical dismissal then stop that. These kinds of things are far too important to simply dismiss because you feel it is beneath you to discuss. If that is your philosophy on it then let someone else take the reins, get out of the spotlight and lets get back to honest discussions.

Potentially the Biggest Gamble

I am a gambler. I have been all my life and probability is one of those things that gets my adrenaline going and gets me engaged in a situation. At the same time I know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em (RIP Kenny). I have heard a number of people claim that you don’t need to be certain, you only need to go with what is the most probable answer and X god is that.

I understand why this is persuasive for a believer. They look at the world and see order, structure and confirmation that their belief is right and their gamble will pay off. Others do not see it this way. You are asking someone who does not believe like you to put all their money (their immortal soul and mortal life’s purpose) on the idea that you have a sure thing. If I’m going to go all in on something like that I want to make sure the deck is stacked and I know its going to pay off.

Take this for an example. A mundane claim of “I’m currently sitting in a chair” is analogous to get a two in a hand of stud poker. Its not impossible that I’m lying to you, but its very likely given what you know that I am telling the truth. However a claim like you are making is more analogous to getting dealt a royal flush. The odds of which are vanishingly small. As a gambler I have to evaluate the situation and figure out if its worth that.

If, for example, I’m betting pennies around a friendly table then sure why not lets go for it and see what happens. However if I somehow found myself in a high stakes game and if I lose I will indebted to someone for life then I’m going to walk away from that table unless I know the outcome.

This belabored analogy is to illustrate that you need to stake the deck to good, thoughtful arguments that will be that probably as near to certain as you possibly can. That is how you will convince people.

If Someone Need CARTESIAN Certainty, Provide It

Here’s where I need to admit that I think saying you have to have Cartesian certainty about something in order to believe it is a bar too high. Everything in our life we do with a sense of reasonable certainty it will work the way we expect it too. I’m going to take time in a bit to show what I think will persuade me and probably most people, but I know there are some out there who see this discussion as frankly too important to commit to without anything less than Cartesian certainty and honestly I respect that. They have a very high standard for their beliefs and want to make sure what they are committing too is right, true, and beneficial.

What I dont understand is an apologist’s resistance to this. The whole mission is to convert the unbelieving and bring them to your Truth. If your Truth is that an all-mighty (or maximally mighty or however you want to put it) god is on your side then you should be able to meet their expectations. I’ve heard people allude to and flat out say “You don’t need proof, just what is most likely” and for those that seek certainty and those of us listening to the conversation that comes off like you don’t have any proof.

That provides very shaky ground for you to stand on when you try to persuade. It starts a cycle in peoples minds wondering why you believe and what is the motivation for converting me. This world has seen far too many grifters and far too many of them using religion as their grift for this be acceptable. Please understand that your reliance on this rhetoric hurts your cause and makes you look like you have an ulterior motive. If thats not the case then please find better ways to get your point across.

Fancy Rhetoric and Arrogance Will Not Work

Let me rephrase that. Fancy rhetoric and arrogance will not persuade most. There are low hanging theological fruit that need comfort and assurance and frankly a strong will and a good story will convince them. Truthfully, I sometimes wonder if this is why religious people will use tragedy to convert people. When they are at their most vulnerable the idea that a higher power cares about them and making their life having purpose, meaning, and justice is very compelling. I hope you see the, hopefully unintentional, predatory nature of this and why some find it off-putting.

However for people that are looking to come at this discussion with an open but uncertain mind these tactics simply are not enough. People like Ray Comfort that use twisting rhetoric to change the topic and try to convince someone they believe because the word choice they use give off a harsh used car salesman vibe. I’ve heard someone use the exasperated phrase “Oh, Lord” and him turn that back on them saying “So you do believe in God”. I’m hoping most will understand why this is unconvincing and off-putting. Its a bit of an extreme example of rhetoric over substance, but the same is true of others to varying degrees.

The other thing I’ve noticed is a thread of arrogance in these conversations. Apologists will be very dismissive of the comments from the other side saying “That stupid” or “You’re wrong” without giving any context or backing to those statements. First of all on their face both statements are counterproductive. You cannot verbally attack someone and expect they will be open to your way of things. Second of all again it makes you sound like you don’t have backing for your reasoning. This serves to further alienate and push people away.

Check the arrogance at the door and engage. The alternative is again get out of the spotlight and let someone else engage the conversation. THIS IS TOO IMPORTANT TO JUST FEED YOUR EGO. I don’t want to believe something because someone is good at public speaking. I want to believe something because I can back it up, justify it and see it for as close to true as I can.

Note for Atheist Counter-Apologists

A lot of you are also guilty of these things above. You are so set in your atheism that you dismiss, assume, and use rhetorical tricks because you believe you are right and thus justified. I would suggest that the above applies to anyone in this conversation and should be looked at thoughtfully. I would also ask, are you really open to possibilities? I see a lot of apologists that are walled off from not believing, but are you walled off from believing? I will admit that some atheist speakers do tend to come off as not quite as open-minded as they claim.

Take that with a grain of salt and for the introspective comment it is. I mean no disrespect in what I am saying.

What Will Convince Me

I am asked what will convince me to a particular religion. I’m not sure I am capable of being 100% convinced of anything, but the way I see it anyone that wants me to be convince and believe in a particular religion you have four hurdles to clear

  1. Belief in the supernatural

You have a leg up here with me, but this is where a lot of people start. I already believe in the supernatural that there is more to our reality than simply the natural world. Lets pretend for a second though that this is not true.

A lot of atheists simply believe the universe around us is explained completely by natural forces and that any supernatural belief held in the past has since been explained by natural answers. This might be your largest hurdle. Finding a way to prove the supernatural to someone who does not believe can be nigh impossible. I dont have good answers here for you except to say that mortality, fine tuning and the appearance of supernatural intervention will not do it.

2. Prove gods / a higher power

Again I am on board here. This is where I am right now in my journey. I believe there is a higher power, but I do not know what form if any that higher power takes. Again lets look at someone who doesnt share my opinion

Dont get ahead of yourself. This is not proving the Christian, Muslim, Hindu or any other particular god just that a higher power can and does exist. Its similar to the previous step, but takes it a little further to show a guiding force in someone’s life and the ability for willful intervention.

Clearing this step will mean different things for different people. For me its cleared because I have seen guidance and felt a connection to something more than myself. Now whether or not that is simply the universe, a god or gods, or entropy masquerading as guidance I dont know and that is why I’m seeking. Its also why I remain open to the possibility I’m wrong and need to go back a hurdle or two. For others they may need to see tangible effects before they can clear this.

3. Prove your god and no others

I heard an apologist ask this so I’ll borrow it. “If someone said in the name of Jesus part this sea, and it parted, would you believe”? Honestly that very convincing and likely would give me serious pause that you might be right. Now I would want to make sure I’m not being grifted in some way. I should hope that would be understandable, but yes it would be very convnicing.

Now lets take that a step further. What if a Muslim stepped up and said, “In the name of Allah part this sea” and it happened again. Then, a Hindu does the same with Ganesha. Suddenly its less convincing that you are correct and I should follow you and your god.

Thats the root of this hurdle and why I havent cleared it yet. You need to find a way to define your god to the exclusion of others and the exclusion of a universe that simply cares about us. If you can do that then belief comes into the mix and I will be willing to say “I believe your god exists”.

4. Prove your god is worth of worship

I said that very carefully because that is not the last step. As an apologist likely dont want me to simply believe in a god or gods, but want me to worship them and put my faith in them. This is dramatically different that belief and where the theological rubber meets the road.

I have heard some truly awful explanations why I should worship a god. Most of them boil down to because he/she/they said so or he/she/they created you and the universe. I have a hard time with this because creative power doesnt make someone worthy of worship. My parents created me (dont get bogged down in sematics you know what I mean) and I dont worship them. I respect and love them because of the example they have shown in my life, but the simple act of creation does not imply dominion or worthyness.

The holy book saying we should is also not going to do the trick. Holy books only have a place of authority in someones life if they are a believer. If you can get me passed this fourth hurdle then yes likely your holy book will have authority and it will be an affirming statement. Until then you have to try and prove it in other ways. BTW this includes “proving your holy book is attested to thus true”. That will remain unconvincing as at the end of the day it is still your holy book. I hope you dont take that as disrespectful. I have tried to phrase that in a way that does not dismiss your faith, but shows you why it wont work to instill faith in me.

End Thoughts Because Conclusion Is Too Highschool Essay For me

I’m hoping this is taken with the respect with which it is given. I have no problem with apologetics or counter-apologestics existing and in fact see them as necessary for theological and philosophical growth. My fear is people have gotten either complasent, arrogant, or set in their ways and cant hear what people are asking for in their theological discussions.

We all want truth and sometimes Truth and want to know that we are not being misled. So please take this with a grain of salt as one man’s opinion. One outsider’s opinion that tried to take a look at the structure of the rhetoric and not simply the rhetoric alone. We all have our faults and trigger points and can lash out. Lets all do our best to limit those and speak thoughtfully and intelligently as we go.

Thank you for your time.