Intellectual Judo: Framing the Debate Between Skeptics and Believers

The following post, while it does not deal with parenting per se, is an example of the intellectual training we should be giving to our kids to prepare them for all of the hucksters trying to push their own brand of religious snake oil on them.  Just as we ought to teach our children to defend themselves physically, we must prepare them for intellectual self-defense.


Very often debates between freethinkers and the followers of the proselytizing religions become stuck in the mire of abstract metaphysics. While it is true that a ‘foundation up’ resolution to the question of the existence of God could have important implications to our lived experience, I think it makes more sense to go in the other direction and assess the evidence for specific religious claims that are being urged upon us.

If person X is claiming that I need to believe that Jesus died for my sins and was resurrected ‘on the third day’ so that, if I believe in him, I will gain eternal admittance to heaven and avoid eternal punishment, that is a much more existentially compelling claim to investigate than generic questions about whether there is a creator because if I get the answer wrong the stakes are definitely much higher (either a life burdened by unnecessary rituals and codes of behavior or eternal hellfire). Getting the question of whether there is a creator wrong, in abstraction, is a lower stakes affair- the mere existence of a creator does not imply adherence to a specific code of conduct nor that one ought to have any specific expectations regarding an afterlife.

The traditional approach to these debates, focusing on foundational issues in logic such as necessity and possibility and building up ever more byzantine arguments to support or negate the affirmation that a god or goddess exists seems like a very obtuse way of confronting the issue. It is a methodology that seems self-evident to people who view the only living options as ‘particular religion x or atheism/non-belief.’ This is not surprising because these types of discourse have historically developed in the context of a single dominant religious tradition being contested by skeptics.

I don’t think it makes sense to proceed in this manner from a position of lived religious pluralism. Because when there are a large number of living alternatives that each make specific claims about historical occurrences and the nature of reality and that each demand of us adherence to specific codes of behavior, it behooves the investigator with limited time to investigate these specific claims which are, to a great extent, more easily soluble than to engage in abstract speculation that has a good chance of not even being materially relevant to lived experience even if resolved.

To be specific, if I had good reason to believe that Jesus was resurrected, that would be much more compelling than abstract speculation about whether there is a creator. Similarly, what initially compelled me about the Qur’an was specific, concrete claims it made that I believe at the time to be risky predictions that turned out to be correct. I believed in the claims about Haman that have been readily debunked here. I was also impressed by the prophecy that begins Surah Rum and by the apparent knowledge that the author of the Qur’an had about ancient civilizations such as that of the ‘Ad people. I have since come to realize that the historical claims are incorrect (the chronology in particular is quite mucked up) and that the aforementioned prophecy is most likely a lucky guess. This, combined with numerous scientific inaccuracies, leads me to reject the Qur’an as being evidential of any kind of supernatural reality. With this rejection, I can categorically rule out the claims made by Muslims upon my credulity with far greater finality than I could if I happened to ‘win’ a debate about the existence of God. Similarly, the numerous historical issues regarding the composition and veracity of the gospels and the contradictions between the claims made therein and well-established historical fact give me a similar warrant to categorically rule out the claims made by evangelical Christians. To my lights, this seems to be a much more practical methodology than debate over abstract metaphysics and is capable of being extended to any religious claims that touch upon historical matters or affairs of empirical science. Scientific claims made in Hindu scriptures can be debunked and psychological claims made by various Buddhist sects can be scrutinized without engaging in the minutiae of logical dissection.

Besides the fruitfulness of an approach grounded in the specificity of religious claims, the more abstract foundationalist approach is not preferable because it is directly undermined by the reality of this specificity. Even within the various religious traditions there are so many competing definitions of ‘God’ that a compelling argument against the existence of one would not disqualify the others. Some definitions are so constructed that there is simply no way of determining whether such a being exists. There are some serious differences between how Allah is conceived in Sunni Islam and in non-Sunni Islam, for example. The belief that Allah will be seen in the afterlife is a credal issue between the Sunnis and the non-Sunnis (Shiah, Mutazilah, Ibadis). This belief carries with it all kinds of metaphysical implications that must be taken into account during any debate on whether God exists. In short, the question is not whether God exists but which gods and goddesses, if any, exist. It makes no sense to debate with specificity over a recondite subject when the basic point in contention can be resolved authoritatively by an appeal to empirical evidence or a logical analysis of a less abstract claim.

A focus on foundational metaphysics masks a shift in the burden of proof from the proselytizer hawking a particular religion to the skeptic who is asked to compare the reasonableness of foundational beliefs regarding the nature of causality, time, and other metaphysical subjects. In fact, the missionaries are asking us to believe in a very specific range of religious claims, not submit to an agnostic-tinged deism. The very specificity of the claims involved requires increasing amounts of evidence to justify belief in them. Even within a particular religion there are competing claims as to what the afterlife is like, the specific answers to particular moral questions, the finer points religious ritual, and even the fundamental nature of deity being propitiated (compare Reconstructionist Judaism to Orthodox Judaism, for example) These claims are made with extreme seriousness and often made a point of sectarian contention. As freethinkers, we should do the evangelists no favors by shifting away some of the burden of proof unto our own shoulders (why should the onus be on us to provide a coherent account of causality or a plausible cosmology?) and should instead press forward with our skepticism about specific claims. After all, can we really believe that Muhammad rode a flying horse into space?

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