Strange Loops In
The Logic Behind Evangelism
Phil

"The reason you do not believe in God is because you have not been truly open to the idea of him. If you really looked for him and were open minded, you would begin to believe."

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "C. Rothwell"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Tuesday, July 17, 2001 9:28 AM

"The reason you do not believe in God is because you have not been truly open to the idea of him...."

I wonder how they can tell what's going on in the privacy of your own mind better than you can yourself. Is not yours the final word on that matter?
 

Yours is simply a better wording of the best I've been able to come up with.

One of the prerequisites for forming a belief in God, it seems, is to already believe in God. At least, that's what they seem to be saying when they present this particular argument. No. It doesn't work that way in any other question we face, so why should it work that way for this one question? With any other question, we try to come to the truth of the matter, not a deeper conviction of the answer that we have beforehand decided is the truth.

I would be interested in hearing some of the ways in which they are trying to equate the search for truth with a quest for "evidence" that would seem to confirm what one wanted to be true in the first place. Most of all, though, I think you've hit upon one of the key flaws in this one method of theistic argument (there are other methods); thus, I would be interested in hearing further from you on what you think is going on, here, and why.

Finally, since you seem to be more alert than most on what's really going on in such discussions, I would be interested in your response to an idea that I put down in rough draft only yesterday. (Excuse me while I wander around this concept for a few paragraphs.) This discussion started with the observation that the Doctrine of the Trinity is very much a litmus test in Roman Catholicism, most major sects of Protestantism, and even the Eastern Orthodox denominations. I wondered why such an absurd idea as the Trinity, which is almost impossible to even describe -- much less justify, would be such a crucial make-it-or-break-it test of one's orthodoxy.

Then I remembered something I'd thought of many years ago, but had never really put into English. So I set down an extremely sketchy first-draft of this concept, in hopes of being able to discuss it, develop it, and ultimately see if it makes sense to others (or even if others have made the same observations).
 

If membership in a group requires a confession of faith, that confession usually has the following two qualities:

From this, it appears that dogma such as this points to the role that religion played for the ancients (and as recently as the American Revolution) in that rulers and political leaders encouraged the populace to be religious as a means of keeping them submissive. In lieu of state-church entanglement (the modern trend being the separation of religion from government), the rulers can still keep tabs on the people by granting certain advantages to religious people and to organized religion itself.
 

For now, this is just trend that appears to me to be common amongst the exclusivistic expressions of religion that I've encountered. I notice this tendency in the groups that involve an "us" (the membership) versus a "them" (the non-members), and likewise notice a pronounced absence of this tendency among those groups that are not exclusivistic but tend toward universalism.

Parenthetically, an interesting example of exclusivism versus universalism comes to mind: I was involved in a Baptist church and was baptized by immersion. Baptists often make a big thing about the mode of baptism that if you were baptized by sprinkling, the Baptists will re-baptize you using the "correct" mode. Later I became involved in a church that leaned toward the "Reformed" viewpoint, and they believed in sprinkling rather than immersion. Their arguments swayed me and I asked to be re-baptized via sprinkling. They refused, telling me that I had already been baptized and that although sprinkling was how the Apostles did it, immersion was perfectly valid because the personal experience of baptism is more important than the mode of the ritual. Interestingly, this group, which accepted any baptism as valid, spent little time discussing or arguing over the mode of baptism even though they held their views just as strongly as the Baptists -- and the arguments themselves, in my opinion, were much more sophisticated than those of the Baptists.

Exclusivists (those who think theirs is the only way, that one size fits all) tend to make a big deal about the fine points unique to their sect, while universalists (those who trust that all are equally qualified to find their own path in life, that if anybody is saved or "elect," all are included) tend toward acceptance of each person's life decisions -- even when the universalist's views are held as strongly or even more strongly than those of the exclusivist. And you will find little if any emphasis on a "confession of faith" or even on "articles of faith" amongst those who tend toward universalism. Interestingly, these likewise tend not to have viewpoints that outsiders find bafflingly absurd.
 

After over 1,000 different conversations in over five years, it all becomes one big blur at times. I have discussed your question, but am reluctant to simply refer a reader to a previous discussion. I prefer raising each question afresh, and discussing it anew, because we're all different and we all change over time. I like to see how my views change over time.

For example, I have discussed how I distinguish the supernatural from the paranormal before, but am currently engaged in a dialogue with Terry Davidson wherein I rehearse my current views on this matter, highlighting what I have learned and pondered since I first discussed this issue. When I post repeat discussions such as this, I link each dialogue to the other, so that anybody who wants to compare notes on this particular subject may do so. I think I learned more the second time around than I did the first time -- and the first dialogue was groundbreaking for me, to say the least.

Thus, when it comes to a philosophical question, I actually prefer to start from scratch and treat it anew each time it comes up, even if I've discussed it a dozen times. If nothing else, I am giving each writer what I hope is a personal if not personalized response. I'd hate to simply collect a bunch of answers and then reply to each reader's questions with link after link (though I have done this, at times, always giving a short summary and then a link for further investigation). But each time I learn something new, and at times I see where I need to change my course.

The obvious exception is when a theist pesters me with the same abusive arguments that I've been reading in Jack Chick comic books since I was a teenager. I have of late become very tired of fielding a page full of quotes grabbed from a Christian website -- or worse, someone's feeble attempt to repeat what she or he saw in a video, but they got the preacher's argument all wrong (I know because I've heard it repeated correctly so many, many times before).

This is not a website for theists: we are not here to convince theists to abandon their faith or even to give them reasons to deconvert. We are here to entertain and edify (if you will) our fellow atheists. I sure could have used something like this when I was coming down off of religion, on my own without any clue other than the realization that what I had done was wrong. Now this is part of our mission: We seek both to be of service to those who have already chosen to abandon faith (or never were religious) and to be a place where we can share our experiences with others who might be able to benefit from hearing about our mistakes and our successes.

This is a big experiment where we hopefully will learn a few tricks on how to assimilate into a theistic society. How can we be openly atheistic without being seen as bigoted or hateful? How can we get along without having to pretend? How can we stand up to the moves to force us to support religion both through lip-service and through taxation and tax exemption? And how can we be fair about all this? We have no answers, but by raising these questions, we will be more prepared to deal with them as they come up in our own lives.

There are no sets of instructions or even much in the way of perspective on how to move from a faith-based outlook to one based in reason. So here we are, throwing out ideas, soliciting responses to questions, making mistakes, and writing it all down so others can see what we've been through and decide if any of this information might be useful to them.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "C. Rothwell"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Tuesday, July 17, 2001 6:10 PM
 

We have learned a few things from the Communists' little "experiment" with wrapping atheism into neat little tenets and presenting it as dogma: there is nothing about atheism that makes it immune to becoming a form of fundamentalism. We can no longer represent religion and fundamentalism as though they were different names for the same axis.
 

Several of my arguments with theists show just that: the theist, in essence, wants me to exempt his or her presentation from the game-rules by which that all other arguments and presentations must abide. In addition, I "catch" several holding my arguments against their position to greater degrees of scrutiny than is justified in ordinary argument.

It is very difficult to get through to someone by "busting" them for breaking their own rules, especially for their own unique rules. (When I do this, I am not trying to tell them anything; rather, I am putting on a little comedy show for myself or any friends that may be watching.) If they honored the same system of discussion and debate to which the rest of us tend to submit, then we could simply blow our whistle and call "foul" and everybody would agree: they'd shake their fist, but they'd walk over and sit on the bench nonetheless. But when there is a double-standard going on, holding your opponent to any standard becomes difficult at best.

So I have resigned to two things:

First, I do not try to convince others to change their views. If someone wants to engage in a lively discussion, that's fine with me, but I refuse to even want to change somebody's mind on any matter.

Secondly, I have learned to present the Burden of Proof as the main issue in any discussion of religious claims. This includes making sure that both parties agree that what the religious person is doing is making claims, and that we are not talking about any "deep" sense of reality, but are, rather, assessing claims made by the theist.

Unfortunately, many theists who write to this Forum (which is, I think, a sampling of the people any atheist would encounter) are not sophisticated enough to see even this. They cannot accept that the only thing upon which we can agree is that the theist is making claims -- that we do not necessarily agree on this or that matter of "deep" reality. As often as not, I end up blowing the other party off when we come to this impasse, although many a theist has failed to follow up on my initial challenge to their claim. I try to be patient, but there's no sense holding a philosophical discussion when the other party keeps lying to you.

Worse, many are unskilled in thinking matters through and are unfamiliar with even the basics of how to hold a philosophical discussion -- oblivious to what such a discussion even is. Instead, it seems as if they simply read a book or watch a video presentation and then try to replicate with me the false, "straw-man" arguments that the preacher presented, rhetorically, against his "straw man" unbeliever. Some have even gone so far as to insist that I am lying when I tell them that I don't believe the way the preacher told them "the atheist" believes. They actually get mad at me for not conforming to the preacher's "straw man" atheist. No -- get mad at the preacher for lying to you -- don't get mad at me!

But mostly, we tend to be dealing with people who desperately want to believe, and part of the internal credibility of that belief comes from convincing others to believe. Another reinforcement for their belief is for to "fulfill" their so-called prophecies that "there shall come in the last days scoffers." Duh! Of course people will scoff at such a teaching, especially when presented through such dishonest means!

For these reasons, I have stopped making it my role to try to change anybody in this respect. I will engage in a lively discussion, but we must agree that it is only a discussion. I'm here to learn, and you're welcome to get out of this what you will, but I don't care of you go along with my views.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Is this circular logic?
Date: Wednesday, July 18, 2001 6:03 AM

It is circular reasoning in that is self-referential: a valid search is defined as one that results the discovery of the data that the searcher is looking for.

There is no room, here, for a search that happens to discover that something is missing. The only valid quest is one that finds out what the searchers intended to find: no search is valid if it discovers something other than what the searchers initially sought.

So why even seek if you already know?

Can you imagine a search team looking for a body in the woods, and coming up empty? Now suppose that we eventually discover that the man whose body we sought actually had amnesia and was being held in a local hospital or jail as a "John Doe" for his own protection, having been found disoriented and wandering in the streets. Was the search team, then, "not truly searching" for the body simply because they did not find one? No. To say this, one would need to examine the search methods used by the team: the success would say nothing about their skills or techniques because anybody can get lucky; their failure would say nothing because what they sought may or may not have existed in the first place. So, to say you're "not truly searching" is only valid if they've examined what you've done in your search. For them to say this based solely upon the results of your search serves only to show their bias and their intellectual dishonesty.

In the same way, an Alcoholics Anonymous member once told me if so-and-so quit drinking but didn't quit by joining AA, then that person was not a "real" alcoholic. AA members have tried to pull this one on me more than once. The implication is that AA is the only cure for alcoholism. To "prove" this claim, they simply define alcoholism as something that only AA can cure, and if the cure comes from elsewhere, it was not real alcoholism.
 

But can you see where this argument is really leading? Your opponent seems to be defining "God" as something that happens within the mind of a person who goes "searching for God." Apart from a complete absence of definition, here, I need to wonder whatever happened to the idea of "God" being something substantial, something outside of one's imagination? Why are we talking of "God" only in terms of what people see and think, rather than in terms of objective reality?

If "God" were objective, it ought to be a simple matter to show how an individual could independently verify the existence of this object called "God." We could actually assess someone's "search" with criteria other than whether or not that person "found" a deity, because we would actually know what such a search entails -- we woudl actually have an object to search for!.

In lieu of your opponent's ability to independently verify the existence of "God," what is left is to define "God" in terms of an individual's experience. If "God" is something that occurs only within the confines of certain people's minds, then what's the big deal? "God" did not occur within my mind, and I fail to understand their concern.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

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